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, both volumes housed together in a navy leather slipcase. This set approaches very good condition. 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 are scuffed with superficial wear and mild, even dulling of the spines. Nonetheless, the bindings remain tight. The spine ends are wrinkled but shelf presentation is quite respectable nonetheless. 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 quite light, intermittent but never significant or obtrusive.
Content is of note for the lack of a publisher’s catalogue. 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 heraldic bookplates of Sir Edward Penton (1875-1967) affixed to each front pastedown are the only previous ownership marks. The bookplates and uniform appearance of the volumes strongly suggest that these two volumes are a lifelong, mated set rather than a “married” pair. Both volumes are housed in a navy leather-covered slipcase with the title, author, and Marlborough arms stamped in gilt on the side. Condition of the slipcase is fine, clean, bright, and fully intact.
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 #006059