Winston S. Churchill described The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan as “a tale of blood and war” (I 1)—and it does not disappoint. No one who reads it will fail to understand why he eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The longest and best of his early books (he eventually wrote 43), Churchill describes it as “a true and impartial account of events which, though they will be forgotten in a century, nevertheless extended over thirteen years of strife and involved the untimely destruction of three hundred thousand human lives” (I 11).
Churchill was particularly qualified to tell this story. He is most remembered for his leadership in the Second World War and the soaring speeches that illuminated Britain’s darkest hour, but before he was a statesman, he was a soldier. A graduate of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and commissioned into the 4th Hussars in 1895, Churchill served in multiple conflicts. By the time he entered Parliament in 1901, he was the author of five books and a recognized war hero. The books were built on the foundation of newspaper articles written while in action—a practice frowned upon by the British military.
When war broke out in the Soudan, Churchill lobbied to be included. But the Sirdar or commander in chief of the Anglo-Egyptian Army, Lord Kitchener, disliked Churchill’s journalism (his reports were sometimes critical of commanding officers) and refused. Undaunted, Churchill managed to go anyway and rode in the last great cavalry charge of the British Army at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. The River War, based on 15 articles for the Morning Post, followed within a year. Comprehensive, dramatic, and poignant, Churchill’s account is evocative of the work of Thucydides and Xenophon. Its sweeping narrative imbues the particulars of immediate action with far-reaching philosophical reflection.
Why review a book first published in 1899? For those valuing historical military analysis, revisiting a classic requires no extensive justification. But in this case, there are additional compelling factors. A new edition of The River War has recently been published by St. Augustine’s Press—the first unabridged print edition since 1899. This edition is the product of the meticulous, tenacious, and exceptional research and labor of James W. Muller, professor of political science at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. In two marvelous volumes, Muller restores the full text of the first edition, largely unavailable since it was abridged in 1902 (and again in 1933), using red font to indicate what was omitted in later editions, which amounts to a third of the entire work.
But Professor Muller has done much more than simply restore excised text. He has provided an invaluable resource for anyone studying the 1896-99 Anglo-Egyptian campaign or seeking greater insight about Churchill as a soldier, writer, and thinker. He has provided a translation for every non-English word or term, a biographical note on every person named in the text, comprehensive annotations, and 344 pages of new appendices, allowing for an unparalleled contextualized appreciation of the work. In addition, the original color maps and illustrations have been restored and supplemented.
What are the differences between the editions, and why was the book abridged? As Muller explains in the lengthy Editor’s Introduction, very little concrete evidence remains, in Churchill’s hand or any other, as to why certain changes were made. Considerations of space and publication cost certainly played their part in streamlining the book. Churchill’s preface to the 1902 abridged edition states that most of what was removed were “personal impressions and opinions which, however just, were not essential to the narrative or to a permanent record…” (I 236). Part of the reason for these removals may have been simple political prudence. The abridged edition was published after Churchill had taken a seat in parliament. An ambitious politician cannot afford the candor of a brash young soldier. A prime example is Churchill’s criticism of Kitchener, the most controversial aspect of the first edition, which was almost completely excised in the abridgement. But one is now able to see both the substance of that criticism and how it was balanced by an appreciation of the Sirdar’s achievements: “Kitchener’s campaigns on the Nile will always be remarkable in military history for their machine-like regularity and for their extraordinary economy” (II 352). Churchill’s criticisms are aimed at Kitchener’s inhumanity rather than his martial performance.
Military enthusiasts will find much of interest in this new edition. In addition to Churchill’s keen observations throughout, a chapter entitled “Military Reflections,” which had been entirely absent, is now restored. Churchill discusses such topics as logistics, bureaucracy, order of march, order of attack, tactics, arms, equipment, ammunition, training, deployment, morale, psychology of battle, medical care, foraging, honors and recognition, rank advancement, and command. These discussions are conducted in extraordinary detail and immensely enhanced by Churchill’s military knowledge, both historical and contemporary.
These discussions were not purely theoretical for Churchill. When he considers the relative merits of the cavalryman wielding lance, sword, or pistol, he is informed by witnessing the effectiveness and lethality of these weapons. We know that he wielded a Mauser automatic pistol in the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman and very probably owed his survival to his handgun’s martial virtues. Such experience is reflected in pithy summations of the essential issues raised by technical advancement: “it is better to hit with a small bullet than to miss with a big one” (II 332).
Churchill possessed an extraordinarily reflective mind, and his presence and participation in the campaign gave him a rich canvas on which to paint. His observations and meditations are both particular and timeless. Like the Nile from which the work takes its name, The River War flows on through the ages, carrying the wisdom of both life and death.