Horatio Herbert Kitchener was Irish by country of birth but he was to become the quintessential British hero and a Victorian icon. He was to avenge Gordon at Omdurman, and be the man who brought the Boer War to a successful conclusion. He was to become the face of the British war effort in World War One and was to generate possibly the most famous poster of all time. One of Britain’s most ever decorated soldiers he was to rise to become Minister of War and his fame spread throughout the world. He was beyond reproach. Yet his death greeted with shock, disbelief, and no little mourning by the public was met by a sigh of relief in political circles.
He was born in Ballylongford, County Kerry, in Ireland on 24 June 1850 to English parents, but he was raised and schooled in Geneva, Switzerland.
His father had been a Colonel in the British Army and so a military career was always likely to be the young Horatio’s chosen profession. Indeed, he was enthused by witnessing the Franco-Prussian War that he briefly volunteered for the French Army serving as an ambulance driver.
Upon returning to England he followed in his father’s footsteps and enlisted in the Royal Engineers but he very quickly became bored with parade ground life and volunteered to serve in the Middle-East.
It was in the Middle-East and later Africa that he was to make his name soon rising to co-command an expedition to survey the area around Palestine and modern-day Israel. Always a secretive man he is believed to have been involved in espionage and to have served as a conduit for General Gordon during his ill-starred Sudanese campaign. He was later to receive a commission in the Egyptian Army where his reputation grew rapidly so much so that by the time it came to avenge General Gordon’s defeat at Khartoum he was the natural choice to lead the army.
Fourteen long years had passed since the death of Gordon and the decision to recover the Sudan was taken for geo-political reasons not that the public viewed it this way, even though the Mahdi had long since died and the Sudan was ruled by his nominated successor the Khalifa, Muhammad al- Taaishi.
Kitchener was given command of an Anglo-Egyptian Army of 23,000 men of whom around 8,000 were British. He led his army to confront the Khalifa, British troops by boat down the Nile, the Egyptians on foot, to the village of Omdurman which he fortified and where he knew he could be supported by the guns of the ships moored on the river.
On the morning of 2 September 1898, his army was attacked by more than 50,000 Sudanese tribesmen known to the British as Whirling Dervishes because of their wild dancing and Fuzzie-Wuzzies for their unkempt hair. They were brave warriors fired by Islamic zeal and a determination to rid their land of the Infidel.
But faith in their God would count for little on an open desert plain swept by gunfire and blasted by shell.
In a battle that was to last the best part of a day and was fought in choking dust and an intense heat repeated frontal assaults by the Sudanese were repulsed time-and-again in what became more of a massacre than a stand-up fight. By the time the sun set 9,700 Sudanese lay dead, a further 13,000 had been wounded, and 5,000 captured; for the cost of only 48 Allied dead and 340 wounded.
Gordon had been avenged, British honour restored, and the army of the Khalifa had been destroyed, and with it Sudanese independence.
Kitchener had achieved a great victory and he was to be acclaimed back in Britain as a national hero but his actions in the immediate aftermath of the battle were later to come in for much criticism. He had ordered that all the Sudanese wounded incapable of moving of their own volition were to be killed, and in order to save on bullets the bayonet was to be used. One of his severest critics was the young Winston Churchill, who had fought in the battle and had been appalled at such casual brutality displayed toward a gallant foe.
Despite his reputation for callous indifference his brief Governorship of the Sudan was surprisingly liberal and accommodating. Interested in restoring order as quickly as possible he instructed that the Mosques should be rebuilt, Islam be recognised as the official religion, and he curbed incursions by Christian missionaries.
Not long after his victory at Omdurman on 18 September 1898, Kitchener became involved in what was come to be known as the Fashoda Incident.
A French Expedition under Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand had been spreading French influence throughout West and East Africa for the previous ten months and had reached as far as the Nile Delta. It was their ambition to create a link between the Niger River and their territories in the West and the Eastern Horn of Africa.
In truth, they had never accepted the effective British occupation of Egypt and therefore control of the Suez Canal and they were determined to undermine it wherever they could. Likewise, the British were looking to link their possessions in South Africa with those in the East. Indeed, it was the dream of Cecil Rhodes to construct a railroad across Africa that would provide the Cape Territories with access to an East Coast port and the sea.
A pivotal link in these competing ambitions was the Sudanese town of Fashoda and Major Marchand was ordered to establish a base there and declare it a French Protectorate. This was something that Kitchener was unable to tolerate and he marched a force there to confront them.
In what for a time was a tense stand-off it appeared that war between the two countries was imminent as the events at Fashoda blew up into a full-blown diplomatic incident. Marchand, who only had 120 men, was never really in a position to fight and wisely backed down and withdrew from the town. To people back in Britain it appeared that Kitchener had not only avenged the Mad Mahdi’s murder of Gordon but had now stood up to and humiliated the French. His reputation soared.
