Useful Notes / The River War

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"Too late, too late to save him. In vain, in vain, they tried. His life was England's glory, his death was England's pride."
Music Hall song eulogizing Charles Gordon

Also called the Mahdist War or the Mahdist Revolt. Read on to see why.

In 1881, a religious leader in Sudan named Muhammad Ahmad declared himself the Mahdi, the expected redeemer and purifier of the Islamic faith before The End of the World as We Know It. He led a successful rebellion against the Egyptian government (since 1882 was under the control of The British Empire), astounding the world by defeating technological superior forces with just spears and lances. By 1884, the British government sent the renowned soldier and explorer Charles George Gordon to oversee the evacuation of Anglo-Egyptian troops from Sudan, but the Mahdists holed him up in Khartoum for ten months. The world eagerly awaited news from the besieged Gordon, but expeditions sent to relieve him were held up on the Nile and by the time they reached Khartoum, it had fallen and Gordon killed by the Mahdi.

This disaster sent shockwaves through the British government, causing Queen Victoria to send a Strongly Worded Letter to Prime Minister William Gladstone chastising him for failing to act in time. However, a crisis in India caused Britain to withdraw its troops from the Sudan before they could recapture Khartoum. The Mahdi died several months later, but his successor the Khalifa remained in power, engaging Anglo-Egyptian forces in a low-level conflict for the next decade. The fighting also spread to Sudan's neighbors, including Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Italian Eritrea and the Belgian Congo.

In 1896, the British sent a force under Horatio Kitchener to reclaim Sudan. This force was victorious at Omdurman in 1898, claiming revenge for Gordon's death 13 years earlier. This expedition included a relatively unknown solider with some political ambitions named Winston Churchill, who published the first exhaustive history of the war. The Sudan afterwards became an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, jointly ruled by those countries until achieving independence in 1956.

Depictions in fiction

  • The film Khartoum starring Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi and Charlton Heston as Gordon was released in 1966.
  • The death of Gordon at Khartoum is mentioned in passing in Topsy-Turvy, preceded by a helpful super-imposed title for the benefit of Viewers Who Are Not Geniuses.
  • The war is mentioned in both Dad's Army and Blackadder Goes Forth, as characters in those shows were veterans of the Sudan conflict.
  • A. E. W. Mason's novel The Four Feathers and its various film adaptations are all set during this war. Oddly, the book takes place between Gordon's death and Kitchener's reconquest, the 1939 version during Kitchener's campaign, the 2002 version during the Gordon Relief Expedition.
  • The Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz set his In Desert And Wilderness against the backdrop of this war.
  • Rudyard Kipling wrote about it while it was still ongoing, in his 1890 novel The Light That Failed. It, too, was made into a film.
  • Lytton Strachey's famous book Eminent Victorians deals with Gordon in its final essay. It was notable for being the first to present a very critical view on Gordon and the cult of heroism built around him and the subsequent invasion of Sudan.
  • Described in an episode of Murdoch Mysteries where Winston Churchill appears as a young man. His disapproval of Kitchener's disrespect for the Mahdi's remains is part of what drives the plot.
  • The movie Young Winston (1972) depicts the Battle of Omdurman.
  • Wilbur Smith featured the Siege of Khartoum in his novel Triumph of the Sun.
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