By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 5, 2011
When I was a kid, Winston Churchill was still very much alive. I remember the newspapers always noted his birthday, which seemed to come around with unnatural frequency. I used to ask my Dad, “What’s the story with Winston Churchill? The guy has a birthday every three months!”
Churchill died in 1965. I was in boot camp that same year. Yet proximate in time as were the great Englishman’s final years, his youth reached back to an era so colorful and so swashbuckling that its events seemed to spring more from the pages of Lord of the Rings than from the true historical journals of a contemporary individual’s lifespan.
Churchill as a 24-year-old cavalry officer fought in the battle of Omdurman—September 2, 1898. Thanks to my friend Mike McClellan for the following passage from the future PM’s The River War, published in 1899. The river was the Nile. The antagonists were the British, at the peak of their imperial power (supported by colonial troops from Egypt and the Sudan), and the Emirs of the Dervish Empire who, under their charismatic leader, the Mahdi, had overcome Gordon at Khartoum in 1885.
The clash described below is one of East versus West, Muslim versus Christian. You be the judge of how different these events seem from events of today—and how, though perhaps by a circuitous route, they spawned them.
The bugles all over the camp by the river began to sound at half-past four. The cavalry trumpets and the drums and fifes of the British division joined the chorus, and everyone awoke amid a confusion of merry or defiant notes. Then it grew gradually lighter, and the cavalry mounted their horses, the infantry stood to their arms, and the gunners went to their batteries; while the sun, rising over the Nile, revealed the wide plain, the dark rocky hills, and the waiting army …
[By] quarter to six … [the enemy front] now nearly five miles long [was] in motion and advancing swiftly … Their Emirs galloped about and before their ranks … they began to cheer … All the pride and might of the Dervish Empire were massed on this last great day of its existence. Riflemen who had helped to destroy Hicks, spearmen who had charged at Abu Klea, Emirs who saw the sack of Gondar, Baggara fresh from raiding the Shillocks, warriors who had besieged Khartoum—all marched, inspired by the memories of former triumphs and embittered by the knowledge of late defeats, to chastise the impudent and accursed invaders.
… Their array was perfect. They displayed a great number of flags—perhaps 500—which looked at the distance white, though they were really covered with texts from the Koran ..
The [Dervish] left, nearly 20,000 strong, toiled across the plain … If there was one arm in which the Arabs were beyond all inferior to their adversaries, it was in guns [artillery]. Yet it was with this arm that they opened their attack. In the middle of the Dervish line now marching in frontal assault were two puffs of smoke … It looked like a challenge. It was immediately answered … One after another four batteries opened on the enemy at a range of about 3,000 yards … above the heads of the moving masses shells began to burst, dotting the air with smoke-balls and the ground with bodies. But a nearer tragedy impended. The ‘White Flags’ were nearly over the crest. In another minute they would become visible to the [British] batteries. Did they realize what would come to meet them? They were in a dense mass, 2,800 yards from the 32nd Field Battery and the gunboats. The ranges were known. It was a matter of machinery. The more distant slaughter passed unnoticed, as the mind was fascinated by the approaching horror. In a few seconds swift destruction would rush on these brave men. They topped the crest and drew out into full view of the whole army. Their white banners made them conspicuous above all. As they saw the camp of their enemies, they discharged their rifles with a great roar of musketry and quickened their pace … Forthwith the gunboats, the 32nd British Field Battery, and other guns from the zeriba [fortified camp along the Nile] opened on them.
The battle goes on for hours, highlighted by the famous charge of the 21st Lancers, of which Churchill remained among the survivors, and culminated with the capture of the city of Omdurman and the destruction of the magnificent Mahdist revolt and movement.
… the great Dervish army, who had advanced at sunrise in hope and courage, fled in utter rout, pursued by the Egyptian cavalry, harried by the 21st Lancers, and leaving more than 9,000 warriors dead and even greater numbers of wounded behind them.
Thus ended the battle of Omdurman—the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victor.
A century and a decade have passed since that day. The Dervish Empire is long gone, as is the British. But the white flags of Muslim pride and courage are still flying, as they should. Two questions remain in this yet-unfolding Arab Spring: who will bear these banners, and in what cause?