On 11 October 1899, the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in South Africa fearing their independence was being threatened declared war on the British Empire. Within weeks the British garrisons at Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley were under siege. Reinforcements were rushed to South Africa under the command of Britain’s leading General Sir Redvers Buller VC.
The British had expected a swift victory but a series of morale sapping defeats at Magersfontein, Colenso, Spion Kop, and Stormberg Junction in what became known as “Black Week”, was to see the Sir Redvers dubbed Sir Reverse.
The mighty British Empire was being humiliated by 30,000 Boer farmers and it was to cost Buller his command and in January 1900, he was replaced by Lord Frederick Roberts who chose as his Chief-of-Staff General Kitchener.
Roberts, greatly reinforced quickly relieved the besieged garrisons and in June captured Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal. By September 1900, the conventional Boer army had been defeated and both Republics were under British control. The Boers, however, did not surrender as had been expected but instead engaged in a protracted and increasingly vicious and brutal guerrilla campaign. Still, in November 1900, his work done, Lord Roberts handed over command in South Africa to his subordinate Kitchener.
Frustrated that he could not bring the Boers to battle in any conventional sense, Kitchener devised a system that was designed to squeeze the life out of Boer resistance. He constructed barbed wire fences punctuated with garrisoned block houses to hem the Boers in. He then ordered that all Boer farms be burned, their crops destroyed, and their livestock slaughtered. Boer families that had been removed from the farms were herded into what were in effect the first Concentration Camps.
The British Army was ill-prepared to run such camps. Food was scarce, sanitation minimal, and medicine in short supply. Though conditions were to improve by the war’s end more than 28,000 of the Boer internees had died of starvation and disease, or 35% of the total incarcerated, most of them children. Indeed, more than twice as many Boers died in British captivity than were actually killed in the fighting itself.
The Concentration Camps were a stain upon the reputation of the British Empire and public opinion at home had turned against the war as a result. But as far as Kitchener was concerned it was effective and it worked.
On 31 May 1902, the Boers signed the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging and surrendered their arms. Kitchener was lauded as the victor of the Boer War but even now controversy dogged him.
He had earlier become embroiled in the Breaker Morant episode.
Harold “Breaker” Morant, born in England but resident in Australia, along with Lieutenant Peter Hancock and thousands of other colonials had volunteered to fight for the British in South Africa. Valued for their courage and skill in the field the Australians were nonetheless notorious for disobeying orders and not showing their British Officers due deference.
When Morant and Hancock were arrested for killing Boer prisoners-of-war they were not seen to have done anything that wasn’t already common practice. Nevertheless, they were both court-martialled and condemned to death, a sentence that was widely seen to have been political intended to teach the ill-disciplined Australians a lesson.
An appeal for clemency based on the fact that both Morant and Hancock had volunteered to serve the Empire and had both distinguished themselves in combat was turned down by Kitchener who personally signed the death warrants.
Following the successful conclusion of the Boer War, Kitchener was appointed Commander of British Forces in India 1902-1909 and then Military Governor of Egypt from 1911 to 1914.
In 1910, he was promoted to Field Marshal and four years later became Lord Kitchener of Khartoum.
Horatio Herbert Kitchener was heading towards the sunset of his life in glorious retirement when in the summer of 1914, Britain once again found herself at war and this time in a life and death struggle that would stretch it to breaking point. Who better to turn to in a moment of crisis than Britain’s greatest living soldier, the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith appointed him Minister of War.
His first task was to raise an army.
He had earlier warned the Cabinet that no one was going to be home by Christmas and that this was to be a long war where the casualties would be counted not in the tens but the hundreds of thousands. There was no way that Britain’s small regular army that was mostly stationed abroad protecting the Empire could possibly cope in such a conflict. His warnings were not well-received but they were at least listened to, and a massive recruitment campaign, one of the most successful in history, was now launched.
The campaign itself was to produce the poster which would become famous around the world and achieve an iconic status all of its own. It pictured the stern face of Lord Kitchener staring with a look of grim determination his finger pointing directly at the viewer and demanding – “Your Country Needs You!”
It was the creation of the artist Alfred Leete and first appeared in the September 1914 edition of the influential magazine London Opinion and was to prove such a powerful image that it was quickly adopted by the Government and distributed the length and breadth of the country appearing on billboards, at railway station, in shop windows, and on the side of trams.
Kitchener sweetened the recruitment drive by promising that anyone who volunteered would be able to serve with his friends. It worked like a dream and over the next eighteen months more than three million men enlisted in the so-called Pals Battalions.
This was to be Kitchener’s Volunteer Army but it would take time to make them battle ready. First this army would have to be organised into viable fighting units, and then these millions of men would have to be trained. Also, British working class men were generally undernourished so they had to be properly fed and then put through an intensive exercise regime to make them physically stronger.
