An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan

(Cohen A2) (Woods A2)

Arguably the most aesthetically beautiful of Churchill’s original trade editions, The River War is a brilliant history of British involvement in the Sudan and the campaign for its reconquest: arresting, insightful, with tremendous narrative and descriptive power. Though published over a hundred years ago, it is uniquely relevant to our times; combined with Churchill’s personal adventure, there are passages of deep reflection on the requirements of a civilized government.
Far from uncritically accepting the supposed superiority of British civilization, Churchill shows his understanding of the longing for liberty among the indigenous peoples of the Sudan. Yet he does find their native governance defective. He also criticizes the British army, and in particular the campaign commander, Lord Kitchener, for ignoring the respect for the liberty and humanity of its adversaries that should accompany British civilization, and, perhaps, justify its imperial rule over the Sudan.
In 1885 the Sudan had been overrun by the Dervish tribesmen under their religious leader, the Mahdi, culminating in the death of the British envoy, General Gordon, at the capital of Khartoum. Fourteen years later, London sent Lord Kitchener at the head of a combined British and Egyptian force (including a brash war reporter, Lt. Churchill) to reestablish Anglo-Egyptian sovereignty in the Sudan. Despite the objective superiority of English weaponry and tactics, they faced the formidable obstacles presented by the Nile, the desert, the climate, cholera, and a brave, fanatical Dervish army led by the “Mahdi of Allah.”
Churchill impressively captures in precise detail and exciting narrative all these features of that now-distant campaign, including his own role in the last great cavalry charge of British military history. Finely written chapters trace the history of the Sudan, the rise of the Mahdi, the martyr’s death of Gordon and, apparently not much exaggerated, the author’s own adventures. Young Churchill did not hesitate to criticize the actions of the victorious Kitchener, whose treatment of the dead Mahdi was certainly barbaric and whose disdain for the fallen foe after the Battle of Omdurman was shameful.
Later, the author thought it best to be more judicious. For a one-volume edition published in 1902, Churchill excised vast quantities of narrative, including most criticisms of Lord Kitchener. By then he had entered Parliament and was less sanguine about burning bridges. He also added another chapter and other new material that makes these later editions important in their own right. There are, therefore, two separate texts: one, the original two-volume unabridged version, with Angus McNeill’s beautiful line drawings, which existed in 3,000 copies only and was sold out by the early 1900s and two, the 1902 abridgment that has survived unchanged through modern paperbacks. To be truly complete, a new edition of the original text should add the new material from 1902, and a tabulation of the 1902 excisions.
From a collector’s standpoint, all editions are important including paperbacks, which are the least expensive way to come to grips at least with the abridged text. The River War is one of a handful of titles most likely to be found in numerous variations in comprehensive Churchill libraries, many of which contain a dozen or more editions. Some collectors make the acquisition of every edition and impression of The River War, including foreign-language editions, a lifetime quest.
-Richard M. Langworth

From the Reviews
“The salient features of The River War are clearly brought out…A brief sketch of the rebellion of the Mahdi, Gordon’s part in it, the history of the Dervish Empire and the preparations for its overthrow, is followed by an account, in greater or lesser detail, of every important step in the advance of the Anglo-Egyptian army.
Our author is not at his best when describing the campaign in which he took part. Not unnaturally he dwells at too great length on the incidents, sometimes trivial, of which he was an eye-witness. His account of the battle of Omdurman, especially, suffers for this reason. [Today, because of Churchill’s subsequent career, the campaign in which he took a part, and Omdurman in particular, are considered among the highlights of the book. -RML]
The impression of the Sirdar [Kitchener] left by the narrative is forcible and not marred by too in- discriminate praise. He appears throughout a stern, unsympathetic man, unmoved in threatened disaster or in brilliant success, fertile in resources, with eye keen to observe the smallest details in every department; a martinet but not a slave to red tape…
“The history appropriately ends with a tribute to one whose name seldom appears in its pages, but to whom possibly even more than to the Sirdar, belongs the chief credit of a great achievement. In developing and civilizing the Sudan, Churchill says, ‘To persevere and trust Lord Cromer is the watchword of the Englishman in Egypt.’
The Nation, New York, 15 February 1900.

