Winston Churchill: The River War XIX

    An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan (1902 edition)

TABLE OF CONTENTS



CHAPTER XIX: THE END OF THE KHALIFA

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
By the operations described in the last chapter, the whole of the regions bordering on the Niles were cleared of hostile forces, dotted with military posts, and brought back to Egyptian authority. The Khalifa, however, still remained in Kordofan. After he had made good his escape from the battlefield of Omdurman, Abdullah had hurried in the direction of El Obeid, moving by the wells of Shat and Zeregia, which at that season of the year were full of water after the rains. At Abu Sherai, having shaken off the pursuit of the friendlies, he halted, encamped, and busily set to work to reorganise his shattered forces. How far he succeeded in this will presently be apparent. In the beginning of November the general drying-up of the country turned the wells at Abu Sherai into pools of mud, and the Khalifa moved westward to Aigaila. Here he was joined by the Emir El Khatem with the El Obeid garrison. This chief and his followers had never been engaged with the 'Turks,' and were consequently fresh and valiant. Their arrival greatly encouraged the force which the Khalifa had rallied. A large dem was formed at Aigaila, and here, since the water was plentiful during December, Abdullah abode quietly, sending his raiding parties far afield to collect grain and other supplies.

As soon as the Sirdar, who had returned from England, received the news of the success at Rosaires he determined to make an attempt to capture the Khalifa; and on the 29th of December sent for Colonel Kitchener, to whom as the senior available officer he had decided to entrust this honourable enterprise. The colonel was directed to take a small mixed force into Kordofan and to reconnoitre the enemy's position. If possible, he was to attack and capture Abdullah, whose followers were believed not to exceed 1,000 ill-armed men. The 'Kordofan Field Force,' as its officers called it, was formed as follows:

 Commanding: COLONEL KITCHENER

  Assistant Adjutant-General: LIEUT.-COLONEL MITFORD

  Deputy-Assistant Adjutant-General: MAJOR WILLIAMS

   Troops:

    Two squadrons Egyptian Cavalry
    2nd Egyptians
    XIVth Soudanese
    Two galloping Maxims
    Two mule guns
    One company Camel Corps.

Camel transport was drawn from the Atbara and from the Blue Nile. The troops were conveyed by steamer to Duem, and concentrated there during the first week in 1899. The camels were collected at Kawa, and, although several of the convoys had to march as much as 400 miles, the whole number had arrived by the 10th of January.

The prime difficulty of the operation was the want of water. The Khalifa's position was nearly 125 miles from the river. The intervening country is, in the wet season, dotted with shallow lakes, but by January these are reduced to mud puddles and only occasional pools remain. All the water needed by the men, horses, and mules of the column must therefore be carried. The camels must go thirsty until one of the rare pools—the likely places for which were known to the native guides—might be found. Now, the capacity of a camel for endurance without drinking is famous; but it has its limits. If he start having filled himself with water, he can march for five days without refreshment. If he then have another long drink, he can continue for five days more. But this strains his power to the extreme; he suffers acutely during the journey, and probably dies at its end. In war, however, the miseries of animals cannot be considered; their capacity for work alone concerns the commander. It was thought that, partly by the water carried in skins, partly by the drying-up pools, and partly by the camel's power of endurance, it might be just possible for a force of about 1,200 men to strike out 125 miles into the desert, to have three days to do their business in, and to come back to the Nile. This operation, which has been called the Shirkela Reconnaissance, occupied the Kordofan Field Force.

The report of the route from Kohi was considered encouraging. At Gedid the old wells promised sufficient water to refill the skins, and within seven miles of the wells were two large pools at which the camels could be watered. The column, therefore, prepared for the journey. Nothing was neglected which could increase the water carried or diminish the number of drinkers. Only twelve cavalry were taken. The horses of the Maxim guns and the mules of the battery were reduced to the lowest possible number. Every person, animal, or thing not vitally necessary was remorselessly excluded. In order to lighten the loads and make room for more water, even the ammunition was limited to 100 rounds per rifle. The daily consumption of water was restricted to one pint for men, six gallons for horses, and five for mules. To lessen the thirst caused by the heat Colonel Kitchener decided to march by night. An advanced depot was formed at Gedid and food for two days accumulated there. Besides this, each unit carried ten, and the column transport seven, days' rations. Thus the force were supplied with food up till the 9th of February, and their radius of action, except as restricted by water, was nineteen days. This was further extended five days by the arrangement of a convoy which was to set out on the 30th of January to meet them as they returned.