Despite the success of his early recruitment campaign, Kitchener was not much admired or much liked by those who had to work with him. He was a stiff-backed soldier used to being obeyed who was brusque in his manner, often coarse in his language, unsympathetic, and deaf to criticism. He would only delegate power where absolutely necessary and his perceived arrogance was to make him a great many enemies. People were quick to blame him for the myriad failings and blunders of the early months of the war.
Much has also been made of Kitchener’s alleged homosexuality. It is true that he never married or fathered any children and that his constant companion was Captain Oswald Fitzgerald and a journalist remarked at the time that Kitchener “has the failing acquired by Egyptian Officers, a taste for buggery.”
He always had a cadre of young unmarried Officers around him that became known as “Kitchener’s Band of Boys”. He also enjoyed interior design and collected fine china, considered unmanly pursuits, and was said to have an artistic temperament, which was Victorian code for homosexual.
There is little doubt that he enjoyed the company of young men and had no obvious interest in women, indeed it was not unknown for him to dismiss from his presence even so there is little evidence that he ever buggered anyone.
Kitchener soon became the focus of blame for all the failings of Britain’s war effort, at least amongst those who counted. He was very quickly seen as lacking strategic vision and being out of touch. Such criticism seems harsh and may have been as much the result of his prickly personality as his performance as Minister of War.
In 1915, the so-called Shell Crisis hit the headlines. It had emerged that the British Army on the Western Front had not only been provided with too few shells but those it did have had insufficient high explosives to be effective. The story had first been published in the Times Newspaper and had been largely ignored but was later republished in the Daily Mail under the sensational headline “Lord K’s Tragic Blunder”. It caused outrage, not because of the Shell Crisis but because it had dared to criticise the great and heroic Lord Kitchener. Though he was not held responsible by the British public he was certainly blamed in political circles.
Responsibility for munitions was removed from his control and given to the Liberal politician, David Lloyd George.
Kitchener was being increasingly blamed for the stalemate on the Western Front but such was his popularity and his iconic status that he was an impossible man to remove. In January 1916, he was sent on a tour of inspection of the disaster that had become the Gallipoli Campaign. It didn’t take him long to realise that a catastrophic defeat was looming and he ordered an immediate withdrawal. By doing so some of the blame for it rubbed off on him even though he had opposed the operation from the start. In the meantime, in his absence moves were underway to remove him.
Would he, they wondered, accept becoming Viceroy of India? No, was the answer. The truth is they couldn’t remove him, they could only ask him to go. It was a difficult situation for he was seen more as an impediment than an asset to the war effort.
In the summer of 1916, it was decided to send Kitchener on a diplomatic mission to Russia. The Russians had recently suffered a series of devastating defeats and their ability to continue the struggle was being seriously questioned. Any Russian withdrawal from the war would be a disaster for the Western Allies so Kitchener was being sent on a morale boosting mission, to cast his eye over Russian strategy, and suggest ways that Britain could help.
Others of a more cynical bent suggested that it was just an excuse to get him out of the country.
On 5 June 1916, Lord Kitchener travelled north to the Orkney Isles where the following day he boarded the Armoured Cruiser H.M.S Hampshire bound for Russia.
At 17.30 on 6 June, just off the coast of the Orkney’s in a Force 9 Gale the Hampshire is believed to have hit a mine. It blew up and sank in less than ten minutes. Lord Kitchener, his companion Captain Fitzgerald, all of his staff, and 643 of the 656 men aboard went down with the ship. Those few survivors who had managed to struggle ashore were instructed never to speak of the incident.
The few survivors who claimed to have seen Kitchener in his final moments stated he had met his end with fortitude and resolution and had made no effort to escape the sinking ship.
The fate of the Hampshire has since been the cause of a myriad number of conspiracy theories; was it deliberately torpedoed on the orders of the British Government? Was it sabotaged by the Irish Republican Brotherhood which had previously made threats on Kitchener’s life? Or had a bomb been planted by disgruntled Boers still looking to avenge the Concentration Camps?
All have been suggested as reasons why the Hampshire met the end it did, but the truth is that a minefield had recently been laid in the area and that the Hampshire was just unlucky. Either way, the British Political Establishment breathed a huge sigh of relief. To paraphrase the Prime Minister’s wife Margaret Asquith on 6 June 1916, Kitchener – died a great poster, but not a great man.
Just a month after his death, the Volunteer Army that he had done so much to recruit and make combat-ready, Kitchener’s Army, had its first real test at the Battle of the Somme. It was a disaster, on the first day alone there were 60,000 British casualties, 21,000 of whom were killed.
His creation of Pals Battalions was to have a devastating impact on communities back home as large numbers of young men from the same town, village, and workplace were wiped out.
Lord Kitchener was a great hero to the British people in his own time even if not always to the Military High Command and Political Establishment he served; and both his reputation as a soldier and a politician have been frequently reassessed since his death but despite the frequent revisions one thing has remained constant – that poster.
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