Modern vs. Ancient War Churchill’s book The River War

Modern vs. Ancient War


Churchill’s book The River War contains a description of the Battle of Omdurman that illustrates the difference between modern war, as practiced by the British, and ancient war, as practiced by the dervishes. As Dr. Arnn describes it, in modern war courage is of diminished importance in the face of superior technology.

The following video is a clip from Hillsdale’s Online Course: “Winston Churchill and Statesmanship,” featuring Larry P. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College.



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Churchill has a description in the middle chapter of [his] book, The River War. It's called "The Battle of Omdurman," which is a little place outside of Khartoum. I'm going to read you that, because I can remember [that] forever and a day ago when I read this thing, I thought, "Wow." He's describing first the British, and then the dervishes [whom the British were fighting].

"The infantry fired steadily and stolidly, without hurry or excitement, for the enemy were far away and the officers careful. Besides, the soldiers were interested in work and took great pains. But presently, the mere physical act became tedious."

So, they're in a battle, the British, and there's tedium.

"A tiny figure seen over the slight of the backside seemed a little larger, but also fewer at each successive volley. The rifles grew hot, so hot that they had to be changed for those of the reserve companies. The Maxim guns," which are the first machine guns, named after a man named Maxim, who invented them, "the Maxim guns exhausted all the water in their jackets, and several had to be refreshed from the water bottles of the Cameron highlanders before they could go on with their deadly work. The empty cartridge cases tinkling to the ground formed small but growing heaps beside each man."

Now, doesn't that sound kind of like a factory operation? Then, he turns in the middle of the paragraph to the dervishes.

"At all the time out on the plain, on the other side, bullets were shearing through flesh, smashing and splintering bone. Blood spouted from terrible wounds. Valiant men," and I remind you, valor is courage, and courage is the supreme virtue of the soldier, "valiant men were struggling on through a hell of whistling metal, exploding shells, and spurting dust. Suffering, despairing, dying."

Earlier, just before this passage in the chapter, Churchill has said that when the dervishes came over a little rise out in the desert, that they had no sense of the impending catastrophe. He says, "As they began to march," he said, "it seemed unfair," when the artillery [00:20:00] first opened, and waves would just go down among them. He said, "It seemed unfair," which is [a] synonym for “unjust,”--one of the prime forms of the good, "unfair for us to strike them so cruelly when they had not hurt us at all."

Churchill doesn't like this battle. [16:40 – 20:17]

After the main dervish force was compromised out on the plain, then they both began a race for Khartoum. That was more open and fluid, and Churchill was in a cavalry charge. The last big one the British ever did; of course he was there. They got cut up pretty bad. Churchill himself was not wounded, but he was in the middle of it. Some dozens died. He thought all that was fair. He liked that part a lot better.

So you see, he's on to something there, right? War is changing. It's interesting at this first part of the battle; only the dervishes are called courageous. The British are doing something tedious, and yet, the dervishes have no chance. That's something Churchill is noticing.

So, courage, a moral virtue, diminishes in importance, and what becomes more important is technology. [21:02 – 22:03]