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What Churchill Said

[Pashtuns at Malakand. Image from BBC.] [Pashtuns at Malakand. Image from BBC.]

The end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century were decisive years in British asymmetric warfare in its colonies and against colonial rebels. Those years were significant not only because of the consolidation of colonial war-fighting doctrine, as enshrined in Major General Charles Callwell’s Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, but also because there emerged for the first time a concerted anti-war movement in the Metropole, which attempted to attenuate the effects of the imperial war in South Africa. What is striking is that those years, and those wars, had a chronicler in one of the most famous Englishmen of all times.

 Between the years of 1897 and 1900, Winston Churchill acted as both military officer and war correspondent in three colonial wars: the suppression of the Mohmand tribe’s rebellion in the Northwest Frontier Province, the slaughter of the Mahdiyya movement in Sudan under Herbert Kitchener, and the Boer War against Afrikaans settlers in South Africa. 

 The three campaigns produced three books authored by Churchill: The Malakand Field Force (1897), The River War (1899 first complete edition, 1902 excised edition), and London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900). During this period, he was affiliated with the Liberal Party, and indeed his visions and opinions across the spectrum of these three wars is very much representative of the transformations in liberal warfare (here with small “l”) at the turn of that century. His writing records the transformation of the way in which small wars were fought by liberal states. The transformation was not entirely linear, nor was it universal; but it was real enough, reflected not only in the ways in which wars were justified and written about in the imperial metropoles, but even more strikingly in the ways in which they were fought in the colonies themselves.

 What I do in this brief sketch is to record how Churchill imagines “the enemy” in these three different contexts; how he justifies the war (or apologizes for it) in each instance; and his discussion of the tactics of warfare and their legitimacy. 

 The Northwest Frontier

 While the British Empire had been able to consolidate its hold on most of India by the mid-18th century, the mountainous region that bordered Afghanistan remained irrepressible. There, the British struggled to find the best method of suppressing the revolt; sometimes scorched earth policies–chillingly nicknamed “butcher and bolt” operations– became the norm; at other times, a version of indirect control via collective responsibility and the use of local “tribal elders.” In the Northwest Frontier, the imperial portrayal of the enemy is not of an effete or weakened “race” of men in need of bucking up by the empire, but rather of a hypermasculine martial race, whose intransigence is stoked by their religious fanaticism. The surly warrior Pashtuns (or Pathans, as they were imperially termed) were considered the enemy. Churchill writes, “[E]very inhabitant is a soldier from the first day he is old enough to hurl a stone, till the last day he has strength to pull a trigger…” (1897). But their martial virtues, so necessary when put to the service of the empire, are not reflected in other aspects of their being, as Churchill goes on to describe the Pathans:

But passing from the military to the social aspect of their lives, the picture assumes an even darker shade, and is unrelieved by any redeeming virtue. We see them in their squalid, loopholed hovels, amid dirt and ignorance, as degraded a race as any on the fringe of humanity: fierce as the tiger, but less cleanly; as dangerous, not so graceful. Those simple family virtues, which idealists usually ascribe to primitive peoples, are conspicuously absent. Their wives and their womenkind generally, have no position but that of animals. They are freely bought and sold, and are not infrequently bartered for rifles. Truth is unknown among them (1897).

 The themes are already there: the mistreatment of women which makes the men less worthy as humans; the cunning of the natives and their patent untrustworthiness; and their unfamiliarity with hygiene and cleanliness. We already know that the imperial expansionists often sees their job of educating the native as the bringing them science and sanitation so as to civilize them.


 The same racialized themes are present in Churchill’s writing on Sudan. During the conquest, British officers, led by Herbert Kitchener, used the Egyptian army to defeat an anti-colonial revolt, to gain control of the Nile waterways, and also to push their imperial rivals in Africa, the French, to the margins. Here, the enemy were described as “fanatical Mohameddans.” The discourse used to describe the enemy appeals to many of the same elements mentioned above. We have, in Churchill’s words, “fanatical frenzy” wedded to “fatalistic apathy” which results in “improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property.” We also have the oppression of women, which the imperial intervention is intended to alleviate: “The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property—either as a child, a wife, or a concubine –must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.” Finally, we have the militancy and backwardness of the enemy which “has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome” (1899).