The column—numbering 1,604 officers and men and 1,624 camels and other beasts of burden—started from Kohi at 3 P.M. on the 23rd of January, having sent on a small advanced party to the wells of Gedid twelve hours before. The country through which their route lay was of barren and miserable aspect. They had embarked on a sandy ocean with waves of thorny scrub and withered grass. From the occasional rocky ridges, which allowed a more extended view, this sterile jungle could be seen stretching indefinitely on all sides. Ten miles from the river all vestiges of animal life disappeared. The land was a desert; not the open desert of the Northern Soudan, but one vast unprofitable thicket, whose interlacing thorn bushes, unable to yield the slightest nourishment to living creatures, could yet obstruct their path.

Through this the straggling column, headed in the daylight by the red Egyptian flag and at night by a lantern on a pole, wound its weary way, the advanced guard cutting a path with axes and marking the track with strips of calico, the rearguard driving on the laggard camels and picking up the numerous loads which were cast. Three long marches brought them on the 25th to Gedid. The first detachment had already arrived and had opened up the wells. None gave much water; all emitted a foul stench, and one was occupied by a poisonous serpent eight feet long—the sole inhabitant. The camels were sent to drink at the pool seven miles away, and it was hoped that some of the water-skins could be refilled; but, after all, the green slime was thought unfit for human consumption, and they had to come back empty.

The march was resumed on the 26th. The trees were now larger; the scrub became a forest; the sandy soil changed to a dark red colour; but otherwise the character of the country was unaltered. The column rested at Abu Rokba. A few starving inhabitants who occupied the huts pointed out the grave of the Khalifa's father and the little straw house in which Abdullah was wont to pray during his visits. Lately, they said, he had retired from Aigaila to Shirkela, but even from this latter place he had made frequent pilgrimages.

At the end of the next march, which was made by day, the guides, whose memories had been refreshed by flogging, discovered a large pool of good water, and all drank deeply in thankful joy. A small but strong zeriba was built near this precious pool, and the reserve food and a few sick men were left with a small garrison under an Egyptian officer. The column resumed their journey. On the 29th they reached Aigaila, and here, with feelings of astonishment scarcely less than Robinson Crusoe experienced at seeing the footprint in the sand, they came upon the Khalifa's abandoned camp. A wide space had been cleared of bush, and the trees, stripped of their smaller branches, presented an uncanny appearance. Beyond stood the encampment—a great multitude of yellow spear-grass dwellings, perfectly clean, neatly arranged in streets and squares, and stretching for miles. The aspect of this strange deserted town, rising, silent as a cemetery, out of the awful scrub, chilled everyone who saw it. Its size might indeed concern their leader. At the very lowest computation it had contained 20,000 people. How many of these were fighting men? Certainly not fewer than 8,000 or 9,000. Yet the expedition had been sent on the assumption that there were scarcely 1,000 warriors with the Khalifa!

Observing every precaution of war, the column crawled forward, and the cavalry and Camel Corps, who covered the advance, soon came in contact with the enemy's scouts. Shots were exchanged and the Arabs retreated. The column halted three miles to the east of this position, and, forming a strong zeriba, passed the night in expectation of an attack. Nothing, however, happened, and at dawn Mitford was sent out with some mounted 'friendlies' to reconnoitre. At ten o'clock he returned, and his report confirmed the conclusions which had been drawn from the size of the Aigaila camp. Creeping forward to a good point of view, the officer had seen the Dervish flags lining the crest of the hill. From their number, the breadth of front covered, and the numerous figures of men moving about them, he estimated not fewer than 2,000 Arab riflemen in the front line. How many more were in reserve it was impossible to say. The position was, moreover, of great strength, being surrounded by deep ravines and pools of water.

