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Michael A. Herbert
- Publié sur Amazon.com
When many modern Americans speak about or hear of Winston Churchill, they recall his indomitable leadership of Great Britain (and its Empire) during the Second World War. However, before his political career he was a soldier, stationed first in India and then in the Sudan. His early years in the British army formed the background for his first two published works. The first, The Story of The Malakand Field Force was published in 1897 and is his account of British army campaigns in the Northwest Frontier (modern day Pakistan). His second book, The River War written in 1899, is the focus of this book review. An account of Britain's re-conquest of the Sudan, The River War begins with a description of the roots of the Sudanese collapse in the early 1880s, the rise of the Mahdi, and the subsequent Islamic jihadist revolt against the Egyptian government (who were responsible at the time for administrative control of modern day Sudan). It ends with the British victory at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 and subsequent British conquest of the Sudan in 1899.
The River War provides the reader with a glimpse into the early life and adventures of a young Churchill that surely molded his character for his later career in politics and literature. His depth of knowledge and astounding grasp of both the big picture and small details is evident in The River War. In fact, it is comparable to Julius Caesar's writing in The Conquest of Gaul -- exceptional for a young man in his mid-twenties to possess a writing style as readable and informative as Caesar's. The book reflects the abilities of a young writer who would later earn a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his many literary achievements.
While there is not a direct thesis to the book, there is an implied one. Steeped in the world-view of the British Empire, this is the story of the white man's destiny to rule barbarians and lead them to civilization. The book's viewpoint also reflects Churchill's social status as a member of one of Britain's leading martial and political families. He believed British actions in Africa from Cairo to Omdurman were the legitimate aim of the Empire. Churchill constantly refers to Muslim rebels, plus Sudanese and Egyptian natives as "savages" and "primitives;" his writing clearly reflects all the social structures of his time. However, he clearly admires the bravery and tenacity of the Dervishes (who comprise the Mahdi's army) and takes pains to accurately describe the Dervish leaders, portraying the mighty British political, military, and economic power as a campaign between the ancient and modern. In this instance, he is correct; muskets, small cannon, and horsemen with swords were no match against Maxim guns, steam-powered gunboats, and rifles.
The first three chapters of The River War are a delight to read; indeed a "must read" for military officers, diplomats, scholars, business leaders and anyone interested in the geography, climate, and people of the Sudan. Churchill masters his subject and chooses his words so well that the reader forms a vivid portrait of the Sudan. "The real Sudan... lies far to the south - moist, undulating, and exuberant ... the Sudan of the soldier....the squalid villages...the barrenness of scenery.... its deserts have tasted the blood of men and its black rocks have witnessed famous tragedies... is the scene of the war" (p. 5).
Churchill's vivid descriptions also extend to key Sudanese and British power brokers. For example, the roots of the Sudanese Arab unrest were the result of the Egyptian government's heavy-handed rule and use of force to maintain order. Two Sudanese Arab Muslims rose to power: one a hotheaded prophet (the Mahdi) who stirred the passions of the people, and the other his assistant (Abdullah) who turned the Mahdi's ideas in to political reality. They were a great combination as Churchill described them: "The Mahdi brought the enthusiasm of religion, the glamour of a stainless life, and the influence of superstition.... if he were the soul....Abdullah was surely the brain..." (p. 19). The Arabs were no longer willing to be misgoverned and they revolted. The Mahdi exploited and enflamed the populace with religious rhetoric and turned "... patriotic revolt ...into a dark clot of military empire" (p. 24). Opposed to Egyptian rule and European encroachment in the Sudan, the Dervish Empire "ruled by an army ... began on the night of the sack of Khartoum and ended abruptly thirteen years later in the battle of Omdurman" (p. 43). In just a few sentences, Churchill gives an accurate account of two men who dismissed the Egyptian government in the Sudan, required Egyptian soldiers to remain garrisoned, and forced the Khedive (i.e. the Egyptian ruler's title) to request British assistance for the evacuation of Egyptian soldiers and civilians from Khartoum back to Cairo.
Churchill describes the interpersonal dynamics of British political leaders regarding the selection of a senior military leader to conduct a military relief- in- place combined with a non-combatant evacuation, and the establishment of a military government in the Sudan. They argued over whom to lead the small British delegation to the Mahdi to evacuate the Egyptian soldiers and administrators from Khartoum, Sudan back to Cairo, Egypt. General Charles "Chinese" Gordon, mentioned during high-level meetings due to his previous success in Asia, was the clear favorite. In favor of Gordon's selection were Lord Wolseley (commander of British forces in Egypt), the Pasha (nominal head of Egypt), and the British Foreign Office "all clamored for him" (p. 26). Personally opposed to Gordon was Sir Evelyn (controller-general of Egypt), who would have to work Gordon on administering the Sudan. After surviving a grueling political battle, Baring relented under political pressure and Gordon embarked on his "mission with high spirits...sustained by personality..." (p. 27).
It seemed a foregone conclusion that Gordon would emerge triumphant simply because of his previous successes in China. However, the situation with the Mahdi was dire, and Baring and the Gladstone government ignored Gordon's request for a numerically superior British force. While Churchill derides the government for waiting so long to relieve Gordon, he turns the sack of Khartoum and Gordon's death into a mission to reclaim Britain's imperial honor and impose its will upon the Sudan.
