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A well-told account of a little-known war, by Winston Churchill

The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan - Winston Churchill

My respect for Winston Churchill as a writer continues to grow. This is a well-told account of how British and Egyptian forces reconquered Sudan from a semi-theocratic (semi- because it was nominally Muslim, but an odd branch of it, and really more of a personality cult surrounding the leader) uprising calling itself the "Dervish Empire".

 

The Setup:  The book covers 1893-1899. Britain owns the Suez Canal, which it protects jealously as its main conduit to British India. Egypt supposedly exists as its own country, but is really part of the British "sphere of influence".  The Sudan is regarded as an undeveloped wasteland whose only value is the Nile River running through it. For decades, Sudan is neglected. Stretching back into history, and continuing until 1899, Arab slavers, mostly from present-day Yemen, have raided the area, selling captured Sudanese into slavery throughout the Arab world.

 

The Trigger: In the late 1880's, a Sudanese Muslim cleric becomes politically active, mainly as a result of his failure to advance in the clerical system, making a popular cause out of breaking away from British Egypt, which has offered no protection to locals from the aforementioned slave raids.

 

The Battlespace: Sudan is roughly 1200 x 1600 miles, yet >90% of the population lives within a few miles of the Nile River. Thus, the entire evolution of the war is a continuous push southward by British forces along the banks of the river.  Each battle progresses just a few miles down the river (south) from the last, climaxing with the fall of Karthoom, and concluding with "sweepup" operations south of there.

 

The seasonal quirks of the river completely define the course of the war. Typically the river level drops in winter, as the Kenyan mountains which feed into Lake Victoria freeze up. In the spring, meltwater from those peeks flow again, and the river floods. Low "tide" allows for passage across the river in areas, and prevents passage of all but the shallowest-draft boats, which must either wait for the river to rise again, or which can be deconstructed and portaged upstream to a point which is again deep enough to accommodate them. 

 

Technology: Three relatively new technologies played a large role in British success:

 

1) Gunboats

One would hardly expect gunboats to play a large role in the conquest of such an expansive territory which comprises mostly desert, but this is exactly the case. New heavy artillery gunboats were specifically designed with sufficiently shallow draft for use in the Nile. Perfecting field gun technology from the Crimean and American Civil Wars, the new boats can accurately lay down heavy artillery fire from over 1700 yards, devastating even the most fortified (by mud brick) Sudanese strongholds. The "Dervish" forces have absolutely nothing comparable to answer with. It is one of the decisive factors in British victory. Even in the middle of a desert, British force projection relies on its navy!

 

2) Railway

Churchill lovingly details the construction of a railway from Cairo, running the length of the river, providing a much-needed secure supply chain to the battlefront. It is a heavy investment which pays off handsomely, and the promise of use of the line for commerce, after the war, persuades the Egyptian government to contribute financing. It is on the occasion of the "River War" that the British army creates a Railway Battalion of specially-trained men who can keep the engines running, and make repairs to rail or engine, as needed, on the spot. A small, limited-capacity manufacturing shop in one of the rail cars, reducing dependence on distant factories for parts, etc. 

 

3) Telegraph

Construction of a telegraph parallel to the river, which keeps forces in touch with commanders back in Cairo, and more importantly: allows the frontlines to place orders in realtime for needed material, munitions, and men. (Even though the goods would still take weeks to arrive)

 

The Battle: It gets a little bit monotonous here, with troop movements here and there, etc. I found myself skimming through some parts.

 

The Resolution: Britain wins. The Nile between British Egypt and British Kenya is secure and cleared of radical anti-British forces. 

 

Outside forces: The Italian presence in Abysinnia is mentioned here, and plays a minor role in some early battles, where Italian troops are freed up to assist the British cause. 

 

The "Fashoda Incident" is mentioned, in which France advances an expedition to claim a portion of the Nile in Sudan. It is a purely cynical move to get negotiating power against Britain, as France would have no reasonable chance to actually defend their claim by force. The "incident' ends with a treaty protecting British sovereignty throughout the entire drainage area of the Nile, in exchange for giving France a free hand to develop colonies unmolested in Northern Africa.

 

Overall, this was a decent read. Monotonous in parts, but the best account I could find of this conflict.