Winston Churchill was in his twenties when he wrote, partly from his own experience, this interesting account of the then recent Sudan War, in which Lord Kitchener led a combined British - Egyptian army to suppress an uprising of Muslim fanatic followers of the recently deceased ‘Mahdi’, who had claimed to be a kind of ‘Messiah’ whose appearance shortly before the end of the world had been prophesied in Islam.
The ‘River’ of the title of the book is the Nile, which dominates the geography of the Sudan, as of Egypt to the north. Without it, both countries would be little but uninhabitable desert. The waters of the Nile’s two main sources, the White Nile from Uganda and Blue Nile from Ethiopia, meet at the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
If you hate all military history this is probably not the book for you. However, it tells us a good deal more about what was going on and more interestingly than just a narrative of brigades and battles, even if the young Churchill was probably inhibited in places by the commander Lord Kitchener’s then status as a national hero from being as critical as he might have liked to be.
This was a very different time from ours, but the circumstances of the Mahdi’s revolt, driven by a militant form of Islam (as with John Buchan’s First World War thriller ‘Greenmantle’) have a surprising contemporary resonance.
The way that the war was fought now seems a strange mix of modern and ancient.
The route into the Sudan of previous invaders from the Pharaohs onwards had mostly had to follow the long, winding course of the Nile. Kitchener on the other hand could miss out a great bend in the River by building a railway straight across the desert to carry his army and its supplies.
At the main battle of Omdurman, the disciplined, modern (for the time) firepower of the outnumbered British, and British-trained Egyptian, soldiers murderously obliterated the charges of the far larger Mahdist army.
Yet, at one point in the battle British infantry formed squares to resist a cavalry charge just as their great-grandfathers had against Napoleon at Waterloo. At another point, the British cavalry charged with lances, until they found it more effective to dismount and use their fire arms. Strange to think that 16 years later, British veterans of the Sudan campaign fought in the First World War.
In the end, Omdurman was an utter, crushing defeat for the Mahdist rebels. All that night the streets of their nearby capital Khartoum echoed with the sounds of thousands of running feet as the survivors of their army melted away. Yet the result was not a foregone conclusion. There was a dangerous moment when the Egyptian infantry panicked and fired too high, so that their shots went harmlessly over the heads of the mass of rebels bearing down on them. As Churchill reminds us, Sudan’s neighbour Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) had recently shown that a native African Kingdom could inflict major defeat on a modern European army, against the Italians at Adowa.
As I have said, this is a story from a very different time from ours. Some people will these days presume colonialist and imperialist wars are bad and that Britain must therefore have been in the wrong in the Sudan campaign. However, just as it would be unfair to judge us today by whatever values people may hold 120 years in the future, it is hardly fair to judge people of the late nineteenth century by standards from our time. Neither side regarded it as wrong in principle for one people to rule another, even if they disagreed on who the rulers should be.
British rule in Sudan lasted from the late 1890s to independence in 1956, still within Churchill’s lifetime. The history of Sudan since independence has at times been horrifying, providing a base for al-Qaeda, the cruel conflicts in Darfur and in the secessionist non-Muslim South Sudan, the cruelties of Sharia law and the persistence of slavery.
You may see this as vindicating British rule as better than what followed or preceded it, or indicting British rule for failing in nearly 60 years to make the country ready for self-government.
However, the Mahdists were fanatics who sought to replace as a Muslim ‘pillar of faith’ the duty to make pilgrimage to Mecca with a duty to wage Holy War, and to replace the duty of charitable giving with the duty to fund the Mahdists. They ignored worldly practicalities because they believed that the end of this world was near.
If a faction like that seized power somewhere today we would also be concerned, although far less effective in dealing with it than in Churchill’s and Kitchener’s times.
While we are still (just about) allowed to do so, I quote here Churchill’s comment on Islam from this book, which will give an idea of his style. Note he does not express blanket hostility to Muslims. Note also that the state of much of the Muslim world, unless luckily having oil bearing rocks beneath their sand, suggests he was probably not entirely wrong either.
‘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 civilization of modern Europe might fall.’
However, in the end, as so often in the study of history, we should apply Coleridge’s wise words that if historians really threw themselves back into the spirit of the times they wrote about “there would be less praise and less blame bestowed on both sides.”
Trying to imagine what it must have been like both for the men in the thin British lines, so far from home, facing the charges of a fierce army several times larger than their own, as also for the Mahdist warriors charging into a storm of exploding shells and volleys of invisible, deadly, flying bullets, perhaps our principal response today should just be to respect the courage of both sides.