Winston Churchill has as good a claim as anyone to have been the greatest statesman of the 20th century. Yet while his reputation is secure, it has never been uncontested. In his lifetime he was denounced at various times by Communists and Nazis, reactionaries and progressives, including many members of both the parties which he represented at one time or another. Now he is often criticised as an imperialist or a Zionist, blamed for famine in India, and has “racist” graffiti daubed on his statue in Westminster. Does he deserve the insults of posterity any more than he did those of his contemporaries?
A good place to look for an answer to this question is Churchill’s early book The River War, a new edition of which has recently been released by St. Augustine’s Press. He was only 24 when he wrote this Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, yet he was already a seasoned veteran of conflict in two continents: a soldier, a war correspondent, and a published author, all of which he saw as preparation for a political career. Above all, he was a Victorian, with the attitudes of his era. Only an extraordinary man could have achieved so much at such a tender age, but in the England of 1899, jingoistic assumptions about the superiority of “civilised” peoples were all too ordinary and the young Winston should be judged accordingly.
Churchill at the Clash of Civilisations
When political Islam took centre stage after the 9/11 terror attacks, a quotation from The River War went viral. The passage reads as follows:
How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays upon its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous as hydrophobia in a dog, there is the fearful fatalistic apathy. . . . Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property—either as a child, a wife, or a concubine—must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.
Churchill concedes that “individual Moslems may show splendid qualities” and that many have fought for the Queen, but he insists that “no stronger retrograde force exists in the world.” Islam is “a militant and proselytising faith”: “Were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science—the science against which it had vainly struggled—the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.”
Taken out of context, this tirade might lead the unwary to assume that Churchill was an enemy of Islam of the most extreme kind. In reality, his outburst seems to have been prompted by nothing more than the fatalism of a Muslim train driver in the face of a technical fault which a resourceful British officer was able to repair. One should not read too much into a passage that he decided to cut from later editions. There is no denying the power of the young Churchill’s prose—which owes much to Edward Gibbon, although the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was an admirer of Islam. But a modern author who submitted such a provocative text to his publisher might be told that he was risking ostracism or worse.
However, the reader who persists to the end, over more than a thousand pages, will soon realise that Churchill was far less hostile to the Muslim subjects of his book than this isolated passage might suggest. Elsewhere, he is fair and respectful towards the followers of the Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed, and his successor, the Khalifa Abdullahi. He praises their courage and their resilience: “They fought for a cause to which they were devoted, and for a ruler in whose reign they acquiesced.” He is sympathetic to the Mahdist uprising against “the yoke of the Turks” and he insists that the Dervishes were not savages, but had sophisticated institutions of their own: they “may under happier circumstances and with tolerant guidance develope [sic] into a virtuous and law-abiding community.” Churchill’s experience with both Indian and African troops fighting on the British side taught him that segregation on racial or religious grounds in the military sphere was unjustifiable. This, remember, was half a century before President Truman came to the same conclusion and abolished it in the US armed forces.
Moreover, Churchill subjects his own comrades and countrymen to strictures no less severe than their foes. Not only political opponents, such as Gladstone, but even the victorious commander-in-chief, Sir Herbert (later Lord) Kitchener, receives sustained criticism. Referred to by his Egyptian title of “Sirdar,” Kitchener is castigated for taking revenge on the Dervish disciples of the Mahdi, in particular for destroying his memorial and exhuming his remains. Churchill robustly condemns such merciless measures and gives modern readers, who will recall campaigns against Islamist foes in our own time, food for thought.
Glimpses of Greatness
But The River War is worth reading not merely to satisfy oneself that Churchill does not deserve the anachronistic obloquy heaped upon him by zealots of the cancel culture. It is a serious monograph on a neglected episode of military history, a vivid first-hand account of a formative experience in its author’s life, and a cracking good story, too. His powers of endurance, judgement, and observation, his insatiable curiosity and appetite for adventure are already apparent. So too are the vivid turns of phrase that pepper almost every page, foreshadowing the wartime oratory of 40 years later. In this book, perhaps for the first time in Churchill’s career, there is an inkling of the greatness to come.
