The Info List - The River War

--- Advertisement ---

The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan (1899), by Winston Churchill, concerning his experiences as a British Army officer, during the Mahdist War
Mahdist War
(1881–99) in the Sudan. The River War
The River War
is a history of the British imperial involvement in the Sudan, and the Mahdi War
Mahdi War
between the British forces, led by Lord Kitchener, and the Dervish
forces, led by Khalifa Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, "The Mahdi”, heir to the self-proclaimed Mahdi
Muhammad Ahmad who had embarked on a campaign to conquer Egypt, to drive out the Ottomans. The River War
The River War
was Churchill's second published book after The Story of the Malakand Field Force, and originally filled two volumes with over 1000 pages in 1899. The River War
The River War
was subsequently abridged to one volume in 1902.


1 Background 2 Content

2.1 1899 unabridged, two-volume edition 2.2 1902 abridged, one-volume edition

3 Controversial contemporary political usage 4 Criticism 5 References

5.1 Notes

6 External links

Background[edit] Aware that there was a war in Sudan, Churchill determined to be part of it. He was not alone in this, because in a time generally of peace, many British Army
British Army
officers wanted experience of battle to further their careers. In Churchill's case, he did not see his career as lying with the army, but had already started writing about wars and wanted a new campaign to write about. He first attempted to obtain a transfer from his regiment stationed in India to the 21st Lancers, which was the unit taking part in the war. This was granted by the War Office, but rejected by the commander of the British force in Sudan, General Kitchener. Churchill next took leave to Britain, where he enlisted friends and family to lobby Kitchener to permit him to take part. This continued to be unsuccessful, even when the prime minister Lord Salisbury made an inquiry on his behalf. Eventually, however, he prevailed upon Sir Evelyn Wood, Adjutant General of the Horse Guards, who had authority over appointments to the regiment in England, and he received an attachment to the Lancers in place of an officer who had died, on 24 July 1898. On 5 August he was in Luxor
and on 24 August the regiment set out from Atbara
to attack the Mahdist forces.[1]:38–39[2]:122 Before leaving London, Churchill obtained a commission to write accounts of the war for the Morning Post, producing 13 articles between 23 September and 8 October 1898 for which he was paid £15 each.[2]:125 This helped offset his expenses for the trip, which the War Office had declined to meet, as well as refusing any liability should he be killed or injured.[1]:39 The Times
The Times
had two correspondents covering the war, one of whom was killed and another injured, and Churchill wrote a piece for this newspaper also, but Kitchener vetoed the sending of the report.[2]:124 After the Battle of Omdurman
Battle of Omdurman
the Lancers were ordered to return to other duties so Churchill's personal experience of the war ceased at that point. Although Omdurman had been taken from Khalifa Abdullahi, the Khalifa himself escaped and was not captured for another year.[1]:41 The campaign included a number of persons who were to play important parts in the First World War. Aside from Churchill and Kitchener, captains Douglas Haig
Douglas Haig
and Henry Rawlinson became generals in the war, while Lieutenant David Beatty, then commanding a Nile gunboat, became an admiral and commanded the British Grand Fleet.[1]:40 Churchill returned to England to complete his leave, before returning to India for three months and finally resigning from the army. As a direct result of Churchill's writings, a rule was introduced prohibiting serving officers from also acting as war correspondents. This was one factor contributing to his leaving the army, since his earnings from writing were some five times greater than his army pay during his three years of army service.[2]:125-126 In India Churchill visited the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, who had himself written a history of "Persia and the Persian Question" eight years before. He read everything he could find containing background information about the Sudan. On the way home he stopped for two weeks in Egypt
to visit Lord Cromer, then in charge of the Egyptian government, who read through the text and made suggestions and corrections; in particular playing down the popular impression of General Gordon, murdered by the Mahdi's forces fourteen years before, as a hero. While in Cairo
he spoke to Slatin Pasha, author of a work about the Sudan, Sir Reginald Wingate
Reginald Wingate
Director of Intelligence on Kitchener's staff, Edouard Girouard
Edouard Girouard
responsible for building railways through Egypt
which allowed the British advance, and others who had played some part.[2]:129 Sailing home across the Mediterranean, Churchill had as a fellow passenger George Warrington Steevens, who was also a war correspondent, working for the Daily Telegraph. They had met on a couple of previous occasions, and Churchill prevailed upon him also to read the manuscript. His suggestion was to reduce the degree of philosophising, that despite the accuracy of Churchill's commentary it might bore the reader.[2]:134 Content[edit]

Illustrations by Angus McNeill, here showing how cable for the railway telegraph was carried and laid