Some describe the binding as blue, others green; most first-time viewers say it is “blue-green.” The First Edition is physically beautiful and, perhaps, the most luxurious of all Churchill trade editions. The rich and evocative cover and spine artwork is complemented by Angus McNeill’s wonderful line drawings, elegant fold-out maps printed in full color, and thick, creamy page stock, which is often found today still in magnificent condition after nearly a century. Dust jackets are virtually extinct; we know of only one pair. The rear catalogue in Volume I, not mentioned by Frederick Woods in his bibliography, appears in about half the copies encountered. Catalogue dates are 12/99 for the second impression and 7/00 for the third impression.

The First Edition of The River War is scarce, and truly fine copies are hardly ever seen. The heavy pages put a lot of strain on the binding, and many copies are found with hinge or gutter breaks; it is a hard choice either to make repairs (which usually require new replica endpapers) or to preserve originality. If you choose originality, be extremely careful when handling the volumes.
From both literary and collectibility standpoints, this is one of the gems of any Churchill library. Second and third impressions are worth about 40-60 percent of first impressions in comparable condition, and the prices of all editions are high.



§ § §






First Edition
Cohen A2.1/Woods A2(a)

Publisher: Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1899
Dark blue-green cloth gilt stamped on the spine and front cover. Demy 8vo, two volumes, 488 pages numbered (i) (xxiv), (1)-462 (2) and 516 pages numbered (2), (i)-(xiv), (1)-499, (1), printed on high-quality thick coated paper, with or without a 32-page rear catalogue supplement printed on cheap stock; illustrations by Angus McNeill of the Seaforth Highlanders; frontispiece and other portraits; maps and plans. (Contrary to Woods there are eleven, not six, folding maps.) Published 6 November 1899 at 36 shillings ($9), a towering price in an age when £1 per week was a living wage. U.S. copies sold for $10.

Quantities and Impressions
Three thousand copies were printed in three impressions with press orders for 2,000, 500 (January 1900) and 500 (June 1900). Later impressions are so labeled on title pages and dated 1900 instead of 1899. Half title versos are blank in first impressions; they advertise Malakand and Savrola in second impressions; and add London to Ladysmith to some but not all copies of the third impression.

Dust Jackets
Printed black on off-white stock, duplicating the style of the boards, with the Nile gunboat and author signature on the front face and the title, byline, Mahdi’s tomb artwork and publisher in the usual places on the spine face. The flaps and rear face are blank. There is no difference in jacket design between the three impressions.

The only variation reported is the presence of the rear catalogue. Again, as in the case of Malakand, it is likely that copies sold in the U.S. were without the catalogue, but this does not constitute proof of a distinctly “American” issue since some books released in England also lack catalogues.



Second Edition (Abridged)
Cohen A2.2/Woods A2(b)

Publisher: Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1902
Red cloth gilt stamped on the spine and front cover; 8vo, 384 pages with or without 40-page rear catalogue supplement printed on cheap stock; frontispiece and other illustrations, maps and plans. Published 15 October 1902 at 10 shillings sixpence ($3.75); some copies exported for sale at $4 by Longmans, Green in New York, where it was published on 13 December. Note: While Woods correctly describes this edition, “bound as the 1899 edition, but with the volume number deleted,” he does not say it is in red, not blue-green cloth, and usually (but not always) carries a blind rule around the edge of the front board.

Quantities and Impressions
The first impression of 1,000 copies was followed by a second impression (not noted by Woods). The second impression is so labeled on the title page, and on the verso of its half-title is a boxed advertisement for other works from the Longmans catalogue. Second impressions encountered, to date, contain this catalogue.

Dust Jackets
None have been reported. Presumably, they resembled the known jackets for the First Edition, but without volume numbers.

A variant binding of the first impression exists in rough red cloth without the usual blind rule on the top boards. Because these copies omit the London publisher’s rear catalogue, it has been speculated that this was a binding for copies sold by Longmans in New York; however, some otherwise standard copies sold new by London bookshops also omitted the rear catalogue.

The primary bibliographic importance of this work is its new material: a Preface by the author and a chapter describing the destruction of the Khalifa and the end of the war. Significant historically, is the fact that Churchill excised about one-fourth of his original text (notably his attacks on Kitchener) in creating this first one-volume edition, the text of which has been the source of every reprint to date. “What has been jettisoned,” Churchill states in the Preface, “consists mainly of personal impressions and opinions, often controversial in character, which, however just, were not essential.” Newly elected to Parliament, Churchill might have been trimming his sails for political expediency. On the other hand, his abundance of opinions had been criticized long before he entered Parliament, so he may have been responding to such criticisms. Alas, many detailed appendices and all drawings, as well as the exquisite fold-out color maps, were also deleted, and have not reappeared to date.