The news was startling. The small force were 125 miles from their base; behind them lay an almost waterless country, and in front was a powerful enemy. An informal council of war was held. The Sirdar had distinctly ordered that, whatever happened, there was to be no waiting; the troops were either to attack or retire. Colonel Kitchener decided to retire. The decision having been taken, the next step was to get beyond the enemy's reach as quickly as possible, and the force began their retreat on the same night. The homeward march was not less long and trying than the advance, and neither hopes of distinction nor glamour of excitement cheered the weary soldiers. As they toiled gloomily back towards the Nile, the horror of the accursed land grew upon all. Hideous spectacles of human misery were added to the desolation of the hot, thorny scrub and stinking pools of mud. The starving inhabitants had been lured from their holes and corners by the outward passage of the troops, and hoped to snatch some food from the field of battle. Disappointed, they now approached the camps at night in twos and threes, making piteous entreaties for any kind of nourishment. Their appeals were perforce unregarded; not an ounce of spare food remained.

Towards the end of the journey the camels, terribly strained by their privation of water, began to die, and it was evident that the force would have no time to spare. One young camel, though not apparently exhausted, refused to proceed, and even when a fire was lighted round him remained stubborn and motionless; so that, after being terribly scorched, he had to be shot. Others fell and died all along the route. Their deaths brought some relief to the starving inhabitants. For as each animal was left behind, the officers, looking back, might see first one, then another furtive figure emerge from the bush and pounce on the body like a vulture; and in many cases before life was extinct the famished natives were devouring the flesh.

On the 5th of February the column reached Kohi, and the Kordofan Field Force, having overcome many difficulties and suffered many hardships, was broken up, unsuccessful through no fault of its commander, its officers, or its men.

For nearly a year no further operations were undertaken against the Khalifa, and he remained all through the spring and summer of 1899 supreme in Kordofan, reorganising his adherents and plundering the country—a chronic danger to the new Government, a curse to the local inhabitants, and a most serious element of unrest. The barren and almost waterless regions into which he had withdrawn presented very difficult obstacles to any military expedition, and although powerful forces were still concentrated at Khartoum, the dry season and the uncertain whereabouts of the enemy prevented action. But towards the end of August trustworthy information was received by the Intelligence Department, through the agency of friendly tribesmen, that the Khalifa, with all his army, was encamped at Jebel Gedir—that same mountain in Southern Kordofan to which nearly twenty years before he and the Mahdi had retreated after the flight from Abba Island. Here among old memories which his presence revived he became at once a centre of fanaticism. Night after night he slept upon the Mahdi's stone; and day after day tales of his dreams were carried by secret emissaries not only throughout the Western Soudan, but into the Ghezira and even to Khartoum. And now, his position being definite and his action highly dangerous, it was decided to move against him.

On the 13th of October the first Soudanese battalion was despatched in steamers from Khartoum, and by the 19th a force of some 7,000 men, well equipped with camel transport, was concentrated at Kaka, a village on the White Nile not far north of Fashoda. The distance from here to Jebel Gedir was about eighty miles, and as for the first fifty no water existed; the whole supply had to be carried in tanks. Sir Reginald Wingate, who was in command of the infantry, reached Fungor, thirty miles from the enemy's position, with the two leading battalions (IXth and Xth Soudanese) on the 23rd of October, only to find news that the Khalifa had left his camp at Jebel Gedir on the 18th and had receded indefinitely into the desert. The cast having failed, and further progress involving a multiplication of difficulties, Lord Kitchener, who was at Kaka, stopped the operations, and the whole of the troops returned to Khartoum, which they reached in much vexation and disappointment on the 1st of November.

It was at first universally believed that the Khalifa's intention was to retire to an almost inaccessible distance—to El Obeid or Southern Darfur—and the officers of the Egyptian army passed an unhappy fortnight reading the Ladysmith telegrams and accusing their evil fortune which kept them so far from the scene of action. But soon strange rumours began to run about the bazaars of Omdurman of buried weapons and whispers of revolt. For a few days a vague feeling of unrest pervaded the native city, and then suddenly on the 12th of November came precise and surprising news. The Khalifa was not retreating to the south or to the west, but advancing northward with Omdurman, not El Obeid, as his object. Emboldened by the spectacle of two successive expeditions retreating abortive, and by, who shall say what wild exaggerated tales of disasters to the Turks far beyond the limits of the Soudan, Abdullah had resolved to stake all that yet remained to him in one last desperate attempt to recapture his former capital; and so, upon the 12th of November, his advanced guard, under the Emir Ahmed Fedil, struck the Nile opposite Abba Island, and audaciously fired volleys of musketry at the gunboat Sultan which was patrolling the river.

