Books September 2022
Take me to the river
A review of The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan by Winston Churchill.
The story of the book is an adventure of the first order. A desert warrior, the founder of an Islamic republic, a fearsome and thinking conqueror, lays siege to Khartoum, a city on the Nile about a thousand miles south of its mouth near Alexandria. Much of the Nile being too shallow for boats between the mouth and Khartoum, the city was hidden behind hundreds of miles of desert in one of the least accessible places on Earth. The Mahdi (“Guided One”) captured the town and his Dervish forces publicly murdered one of its defenders—General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, a famous British imperial figure—before beheading him as a trophy. General Gordon had many friends in the British Army and the adulation of much of the British public. Some of his friends were part of a relief force seeking to break the siege. They did not get there in time. Nor did a second expedition looking for redress.
Finally, it took General Herbert Kitchener, later Lord Kitchener, to conceive the scheme that resulted in the recapture of the city and the avenging of General Gordon. That plan involved putting equipment on boats to build and operate a railway, motoring up to the shallows, and building that railway around them. Then the modern implements of war, having reached the shallows, were loaded onto the railway, carried by train to a deeper place in the river, and put back on boats and whisked to Khartoum. When the horses, soldiers, artillery, rifles, ammunition, food, and two gunboats arrived at the city, the battle was effectively decided before a shot was fired. All of it, battle included, was grueling work in the desert, but the battle itself was not particularly dangerous, as wars go, to the British troops. It was catastrophic to the Mahdi’s army.
Winston Churchill’s part in all this is as remarkable as the whole episode.
Winston Churchill’s part in all this is as remarkable as the whole episode. People do not do things like the things he did as a young man. They do not participate in cavalry charges and do not write powerful and best-selling books about them later. They do not do this having already fought in another war, and written another best-seller, and seen yet another war in Cuba as an observer or really a spy. They do not go on from there to a fourth war, and another book, and a novel, and only then begin their real career, politics. Especially they do not do these things before their twenty-seventh birthdays. Winston Churchill did these things. This book, The River War, is the best of his books relating his youthful deeds.
People do not these days edit things like this new edition of this book. They do not, a hundred and twenty years later, bring such books back into print, published in full in two hefty and beautifully designed volumes. They do not spend the years of meticulous effort to recover and designate every altered line in the several editions of this book. Especially people do not do this if their doctorate is not in history, but in political philosophy. James W. Muller has done these things, and for books other than this one. He has been a friend of mine for decades, and I have always marveled at his theoretical understanding coupled with an astonishing ability to edit great works of Churchill painstakingly.
In other words, this book is not peculiar, it is unique, by someone unique, and about someone unique. After all this uniqueness is assembled, it is not surprising that it should be published by the excellent St. Augustine’s Press in South Bend, Indiana, which has many of the qualities as a publisher that Muller has as a scholar.
The book is a portent of what Churchill will become and achieve. It demonstrates two things about him, the first his incessant ambition. His first best-seller, about a war in Afghanistan in which he fought, got him an audience with the prime minister and the Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne. They offered to help him. He asked to go to the Sudan for the battle. Each of them in turn asked the commander, General Kitchener, and he refused them both flatly. In those days, legions of young officers in the British army, which was top-heavy by design, used every piece of influence they could find to get sent to the war, any war. The route to promotion was combat. Churchill did the same, but when he was emphatically refused he went anyway and found a job, a fighting job, when he got there.
The modern society contains therefore the seeds of its own destruction.
The second thing demonstrated about Churchill in this book is his power to see. He later wrote a lot in his life about the gift of sight that the greatest generals have. To them the battlefield makes sense. Churchill could see something else, something more strategic and political: the meaning of the battle to the way of life and the way of government of the peoples involved. On the plains of Omdurman, Churchill saw not only an overwhelming victory, he also saw a grave danger to the British Empire, to all forms of free government, and to civilization itself. Mechanized warfare is the product of free government, science, and the wealth they can together produce. But it can destroy both freedom and wealth in short order. The modern society contains therefore the seeds of its own destruction. This became one of the great themes of Churchill’s life. One of his first recorded observations of it is in this book.
This was demonstrated to him by the first phase of the Battle of Omdurman. It was a massacre. Rather than rejoicing in the triumph of a regime with which Churchill had no sympathy, he gives instead a grave description of the evils it portended.
The Dervishes charged across open ground in superior numbers. This was their first encounter with machine guns, called Maxim guns, and modern artillery. They were mown down by British troops, whose backs were to the river, their flanks guarded by gunboats, crouched behind a zareba or light fortification. The Dervish soldier who got nearest the British line died about a hundred and fifty paces away.
In reaction to this gruesome spectacle, Churchill understood something that he remembered and developed the rest of his life. War, he saw, was becoming a “matter of machinery.” Soon he speculated on the disaster of two such armies meeting. Soon he predicted the cataclysms of any general war in Europe of this new and mechanized type. Soon he expanded this thesis to explain the movements of domestic politics that marked the twentieth century and now the twenty-first. Tyranny has given way to totalitarianism, more comprehensive, cruel, and sustained. Politics has given way to the administrative state. War has given way to total war. As men make things bigger, they become themselves smaller, dominated by the science they have discovered and the machines they have made.
These are the themes of Churchill’s life. They are present in this book in rich outline. If you wish to understand Churchill, begin here. We owe Muller a debt for making that possible.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 1, on page 84
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