For its important additions and deletions, this book or one of its successors belongs on the shelf alongside the First Edition. Copies are scarcer even than the First Edition, and are rarely encountered in fine condition; the heavy paper is prone to gutter breaks and spotting. The binding retains all the Victorian period splendor of the First Edition, however, and the 1902 edition of The River War remains one of the most desirable editions for bibliophiles.



Shilling Library Edition
Cohen A2.3 / Woods A2(c)

Publisher: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., London, 1915
Medium blue cloth gilt stamped, border rule on the front board blind stamped. 16mo, 458 pages plus a 22-page catalogue of other Nelson titles, frontispiece photograph, maps and plans. Published 4 August 1915 at 1 shilling (25c). Decorative endpapers printed light blue on white.

Quantities and Impressions
Quantity unknown. One impression, but remainders are possible

Dust Jackets
Publisher’s standard jacket for the series, printed black on light blue, showing an author’s photo and decorative border on the front face, other Nelson titles on flaps and rear face.

Books are known with and without gilt top staining. Black lettered spines (like the Nelson Malakand) have not been encountered by this writer.

The first of two Churchill titles in the Nelson series of small-format, low-priced books, this volume was followed in 1916 by the Nelson Malakand. Unlike the latter, it does not contain the label “cheap edition.” Its existence was ignored by Eyre & Spottiswoode, which in 1933 published what they called the “first cheap edition” (see following entry). The Nelson Edition contains the 1902 text (re- set), including both appendices, but no index. Being inexpensive, it tended to be treated carelessly, and most copies are well worn or display gutter breaks.

Not often seen, the Nelson is desirable chiefly for collectors wishing to round out their holdings but has no intrinsic advantages. Jacketed copies are extremely rare.



Second Cheap Edition
Cohen A2.4 / Woods A2(d)

Seventeen years after the Nelson River War, a long-lived one-volume edition was produced in standard 8vo size, made up from plates of the 1902 edition and carrying the original pagination and index. This is important bibliographically for Churchill’s new Introduction, in which he expresses happiness that The River War is having a new lease on life, hoping that his countrymen “may learn from it how much harder it is to build up and acquire, than to squander and cast away.” He was obviously referring to the India Bill, which in 1933 he was vainly opposing. For this new Introduction alone, the work is significant.



Home Issue
Cohen A2.4

Publisher: Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1933
Lilac cloth stamped black on the spine (1933-41); yellow-tan cloth gilt stamped (1949 -51); grey cloth gilt stamped (1965 remainder binding). Plain boards, 8vo. First published January 1933 at 10s 6d. ($2.65). Woods A2(d).

Quantities and Impressions
• First impression, January 1933 (states “First Cheap Edition” on title page verso): 3,000 copies
• Second impression, March 1933 (“Second Cheap Edition”): 1,000 copies
• Third impression, 1941 (“Third Cheap Edition”): 1,250 copies.* The 1941 boards are noticeably thinner than in the other impressions.
• Fourth impression, June 1949 (states “Third Edition”): 3,000 copies
• Fifth impression, May 1951 (states “Third Edition”): 2,600 copies
• Remainder binding, 1965 (from 1951 sheets, but grey cloth, jacket advertises 1965 books)

Total press run: 10,850
*Woods says the Third impression was printed in 1941 and sold at 15s; in fact, it was printed on 25 February 1941, not 1940 as stated on the title page verso, and sold for 7s 6d.

Dust Jackets
• First impression, 1933: black and light blue on white, side view of Churchill at his desk. Rear face: advertisements for a Metternich biography and Liddell Hart’s Foch. Spine price “7s 6d.” This dust jacket is commonly found on later impressions and may have been interchanged by the publisher.
• Second impression, 1933: black on off-white, not illustrated, title/subtitle/byline on front face, back face blank, spine price “7s 6d net” (This impression has been found in a jack- et identical to the first impression, adding “net” to the spine price, indicating possible issuance of remainder copies with the new jacket design sometime between 1933 and 1940.)
• Third impression, 1941 (“1940”): black and light blue on white in the 1933 style but photo shows Churchill facing the camera; back face is blank, flap price is 10s 6d but the price is not repeated on the spine. (Some third impressions carry first impression dust jackets.)
• Fourth impression, 1949: printed red and navy on tan with a contemporary photo of Churchill and map of the upper Nile, back face advertisement for The War in Malaya, flap price 15/.
• Fifth impression, 1951: As 1949, back face advertisement for A History of Europe, flap price 21/.
• Remainder binding, 1965: red on yellow, unillustrated, title/byline on front face; back face adverts for Frontiers and Wars and Violet Bonham Carter’s Winston Churchill As We Knew Him.