The name of Abba Island may perhaps carry the reader back to the very beginning of this story. Here, eighteen years before, the Mahdi had lived and prayed after his quarrel with the haughty Sheikh; here Abdullah had joined him; here the flag of the revolt had been set up, and the first defeat had been inflicted upon the Egyptian troops; and here, too, still dwelt—dwells, indeed, to this day—one of those same brothers who had pursued through all the vicissitudes and convulsions which had shaken the Soudan his humble industry of building wooden boats. It is surely a curious instance of the occasional symmetry of history that final destruction should have befallen the last remains of the Mahdist movement so close to the scene of its origin!

The news which had reached Khartoum set all wheels in motion. The IXth and XIIIth Soudanese Battalions were mobilised on the 13th of November and despatched at once to Abba Island under Colonel Lewis. Kitchener hurried south from Cairo, and arrived in Khartoum on the 18th. A field force of some 2,300 troops—one troop of cavalry, the 2nd Field Battery, the 1st Maxim Battery, the Camel Corps, IXth Soudanese, XIIIth Soudanese, and one company 2nd Egyptians—was immediately formed, and the command entrusted to Sir Reginald Wingate. There were besides some 900 Arab riflemen and a few irregular mounted scouts. On the 20th these troops were concentrated at Fashi Shoya, whence Colonel Lewis had obliged Ahmed Fedil to withdraw, and at 3.30 on the afternoon of the 21st the expedition started in a south-westerly direction upon the track of the enemy.

The troops bivouacked some ten miles south-west of Fashi Shoya, and then marched in bright moonlight to Nefisa, encountering only a Dervish patrol of about ten men. At Nefisa was found the evacuated camp of Ahmed Fedil, containing a quantity of grain which he had collected from the riverain district, and, what was of more value, a sick but intelligent Dervish who stated that the Emir had just moved to Abu Aadel, five miles further on. This information was soon confirmed by Mahmud Hussein, an Egyptian officer, who with an irregular patrol advanced boldly in reconnaissance. The infantry needed a short rest to eat a little food, and Sir Reginald Wingate ordered Colonel Mahon to press on immediately with the whole of the mounted troops and engage the enemy, so as to prevent him retreating before an action could be forced.

Accordingly cavalry, Camel Corps, Maxims, and irregulars—whose fleetness of foot enabled them, though not mounted, to keep pace with the rest—set off at their best pace: and after them at 9.15 hurried the infantry, refreshed by a drink at the water tanks and a hasty meal. As they advanced the scrub became denser, and all were in broken and obstructed ground when, at about ten o'clock, the sound of Maxim firing and the patter of musketry proclaimed that Mahon had come into contact. The firing soon became more rapid, and as the infantry approached it was evident that the mounted troops were briskly engaged. The position which they occupied was a low ridge which rose a little above the level of the plain and was comparatively bare of scrub; from this it was possible at a distance of 800 yards to overlook the Dervish encampment huddled around the water pools. It was immediately evident that the infantry and the battery were arriving none too soon. The Dervishes, who had hitherto contented themselves with maintaining a ragged and desultory fire from the scrub, now sallied forth into the open and delivered a most bold and determined charge upon the guns. The intervening space was little more than 200 yards, and for a moment the attack looked as if it might succeed. But upon the instant the IXth and XIIIth Soudanese, who had been doubled steadily for upwards of two miles, came into line, filling the gap between Mahon's guns and dismounted Camel Corps and the irregular riflemen; and so the converging fire of the whole force was brought to bear upon the enemy—now completely beaten and demoralised. Two Dervishes, brothers, bound together hand and foot, perished in valiant comradeship ninety-five paces from the line of guns. Many were slain, and the remainder fled. The whole Egyptian line now advanced upon the encampment hard upon the tracks of the retreating enemy, who were seen emerging from the scrub on to a grassy plain more than a mile away, across which and further for a distance of five miles they were pursued by the cavalry and the Camel Corps. Three hundred and twenty corpses were counted, and at least an equal number must have been wounded. Ahmed Fedil and one or two of his principal Emirs escaped to the southward and to the Khalifa. The Egyptian loss amounted to five men wounded. The troops bivouacked in square formation, at about four o'clock, near the scene of action.

