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‘no Stronger Retrogade Force Exists In The World”

June 2024
2min read

Winston Churchill on the War We’re Fighting Now

In September 1898, Winston Churchill took part in the last true cavalry charge in history. It was at the Battle of Omdurman, in the Sudan. The 23-year-old went to the Sudan as both a soldier and a war correspondent, and after he returned home, the man who would lead Britain through World War II wrote the first of his many large-scale historical works, The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan. In this narrative of a struggle between radical Islamic fanatics and the European infidels they wanted out of their land, he described the Muslim cause in words that still speak to us today (if with what can seem now an extreme nineteenth-century cultural severity).

The Sudan had been part of Egypt to the north, which was nominally ruled by a khedive but really administered by the British consul. In the 1880's, a Sudanese named Mohammed Ahmed named himself the successor to the founder of Islam, raised an army, and launched a war to drive out the infidels. After he defeated a series of expeditions against him, the British withdrew until a Conservative government decided to take back the Sudan in 1895.

Drawing on his own experience and his study of the entire three-year campaign, Churchill wrote: “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy... there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.... Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce....” (He added that “individual Moslems may show splendid qualities.") “The influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it.” Yet, “far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science—the science against which it has vainly struggled—the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

Where were the crusaders of Islam finding their strength? In Western countries, Churchill wrote, education and open thought led to pride in tradition, sympathy for the downtrodden, and a recognition of the dignity of the species. “Ignorance deprives savage nations of such incentives. Yet in the marvelous economy of nature this very ignorance is a source of greater strength. It affords them the mighty stimulus of fanaticism.... It gives men something which they think is sublime to fight for, and this serves them as an excuse for wars which it is desirable to begin for different reasons. Fanaticism is not a cause of war. It is the means which helps savage peoples to fight.”

He had high praise for the men against whom he himself had ridden into battle at Omdurman, the turning point that won the war for Britain: “The valour of their deed has been discounted by those who have told their tale. ‘Mad fanaticism’ is the depreciating comment of their conquerors. I hold this to be a cruel injustice.... Why should we regard as madness in the savage what would be sublime in civilised men?”

Still, the response to such ferocity had had to be absolute: “No terms but fight or death were offered. No reparation or apology could be made.... Civilization—elsewhere sympathetic, merciful, tolerant, ready to discuss or to argue, eager to avoid violence, to submit to law, to effect a compromise—here advanced with an expression of inexorable sternness, and, rejecting all other courses, offered only the arbitrament of the sword,”

Uncannily imagining Britain itself someday facing such an unreasoning aggressor, the man who would rouse his land to defy that aggressor declared, “I hope that if evil days should come upon our own country, and the last army which a collapsing Empire could interpose between London and the invader were dissolving in rout and ruin, that there would be some—even in these modern days—who would not care to accustom themselves to a new order of things and tamely survive the disaster.”

The River War , a confident and authoritative telling of a thrilling tale, is available in a new paperback abridgment by Carroll & Graf.

—Frederick E. Allen

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