Copies of the 1933 first impression and the 1941 (“1940”) impression are known to exist in mauve cloth, and this writer has seen a copy (impression unknown) in blue-grey cloth. A copy of the 1949 impression exists blocked dark brown instead of gilt. The six different versions of this work are easily identified; the text is uniform throughout.

Jacketed copies, especially 1933-41, are rare and desirable; jacketed postwar copies are more readily available but even they usually command high prices; unjacketed copies are presently quite common, especially the first 1933 impression and the postwar impressions. Readers interested in sound hardbound reading copies of The River War should make their choice from among these volumes; the more recent, the more likely they are to be in good condition.



American Issue
Cohen A2.5/ICS A2db

Publisher: Charles Scribners Sons, New York, 1933
Lilac cloth stamped black on spine, plain boards. Published 1933 at $2.75. This issue is labeled “Printed in Great Britain” on the title page verso and in effect constitutes the first separate American issue. The binding was probably also done in England, using English sheets and a Scribner title page cancel, since copies are 8vo, bound in the identical lilac cloth, and contain the same signature marks of the Eyre & Spottiswoode copies. The dust jacket is unique, bearing R. C. Woodville’s dramatic illustration of the Charge of the 21st Lancers (see early copies of My Early Life) and is especially attractive. This is a highly desirable variant, known to few, and not in Woods.






Four Square Edition
Cohen A2.6 / ICS A2e

Publisher: Landsborough Publications Ltd., London, 1960
The first paperback edition, Four Square no. 195, was released at 3 shillings sixpence (49c). The cover is a Karsh photo-based painting of Churchill c. World War II superimposed on a group of lancers observing the approaching Dervish Army. Second impression, 1964. Both impressions have 352 pages, but the second uses photographically reduced type and the pagination is different. Not in Woods.
Note: “Sphere Edition” (formerly ICS A2f)
Woods mentions a Sphere paperback. No copies have ever been encountered by anyone this writer has consulted, and it appears that he was referring to the Four Square Edition.



Award Edition
Cohen A2.7 / ICS A2g

Publisher: Universal Publishing & Distributing Corp., New York, 1964
The first American paperback was published in December 1964 at 75c, and incorrectly labeled, “never before published in paperback.” The cover bears a Karsh photo of Churchill with Dervishes and Lancers on horseback. It is number KA123S in the Award Books Military Library. 352 pages. Second impression, 1965. Not in Woods.



New English Library Edition
Cohen A2.8 / ICS A2h

Publisher: N.E.L. Division, Times Mirror Books, Ltd., London, 1973
Published December 1973 at 50p ($1.40) with cover artwork of a patrol of Lancers in the desert. 352 pages. The second impression, issued April 1985 by the N.E.L. under management of Hodder & Stoughton at Sevenoaks, Kent, cost £2.75 and carried a new cover lettered gold on blue with a different Woodville painting of the Omdurman charge than chosen for the 1933 Scribner’s edition. Not in Woods.



Sceptre Edition
Cohen A2.9

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, Sevenoaks, Kent, 1987
Published in 1987 by Hodder & Stoughton’s Sceptre Books imprint at £6.95, with a new introduc- tion by Sir John Colville, retaining the Woodville painting from the N.E.L. paperback on a tan cover printed black, red and blue; one impression. An oversize paperback, 7 3/4 x 5”, 368 pages. Not in Woods.




Published by Skoglunds Bokforlag, Stockholm 1938 at kr 9.5. 8vo, 398 pages, issued in clothbound and in grey card wraps printed black and red-orange. There is no mention of a bound copy; typical practice suggests that a bound version came later. The indefatigable Emery Reves helped Churchill organize his foreign language publishing efforts before the war, and a long relationship began with the Swedish publishers Skoglunds.



§ § §


Click here for a list of terminology, bibliographic information, and other notes.