A question of considerable difficulty and some anxiety now arose. It was learned from the prisoners that the Khalifa, with about 5,000 fighting men, was moving northwards towards the wells of Gedid, of which we have already heard in the Shirkela reconnaissance, and which were some twenty-five miles from the scene of the fight. The troops were already fatigued by their severe exertions. The water pool was so foul that even the thirsty camels refused to drink of it, and moreover scarcely any water remained in the tanks. It was therefore of vital importance to reach the wells of Gedid. But supposing exhausted troops famishing for water reached them only to be confronted by a powerful Dervish force already in possession! Sir Reginald Wingate decided, however, to face the risk, and at a few minutes before midnight the column set out again on its road. The ground was broken; the night was sultry: and as the hours passed by the sufferings of the infantry began to be most acute. Many piteous appeals were made for water. All had perforce to be refused by the commander, who dared not diminish by a mouthful his slender store until he knew the true situation at Gedid. In these circumstances the infantry, in spite of their admirable patience, became very restive. Many men fell exhausted to the ground; and it was with a feeling of immense relief that at nine o'clock on the morning of the 24th news was received from the cavalry that the wells had been occupied by them without opposition. All the water in the tanks was at once distributed, and thus refreshed the infantry struggled on and settled down at midday around a fine pool of comparatively pure water.

At Gedid, as at Nefisa, a single Dervish, and this time a sullen fellow, was captured, and from him it was learned that the Khalifa's army was encamped seven miles to the south-east. It was now clear that his position was strategically most unfavourable. His route to the north was barred; his retreat to the south lay through waterless and densely wooded districts; and as the seizure of the grain supplies which had resulted from Fedil's foraging excursions rendered his advance or retirement a matter of difficulty, it seemed probable he would stand. Wingate, therefore, decided to attack him at dawn. Leaving the transport under guard by the water with instructions to follow at four o'clock, the troops moved off at midnight, screened in front at a distance of half a mile by the cavalry and their flanks protected by the Camel Corps. The road was in places so thickly wooded that a path had to be cut by the infantry pioneers and the artillery. At three o'clock, when about three miles from the enemy's position, the force was deployed into fighting formation. The irregular riflemen covered the front; behind them the XIIIth and IXth Soudanese; and behind these, again, the Maxims and the artillery were disposed. Cautiously and silently the advance was resumed, and now in the distance the beating of war drums and the long booming note of the Khalifa's horn broke on the stillness, proclaiming that the enemy were not unprepared. At a few minutes before four o'clock another low ridge, also comparatively bare of scrub, was reached and occupied as a position. The cavalry were now withdrawn from the front, a few infantry picquets were thrown out, and the rest of the force lay down in the long grass of the little ridge and waited for daylight.

After about an hour the sky to the eastward began to grow paler with the promise of the morning and in the indistinct light the picquets could be seen creeping gradually in; while behind them along the line of the trees faint white figures, barely distinguishable, began to accumulate. Sir Reginald Wingate, fearing lest a sudden rush should be made upon him, now ordered the whole force to stand up and open fire; and forthwith, in sudden contrast to the silence and obscurity, a loud crackling fusillade began. It was immediately answered. The enemy's fire flickered along a wide half-circle and developed continually with greater vigour opposite the Egyptian left, which was consequently reinforced. As the light improved, large bodies of shouting Dervishes were seen advancing; but the fire was too hot, and their Emirs were unable to lead them far beyond the edge of the wood. So soon as this was perceived Wingate ordered a general advance; and the whole force, moving at a rapid pace down the gentle slope, drove the enemy through the trees into the camp about a mile and a half away. Here, huddled together under their straw shelters, 6,000 women and children were collected, all of whom, with many unwounded combatants, made signals of surrender and appeals for mercy. The 'cease fire' was sounded at half-past six. Then, and not till then, was it discovered how severe the loss of the Dervishes had been. It seemed to the officers that, short as was the range, the effect of rifle fire under such unsatisfactory conditions of light could not have been very great. But the bodies thickly scattered in the scrub were convincing evidences. In one space not much more than a score of yards square lay all the most famous Emirs of the once far-reaching Dervish domination. The Khalifa Abdullah, pierced by several balls, was stretched dead on his sheepskin; on his right lay Ali-Wad-Helu, on his left Ahmed Fedil. Before them was a line of lifeless bodyguards; behind them a score of less important chiefs; and behind these, again, a litter of killed and wounded horses. Such was the grim spectacle which in the first light of the morning met the eyes of the British officers, to some of whom it meant the conclusion of a perilous task prolonged over many years. And while they looked in astonishment not unmingled with awe, there scrambled unhurt from under a heap of bodies the little Emir Yunes, of Dongola, who added the few links necessary to complete the chain.

