We are in the south of Egypt.
There are three contingents of soldiers: Egyptian, Sudanese and British.
The Egyptian and Sudanese armies have been trained by British military instructors and are being led by British officers.
We are in the heyday of The Empire, which is living on borrowed time. Come the 20th century and it will crumble before the tumult and upheaval of two world wars, a Great Depression, and two major revolutions.
But right now, in 1897, The Empire is in its full glory. No power on earth can defeat it.
Or so it seems…..
The three armies are following the river Nile through an immense desert during the hottest month of the year.
Their destination is the city of Khartoum, in northern Sudan. It’s the base of a nineteenth century version of Islamic State led by a ‘Mahdi’ or ‘Divine One’, a self-proclaimed reincarnation of Mohammed. He has at his disposal tens of thousands of fanatical jihadis who are prepared to die ‘under the shadow of swords’ (‘It is easier to reach heaven under the shadow of swords than by prayers alone’).
The British intention to wage war against the Mahdi is enthusiastically supported by the Egyptian government, which fears the potential of the radical Islamists to infect its country and stir up rebellion.
Does this sound familiar?
Then try this: a large contingent of Sudanese Africans are fighting for the British. They are from the south of Sudan and are regarded by Islamists in the north – who are Arabs – as an inferior race. For centuries the Arabs have raided their villages, selling the men in the slave markets of Riyadh and Istanbul, and taking the women for their harems. The Sudanese Africans aren’t concerned about radical Islam; theirs is an ancient hate of the Arabs and any campaign against them is a campaign they are eager to join. They are famous for their bravery under fire.
It’s 1897 and much will change in the near future – and much will also remain the same.
The British soldiers have been shipped over from London. The British have long harboured feelings of revenge against the Mahdi and his militant acolytes. Eleven years previously, a General Gordon was killed by the Mahdi’s forces. Gordon was sent with a contingent of troops to Khartoum to defend its people against the Islamists. When it became clear that the situation was untenable, the British government ordered its troops to withdraw. Gordon refused to join them. He had been appointed to defend the people of Khartoum and his sense of honour forbad him abandoning them. He organised the defence of the city and when it fell he was murdered with the rest of the defenders. The incident caused an uproar in the British newspapers and the House of Commons.
There they are: a truly odd mixture of men and motives, armed with the latest rifles, canon and maxim machine guns, united by a shared desire to defeat the Mahdi – when suddenly they are ambushed by an Invisible Enemy long before they reach the battlefield………
One the British soldiers records the ambush for posterity.
He has a sharp eye and an eloquent turn of phrase.
He has specifically requested to join this venture after serving in the mountains of today’s northern Pakistan, the scene of fierce battles between British Indian troops and fanatical tribesmen. He’s a man who craves adventure and has a reckless disregard for death.
One day he will be a great statesman and will win the Nobel Prize for literature.
He is 23 years old and his name is Winston Churchill.
´During the month of June an epidemic of cholera began to creep up the Nile from Cairo.
It spread rapidly up the river, claiming successive victims until it reached our camp.
800 men died and the lives thus lost were not to be only measured by their number.
To all, the time was one of trial, almost of terror.
The violence of the battle may be cheaply braved, but the insidious attacks of disease appal the boldest. Death moved continually about the ranks of the army – not the death they been trained to meet unflinchingly, the death in high enthusiasm and the pride of life, with all the world to weep or cheer; but a silent, unnoticed, almost ignominious summons, scarcely less sudden and far more painful than the bullet or the sword-cut.
The Egyptians, in spite of their fatalistic creed, manifested profound depression. The English soldiers were moody and ill tempered. Even the light hearted Sudanese lost their spirits, their merry grins were seen no longer, their laugher and drums were stilled. Only the British officers preserved a stony cheerfulness, and ceaselessly endeavoured by energy and example to sustain the courage of their men. Yet they suffered most of all. Their education had developed their imaginations, elsewhere a priceless gift but amid such circumstances a dangerous burden.
It was indeed a time of sore trouble. To find a man dead; to catch a hurried glimpse of blanketed shapes hustled quickly to the desert on a stretcher; to hold the lantern over the grave into which a friend or comrade – alive hours before – was hastily lowered, even though it was still night; and through it all to work incessantly at pressure in the solid, roaring heat, with a mind ever on the watch for the earliest of the fatal symptoms …..and all these things combined to produce an experience which those who endured are unwilling to remember but unlikely to forget. ‘
There are worlds apart between an localised outbreak of cholera in the late 19th century and a global pandemic in the 21st. In the case of the latter, the number of deaths is proportionally far lower; its ravages are mainly psychological, economic and political.
There are worlds apart between the sufferings of a band of soldiers in a desert and the sufferings of hundreds of millions of people.
Corovid-19 is not an ‘outbreak’; it’s a transforming event.
Nothing will be the same again. We are heading into a great unknown, something infinitely greater than a desert.
One day it will become past experience. History.
Yes, there are worlds apart between 1897 and 2020.
Yet there’s s something haunting about Churchill’s words, haunting and prescient, as we experience our own time of Sore Trouble.
‘….unwilling to remember but unlikely to forget. ‘
CHURCHILL: A GREAT BUT VERY IMPERFECT MAN
Churchill was a staunch supporter of the British empire which he saw as a major step forwards for the ‘uncivilised’ people of the world living under the likes of the Mahdi. Colonialism for him meant law and order, progress and education. He was jingoistic and reactionary yet he was also a man capable of changing his views when they were contradicted by experience.
Churchill on his first day in parliament as a member of the Liberals. By this time, as one of his biographers Boris Johnson comments, it was a miracle he was still alive.
As an MP he opposed increases in military expenditure, supported the right of workers to form unions along with a basic wage, the 8 hour day, and a welfare state; he denounced an ‘aliens’ bill aimed at stopping Jewish immigration. He was famously offensive, as well as eloquent, and addicted to alcohol and tobacco – and writing.
During the 1930’s Churchill warned his nation of the rising threat of Hitler at a time when many of the MP’s and most of the upper classes were sympathetic to the Nazis.
Here he is addressing the British people in the darkest hours of 1940:
‘I can promise you nothing except blood and tears….we will fight them on the sea, we will fight them in the air, we will fight them on the landings…..but we will never surrender.’