The Magazine

Fighting Fanaticism

The young Churchill's war in the Sudan.

Oct 29, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 07 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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The River War An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan by Winston Churchill Carroll & Graff, 380 pp., $14 INNUMERABLE COMPARISONS HAVE BEEN MADE, in the days since September 11, to World War II and especially to Winston Churchill's wartime leadership. In some ways, of course, the comparison is inappropriate. But in one particular way, it is fitting: All great statesmen have a central idea or insight. Churchill's was that the distinction between liberty and tyranny, between civilization and barbarism, is real and substantial. This may seem simple or even simple-minded, and it is worth recalling that when Churchill referred to Hitler in the 1930s as "that bad man," sophisticated people in Britain criticized him as a reactionary throwback. Even some of Churchill's admirers make the same mistake. William Manchester's biography of Churchill, "The Last Lion," is a masterpiece. Yet the very title of the book attributes Churchill's greatness precisely to the extent that Churchill was an anachronism: a Victorian whose virtues were indispensable in 1940, but whose like we are never to see again. Churchill was, in fact, the most modern of men in many ways. His anticipation of how science would change modern life, warfare, and politics was profound. So, too, many of our current reflections on the character of terrorism, Islamic fanaticism, and the clash between the Islamic world and the West are anticipated in Churchill's great book, "The River War," first published in 1900. You can see in this early work much of the insight and clarity that distinguished Churchill as prime minister four decades later. "The River War" tells the story of the British reconquest of the Sudan in the 1890s.

Amidst the squalor and misery of the native peoples of the Sudan, which was then a part of British-administered Egypt, a leader named Mohammed Ahmed arose, proclaiming himself the second great prophet of Islam--the Mahdi--who would lead a crusade to conquer Egypt and drive out the European infidels. The Mahdi attracted a wide and fanatical following, whose warriors became known as the Dervishes (from which we got the image of the "whirling Dervish," the warrior swirling his sword over his head), and began to make good on his boasts. A SERIES OF MINOR BRITISH military expeditions to resist the rising tide of the Mahdi were ineffectual or disastrous, chiefly because political opinion on the matter in Britain was uncertain and feckless. After two small expeditions were annihilated, the Liberal government of William Gladstone decided to retreat entirely and ordered the evacuation of the British-Egyptian garrison in Khartoum. The government sent General Charles Gordon to Khartoum to effect the retreat. Gordon and his forces were surrounded and eventually wiped out by the Mahdi's forces in 1885, just two days before yet another small relief expedition, after much plodding and sloth, reached Khartoum. Gordon's body was mutilated and his head paraded around the Mahdi's villages. For the Mahdi, the sacking of Khartoum was only the beginning of the jihad to purge all Egypt of the European infidels (whom the Mahdi called, in a term revealing of the parochialism of his cause, the "Turks"). Although the Mahdi died just a few months after the sacking of Khartoum, the spirit of Mahdism remained under the leadership of his successor, the Khalifa Abdullahi. Meanwhile, the British did nothing to avenge the death of Gordon or retrieve their position in the Sudan for several years. But throughout the early 1890s, public opinion in favor of a war against the Mahdist forces in the Sudan steadily grew, until, following the replacement of the Liberals with a Conservative government in 1895, the reconquest of the Sudan was begun. There was no single reason this was decided upon. As Churchill explains, "The diplomatist said: 'It is to please the Triple Alliance.' The politician said: 'It is to triumph over the radicals.' The polite person said: 'It is to restore the Khedive's rule in the Sudan [the Khedive was the native ruler of Egypt].' But the man in the street--and there are many men in many streets--said: 'It is to avenge General Gordon.'" THE REST OF "THE RIVER WAR" is a magnificent account of the long campaign that ensued, culminating in the decisive Battle of Omdurman in September 1898, when Churchill participated in what is thought to have been the last cavalry charge of the British army. It is remarkable that at the beginning, he engaged in what is probably the last cavalry charge ever made in battle, and he ended fifty-seven years later pondering what to do about nuclear weapons. As with Afghanistan today, there was great concern that the Sudan was too forbidding and remote for a successful military campaign, and there were many public worries that the British were heading for yet another debacle in the desert.