The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan was Winston Churchill’s second book, long out of print but brought back by print on demand. He was a lieutenant in the 21st Lancers, a British cavalry unit with the Egyptian Army at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan on September 2, 1898. This is history made more exciting than adventure fiction by one of the best writers the English language has produced. With a historian’s attention to detail, Churchill relates nearly a century of warfare and political maneuvering as Egypt dominated a land mass three times its size containing a thousand miles of the Nile River. Egyptian rule was based on slavery as they taxed their Arab subjects to collect slaves from the black population of the southern swamps. A series of self proclaimed khalifas, or Muslim leaders emerged to challenge Egypt, and in 1896 their rule threatened Egypt itself as jihadists surged north. Britain had sent a series of military leaders to bring order to the chaos, and finally mobilized an army to back up the Egyptians and they plunged south along the Nile and the Desert Railway.
Even the young Churchill was a consummate writer. Thoroughly researched, The River War has 22 maps, dozens of tables listing units, staffing, supplies and casualties, dispatches between the various leaders, transcripts of debate in Parliament, newspaper accounts and other background material. It has no index. All this background can be used as reference, or ignored. Churchill’s prose carries this fascinating story along so well I ripped through it in a couple days.
The best part is Churchill’s eye witness account of the Battle of Omdurman. A cavalry charge with sabers and pistols into the teeming center of the Dervish army; reading it, I was there!
I bought this book as research for my novel The Devil on Chardonnay, which deals partly with war in Sudan. I have read Churchill’s history of World War II, and consider it one of my favorites; it’s five volumes. The younger Churchill is wordier than the mature Churchill, and his prose can be a bit flowery. I skimmed some of the history in the first hundred pages. I give this book a 4 star rating.
Here’s an excerpt: “The real Soudan, known to the statesman and the explorer, lies far to the south–moist, undulating, and exuberant. But there is another Soudan, which some mistake for the true, whose solitudes oppresses the Nile from the Egyptian frontier to Omdurman. This is the Soudan of the soldier. Destitute of wealth or future, it is rich in history. The names of its squalid villages are familiar to distant and enlightened peoples. The barrenness of its scenery has been drawn by skillful pen and pencil. It’s ample deserts have tasted the blood of brave men. Its hot, black rocks have witnessed famous tragedies. It is the scene of the war.”