Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Churchill: The River War


The drawing itself is by Churchill. He was 24 at the time. He was looking for income, because as a soldier he did not make enough to pay for his horses and for his uniforms. He thought that he could make it as a writer. 

At that age he still considered himself an uneducated man. He envied people who had studied at a university. He tried to enroll, but they would not take him.

So the River War became an all-out effort at literary prose. He personifies the Nile and the desert and turns them into savage people, dangerous, tricky, brave and cruel in pages and pages of brilliant metaphor. -- The level falls off  each time he summarizes encyclopedia information. Skip it.

Churchill's theme, his Leitmotiv, is forever the limits of the human effort in war.
"It cannot be denied that a battle ( ... ) is an event which is not controlled by strategy or organisation. --  ( ... )  The human element — in defiance of experience and probability — may produce a wholly irrational result."
Success depends partly on luck. The most exhaustive preparations might get foiled by accident, and so  the book's greatest chapter is "The Desert Railway". The hero of modern warfare is  some anonymous engineer.

"The daring pioneers of modern war started on their long march through the wilderness, dragging their railway behind them. —  Infantry, cavalry, guns, and gunboats might follow with speed and convenience."

And so a modern reader might not enjoy Churchill's prose. -- Maybe.

Anyway, there is a problem. Churchill is considered a racist by many people, and it is a touchy issue, but his bias is cultural and more like exasperation at the strain that Muslims, Arabs, Egyptians and black people imposed on UK strategic aims. Here is a quote:

Churchill was born in 1874.-- The River War was published in 1899; he would have started to write it when he was 23, and -- remember -- long before all hell broke loose.

Unlike his other books, this one is in public domain and can be downloaded from the Gutenberg project at


The desert in Lybia is by Lucca Galuzzi under under the CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license at and explained as " Leaving traces on soft sand dunes in Tadrart Acacus, a desert area in western Libya, part of the Sahara."

The elephant photo is by Ikiwaner  under a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 at



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