Winston Churchill has as good a claim as anyone to have become the best statesman of the 20th century. Yet while his reputation is stable, it has never been uncontested. In his life he was denounced at different times by Communists and Nazis, reactionaries and progressives, including most members of the parties that he represented one time or another. Now he is frequently criticised as a imperialist or a Zionist, blamed for famine from India, also contains”racist” graffiti daubed on his statue in Westminster. Does he deserve the insults of all posterity any longer than that he did those of his contemporaries?
A fantastic place to look for an answer to this query is Churchill’s ancient novel The River War, a new version of which has recently been published by St. Augustine’s Press. He was only 24 when he wrote that this Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, yet he was a seasoned veteran of conflict in two continents: a soldier, a war correspondent, and also a published author, all which he saw as groundwork for a political career. Most importantly, he was a Victorian, with all the attitudes of the age. Only an outstanding man might have achieved so much in this tender age, but in the England of 1899, jingoistic assumptions regarding the excellence of”civilised” peoples were too regular and the young Winston should be judged so.
Churchill in the Clash of Civilisations
When political Islam took center stage after the 9/11 terror strikes, a quotation from The River War went viral. The passage reads as follows:
Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous as hydrophobia in a dog, there is the fearful fatalistic apathy…. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the second of its dignity and sanctity. The very fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property–as a child, a wife, or a concubine–should delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.
Churchill admits that”individual Moslems may show splendid qualities” and many have fought for the Queen, but he insists that”no stronger retrograde force exists in the world”
Taken out of context, this tirade may lead the unwary to presume that Churchill was a enemy of Islam of the most intense kind. In fact, his outburst appears to have been prompted by just the fatalism of a Muslim train driver in the surface of a technical fault which a British officer managed to fix. One should not read too much into a passing he chose to cut out of later variants. There’s no denying the power of this young Churchill’s prose–that owes much to Edward Gibbon, even though the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was an admirer of Islam. However, a modem author who submitted such a provocative text into his publication may be told that he was risking ostracism or worse.
However, the reader who persists to the finish, more than a million pages, will probably realize that Churchill was much less hostile to the Muslim areas of the book than this isolated passage could indicate. He praises their guts and his resilience:”They fought for a cause to which they have been devoted, and to get a ruler in whose reign they acquiesced.” He’s sympathetic to the Mahdist uprising against”the yoke of the Turks” and that he insists that the Dervishes weren’t savages, but’d complicated associations of their own: they”might under happier conditions and with citizenship advice develope [sic] to a virtuous and law-abiding community” Churchill’s experience with both African and Indian troops fighting on the other hand educated him segregation on racial or religious grounds in the military world was unjustifiable. This, remember, was half a century before President Truman came to the same decision and abolished it in the US armed forces.
The River War is really a critical monograph on a neglected episode of history, a vivid first-hand account of a formative knowledge in its writer’s life, and also a cracking good story, too.Moreover, Churchill subjects his own comrades and countrymen into strictures no less severe than their foes. Not only political contests, such as Gladstone, but the victorious commander-in-chief, Sir Herbert (later Lord) Kitchener, receives continuing criticism. Referred to with his Egyptian title of”Sirdar,” Kitchener continues to be castigated for taking revenge on the Dervish disciples of the Mahdi, in particular for destroying his ministry as well as exhuming his stays. Churchill robustly condemns such merciless steps and provides modern readers, who’ll recall campaigns against Islamist foes in our own time, food for thought.
Glimpses of Greatness
But The River War is worth reading not only to meet oneself that Churchill doesn’t deserve the anachronistic obloquy heaped upon him by zealots of this cancel culture. It’s a critical monograph on a neglected episode of history, a vibrant first-hand account of a formative knowledge in its writer’s life, and also a cracking good story, also. His skills of endurance, judgement, and observation, his insatiable curiosity and appetite for experience are already evident. So are the colorful turns of expression that pepper nearly every page, foreshadowing the wartime oratory of 40 years later. Within this novel, possibly for the first time in Churchill’s career, there is an inkling of this greatness to emerge.
