TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST OSMAN DIGNA. THE difficulties in the way of successful action on the Red Sea are endless, or, at least, while the country is waiting for intelligence of success, seem to be so. One of them is the Special Correspondent, who, for the first time since he undertook to describe operations in the field, is overdoing his work. Most of the ghastly details from Suakim with which London has for the past week been surfeited are the ordinary incidents of war ; but described as they are every morning by men with ability in word-painting, they excite a kind of horror which distinctly weakens the nerve of the ordinary newspaper-reading public, and therefore weakens the policy of the country. It is either right or wrong to resist the Mahdi on his own ground, and so prevent the success of a movement which, if we retired, would spread over Arabia and Syria as well as Egypt, and perhaps bring upon Europe and India half a century of misfortune. If it is wrong, we have only to retire, confess that we have blundered, and lament that, in our unthinking rashness, we have caused a useless slaughter of thousands of brave men, and have made the Christian name detestable throughout the Soudan. But if it is right, it is not the less right because after a severe skirmish the enclosure in which it took place is slippery with blood, or because the bodies of the slain in a burning climate putrify with pestilential rapidity. Was any battle ever fought without "blood and brains" being left upon the field, or without leaving to the victors a horrible task in the burial of the dead ? War implies the killing of human beings, often in great heaps—think of the scene on the slope of Speicherenand to dwell on the details of slaughter is, for those who have sanctioned war, as morbid and as useless as for surgeons who have sanctioned amputations to dwell on the details of the operating-room. Thousands, we believe, have contracted a loathing of the Red-Sea Expedition because they have been told of the scenes in the zeribas attacked on Sunday, and of the hundreds of hamstrung camels trying painfully to move upon their knees about the desert, incidents which in no way affect the question whether the war is wise or unwise. In the judgment of her Majesty's Government and of the bulk of the nation, such scenes must be borne, because the Mahdi's victory would involve far greater sufferings for the human race ; and descriptions of them do but obscure the greater issue. An operation may be right as well as wise, though it causes agony ; and if war is ever right at all—a separate question, which we are not discussing—it is not made less right by placing its worst incidents under an intellectual microscope. Nor will it be the less murderous or more fruitful of good because the energy of the nation which wages it is impaired by an appeal to feelings which are not all the products of pity, but spring in part from a weak reluctance to have our sympathies so lacerated. We must bear that, if we are to fight wars, even of defence, as our soldiers bear their far more substantial sufferings.
The next difficulty is that the war being waged, as it were, under our eyes—and, indeed, under our eyes aided by magnifying-glasses—the action of the Generals engaged has not as yet developed public confidence. The doubts which exist may disappear in a week, a final victory showing that Sir John MacNeill's carelessness of Sunday was a momentary, though unhappy, accident, and that Sir Gerald Graham's plan of fighting, which now seems so cumbrous, was the one best adapted to its end. But for the present there can be no doubt that the nation resents strongly the utterly useless slaughter caused by the failure to search the bush round Sir John MacNeill's zeriba, as could have been done, for it was done immediately after the battle. A blunder more nearly fatal was never committed. Seven thousand and more Arabs, known by experience to be among the most daring of mankind, were allowed to approach unobserved within a few yards of a low-walled enclosure, still incomplete, in which and around which the unsuspecting soldiers were eating lunch or working, without a thought of an enemy's approach. That, if not the result of gross carelessness, was a discreditable failure to adapt means to ends, and it nearly destroyed a brigade. But for the splendid steadiness with which the soldiers sprang to their arms, and the presence of four machine-guns, the attack would have meant a hand-to-hand battle between Englishmen and Sepoys and treble their number of Arabs, as brave as themselves, more reckless of life, and, for a mVie of the kind, nearly as well armed. The British might have been beaten and forced to retreat to Suakim under fire along the whole march ; and as it was, 240 men in all, 21 per cent, of the whole Expedition, were expended by death or wounds without the slightest result ; for this enemy, unlike those we have encountered in most Asiatic wars, is not cowed by defeat, but recommences fighting upon the first gleam of opportunity. Surprises happen in all wars ; but this one was gratuitous, and with our small forces we must rely on the Generals' intelligence to spare the men. Such incidents take heart out of a watching nation which, as yet, is not reassured by Sir Gerald Graham's strategy. It may be entirely wise, and the result may prove it ; but for the present, the plan of creeping-up to Tamai by six-mile stages, and constructing at each stage a low enclosure, seems only to have these consequences. The troops are reduced to the pace of a mile an hour, relatively large bodies of men are locked-up in the enclosures, and half the Expedition is employed in guarding convoys sent daily backwards and forwards to relieve the garrisons. It takes the whole time of one British regiment to convoy supplies of water to another. As we have said, it may be all right, and we detest lay criticism upon unfinished operations ; but the nation which orders the war is lay, and does criticise, and its criticism up to Friday was full of these disheartening doubts.