In vivid style the book describes the background to the war, the relationship of the Upper Nile to Egypt, the murder of General Charles George Gordon in the siege at Khartoum, the political reaction in England, and Kitchener's elaborate preparations for the war. While in the Sudan, Churchill participated in the Battle of Omdurman. Churchill comments at length on the mechanisation of war with use of the telegraph, railroad, and a new generation of weaponry. 1899 unabridged, two-volume edition[edit] The unabridged version contains many illustrations with drawings, photogravures, and coloured maps. It also contains vivid narratives of personal adventures of the author, his views on British expansionism, passages of deep reflection about the requirements of a civilised government, criticism of military and political leaders and religion.[3] The first edition was reviewed by The Times, which described it as containing material sufficient for two good books and one bad one, with the bad one being the more interesting.[4] About Islam
he wrote:

“ How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. 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. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die: but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and 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.[5]:248–250[6] ”

About the British attitude to war:

“ ..there are many people in England, and perhaps elsewhere, who seem to be unable to contemplate military operations for clear political objects, unless they can cajole themselves into the belief that their enemy are utterly and hopelessly vile. To this end the Dervishes, from the Mahdi
and the Khalifa downwards, have been loaded with every variety of abuse and charged with all conceivable crimes. This may be very comforting to philanthropic persons at home; but when an army in the field becomes imbued with the idea that the enemy are vermin who cumber the earth, instances of barbarity may easily be the outcome. This unmeasured condemnation is moreover as unjust as it is dangerous and unnecessary... We are told that the British and Egyptian armies entered Omdurman to free the people from the Khalifa's yoke. Never were rescuers more unwelcome.[2]:132[5]:394-395 ”

About the modern machinery of war and its effectiveness against native tribesmen:

“ ...the Maxim guns had also come into action. A dozen Dervishes are standing on a sandy knoll. All in a moment the dust began to jump in front of them, and then the clump of horsemen melts into a jumble on the ground, and a couple of scared survivors scurry to cover. Yet even then a few brave men come back to help their fallen comrades.[7]:402 ”

Churchill spread his criticisms wherever he found fault. A passage was highly critical of General Kitchener for ordering the desecration of the Mahdi's tomb and carrying off his head as a trophy. The head was returned by the order of Lord Cromer, once he discovered what had happened. The matter was debated in parliament and led to a newspaper campaign against Kitchener as well as deepening the ill feeling which already existed between two men who as members of the British government in 1914 were expected to co-operate militarily as heads of the army and navy departments. All reference to the incident was removed from the second edition.[2]:131 Criticisms extended to the supplies for the troops: British soldiers were sent out from England with boots made substantially from cardboard, which rapidly disintegrated and had to be bound with cloth or string to hold together. While the Indian Army was equipped with highly effective Dum-dum bullets produced in India, British bullets sent to Egypt
were simply pointed, and 1,000,000 rounds had to have their ends filed off to increase their effectiveness. The rough remodelling meant the bullets were inaccurate at long ranges, giving soldiers a choice of bullets able to hit their target but only wound, or killing bullets which were likely to miss and could jam the guns.[7]:367 Railway engines needed to carry troops and supplies into Sudan
had to be obtained from all over the world as British companies were unable to supply at short notice. By contrast, American companies could supply locomotives immediately which were more effective and cheaper than some obtained from England.[7]:298 1902 abridged, one-volume edition[edit] In 1902 Churchill had become a member of parliament. It was thought that the commentary about some of the people mentioned had better be excised in a revised edition. The book was thus edited down to one single volume, removing approximately one third of the total. Much of the removed content included passages where Churchill recounted his own experiences, as he had done in other works, such as The Story of the Malakand Field Force. This removal gave the revised book a somewhat different feel to these others, and to its original form. Other removals included discussions on the ethics of warfare, Churchill's own opinions of events, and his assessment on Islam. The revised book was described as an authoritative history of the war.[2]:133 Abridgements were published numerous times over the twentieth century, with increasing excisions. A "definitive" new edition of the book, restoring it to the original two-volume text, edited and annotated by Professor James W. Muller is in preparation.[8] Controversial contemporary political usage[edit] In May 2013, Missouri State Representative Rick Stream composed and forwarded an e-mail to his House GOP colleagues. Sam Levin called the e-mail "bizarre", with Rep. Stream alleging "dangers of Islam" and quoting Churchill's controversial statements.[9] Also in May 2013, the Winston-Salem Journal
Winston-Salem Journal
published a commentary by columnist Cal Thomas, in which he criticized current United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron
David Cameron
for his reaction following the killing of a British soldier in London, and invited him to take notice of Winston Churchill's views on Islam, some expressed in The River War.[10] In April 2014, Paul Weston, chairman of the far right Liberty GB
Liberty GB
party was arrested in Winchester, Hampshire, for reading aloud passages from the book whilst standing on the steps of the Guildhall and not dispersing when ordered to do so. Weston, a candidate in the May 2014 European Elections, was quoting from a section of Churchill's book that described Islamic culture in unflattering terms.[11][12] Criticism[edit] Johann Hari
Johann Hari
criticized Winston Churchill's views in his Not his finest hour: The dark side of Winston Churchill. The author also emphasizes the significance of Richard Toye's Churchill's Empire.[13] In Churchill’s War, author Max Hastings
Max Hastings
makes this conclusion on Churchill's views: "Churchill’s view of the British Empire and its peoples was unenlightened by comparison with that of America’s president [Franklin Roosevelt], or even by the standards of his time."[14] Paul Rahe argues that reading The River War
The River War
is suitable for "an age when the Great Democracies are likely to be called on to respond to ugly little conflicts marked by social, sectarian, and tribal rivalries in odd corners of the world."[15] References[edit] Notes[edit]