At Omdurman Abdullah had remained mounted behind the hill of Surgham, but in this his last fight he had set himself in the forefront of the battle. Almost at the first discharge, his son Osman, the Sheikh-ed-Din, was wounded, and as he was carried away he urged the Khalifa to save himself by flight; but the latter, with a dramatic dignity sometimes denied to more civilised warriors, refused. Dismounting from his horse, and ordering his Emirs to imitate him, he seated himself on his sheepskin and there determined to await the worst of fortune. And so it came to pass that in this last scene in the struggle with Mahdism the stage was cleared of all its striking characters, and Osman Digna alone purchased by flight a brief ignoble liberty, soon to be followed by a long ignoble servitude.

Twenty-nine Emirs, 3,000 fighting men, 6,000 women and children surrendered themselves prisoners. The Egyptian losses were three killed and twenty-three wounded.

  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

The long story now approaches its conclusion. The River War is over. In its varied course, which extended over fourteen years and involved the untimely destruction of perhaps 300,000 lives, many extremes and contrasts have been displayed. There have been battles which were massacres, and others that were mere parades. There have been occasions of shocking cowardice and surprising heroism, of plans conceived in haste and emergency, of schemes laid with slow deliberation, of wild extravagance and cruel waste, of economies scarcely less barbarous, of wisdom and incompetence. But the result is at length achieved, and the flags of England and Egypt wave unchallenged over the valley of the Nile.

At what cost were such advantages obtained? The reader must judge for himself of the loss in men; yet while he deplores the deaths of brave officers and soldiers, and no less the appalling destruction of the valiant Arabs, he should remember that such slaughter is inseparable from war, and that, if the war be justified, the loss of life cannot be accused. But I write of the cost in money, and the economy of the campaigns cannot be better displayed than by the table below:

 Railway: £E 1,181,372
 Telegraph: £E 21,825
 Gunboats: £E 154,934
 Military Expenditure: £E 996,223
   TOTAL EXPENDITURES: £E 2,354,354 (£E1 = £1 0s.6d.)

For something less than two and a half millions sterling active military operations were carried on for nearly three years, involving the employment—far from its base—of an army of 25,000 disciplined troops, including an expensive British contingent of 8,000 men, and ending in the utter defeat of an enemy whose armed forces numbered at the beginning of the war upwards of 80,000 soldiers, and the reconquest and re-occupation of a territory measuring sixteen hundred miles from north to south and twelve hundred from east to west [Lieut.-Colonel Stewart's Report: Egypt, No.11, 1883], which at one time supported at least twenty millions of inhabitants. But this is not all. Of the total £E2,354,354 only £E996,223 can be accounted as military expenditure. For the remaining £E1,358,131 Egypt possesses 500 miles of railway, 900 miles of telegraph, and a flotilla of steamers. The railway will not, indeed, pay a great return upon the capital invested, but it will immediately pay something, and may ultimately pay much. The telegraph is as necessary as the railway to the development of the country; it costs far less, and, when the Egyptian system is connected with the South African, it will be a sure source of revenue. Lastly, there are the gunboats. The reader cannot have any doubts as to the value of these vessels during the war. Never was money better spent on military plant. Now that the river operations are over the gunboats discharge the duties of ordinary steamers; and although they are, of course, expensive machines for goods and passenger traffic, they are by no means inefficient. The movement of the troops, their extra pay, the supplies at the end of a long line of communications, the ammunition, the loss by wear and tear of uniforms and accoutrements, the correspondence, the rewards, all cost together less than a million sterling; and for that million Egypt has recovered the Soudan.

