There was plenty going on in the world at war as summer got underway in 1916, more than enough to leave me well off the pace and backdating a bunch of posts for the same crowded week. But with offensives on progress on all three European fronts, and Arab rebellion erupting in the Middle East, the headline story in British newspapers on 7 June mourned the loss of a national hero and icon, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum. I’m not going to shine any surprising lights on the War here, and Kitchener’s pretty much the business of the heritage trade, but I can’t resist a few words around the centenary of his passing.
Kitchener had been drowned just off the Orkney Isles on 5 June, when a mine sank the cruiser, Hampshire, which was taking him from Scapa Flow to Archangel for talks with the Russian Tsar. Viewed by the British press and public as a national disaster, and the most senior military fatality of the War to date, his death came as a considerable relief to the British government… and thereby hangs a whole bunch of conspiracy theories.
A ruthlessly effective colonial campaigner, and a former governor of Egypt famous for quelling tribal rebellion in the Sudan, Kitchener was Britain’s most eminent soldier when war broke out, towering above the rest of the Army establishment. Too old for active service at 64, he was a natural, popular and almost inevitable choice as war minister – but not a particularly practical one.
Horatio Kitchener was a very strange and remote person. Vain, arrogant and taciturn to the point of mysticism, he made no secret of his contempt for politicians – and little attempt to behave like one. His stern, mandarin air brooked no debate, and he saw no need to keep ministers informed about military strategy, let alone about the thinking behind it.
Naturally enough, Kitchener didn’t explain why he, alone among senior European strategists, believed in August 1914 that the coming conflict would last for years and cost millions of lives – but he did institute the immediate creation of a volunteer mass army for the purpose, becoming in the process the most famous recruitment poster in the history of the world, ever. Mass recruitment proved vital when stalemate on the Western Front called for huge numbers of British reinforcements, but the flood of volunteers unleashed by Kitchener’s appeal also disrupted labour distribution and contributed to the major supply problems suffered by the BEF in 1915 (15 May, 1915: The Blame Game).
As war minister, Kitchener took some of the blame for supply problems, and by late 1915 his popular reputation as a politician was somewhat tarnished. As a strategist, he generally gave solid, largely silent support to concentration on the Western Front, but he also backed Churchill’s Dardanelles adventure in 1915, only to indulge in a bout of opaque wavering as the campaign developed. His uncertainty promoted continued but half-hearted commitment of military resources to Gallipoli, and his prestige took a further hit when the shambles came to an ignominious end. Subsequently a trenchant ‘westerner’, but no longer influential enough to prevent extended commitment of Anglo-French forces to Salonika, he offered his resignation in early 1916.
The rest of the government was, to a man, desperate to be rid of Kitchener, but his resignation was turned down. The scourge of the Sudan was still a popular love object, and amid the gathering war weariness of early 1916 the government needed all the friends it could keep. On the other hand a spell of respite from the big, brooding bully with the piercing blue eyes was an irresistible temptation, so when talks in Russia called for a delegate of genuine international standing, Kitchener was offered the job. Happy to accept a respite from the travails of office, the old colonial butcher headed for Scapa Flow and oblivion.
This was a convenient death, providing an heroic end for a national hero while freeing the national war effort from his baleful influence… and nothing so convenient reaches posterity without attention from conspiracy theorists. The first targets for public suspicion were German saboteurs, soon joined by Communists, anarchists, Irish republicans and the other usual suspects, including a brief fashion for blaming vengeful victims of Kitchener’s ruthless conduct during the Boer War. In the century since the Hampshire‘s demise, and with no credible supporting evidence, theorists have gone on to suggest collusion by the British government, a plot by a cabal of British admirals and grandees, and a host of the other unlikely scenarios. I could spend time explaining the weaknesses that render all of them at best unlikely, at worst ridiculous, but think Kennedy, Robert Maxwell or Princess Diana and you should get the message.
Having doffed an acknowledgment to the sudden, noisy departure of a man whose career spanned Britain’s uncomfortable transition from late-nineteenth century colonialism to twentieth-century realpolitik, I’m happy to leave more detailed examination of the Field Marshal’s legacy to the commemorative industries – just so long as we’re clear about the conspiracy theories.