 Churchill here obsessed with the fact that Islam “appears to possess a strange fascination for negroid races, has been permeating the Soudan, and, although ignorance and natural obstacles impede the progress of new ideas, the whole of the black race is gradually adopting the new religion and developing Arab characteristics” (1902).

 The Boers

 In contrast to the surly Pathans and the slovenly Sudanese, it is striking to read Churchill’s description of the Boers, white Afrikaans settlers, in guerrilla warfare against the British. In his autobiographical, My Early Life (1996 [1930]),Churchill writes, “The Boers were the most humane people where white men were concerned. Kaffirs [derogatory term for black Africans] were a different story, but to the Boer mind the destruction of a white man’s life, even in war, was a lamentable and shocking event. They were the most good-hearted enemy I have ever fought against in the four continents in which it has been my fortune to see active service” (p. 255).

 How to Fight Wars

 The mode and manner of warfare in the three places also differed. In the Northwest Frontier, Churchill tells us,

Sir Bindon sent orders that we were to stay in the Mamund Valley and lay it waste with fire and sword in vengeance. This accordingly we did, but with great precautions. We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation. So long as the villages were in the plain, this was quite easy. The tribesmen sat on the mountains and sullenly watched the destruction of their homes and means of livelihood. When, however, we had to attack the villages on the sides of the mountains they resisted fiercely, and we lost for every village two or three British officers and fifteen or twenty native soldiers. Whether it was worth it, I cannot tell. At any rate, at the end of a fortnight the valley was a desert, and honour was satisfied (1996 [1930], p. 146).

 This method of collective punishment was to be deployed again and again in all of British colonies, and indeed was the method of preference used by Kitchener in South Africa – where farms, farmsteads, and even farm animals were incinerated to make the landscape uninhabitable to the guerrillas and to punish their fractiousness. The use of these methods in Palestine in the mid-1930s, and of course, later in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus, Aden, and other places where the colonials rose to claim independence is also well-recorded.

 In Sudan, the destruction far surpassed that of property. This happened because the Sudanese chose a frontal attack against the British forces, rather than guerrilla warfare. Churchill writes about the Battle of Omdurman:

Ancient and modern confronted one another. The weapons, the methods and the fanaticism of the Middle Ages were brought by an extraordinary anachronism into dire collision with the organization and inventions of the nineteenth century. The result was not surprising. As the successors of Saracens descended the long smooth slopes which led to the river and their enemy, they encountered the rifle fire of two and a half divisions of trained infantry, drawn up two deep and in close order and supported by at least 70 guns on the river bank and in the gunboats, all firing with undisturbed efficiency. Under this fire the whole attack withered and came to a standstill, with a loss of perhaps six or seven thousand men, at least 700 yards away from the British-Egyptian line (1996 [1930], p. 184).

 As a whole, more than 30,000 Sudanese were killed in the Battle of Omdurman, many of whom were wounded, and Kitchener had ordered killed.

 In the Boer War, mass confinement is used for the first time as a method of punishment and to clear the countryside. This moment is decisive, as the concentration camps of Boer War serve as the model for the mass incarceration of civilians in other anti-colonial insurgencies: the Malay Chinese in Malayan New Villages, the Gikuyu of Kenya in “reserves”, the Vietnamese in Strategic Hamlets, and of Algerians in Centres de Regroupement. Later in life, Churchill writes that in order to counter guerrilla sabotage, “British military authorities found it necessary to clear whole districts of their inhabitants and gather the population into concentration camps. As the railways were continually cut, it was difficult to supply these camps with all the necessities of life. Disease broke out and several thousands of women and children died (1996 [1930], p. 350).   

