London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1899. First edition, first printing. Hardcover. This is the first edition, first printing of Churchill's second published work, an unrestored, fully intact set in the striking, original bindings. The Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed, was a messianic Islamic leader in central and northern Sudan in the final decades of the 19th century. In 1885, General Gordon famously lost his life in a doomed defense of the capitol, Khartoum. Though the Mahdi died that same year, his theocracy continued until 1898, when General Kitchener reoccupied the Sudan. With Kitchener was a young Winston Churchill, who participated in decisive defeat of the Mahdist forces and the last "genuine" cavalry charge of the British army during the battle of Omdurman in September 1898. In this book, Churchill - a young officer in a colonial British army - is unusually sympathetic to the Mahdist forces and critical of Imperial cynicism and cruelty. This work offers the young Churchill’s candid perspective from the distinctly 19th century battlefields where he learned to write and earned his early fame long before he became a 20th century icon.
This first edition is not only compellingly written, but also beautiful and bibliographically important. The two large, lavish volumes are decorated with gilt representations of the Mahdi's tomb on the spines and a gunboat on the front covers. Each volume is printed on heavy paper with a profusion of illustrations, maps, and plans. They are also scarce; there were 2,000 copies of this first edition, first printing. Moreover, this is one of the few Churchill books for which there was no concurrent U.S. first edition. Bibliographically it is notable that the first edition is the only unabridged edition to this day. In 1902 Churchill (then a new Member of Parliament) revised and abridged his text, excising much of his criticism of Kitchener for political reasons. All subsequent editions of The River War are based on this 1902 abridged and revised text.
This first edition, first printing set approaches very good condition. The publisher’s illustrated cloth bindings are scuffed with modest superficial wear. Nonetheless, the bindings remain tight and the color and gilt are quite good on both the covers and spine. Likewise, the contents are quite good for the edition. The original black endpapers are intact, as are all of the extensive maps and plans, as well as the frontispiece portraits and tissue guards. Spotting, common in the edition, is modest, intermittent throughout but substantially confined to prelims and page edges.
Two features further distinguish this set – provenance and content. Volume I of first edition, first printing sets often contains a publisher’s catalogue bound in at the rear. Churchill’s bibliographer, Ron Cohen, speculates that copies lacking the catalogue were likely “destined for sale in either the American or other overseas markets.” This set lacks the rear catalogue, but nonetheless was evidently sold in Britain. Identical illustrated bookplates affixed to each front pastedown are those of William Robert Hood Rochfort (1847-1940), who lived in Ireland and served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. His interest in the books may be explained by the fact that his brother, Alexander Nelson Rochfort (1850-1916) served in the Royal Artillery, as an aide de camp to the Viceroy of India, and later took part in the Second Boer War, during which he was both wounded and decorated. Kitchener described Rochfort as “fearless of responsibility, never makes difficulties, and has… all the qualifications for a leader in the field.” (London Gazette, July 1902). The only other previous ownership marks are the same inked owner surname and date of “1941” on the recto of each blank sheet preceding the half title (additionally in pencil on the Volume I half title). The timing is of note; William Rochfort died childless in 1940 and Churchill was of course wartime premier in 1941.
Reference: Cohen A2.1.b, Woods/ICS A2(a.1), Langworth p.29. Item #005933