The real difficulties of the situation at Suakim, it must be carefully remembered, are unprecedented. The numbers em ployed are probably sufficient, though the Arabs are very different foes from any we have hitherto encountered in Asiatic warfare ; but the General in command is compelled to move• his soldiers under the strangest conditions. We cannot remember an instance in modern war in which an expedition has been unable to move even for a day without carrying with it a heavier weight of water than of food—scores of thousands of gallons—all to be conveyed on the backs of camels, which must be protected from attack more carefully than the troops themselves. The beasts and their drivers are the first objects of the enemy's attack ; they fall, when the attack arrives, into wild confusion ; and when it does not, they so reduce the speed of the soldiers that, as the correspondents report, the Guards on Wednesday only accomplished a mile an hour.
day is spent in reaching an enclosure less than eight miles away. It is, moreover, to meet this difficulty of water that the zeribas are constructed, so that the actual advance into action may be short ; and its total effect is that the mobility of the troops is almost destroyed, while they are moving across a country swarming with enemies who, when needful, can advance or retreat at six miles an hoar, and can cover thirty miles a day without difficulty or fatigue. The Arabs actually go round our men like dogs round a loaded waggon.
Moreover, as men cannot live without water, and as the water spoils in keeping—would not vinegar prevent that, as in the French Army I—everything has to be sacrificed to the neces sity of keeping open communications ; which the enemy, who understands his own climate and its necessities, incessantly attacks. If he can but kill sufficient camels and mules, the soldiers must retreat. The men are worn with other wise needless marching, the difficulty of finding transport becomes the next thing to an impossibility, and any sudden, still more any secret, expeditions, are palpably hopeless. As the Times has pointed out with more than sufficient clearness, Osman Digna has only to retire before us at the rate, say, of ten miles a day, and then, as we advance, reoccupy his old positions, to reduce the British force to hopeless impotence. A bull in the arena, surrounded by picadors, would have a better chance, for the bull would not be rendered powerless by thirst. Fortunately, the Arab leader is also, though in a less degree, fettered by the water difficulty ; for though his men pass and repass along the whole route at their ease, and with amazing swiftness, he cannot abandon his wells, while his special character, as representing a divine mission, will prevent a precipitate or continuous retreat. He will probably stand and fight as he did before, and a great victory may so break his power, in spite of all his previous recoveries, as to leave the Desert comparatively free, and allow the railway, which alone can carry water with ease, to be once more pushed forward.
But what then ? in that last question lies the greatest difficulty of all, at least for the Government which directs the war. There can be no doubt that, although the whole country assented to the decision to suppress the Mahdi, and although one-half of it was wild to try the Suakim-Berber route, a considerable number of Radicals are so weary of the Desert warfare, with its unproductive losses, and futile slaughter of brave opponents, that they are beginning to suggest that, after one victory has saved our military honour, it would be better to retire, and trust to the inability of the Mahdi to reach Egypt or to arouse Arabia. We do not believe that counsel at once so weak and so immoral will seriously affect the Government, or even the nation, which is less disturbed than we think by the perturbations of philanthropists and the tremors of newspaper critics. Both will, we doubt not, perceive that although Lord Wolseley's choice of the Nile route has been amply justified, and though the men who clamoured for the rush of a small force from Suakim to Berber have been proved to be talking nonsense, the obligation to arrest the Mahdi, if it exists at all, is only increased by the expenditure of life, treasure, and energy which has been already incurred. If we stop, every soldier expended has been a soldier thrown away ; and the nation as well as the Government, will stand convicted of undertaking the gravest enterprises with something like criminal heedlessness. Of course, if the enterprise is impossible, and is so pronounced by good soldiers, there is an end of discussion, and we have only to lament the want of leaders who can decide aright before a futile effort has been made ; but if it is possible, our clear duty is to persevere stubbornly, to disregard time, and to go on throwing stones into the morass until there is a firm bridge over. We shall hit on the right means and the right man at last, and at least keep our self-respect, which counsels like these seriously endanger. Nevertheless, the British Government is a Government sustained by votes ; and the rise of a Party of Retreat—which is quite perceptible, even though it should prove a small one—must always be one more difficulty added to the many which now oppress the already overburdened men who are striving to steer the ship through by far the most difficult crisis of our time. We cannot help them much, save with the advice to trust themselves and the country, to face the difficulties as they arise steadily, and to let the newspaper men spend their breath unheard. "It is dogged as does it."
