Churchill’s River War

Today, I finished listening to a LibriVox audiobook edition of Winston Churchill’s The River War. This was Churchill’s second book and cataloged the progress of the Anglo-Egyptian army which traveled up the Nile in 1898-99 to suppress the Sudanese Mahdi led revolt. Churchill himself was a young cavalry officer at the time and took part in the Battle for Omburman at the outskirts of Khartoum with the army.

In the 1870s, Egyptian power controlling the Sudan was in clear decline. The Arab dervishes of the region freely indulged in slave trade under the nose of the Egyptian authorities which had officially banned the cruel practice. The authorities for their part were content to rob and tax the region to impoverishment. Eventually, a dervish Muslim preacher named Muhammad Ahmad decried the decline in moral values and led a jihad against the Egyptian occupation. The Egyptian forces were ineffective and were swept aside and Muhammad Ahmad declared himself to be the prophesized Mahdi who would conquer the whole world.


Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi

At this time, the British exercised power in Cairo and in a real sense controlled the actions of the Egyptian government. It was decided that Egypt should withdraw from its Sudanese garrisons. To facilitate this, a British officer General Gordon was sent to Khartoum. Gordon made repeated entreaties to his government for reinforcements or the right to raise forces locally to check the Mahdi’s advance. All these requests were rejected. Gordon was told to retire to Cairo. He declined as he felt he was obligated to share the fate of the inhabitants of Khartoum who had put their trust in him. Om 26 January 1885, he was killed when the city fell to the Mahdi’s forces.

The final days of General Gordon make for interesting reading and are not done justice to in the 1966 film Khartoum where he was played by Charleston Heston and the Mahdi was played by Laurence Olivier.


Khartoum (1966)

The Mahdi himself died within 5 months of his victory. He was succeeded by his lieutenant, the Khalifa Abdullah al-Taashi.

It is said of war that amateurs discuss tactics while professionals discuss logistics. Churchill devotes time to both. The British army was led by Horatio Kitchener who later rose to become Secretary of State for War during World War 1 and played a key role then as well.

H. H. Kitchener (right), WW1 recruitment poster featuring a likeness of Kitchener then secretary of War (left)

Kitchner was not a brilliant tactician. He was an organiser. His strategy was simple. With the help of superior technology in guns, ships and transport, he could concentrate force faster at any point than his opponent. Indeed, if not the river war it might well be called the railroad war based on the important role the rail played in it.

Steadily, Kitchner made his way south extending the railroad half a mile a day and using it to build up his strength for an attack. The Arabs who must have been aware of these preparations, strangely did little to impede them or harass the long supply line which in hindsight was their only hope of survival.

Eventually, when Kitchner was ready, his forces moved South. The battles were lopsided with the British winning consistently not so much by valour but by artillery. The culminating battle was at the capital of the Dervish state at Omdurman where Churchill’s own cavalry unit saw action.

Scenes from the Battle of Omdurman

The Mahdi forces had gambled on a grand battle and lost. The Khalifa himself died in a later engagement. Churchill concludes the work with a summary of accounts indicating the money spent on the Sudan campaign and what the victorious powers gained by it.

Further scenes from the Battle of Omdurman

Now there are several observations about the book itself. Churchill’s views on race and Islam were considered antiquated even for his own age which was less enlightened than our own. His prejudices are evident throughout the work. Imperialism for him was a glorious work and the duty of all white Europeans.

But there are several facts which he records and which point to an alternate history. Whereas the Khalifa is portrayed as a cruel and scheming despot. It should be noted that even after his loss at the Battle of Omdurman when all could see the writing on the wall, his followers did not desert him. Instead he was welcomed and replenished.

After each battle, there are one or two lines about women and children. At every battle, the Dervish army seemed to be accompanied by their families. In one case, the fate of the women is explicitly mentioned. It is stated that they were transported and eventually found husbands among native soldiers of the Sudanese regiment. One can only imagine the suffering this phrase conceals. It is worth remembering that in ancient accounts, such war time enforced “marriages” was used as a euphemisms for rape and pillage.

Still, the book is worth reading (or listening to) if only to experience Churchill’s command over the English language. He was the only writer who could make the construction of a railroad seem as interesting as a major theater of war.


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