It took 120 years… the last word (and ALL the words) on Churchill’s The River War

Churchill’s second published book – The River War – presents a singular and strange case in the vast canon of Churchill’s published books.

Originally published in 1899, it swiftly saw a new edition in 1902. But that edition was considerably abridged and revised by the author, the text significantly reduced by one-third. While corrections were made, the chief spur to abridgement was indicated in the author’s own Preface: “What has been jettisoned consists mainly of personal impressions and opinions, often controversial in character…” Churchill had been elected to Parliament in 1900, and, among other things, the legitimate but impolitic criticisms of imperial cynicism and cruelty made in the first edition were a liability.

That’s understandable. Puzzling is the fact that every single edition of The River War since – and there have been many – has been based on the 1902 abridged and revised text. That means that anyone wanting to read the full text has been obliged to subject a scarce, expensive, and precious first edition to the rigors of casual reading.

Until now.

Today we have invited Professor James W. “Jim” Muller for a guest post. Professor Muller writes about the forthcoming complete, unabridged, fully annotated edition of The River War. It is the first time in nearly 120 years that the full text will be published. 

Dear Marc,

Thank you for the opportunity to let the Churchill community know about the forthcoming St. Augustine’s Press edition of The River War.

Winston Churchill wrote five books before he was elected to Parliament at the age of twenty-five. The most impressive of these books, The River War tells the story of Britain’s arduous and risky campaign to reconquer the Sudan at the end of the nineteenth century. More than half a century of subjection to Egypt had ended a decade earlier when Sudanese Dervishes rebelled against foreign rule and killed Britain’s envoy Charles Gordon at his palace in Khartoum in 1885. Political Islam collided with European imperialism. Herbert Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian army, advancing hundreds of miles south along the Nile through the Sahara Desert, defeated the Dervish army at the battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898.

Churchill, an ambitious young cavalry officer serving with his regiment in India, had already published newspaper columns and a book about fighting on the Afghan frontier. He yearned to join Kitchener’s campaign. But the general, afraid of what he would write about it, refused to have him. Churchill returned to London. With help from his mother and the prime minister, he managed to get himself attached to an English cavalry regiment sent to strengthen Kitchener’s army. Hurriedly travelling to Egypt, Churchill rushed upriver to Khartoum, catching up with Kitchener’s army just in time to take part in the climactic battle. That day he charged with the 21st Lancers in the most dangerous fighting against the Dervish host.

He wrote fifteen dispatches from the Sudan for the Morning Post in London. As Kitchener had expected, Churchill’s dispatches and his subsequent book were highly controversial. The precocious officer, having earlier seen war on two other continents, showed a cool independence of his commander-in-chief. He even resigned from the army to be free to write the book as he pleased. He gave Kitchener credit for his victory but found much to criticize in his character and campaign.

Churchill’s book, far from being just a military history, told the whole story of the Egyptian conquest of the Sudan and the Dervishes’ rebellion against imperial rule. The young author was remarkably even-handed, showing sympathy for the founder of the rebellion, Muhammad Ahmad, and for his successor the Khalifa Abdullahi, whom Kitchener had defeated. He considered how the war in northeast Africa affected British politics at home, fit into the geopolitical rivalry between Britain and France, and abruptly thrust the vast Sudan, with the largest territory in Africa, into an uncertain future in Britain’s orbit.

In November 1899, The River War was published in “two massive volumes, my magnum opus (up to date), upon which I had lavished a whole year of my life,” as Churchill recalled later in his autobiography. The book had twenty-six chapters, five appendices, dozens of illustrations, and colored maps. 

Three years later, in 1902, it was shortened to fit into one volume. Seven whole chapters, and parts of every other chapter, disappeared in the abridgment. Many maps, most illustrations, and most appendices were also dropped. Since then the abridged edition has been reprinted regularly, and eventually it was even abridged further. But the full two-volume book, which is rare and expensive, was never published again—until now.

This fall, St. Augustine’s Press, in collaboration with the International Churchill Society, brings back to print in two handsome volumes The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan unabridged. Every chapter and appendix from the first edition has been restored. All the maps are in it, in their original colors, with all the illustrations by Churchill’s brother officer Angus McNeill.

This new edition of The River War has been more than thirty years in the making. I’ve created it to be the definitive edition. The whole book is printed in two colors, in black and red type, to show what Churchill originally wrote and how it was abridged or altered later. For the first time, a new appendix reproduces Churchill’s Sudan dispatches as he wrote them, before they were edited by the Morning Post. Other new appendices reprint Churchill’s subsequent writings on the Sudan. Thousands of new footnotes have been added to the book, identifying Churchill’s references to people, places, writings, and events unfamiliar to readers today. A new introduction explains how the book contributed to Churchill’s career as a writer and an aspiring politician and examines Churchill’s early thoughts about war, race, religion, and imperialism, which are still our political challenges in the twenty-first century.

Half a century after The River War appeared, this book was one of a handful of his works singled out by the Swedish Academy when it awarded Churchill the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. Now, once again, its reader can follow Churchill back to the war he fought on the Nile, beginning with the words of his youngest daughter. Before she died, Mary Soames wrote a new foreword for this book, which concludes that “In this splendid new edition…we have, in effect, the whole history of The River War as Winston Churchill wrote it—and it makes memorable reading.”