All these intimations of immortality are most apparent when he evokes the moments of high drama. One of the climactic episodes in Victorian royal history was the death of General Charles Gordon in 1885. Having deplored the sack of Khartoum–“a filthy thing raked out of the ashes of the last”–Churchill rises to the occasion in his depiction of this denouement:
One mob of Dervishes produced their way into the palace. Gordon came out to meet with them. The whole courtyard was full of crazy, harlequin figures and sharp, glistening blades. He tried a parley. “Where is your master, the Mahdi?” He understood his influence on native races. Perhaps he hoped to conserve the lives of a few of the inhabitants. Perhaps in that supreme moment creativity flashed another film before his eyes: and he found himself faced with all the false prophet of a false faith, faced with all the European prisoners who had’denied their Lord’, provided the choice between passing or even the Koran; watched himself facing that barbarous circle with a fanaticism equivalent to, along with a courage greater than their own…. It wasn’t to be. Mad with all the joy of victory and religious frenzy, they hurried him , although he disdained to fire with his revolver, stabbed him in many places. His body dropped down the steps and lay–a twisted pile –in the foot. There it was decapitated. The mind was transported to the Mahdi. The back was stabbed again and again by the infuriated creatures, until nothing but a shapeless bundle of torn flesh and bloody rags remained of what had been a great and famous man and the envoy of her Britannic Majesty.
Not content with this scene of martyrdom, Churchill adds an assessment that traces in Gordon’s mercurial character and erratic behaviour:”The doubt of his moods might have regularly influenced the soundness of their remarks, but not frequently the justness of his actions.” Privately, he was much more crucial, but this passing could have raised eyebrows among Victorians who watched Gordon within an almost saintly figure.
A Worthy Edition
It’s a labour of love by one intrepid and meticulous American Churchill scholar, James W. Muller, who has been focusing on it for well over 30 years. He it was who first realised the the rare first edition of The River War had been a work in two volumes, even while later editions, where nearly every Churchill expert had relied, were in actuality, abridgements, cut seven full chapters and large parts of the remainder in order to be compacted to one quantity. He restores the whole text, printing the excised passages and chapters in red. He’s the excellent first illustrations by Angus McNeill, who had accompanied the expedition, along with the indispensable maps chosen by Churchill himself. There’s also a beautiful and informative foreword by the late Mary Soames, Churchill’s granddaughter. The editor’s own introduction, which runs into more than 200 pages, is a triumph, conjuring up the whole biographical and historical hinterland, together with a vindication of Churchill against a number of the accusers’ more egregious indictments. No editor might have been expected to do more; however this is by no means all that he has done.
For Professor Muller additionally offers an erudite, though never obtrusive, editorial device, which adds greatly to the reader’s delight in such elegant volumes. The footnotes are mini gems of scholarship, while the appendices amount into a book in their own right. Besides nearly 100 pages included by Churchill himself, the editor includes nearly 400 longer: the paper accounts for the Morning Post which Churchill sent home from the warand which later supplied the raw material for his novel; subsequent reports of the campaign in later works; an abysmal sketchbook by McNeill; and a draft manuscript of this Gordon chapter, that was launched in Churchill’s archive. The latter shows the way the final edition, extracted above, was influenced by Churchill’s interview with Sir Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, who had known Gordon well but didn’t share the general adulation. By providing such voluminous desktop substances, Professor Muller enables us to appreciate how much more nuanced Churchill’s historical and political judgements became during the year he devoted to studying and writing the book. By the time he had finished with this”progressive Tory” was on a journey which would lead him to join with the Liberals a few years later. Perhaps this explains why he was critical of the dwelling Kitchener than of the deceased Gordon. Whichever party he belonged , Churchill was never a reactionary and consistently generous towards conquered enemies.
The last word should be with Churchill himself. Riding with the 21st Lancers, he took part in the last cavalry charge in British military history.
The whole scene flickered like a cinematograph image; and moreover, I remember no sound. The event appeared to pass in absolute silence. The cries of the enemy, even the cries of the soldiers, the firing of many shots, the clashing of spear and sword, were modulated with the senses, unregistered by the brain. Several others say exactly the exact same. Perhaps it is possible for the whole of a man’s faculties to be concentrated in the eye, bridle-hand along with trigger-finger, and pulled from the rest of the parts of the body.