^ a b c d Jenkins, Roy (2001). Churchill. London: Macmillan. pp. 38–41. ISBN 0-333-78290-9.  ^ a b c d e f g h i de Menddelssohn, Peter (1961). The Age of Churchill: Heritage and Adventure 1874–1911. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 122–134.  ^ Langworth, Richard (1998). A Connoisseur's Guide to the Books of Sir Winston Churchill: Produced in Association with the Churchill Centre. London: Brassey's. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-85753-246-3.  ^ The Times, 6 November 1899. ^ a b Churchill, Winston (1899). The River War
The River War
Vol. II (1st ed.). London: Longmans, Green & Co.  ^ "Datelines". Finest Hour (113). Churchill Centre. Winter 2001–2002. p. 5.  ^ a b c Churchill, Winston (1899). The River War
The River War
Vol. I (1st ed.). London: Longmans, Green & Co.  ^ Muller, James W. (Winter 2016). "The River War: Preparing the Definitive Edition". Finest Hour (171). p. 10.  ^ Sam Levin (2 May 2013). " Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
quote about the dangers of Islam". National Churchill Museum. Retrieved 29 October 2014.  ^ Cal Thomas/Tribune Media (29 May 2013). " Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas
says current prime minister should heed Churchill". The Winston-Salem Journal. Retrieved 29 October 2014.  ^ "Euro candidate Paul Weston arrested over Islam
remarks". BBC News. 28 April 2014.  ^ Evans, Martin (28 April 2014). "Election candidate arrested over Churchill speech". Daily Telegraph.  ^ Johann Hari
Johann Hari
(28 October 2010). "Not his finest hour: The dark side of Winston Churchill". The Independent. Retrieved 29 October 2014.  ^ David M. Shribman (15 August 2010). "Churchill in focus". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 29 October 2014.  ^ Rahe, Paul (22 May 2015). "Why Read The River War?". The Churchill Project. Hillsdale College. 

External links[edit]

Unabridged first edition volume 1 Unabridged first edition volume 2 New York Times 1900 Review of The River War A Churchillian Perspective on 11 September with a review of The River War


The River War
The River War
at Internet Archive
Internet Archive
(scanned books) The River War
The River War
at Project Gutenberg
Project Gutenberg
via Online Books (1902 abridged edition) The River War
The River War
public domain audiobook at LibriVox

v t e

Winston Churchill


Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
as historian Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
as painter Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
as writer Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
in politics, 1900–1939

Timeline War Rooms conferences Percentages agreement Quebec Agreement

Statement on Atrocities

European Advisory Commission

Honours of Winston Churchill Later life of Winston Churchill

funeral gravesite

The Other Club Blenheim Palace Chartwell


The Story of the Malakand Field Force
The Story of the Malakand Field Force
(1898) Savrola
(1899 novel) The River War
The River War
(1899) London to Ladysmith via Pretoria
London to Ladysmith via Pretoria
(1900) Ian Hamilton's March
Ian Hamilton's March
(1900) Lord Randolph Churchill
Lord Randolph Churchill
(1906) The World Crisis
The World Crisis
(1923–1931, five volumes) My Early Life
My Early Life
(1930) Marlborough: His Life and Times (1933–1938, four volumes) Great Contemporaries
Great Contemporaries
(1937) Arms and the Covenant
Arms and the Covenant
(1938) The Second World War (1948–1963, six volumes) A History of the English-Speaking Peoples
A History of the English-Speaking Peoples
(1956–1958, four volumes)


"Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" "Be ye men of valour" "We shall fight on the beaches" "This was their finest hour" "Never was so much owed by so many to so few" "Iron Curtain"

Legacy and depictions

Palace of Westminster statue Parliament Square statue Washington, DC, statue Epstein bust Memorial Trusts Churchill College, Cambridge Churchill Archives Centre The Churchill Centre US Churchill Museum Cultural depictions Churchillian Drift


Norway Debate Terminological inexactitude Siege of Sidney Street Tonypandy riots May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis Sword of Stalingrad Operation Unthinkable


Lord Randolph Churchill
Lord Randolph Churchill
(father) Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill
Lady Randolph Churchill
(mother) Jack Churchill (brother) Clementine Churchill, Baroness Spencer-Churchill (wife) Diana Churchill
Diana Churchill
(daughter) Randolph Churchill
Randolph Churchill
(son) Sarah Churchill (daughter) Marigold Churchill
Marigold Churchill
(daughter) Mary Soames, Baroness Soames (daughter) Descendants John Spencer-Churchill (grandfather) Frances Anne Spencer-Churchill (grandmother) Leonard Jerome
Leonard Jerome
(grandfather) Cla