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Kitchener of Khartoum

Field Marshal 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum and Broome KG, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCMG, GCIE, ADC, PC

The Career

Herbert Horatio Kitchener was born in 1850. He was educated by private tutors and at a boarding school in Switzerland and later at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1871.

As a young officer he was employed on the survey of the Holy Land and of Cyprus before being seconded to the Egyptian Army. Disguised as an Arab, he operated an intelligence service behind enemy lines during General Wolseley’s unsuccessful expedition to relieve Khartoum where General Charles Gordon was besieged by the Mahdi. He was the first to meet refugees from that city bearing news of its fall and Gordon’s death on 26th January 1885.

After holding several high command and administrative posts in Egypt, Kitchener was made Sirdar (Commander-in- Chief) of the Egyptian Army in 1892, and, in 1896, he led a combined British and Egyptian force whose aim was the reconquest of the Sudan. At the final battle in Omdurman on 2nd September 1898, his British and Egyptian troops overcame 50,000 dervishes under the Khalifa, who succeeded the Mahdi. Kitchener was raised to the peerage and made Governor-General of the Sudan where he laid the foundations of an enlightened civil administration and set up a university in Khartoum, which bore Gordon’s name.

During the South African War, he was Chief of Staff to Lord Roberts, and later succeeded him as Commander-in-Chief bringing the war to a conclusion in 1902. Kitchener’s vision of the needs of the future South African nation, as well as his chivalrous attitude to the defeated Boers was to influence its people in giving whole-hearted and much-valued support to the British cause in two world wars.

From 1903 to 1909 Kitchener was Commander-in-Chief in India. In 1911 Kitchener returned once more to Egypt as Consul-General, where he introduced vast land reclamation and irrigation projects, school buildings and native industry programmes together with legal reforms to protect the smallholder from the clutches of the moneylender.

On 3rd August 1914 Kitchener was summoned to London from the cross-channel steamer he was on to become Secretary of State for War. He was one of the few European statesmen or soldiers who envisaged a world war that could last four years. He alone believed in the possibility of raising a vast volunteer national Army, and at his personal call over three million men came forward to join the colours at the time of their country’s great need.

On 5th June 1916 Kitchener embarked for Russia on the cruiser HMS Hampshire on a mission designed to strengthen co-operation between the Allies on the Western and Eastern fronts. Shortly after setting off the cruiser struck a mine and was lost with all on board except for a handful of the ship’s company.
Thus died Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, a soldier and statesman whose name will go down in history alongside those of Marlborough and Wellington.

Crotta House, Kitchener’s childhood home in Ireland.

The Man

Lord Kitchener was an extraordinary man with many accomplishments: a successful military leader and administrator with important campaign victories and a dedicated approach to planning and thorough preparation. His role in recruitment and the training of the new armies in the First World War are widely regarded as decisive for eventual victory; Kitchener was a pillar of the British Empire as a pre-eminent colonial Pro-Consul with successful spells in governing complex territories such as the Sudan. Whilst Kitchener found the close confines of politics challenging, even distasteful, he held his own in the wartime cabinet and Parliament between 1914 and 1916 facing an almost overwhelming set of challenges. He had also been magnanimous in presiding over the peace settlement at the end of the very bitter Boer War and performed assignments to the satisfaction of his political masters in managing the ‘Fashoda Incident’ effectively as well as the complicated governance of the Indian Raj.

Something of an outsider, Kitchener did not have the typical establishment upbringing at public school and then Oxbridge. Instead of Sandhurst, Kitchener chose the more practical environment of Woolwich for his initial military training; equally, he was raised in Ireland and Switzerland and thereafter spent most of his adult life outside the UK, demonstrating amazing adaptability and confidence. As a personality he tended to be reserved and taciturn, but as a leader commanding and inspirational. Sometimes a loner and dictatorial, he provoked negative reactions from time to time, hated or traduced by some, almost worshipped by others. Historians have discussed episodes in the Sudan and during the Boer War when Kitchener is associated with incidents of contemporarily-criticised cruelty; but there is no evidence that this exceeded the requirements that he selected to achieve the results that his nation demanded or signified a dark or cruel side to him.

Visit to 22 General Hospital, Pretoria – 14 June 1902.

With a physically impressive military bearing and his trademark moustache, he became an iconic legend whose exploits were followed by millions, as exemplified in the celebrated recruiting posters. He had some refined interests and accomplishments: surveyor, mapmaker, archaeologist, collector of ceramics, as well as being a fluent Arabic and French speaker. The patient pursuit of the mapping and survey work in Palestine and Cyprus provides very solid evidence of his commitment to thoroughness.

For Kitchener as a man, there have been controversies, for example, rumours about his sexuality, but never anything concrete. Professionally, Kitchener relied on close confidantes among a circle of army officers in all the theatres in which he operated. Kitchener remained unmarried, despite a brief engagement to a young lady, who sadly died before a marriage could take place. It is fair to state that he was overwhelmingly committed to his military and imperial roles, whilst relying on support from a range of friends and companions of both sexes.

There have also been conspiracy theories about the circumstances of his death, never proven and no longer a matter of serious debate. The simple fact is his sudden death (the most senior military person to die on active duty in the First World War) caused a massive wave of both sorrow and adulation – it was clearly a very poignant tragedy.

One of the last photographs taken of Lord Kitchener aboard HMS Iron Duke at Scapa Flow – 5 June 1916.