Let us be clear: The surrender of the Army of the Sudan is the greatest military disaster in British history.
To lose a hundred thousand men is bad enough; but in the Great War that was the ordinary experience of every drawn-out battle – and those were men killed and crippled, not forced to surrender for lack of ammunition and marched off to POW camps. Win or lose, the men of the Army of the Sudan will return home, most of them. In military terms the effect is the same; but a hundred thousand men are, in the cold calculus of war, expendable – not a crippling loss. It is worse to lose hundreds of miles of hard-conquered Nile valley and Ethiopian highland; half a year’s bloody campaign, to be fought all over again against an enemy strengthened by reinforcements, experience, and victory. But after all it is only Africa, “miles and miles of bloody colonies”, as they say; and the Sahel had to be conquered twice before the Spanish surrendered, back in the day. No, it is not the loss of land that stings – not while the Suez is still in British hands. But there is a difference between losing a hundred thousand men, and losing an army. To go over the top in the Great War was to guarantee heavy losses; but at the end of the day – and the week, and the month – the fighting line would still be intact, still shelter hundreds of guns, thousands of trucks, tens of thousands of the unarmed labourers that keep the munitions flowing to the sharp end. That was why that war went on for thirteen terrible years. No matter the losses among the riflemen, there would always be replacements; for the army – whichever army it happened to be – would still exist as a fighting organisation, able to defend territory.
In the Sudan it is otherwise. What has been lost is not men, not territory, not even guns and tanks and heavy materiel; it is an entire army, a fighting front. It is not the loss of an area the size of Germany that matters; it is the way it was lost: By landing from the Red Sea, the People’s Army of Malaya was able to surround, and force to surrender, the entire force defending that German-sized area – and then seize the territory without effective opposition. Had the Army of the Sudan been driven back across Ethiopia, losing the same territory but retaining the ability to fight, that would have been a stinging defeat; but wars are not won by stings. They are won by destroying the enemy’s ability to fight. And the Army of the Sudan no longer exists as a fighting organisation.
And yet there is a deal of ruin in a Great Power. The British Empire has lost an army, but it has others; and it retains its Royal Navy. Already the Indian landings, closest to the Suez and the rich cities of the Nile Delta, have been driven back in disarray. A new front has been established, manned by the Norwegian Afrikanske Frigjøringsarme, by troops fresh from the victorious American campaign, by regiments pulled from the stalemated Iranian front. Armoured columns drive down the Red Sea coast, dislocating the Malayan advance – and in the swirling chaos that is Egypt south of the Second Cataract, who is to say that the People’s Army may not find that two can play at the game of encirclements?
In a war the size of the world, even an army – even a continent! – may be lost; and yet the fighting power, and the fighting will, of the Empire will remain unaffected. New regiments can be stamped out of the unconsidered earth; every five minutes a new tank rolls out of the factory gates. What is Africa, to the women who man the munitions factories? Only a faraway land where sons and husbands go to fight. Let Africa be lost; let Malayan ships roam the Mediterranean – and the factories will keep humming, busily churning out the machinery of war. While the Atlantic is open, Britain can fight; if necessary alone, if necessary for years.
We have not yet begun to fight.
I tried to do this in narrative form, but couldn’t figure out where I was going after the preliminary scene-setting; so this is incomplete and won’t be completed. But I hate to waste words, so I’m posting what there is in the hope that someone may find it entertaining.
December 10th, 1942
Cameroon highlands, near the sources of the Benue
The tribesmen watched in sullen silence. Without fuel, the tanks weren’t much good against serious opposition; but their 50-mm guns were quite adequate to overawe people who might be armed with some ancient trade muskets from the days when the Spanish paid them to capture slaves. Or even with reasonably modern bolt-action rifles; the Great War had touched these remote mountains lightly, but in ten years it had swept three times across the Sahel, and the detritus of war was still to be found all over Africa. But there was nothing in that to threaten an armoured regiment, even one sufficiently down on its luck that the tank transports ran on stolen ox-power; let the tribesmen try anything, and their village would be a smoking pile of ashes in minutes. In any case they grew more cheerful when Leif’s soldiers started unhitching the exhausted beasts that had pulled them from their previous stop. These men counted wealth in cattle, and had no doubt expected that the foreign soldiers would take all their loot with them; to get anything back from men fleeing defeat – retreating in good order, Leif reminded himself; they weren’t defeated while the tanks had that last precious five-kilometer reserve – was a surprise, if a welcome one. Even though the next village over would no doubt come looking for their cattle, just as the one beyond that would look for theirs… the repercussions of this retreat might swirl through the highlands for a century; but Leif had a regiment to save, and the next week to look to.
Apart from the oxen, two barrels of kerosene were all that it was worthwhile to requisition. To burn the stuff would take months off the tank engines’ service life; but if it meant an extra kilometer of counterattack or maneuver, that might be the difference between a prison camp and escape – and the service life of tanks captured by the enemy was better shortened. He could worry about replacement engines if he reached the Nile.