 In South Africa, Churchill’s language expresses regret, and the blame for the death and devastation is placed squarely on the guerrillas and their civilian defenders. But it is useful to note that some years earlier, while he was examining the Spanish concentration camps in Cuba, Churchill had coldly issued the verdict that these camps were necessary: “Thus in Cuba it is the endeavour of the [Spanish colonial] Government to protect property, and of the [Cuban] rebels to destroy it. It was with the aim of keeping the wavering population loyal, that [Spanish military commander] General Weyler collected them all into the towns, with such painful results. His policy was cruel but sound, and, had it been accompanied by vigorous military operations, might have been successful” (1897). Further, Churchill also finds the antiwar defenders of the Boers in Britain at fault for drawing out the war: “War has been aggravated by the Peace Party; and thus these humanitarian gentlemen are personally—for they occupy no official position—responsible for the great loss of life” (1900).

 Why To Fight Wars

 In all these instances, Churchill has a very specific justification for the imperial adventure. In Sudan, these are geostrategic –the control of the waterways, the challenge to the French, the mastery of the fertile Nile valley. In South Africa, national honor and the “permanence and security of British sovereignty in South Africa,” but overall, as he records at the end of his book about the siege of Malakand, he write proudly of the British mission to bring liberty and learning to the benighted people:

unborn arbiters, with a wider knowledge, and more developed brains, may trace in recent events the influence of that mysterious Power which, directing the progress of our species, and regulating the rise and fall of Empires, has afforded that opportunity to a people, of whom at least it may be said, that they have added to the happiness, the learning and the liberties of mankind (1897).

 Opposition to Wars

 Why are these writings significant to the course of counterinsurgencies then and of importance today? I contend that the Boer war was decisive in the way in which small wars were fought because of the conjunction of a series of factors that were not before seen: first, the emergence of a liberal European constituency for the disciplining of warfare, which, although it did not seek to regulate asymmetric warfare against colonial enemies, nevertheless attempted to establish a set of standardized practices in this regards. Second, and very importantly, the turn of the century saw alongside the unending struggles of colonized peoples, their constant revolt, their permanent agitation for autonomy and self-government, also a significant series of anti-colonial movements in European meteropoles themselves. Some of these anti-colonial movements arose out of sheer imperial rivalry, and targeted their fury not at their own governments but at rival empires. Thus, for example, you see valiant mobilization for the Congolese, in Britain

 In other instances, members of the Irish elite in England were at the forefront of such solidarity action, precisely because of sympathy arising out of their own condition of colonization. The extraordinary Roger Casement whose report on the depredations of King Leopold of Belgium in Congo, or about the Putamayo Indians of Peru, is one such figure, and it is very relevant to note that he was hanged in 1916 by the British for smuggling arms to Irish Republicans. But interestingly, there is another segment of liberal intelligentsia and activists who are mobilized against the Boer war precisely for those reasons that Churchill enumerates: The Boer, unlike the Pathans or the Mahdists, are white, they are of European descent, and they are, therefore, be defended. This paradoxical effect of race on mobilization cannot be discounted and is in need of more analysis. But it also explains why we have a shift in the discourse of warfare when it comes to the Boers, and why Churchill, who prides himself in the scorched earth tactics in the Northwest Frontier and in the mass slaughter at Omdurman, would regret the treatment of the Boers.

 But both the colonial struggles and the metropolitan anti-war mobilization force the colonial regime to justify its warfare in terms of bringing liberty and science, progress and hygiene to the surly and unclean races.

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3 comments for "What Churchill Said"


This is really an outstanding analysis, a rich and extremely productive framework for understanding counterinsurgency practices today. Thanks, Laleh! I can't wait to read the book!

JIllian Schwedler wrote on May 04, 2011 at 07:34 AM

Excellent, article. Two names come to my mind while I war reading this, one is Sven Lindqvist and his: "Exterminate All the Brutes": One Man's Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide. And the second one is Frank Kitson and his book/manual Low-Intensity Operations were he describe how to fight counterinsurgency.

spectral wrote on May 08, 2011 at 05:51 PM

Another thing Churchill said in regard to the Palestinians:‘I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place’. See Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, comp. vol. 5, part 3, Boston 1983, p. 616. Taken from Perry Anderson SCURRYING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM

jamie wrote on November 08, 2011 at 08:34 AM

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