THE LATEST VOTE OF CENSURE ON EGYPT. THE division on the Egyptian financial arrangement did not reach us in time for our issue ; but the Government must have had a fair majority, probably a better one than on the last Vote of Censure. The Opposition had literally no case. Nobody, not even Mr. Bruce, with his knowledge of Egyptian finance, disputed that Egypt urgently required a loan of £9,000,000, that she could not raise such a loan without help, or that the help must take the form of some European guarantee. So far, all was accord. There was, it is true, some difference as to the comparatively trifling matter of the immediate urgency, Mr. Gladstone holding that a million and a half or thereabouts must be found instantly by the Treasury of Cairo to meet certain banking advances, and Mr. Bruce holding that the banking advances would be renewed, though upon bad terms. Mr. Bruce is probably right, the method of Eastern banking being to prop-up a State under advances, and clutch preposterous profits in doing it ; but Mr. Gladstone, with his civilised ideas of finance, might fairly call such a transaction a "default," as it would in reality be a composition. But on the serious question there was no difference of opinion ; and the Opposition were reduced to the argument, advanced with painful reiteration, that in raising the £9,000,000 under an International guarantee instead of the individual guarantee of this country, the Government had admitted the principle of International control. Mr. Gladstone's answer to that proposition is quite perfect. He asks how such control arises ? It does not arise from the International Commission of Inquiry to be appointed two years hence, for that Commission will only be created if the interest on the Debt is not paid, and if created will be preceded by negotiations among the Powers, and a general accord between them. The British Government will, therefore, possess exactly the same power of resisting internationalization which it possesses now. Nor can the danger arise from the actual guarantee itself. This country has, unhappily, immense experience in lending money, and in no case either of joint or separate loans or guarantees have the Governments making or guaranteeing loans claimed any resulting right of interference. Mr. Pitt granted huge subsidies to Continental Powers without asking any such right. We granted, during the Peninsular War, loans to Spain so enormous, that Mr Gladstone grew quite melancholy, and even pathetic, in alluding to them and to the small chance of their being repaid ; but we have never claimed, and most certainly do not possess, any power of interfering in Spanish internal affairs. It may be said that Spain was too strong to brook such interference ; but during the Crimean War we guaranteed a loan to Sardinia, then a little State, and no interference either followed or was feared. Even in the case of Greece— a powerless State—the Powers never based their right of intervention upon the guaranteed loan, though Greece could not have resisted the claim ; and there was no intervention even when default was made. The precedents are final, and would be so even if default were expected in Egypt ; but that is impossible,—unless, indeed, the Mahdi wins,—for the Loan is the first charge upon the revenue, and the revenue is at least £3,000,000 in excess of the imperative requirements of the Administration. The new charge counts not only before the Debt, but before any other outlay from the Egyptian Treasury. To suppose, therefore, that the arrangement in the smallest degree increases the existing right of International Control arising from the Law of Liquidation, and from the Treaties guaranteeing autonomy as to Egypt against Turkey, is absurd.
But then, say the Opposition, what was the objection to insert in the arrangement a clause forbidding International Control? If it cannot arise, why not say so, and so prevent its arising ? Simply because no such clause could possibly be so drawn as to be effective. If great Powers wish to interfere in Egyptian affairs, and think it safe to interfere, they will interfere. Suppose, said Mr. Gladstone, we even had gone the length of prohibiting interference, not only by force, but by advice, or private recommendation, what would be the result ? Just this; that "you would be liable to underground, indirect recommendations by irresponsible agents, and you would find yourself thwarted at every turn in the discharge of your duty by those whom you could not call to account." Moreover, you would create a most dangerous precedent, for international jurists would at once declare that as in Egypt it was necessary to prohibit interference by Treaty, wherever no such Treaty existed, the right, or even the obligation of interference, must perforce be assumed. Such a prohibition would be a mere "device of jealousy," and not one-half as operative as the fact that all the Powers have now a direct interest in enabling Egypt to pay her way, and in placing her finances upon a satisfactory footing. That, of itself, is a gain, so far as it goes, and a gain which is duo to the International character of the guarantee.
We can see no answer to this defence, except the general one, that England ought to govern Egypt ; and that is, under the circumstances, not admissible. Neither party in the State is ready to govern Egypt, or being ready, could avoid negotiating with Europe about such government,—a negotiation with which the Arrangement in no way interferes. The British Government has not surrendered any freedom, but has tided over pressing difficulties without quarrelling with Europe, and has postponed the final decisions for two years, when, as Mr. Gladstone says, " a new set of circumstances may exist." Surely, as we cannot go out of Egypt, or as yet settle finally what shall becoine of Egypt, that is a sensible arrangement for the time ; and so, as we believe, though we do not know, Parliament has decided.