With all best wishes,



James W. Muller

Professor of Political Science

University of Alaska, Anchorage

There is a reason this work took long years to achieve publication. 

Merely being the first unabridged edition in 120 years would justify some excitement. But this is far more than just an unabridged edition. Included in the edition are the following:

  • Churchill’s original, unedited dispatches from the Sudan
  • Churchill’s additional, later writings about the Sudan and its leaders
  • Unpublished illustrations from a notebook kept during the campaign by the original artist of Churchill’s book, his fellow officer Angus McNeill
  • A facsimile of Churchill’s original, handwritten draft of his chapter on the fate of Gordon – the only known chapter draft preserved in his hand
  • Professor Muller’s extensive, insightful, and helpfully contextualizing Introduction
  • Profuse and informative annotations footnoted throughout the work, identifying Churchill’s references to people, places, writings, and events unfamiliar to today’s readers.
  • A new foreword, written specifically for this edition by Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary Soames, before her death

Moreover, the entire text of The River War is printed in two colors, distinguishing between what Churchill originally wrote and how it was later abridged or altered.

The River War will be available in two forms.

The trade issue

A two-volume trade edition in a conventional hardcover binding will be available for $150. The trade issue dust jacket will feature a full-color drawing of a Dervish spearman by Angus McNeill (Volume I) and a photograph of Churchill in his Sudan uniform, which he signed on the day of the Battle of Omdurman (Volume II). Click HERE to reserve your copy with a deposit.

The finely bound, limited, and numbered Subscriber’s Issue

By special arrangement with the editor and publisher, Churchill Book Collector will offer a finely bound, limited, and numbered issue for subscribers.

This Subscriber’s issue will be personally hand-bound by the proprietor of Felton Bookbinding Ltd. in full navy morocco goatskin deferential in color and design to the publisher’s original illustrated cloth. Both binding illustrations – the Mahdi’s tomb on the spines and the gunboat on the beveled-edge front covers – are recreated from newly commissioned artwork and dies. The contents will be sewn, bound with silk head and tail bands and all edges gilt. Gilt-ruled turn-ins will frame handsome marbled endpapers. The limitation page of each set will be hand-numbered and signed by the Editor. The volumes will be housed in a navy cloth slipcase. Appearance of the volumes will be similar to those pictured.

There will be no more than 50 copies of the Subscriber’s issue of The River War. Click HERE to reserve your copy with a deposit.


The Beautifully Ruined

(or, more prosaically, on not judging a book by its cover)

My best lesson in not judging a book by its cover came from a bookseller, not a book. 

I was exhibiting for the first time at an antiquarian bookfair. It was during setup, our books still strewn haphazardly in piles on tables and in boxes on the floor. It is customary for dealers to wander during setup, perusing the unfinished booths of colleagues in search of “finds” and securing them before the doors open to the public. But it is strictly and only dealers and their staff who are allowed in the fair hall during setup. So I was shocked and not a little angry to suddenly notice a drug-addled, hygienically challenged, sartorial horror of a person riffling my inventory.

Let me clarify my leap to this uncharitable characterization. The person in question was tall with a gaunt aspect. He moved in an oddly disjointed manner suggesting either narcotics or nerve damage. His clothes were an aesthetic affront on multiple counts – fashion, condition, and cleanliness. His shaggy mane of matted, black hair looked as if it had last (and not recently) been cut with garden shears and combed with a rake. Perhaps just before he was left outside in a hurricane. In the clothes he was still wearing. Glimpsed through the wooly thatch curtain partially obscuring his face were an impressively English collection of teeth, these giving the impression of ruined dice tossed into the man’s mouth by a vengeful deity.

I would have thrown him out of my booth. But a friend and colleague with whom I was sharing the booth put her hand on my arm and said “Wait.” I heeded. 

In less than a minute, the man peremptorily announced to me “Right, I’ll take these”. The “these” were an assortment of $ four figure books, arguably the most interesting among the carefully curated items I had brought to the fair. I was gobsmacked at the literary scope, commercial acumen, and improbable speed of his discernment. The business card he dropped on his selected pile was that of one of the world’s foremost booksellers. The man’s employer was obviously able to see past the proverbial binding, even if I was not.

Most of us don’t get to profit handsomely from lessons in humility. I was fortunate in the gift of my wiser colleague’s staying hand on my arm. This allowed time for my own discernment to overcome my crude, cursory, and condescending assumptions.

In the years since, I have learned to apply a more patient regard to books – as well as to the eclectic, eccentric, and often unkempt savants who sell them.

Like all of us, I love a pretty book. I’m a sucker for immaculate old dust jackets, tastefully decorated publisher’s cloth, and, of course, a true craftsman’s fine leather binding. But I’ve learned to leave room in my heart and on my shelves for the beautifully ruined.

The Works of Lord Macaulay

So how about Volume V of the Albany Edition of The Works of Lord Macaulay? Is that one you covet for your shelves? What if I told you it was badly worn, with the sewn text block unraveling, splits on the front and rear endpapers, and the spine separated along the front cover, which remains attached only by a thin strip of cloth?