The whole £E2,354,354 had, however, to be paid during the campaigns. Towards this sum Great Britain advanced, as has been related, £800,000 as a loan; and this was subsequently converted into a gift. The cost to the British taxpayer of the recovery and part acquisition of the Soudan, of the military prestige, and of the indulgence of the sentiment known as 'the avenging of Gordon' has therefore been £800,000; and it may be stated in all seriousness that English history does not record any instance of so great a national satisfaction being more cheaply obtained. The rest of the money has been provided by Egypt; and this strange country, seeming to resemble the camel, on which so much of her wealth depends, has, in default of the usual sources of supply, drawn upon some fifth stomach for nourishment, and, to the perplexity even of those best acquainted with her amazing financial constitution, has stood the strain.

'The extraordinary expenditure in connection with the Soudan campaign,' wrote Mr. J.L. Gorst, the Financial Adviser to the Khedive in his Note of December 20, 1898 [Note by the Financial Adviser on the Budget of 1899: EGYPT, No. 3, 1899], 'has been charged to the Special Reserve Fund. At the present moment this fund shows a deficit of £E336,000, and there are outstanding charges on account of the expedition amounting to £E330,000, making a total deficit of £E666,000.'

'On the other hand, the fund will be increased, when the accounts of the year are made up, by a sum of £E382,000, being the balance of the share of the Government in the surplus of 1898, after deduction of the excess administrative expenditure in that year, and by a sum of £E90,000, being part of the proceeds of the sale of the Khedivial postal steamers. The net deficit will, therefore, be £E194,000; and if the year 1899 is as prosperous as the present year, it may be hoped that the deficit will disappear when the accounts of 1899 are closed.'

A great, though perhaps academic, issue remains: Was the war justified by wisdom and by right?

If the reader will look at a map of the Nile system, he cannot fail to be struck by its resemblance to a palm-tree. At the top the green and fertile area of the Delta spreads like the graceful leaves and foliage. The stem is perhaps a little twisted, for the Nile makes a vast bend in flowing through the desert. South of Khartoum the likeness is again perfect, and the roots of the tree begin to stretch deeply into the Soudan. I can imagine no better illustration of the intimate and sympathetic connection between Egypt and the southern provinces. The water—the life of the Delta—is drawn from the Soudan, and passes along the channel of the Nile, as the sap passes up the stem of the tree, to produce a fine crop of fruit above. The benefit to Egypt is obvious; but Egypt does not benefit alone. The advantages of the connection are mutual; for if the Soudan is thus naturally and geographically an integral part of Egypt, Egypt is no less essential to the development of the Soudan. Of what use would the roots and the rich soil be, if the stem were severed, by which alone their vital essence may find expression in the upper air?

Here, then, is a plain and honest reason for the River War. To unite territories that could not indefinitely have continued divided; to combine peoples whose future welfare is inseparably intermingled; to collect energies which, concentrated, may promote a common interest; to join together what could not improve apart—these are the objects which, history will pronounce, have justified the enterprise.

The advantage to Great Britain is no less clear to those who believe that our connection with Egypt, as with India, is in itself a source of strength. The grasp of England upon Egypt has been strengthened twofold by the events of the war. The joint action and ownership of the two countries in the basin of the Upper Nile form an additional bond between them. The command of the vital river is an irresistible weapon. The influence of France over the native mind in Egypt has been completely destroyed by the result of the Fashoda negotiations; and although she still retains the legal power to meddle in and obstruct all financial arrangements, that power, unsupported by real influence, is like a body whence the soul has fled, which may, indeed, be an offensive encumbrance, but must ultimately decompose and crumble into dust.

But, apart from any connection with Egypt, Britain has gained a vast territory which, although it would be easy to exaggerate its value, is nevertheless coveted by every Great Power in Europe. The policy of acquiring large waterways, which has been pursued deliberately or unconsciously by British statesmen for three centuries, has been carried one step further; and in the valley of the Nile England may develop a trade which, passing up and down the river and its complement the railway, shall exchange the manufactures of the Temperate Zone for the products of the Tropic of Cancer, and may use the north wind to drive civilisation and prosperity to the south and the stream of the Nile to bear wealth and commerce to the sea.


The River War by Winston Churchill | Project Scenewash | Project Gutenberg

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