CHURCHILL OUT OF HIBERNATION, WEEK 5
Last week’s out-of-hibernation stroll through our shelves in the company of Winston Churchill’s first book, THE STORY OF THE MALAKAND FIELD FORCE, was most reviving. Let’s proceed to his second book, THE RIVER WAR.
Mere months after the 1898 publication of The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Winston Churchill returned to a battlefield, this time in Egypt, writing as a war correspondent for The Morning Post at a rate of £15 per column, while attached (over the objections of General Kitchener himself) to the 21st Lancers as a supernumerary lieutenant.
With Kitchener’s 20,000 troops engaging a Dervish army numbering 60,000, Churchill did not merely witness The Battle of Omdurman, he participated in it, including the last great cavalry charge in British military history.
The resulting book, The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, proved a masterpiece of its kind. Published on November 6, 1899, Churchill’s account of the Battle of Omdurman was brutally exact, filled with descriptions of carnage so painterly they almost seem, in retrospect, to have presaged the author’s future as a visual artist. Not limiting himself, however, to merely recapturing the battle for his readers, Churchill delivered a brilliant history of British involvement in the Sudan, as well as a devastating indictment of Britain’s ruthless campaign for its reconquest.
Churchill’s revulsion at the callousness in victory of his superiors, especially Kitchener, moved him to describe horrific scenes with bitter candor — particularly the ghastly sight of the Dervish wounded being left to die on the battlefield. “The day may come,” he concluded, “when the civilized warrior will finally abandon the weapons of the savage and adopt the machines of science… But perhaps before that enlightened age is reached, man will have realized that human dignity will scarcely allow them to indulge their tastes for the barbarous, though exhilarating, sport of war.”
A lavishly illustrated, two-volume tome, The River War was almost immediately abridged by Churchill for a single-volume edition published in 1902 with a new Preface by the author and elisions in the text that softened somewhat (and, in Kitchener’s case, eliminated altogether) Churchill’s criticisms of his military superiors.
All subsequent editions, in both cloth and paperback, have been reprints of this abridgement.
To read the two-volume River War in its entirety, you almost have to come to Chartwell Booksellers.
Until you can, we wish you continued health, safety and a mask always.