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 two-volume set in the striking, original bindings, each volume housed in a full navy morocco Solander case. Condition of this set is very good. Often the original bindings are broken and subsequently repaired, owing to the weight of the massive text blocks. In this case the publisher’s illustrated cloth bindings remain intact. The cloth is lightly scuffed and blemished, with only modest superficial wear showing, the sole exception being an irregular patch of discoloration of the cloth, likely from brief contact with moisture, at the upper left corner of the blank Vol. II rear cover. The contents are quite respectable for the edition. The Vol. I xi-xiv and xvii-xx signatures remain uncut. 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 intermittent throughout. The sole previous ownership mark – in pencil which we have chosen not to erase - is a three-line “Xmas 1899” gift inscription on the Vol. I. half title.
The publisher’s 32-page catalogue bound in at the end of Volume I is of note. Churchill’s bibliographer, Ronald Cohen, (See: A2, Vol. I, p.35) states “In most copies which contain a catalogue, it will be dated 11/99”, noting that “The catalogue in the second-state copy in the Library of Congress is designated “5000/10/99”. This copy’s rear catalogue is also dated “5000/10/99” – the only such copy we have personally noted. Each book is protected within its own full navy goatskin Solander case with rounded spine, gilt framed and decorated spine bands, and blue felt-lined interior. Each case cover is decorated with a gilt-stamped reproduction of the gunboat illustration from the original bindings. Condition of the cases is near fine, one case with minor bumps to the upper corners.
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.
Reference: Cohen A2.1.b, Woods/ICS A2(a.1), Langworth p.29. Item #006032