In 1898 Winston Churchill, then a 23-year old army officer, served in Lord Kitchener’s army in the re-conquest of the Sudan and participated in the Battle of Omdurman as a troop commander with the 21st Lancers. In the climactic battle he rode in the regiment’s famous, but ill-fated, cavalry charge against the Dervishes. Churchill was in the Sudan in an unofficial dual role – one that was severely frowned upon by the army high command – as both an army officer and war correspondent. In Churchill’s case he had contracted with the Morning Post to write dispatches from the battlefield. After the campaign these articles became the basis for the book he wrote on the history of the war for the Sudan. Working at a furious pace, Churchill’s book was written in a year. In November 1899 The River War was published in two volumes by Longmans, Green, and Co. Controversial on its’ publications for criticisms of Lord Kitchener, the book has remained controversial for the author’s comments on Islam and the Sudanese. The two-volume edition did not sell well on its release. However, an abridged one-volume edition of the book was published in 1902. In the abridgement words, sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters were deleted. This one-volume edition became the basis for all subsequent editions; the original two-volume edition all but forgotten.
In 1989 James Muller (University of Alaska) while on a research trip to London located a copy of the two-volume edition held in the old British Library. In reading the 1899 edition he discovered the two-volume effort “was a much richer, more intriguing book than I had known from reading the shorter edition.” Thus began the long trek to bring out a new edition of the original two volumes that had been out of print since 1899. The editor’s efforts are described in the essay “The Making of the Book” that is included in this definitive edition of The River War. The final result has proved the effort to be more than worthwhile. The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, The Definitive Edition in Two Volumes published by St. Augustine’s Press is a brilliant work of scholarship.
Muller’s edition of The River War has meticulously restored all of the original 1899 text, colored maps, and the 50 diagrams by Angus McNeill. The text in the book is printed in black and red font. Words in red font are those that were deleted from the text for the 1902 one-volume edition. The new book is extensively footnoted as Muller provides biographical notes for every person mentioned in the text as well as notes for events and terms that may be unfamiliar to readers. He also traced and noted every quote used by Churchill, even those that were made without attribution. These passages range from Shakespeare to the Austrian missionary Father Ohrwalder, who wrote a memoir of his ten years as a prisoner of the Mahdi.
Muller’s edition also includes Churchill’s subsequent writings on the Sudanese campaign that were written after the publication of the 1899 and 1902 editions. Included as an epilogue and new appendices are Churchill’s introduction to the 1933 edition of the book; articles he wrote on the Sudan campaign, the Fashoda Incident, Gordon, and Kitchener; and the text of the original handwritten dispatches Churchill wrote for the Morning Post. These handwritten dispatches differ from the articles that were originally published in 1898 in the newspaper. Also included as an appendix are 25 additional sketches of the 1898 campaign by Angus McNeill beyond those that appeared in the 1899 edition.
The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, The Definitive Edition in Two Volumes is a remarkable publication and essential reading.