These intimations of immortality are most apparent when he evokes the moments of high drama. One of the climactic incidents in Victorian imperial history was the death of General Charles Gordon in 1885. Indeed, the 1896 campaign chronicled here, though it took place more than a decade later, was in effect a punitive expedition to avenge him. Having deplored the sack of Khartoum—“a foul thing raked out of the ashes of the past”—Churchill rises to the occasion in his depiction of the denouement:
One mob of Dervishes made their way to the palace. Gordon came out to meet them. The whole courtyard was filled with wild, harlequin figures and sharp, glittering blades. He attempted a parley. “Where is your master, the Mahdi?” He knew his influence over native races. Perhaps he hoped to save the lives of some of the inhabitants. Perhaps in that supreme moment imagination flashed another picture before his eyes: and he saw himself confronted with the false prophet of a false religion, confronted with the European prisoners who had ‘denied their Lord’, offered the choice between death or the Koran; saw himself facing that savage circle with a fanaticism equal to, and a courage greater than their own. . . . It was not to be. Mad with the joy of victory and religious frenzy, they rushed upon him and, while he disdained even to fire his revolver, stabbed him in many places. His body fell down the steps and lay—a twisted heap—at the foot. There it was decapitated. The head was carried to the Mahdi. The trunk was stabbed again and again by the infuriated creatures, till nothing but a shapeless bundle of torn flesh and bloody rags remained of what had been a great and famous man and the envoy of her Britannic Majesty.
Not content with this scene of martyrdom, Churchill adds an assessment that hints at Gordon’s mercurial temperament and erratic behaviour: “The uncertainty of his moods may have frequently affected the soundness of his opinions, but not often the justness of his actions.” In private, he was far more critical, but even this passage would have raised eyebrows among Victorians who saw Gordon as an almost saintly figure.
A Worthy Edition
The new critical edition of The River War is a magnificent monument, worthy of its great author. It is a labour of love by one intrepid and meticulous American Churchill scholar, James W. Muller, who has been working on it for well over 30 years. He it was who first realised that the rare first edition of The River War had been a work in two volumes, while later editions, on which almost every Churchill expert had relied, were in fact, abridgements, cut by seven full chapters and substantial parts of the rest in order to be compressed into a single volume. Here, he restores the whole text, printing the excised chapters and passages in red. He includes the superb original illustrations by Angus McNeill, who had accompanied the expedition, and the indispensable maps chosen by Churchill himself. There is also a delightful and informative foreword by the late Mary Soames, Churchill’s daughter. The editor’s own introduction, which runs to more than 200 pages, is a triumph, conjuring up the entire biographical and historical hinterland, together with a vindication of Churchill against some of his accusers’ more egregious indictments. No editor could have been expected to do more; but this is by no means all that he has done.
For Professor Muller also provides an erudite, though never obtrusive, editorial apparatus, which adds greatly to the reader’s pleasure in these elegant volumes. The footnotes are miniature gems of scholarship, while the appendices amount to a book in their own right. Besides nearly 100 pages added by Churchill himself, the editor adds nearly 400 more: the newspaper reports for the Morning Post that Churchill sent home from the war, and which later provided the raw material for his book; subsequent accounts of the campaign in later works; an unpublished sketchbook by McNeill; and a draft manuscript of the Gordon chapter, which was found in Churchill’s archive. The latter reveals how the final version, extracted above, was influenced by Churchill’s interview with Sir Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, who had known Gordon well but did not share the general adulation. By providing such voluminous background materials, Professor Muller enables us to appreciate how much more nuanced Churchill’s historical and political judgements became during the year that he devoted to researching and writing the book. By the time he had finished with it, this “progressive Tory” was on a journey that would lead him to join the Liberals a few years later. Perhaps this explains why he was more critical of the living Kitchener than of the dead Gordon. Whichever party he belonged to, Churchill was never a reactionary and always generous towards defeated enemies.
The last word should be with Churchill himself. His first-hand description of the Battle of Omdurman, the culmination of the campaign, is matchless. Riding with the 21st Lancers, he took part in the last cavalry charge in British military history. Though he recalled this experience in his memoir My Early Life, the wealth of detail provided in The River War is incomparably greater—though much of it was cut from later editions, including this remarkable passage, restored to posterity by the assiduous and amiable Jim Muller:
The whole scene flickered like a cinematograph picture; and besides, I remember no sound. The event seemed to pass in absolute silence. The yells of the enemy, the shouts of the soldiers, the firing of many shots, the clashing of sword and spear, were unnoticed by the senses, unregistered by the brain. Several others say the same. Perhaps it is possible for the whole of a man’s faculties to be concentrated in the eye, bridle-hand and trigger-finger, and withdrawn from all other parts of the body.