At the heart of the book is an example of Churchill's exceptional grasp of operational detail. In Chapter Eight, he discusses logistics from the perspective of the Royal Engineers. They had previously surveyed the rail lines in1885; this time they supervised the building of the railway in 1896 during the Dongala campaign through its completion just prior to the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. He clearly grasps that logistics was the key to strategic victory; a remarkable insight from a mere subaltern. Churchill describes a military fact as true in 2013 as it was in 1896: "In a tale of war, the reader's mind is filled with the fighting...the long trailing line of communications is unnoticed... convoys crawling to the front in endless succession. Yet even the military student...often forgets the far more intricate complications of supply" (p. 92).
This astute observation underscores the fact that transportation was the strategic key for successful British control of the Sudan. The most important strategic decision Kitchener (the British general who led the amply supplied expeditionary force) ever made was to build the railway that ran from Wady Halfa and on to Abu Habed to Berber, at the confluence of the Atbara River and the Nile. The use of steam power and rail allowed Kitchener to penetrate deeper into the Sudan and defeat the Dervish army, subdue the population, and occupy the country. Churchill's description of the barren Sudanese landscape and the creation of "railhead towns with station, stores, telegraph offices, canteens and connected to the world by iron track three feet wide" (p. 98) allows the reader to imagine themselves right there in the campaign.
The logistical feat of building a railway through the desert, maintaining it, plus providing meals, ammunition, and uniforms for the advancing British forces are described by Churchill as "... to place as many forces farther south as possible ....completion of the railway doubled the force; it also doubled the business of supply" (p. 102). The logistics system in Cairo was so vast that the British were able to produce sixty thousand rations daily to supply ten thousand men in the field. The distance from Cairo to Atbara was roughly 1,330 miles, yet Kitchener was resupplied with fresh troops, ammunition, and stores within one day, a remarkable feat even in the late nineteenth century. The key point and value added for military historians is in Churchill's final sentence in this chapter: "Once the first train arrived into the Atbara camp.... the doom of the Dervishes was sealed... although the battle had not been fought, victory was won" (p.103). In summary, Churchill described how line of communication and supply allows senior military leaders to turn military action into strategic political results.
The final chapters of the book describe the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898, the occupation of the Sudan, and its absorption into the British Empire. Once again, Churchill's description of the tactical level of war tells a vibrant story "As the sun rose, the 21st Lancers trotted out... the enemy lay in the plain, their confidence unshaken..." (p. 151). As the battle develops, Churchill described the power of military technology and ranges of the British artillery, Maxim guns, and rifle fire against the Dervish muskets: "...an unfair advantage ... the infantry continued their work... the Maxim guns exhausted all the water in their jackets and ...had to be refilled by water-bottles from the Cameron Highlanders" (p. 154). The British and Dervish forces continued fighting and Churchill skillfully transitions from tactical descriptions to the strategic implications of the British victory. As the Dervish army made a desperate attack to intercept the British advance towards Omdurman " at the critical moment the gunboat arrived...floating gracefully on the waters...the charging Dervishes sank down in heaps...the Camel Corps slipped past the fatal point of interception..."(p. 157) and the brigades marched to Omdurman under Kitchener.
Churchill writes in detail how the British bring the whole of the Sudan into the Empire and describes the foreign policy repercussions of their victory for Britain's European rivals: the French are consigned North and Sub-Saharan Africa and the British southward from Egypt to modern day South Africa. He then easily turns to the order of battle, the number of Expeditionary Force (British, Egyptian, and Indian) troops killed and wounded. Even more insightful, he provides detailed financial accounts of the Sudan campaign from 1885 to 1898: two million Egyptian pounds charged to the Khedive for repayment through the British governor-general, and the direct costs to the "...British taxpayer was 800,000 pounds sterling...a great national satisfaction being cheaply obtained" (p.202). This sum would be approximately $1.5 million US dollars using today's exchange rate; Churchill believed the costs were ridiculously small for the territorial gains of Empire, although he does deplore "the deaths of brave officers and soldiers and...destruction of the valiant Arabs" (p. 201). It is remarkable that he already possessed the "statesman's view."
In conclusion, Churchill demonstrates a complete mastery of the spectrum of war as we know it in the twenty-first century -- tactical, operational, and strategic -- a task seemingly impossible for a twenty-five year old subaltern. His mastery of his topic accurately communicates diverse details from the raw geographic terrain to the critical importance of cooling the Maxim gun. If Churchill's thesis was to justify the union of the Egyptians and Sudanese under the common banner of the British Empire because it improved their lives, unlocked commercial wealth from the upper reaches of the Nile, and thwarted European rivals in the foreign policy arena--he did an outstanding job. The impact of Churchill's writing style and prose is his memorable and informative style; his use of short, crisp sentences and delicious descriptions define a seductive writing style that likely motivated young men to seek similar adventures. In addition, the general reader, historian, military service member, or diplomat seeking an informative and descriptive work on the Sudan would find The River War compulsive reading. Finally, this writing shows that early in his career that Churchill had a most extraordinary grasp of the intricacies of war, and we know now that it only got better with time. Readers of this book are in for a delightful surprise in a work packed with adventure and relevant information.