OK. A few more details. This is the work Winston S. Churchill would refute three decades later with his own four-volume biography of the Duke of Marlborough. And this particular volume was presented to the Midland Conservative Club in 1900 by its twenty-four-year-old President… Winston S. Churchill. Affixed to the front pastedown of this tattered volume was a plate reading “PRESENTED | TO THE | MIDLAND CONSERVATIVE CLUB | BY | WINSTON S. CHURCHILL, ESQ. | PRESIDENT | 1900”. 

1899 saw both Churchill’s first, unsuccessful run for parliament as a Conservative candidate for Oldham and his appointment as president of the Midland Conservative Club. Churchill remained club president until 1901, by which time he had become a member of Parliament. While president of the Midland Conservative Club Churchill launched a political career that lasted two thirds of a century, saw him occupy a cabinet office during each of the first six decades of the twentieth century, and carried him twice to the premiership and into the annals of history as a preeminent statesman.

Presentation bookplate from Winston S. Churchill

But first there was Macaulay. Perhaps no historian exceeded the impact of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) on Churchill’s literary life. Churchill’s own history with Lord Macaulay dated to schoolboy days at Harrow where he received a prize for reciting from memory 1200 lines of Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome”. While a cavalry officer in India, Churchill devoured Macaulay’s History of England, including lengthy treatment of Churchill’s great ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. Macaulay’s writing influenced Churchill’s own, with its “captivating style and devastating self-confidence”. This Volume V of Macaulay’s works contains the author’s generally negative treatment of Marlborough. 

Decades later, Macaulay would prove a literary catalyst for Churchill, who eventually came to regard Macaulay as a “prince of literary rogues, who always preferred the tale to the truth”. The most substantial work of Churchill’s “wilderness years” of the 1930s – Marlborough: His Life and Times – was conceived in part as a refutation of Macaulay’s history. Churchill spent 10 years researching and writing his four-volume biography with the express intent to “fasten the label ‘Liar’ to [Macaulay’s] genteel coat-tails.” More than half a century after he presented this book, when Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, it was partly for “mastery of historical and biographical description” on the strength of Marlborough, which was specifically cited and quoted by the Swedish Academy.

We once offered a first edition, first printing, first state of Churchill’s first published book  The Story of the Malakand Field Force – signed by Churchill during his first North American lecture tour. The binding remained beautifully bright, as did the contents. It was not only incredibly well-preserved, but clearly unequivocally unread, as all of the signatures remained uncut. Of course I’d want it for my shelves. But I’d not hesitate to put Volume V of the Albany Edition of The Works of Lord Macaulay on the shelf beside it.

In our quest for the perfect copy, it is easy to forget that the existential purpose of a book is to be read. As collectors, we may favor the few pristine copies that have eluded their fate, but there should be a place on our shelves for books roughened by the regard of previous readers. Such books tangibly witness the time, places, and experiences through which they traveled to us, not just neatly presenting history in tidy print, but accreting history in a mélange of scuffs, stains, and scribbles.

I own a lovely, jacketed, British first edition, first printing, six-volume set of Churchill’s history of the First World War, The World Crisis. But I still debate whether I should replace it on my shelves with an unjacketed, mixed printing set – a set not only worn, but full of writing in several hands. It is not a set that a fastidious collector would regard – unless they opened the covers.

The World Crisis

THIS is the set to which I refer. Like a certain bookseller I once met, the set is quite magnificent in its unloveliness.

This set has five dated inscriptions from Churchill to his Aunt and significant annotations by her son, Churchill’s first cousin. The worn condition owes to this cousin, who freely admitted “I am one of those horrible readers who deface their books with marginal comments…”

Inscription to Aunt Clara plus annotations by cousin Oswald

Normally I’d wince. But in this case the “defacer”, Captain Oswald Moreton Frewen (1887-1958), was a career naval officer who served under Churchill during his tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty in both the First and Second World Wars. Oswald participated in every naval engagement in the North Sea during the First World War, after the war helped the Admiralty prepare the official history of the Battle of Jutland, and during the Second World War served as King’s Harbour Master of Scapa Flow. Oswald’s extensive annotations in this set run to thousands of words. These annotations are remarkably informed and informative, sharply critical, compellingly interesting, and sometimes quite personal about his cousin, the author. 

This set is indelibly and uniquely endowed with a history beyond that which was printed therein. We may forgive that this came at the expense of condition. 

A final story, less rarified but to the point. Years ago we acquired a horribly tatty, poorly rebound first edition of My African Journey as part of an auction lot. No punchline here I’m afraid; there was nothing between the covers but worse-for-wear first edition contents. On a whim, I took the book with me when I traveled to Africa, where I read it. I spent my last night in Africa in a tented camp in the Serengeti. It is a semi-permanent camp, almost Victorian in the comparative luxury it affords in the middle of such a remote and unspoiled place. In the camp’s main tent was a small library with a selection of books about Africa. Right before we departed, I secretly left Winston’s book there on the shelf. I hope is has been read again, even unto pieces.


CBC stamp