Lord Kitchener was Secretary of State for War when World War One was declared on August 4th 1914. Lord Kitchener had been a career soldier and unlike many senior commanders in the UK Army, Kitchener did not believe that the war would be over by Christmas 1914. Kitchener informed the Cabinet of his views. He believed that World War One would last between three and four years and that the UK would have to mobilise millions of men if the war was to be won. It was a remarkably accurate prophecy.
Horatio Herbert Kitchener was born on June 24th 1850 at a small shooting lodge near Listowel, County Derry in Ireland. His father, a Colonel in the British Army, did not like schools and his sons were educated by a private tutor. In 1863, Kitchener’s mother became ill and in 1864 the whole family moved from Ireland to Switzerland where it was believed the climate would benefit her. It was not to be and she died in 1864. Kitchener’s father remarried in 1856. After a brief stay in New Zealand, he and his new wife settled in Brittany. Kitchener remained in Switzerland where he went to school. In January 1868, Kitchener passed the entrance exams for the Royal Military Academy and he passed out of the RMA in December 1870. After a brief spell fighting for the French Army in the Franco-Prussian War, Kitchener joined the School of Military Engineering based at Chatham, Kent.
Between 1871 and 1914, Kitchener had a varied but highly successful career. He served/worked in Palestine, Cyprus, Egypt and Zanzibar. Kitchener surveyed the River Nile (1884), fought at the Battle of Toski (1889), reorganised the Egyptian Police Force (1890/91). All along he set the most meticulous of standards and impressed his senior officers. In 1896, Kitchener was a Major General and in 1898 he fought in the Battle of Omdurman. In the following year Kitchener was appointed Governor General of Sudan with the rank of Lieutenant General. Kitchener fought in the Boer Wars where he held the rank of Commander-in-Chief South Africa as a full general. Between 1902 and 1909, he was Commander-in-Chief, India. In 1909, Kitchener was promoted to Field Marshal. As war clouds in Europe gathered in 1914, it was only natural that he was approached to join the Cabinet.
The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was pleased that Britain’s most eminent soldier had joined his Cabinet and Lloyd George likened Kitchener’s mind to a lighthouse – lighting up darkness. However, many in the Cabinet were sceptical of his prediction that the war would last beyond Xmas 1914. The general belief throughout the land was that World War One would be over in four short months and there was a rush to join the Army as few wanted to miss the action.
Kitchener’s role in the Cabinet was threefold. He was to manage national recruiting and this was to lead to the legendary ‘wants you’ poster. His second task was to oversee the management of the UK’s industries that now needed to be on a war footing. Kitchener’s third role was to be responsible for military strategy. It was a huge workload for a man who had no great desire to delegate. Kitchener did not have a general staff as all the most competent officers had gone to France with the British Expeditionary Force. Few would doubt that Kitchener put a great deal of effort into the work required but even he found the going hard. Kitchener was especially against being – as he saw it – harried by politicians. He believed that politicians had little if any idea how to manage anything remotely concerned with warfare and it soon became obvious that he and some members of the Cabinet would clash. On a number of occasions Kitchener threatened to resign because of what he saw as interfering politicians hounding him. However, Asquith could not afford to lose Kitchener from his Cabinet, as his status among the public was great. The one politician Kitchener did get on with was the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who was a veteran of the Boer War and had participated in warfare – so he understood the issues that Kitchener had to deal with. Kitchener developed the belief that other members of the Cabinet were nothing more than armchair generals who had little understanding of how to fight a modern war.
Kitchener had never disguised his attitude to the Territorial Army. He referred to them as ‘weekend warriors’ and believed that they could play no positive part in the war. He wanted an army made up of patriotic volunteers who would put their heart and soul into the campaign. Unlike many, he did not see the TA’s as fitting this description. On August 7th 1914, Kitchener made his first appeal for 100,000 volunteers. To begin with the adverts in the newspapers were very staid with the royal crest with “Your King and Country need you” followed by “A Call to Arms”. The adverts stated clearly stated an age range of 19 to 30. However, these adverts were replaced by Alfred Leete’s legendary poster that showed Kitchener pointing at the reader with “Your Country Needs You”. The response overwhelmed the army. In 18 months, 2,467,000 men joined up only to find that the army did not have enough rifles or uniforms.
The BEF in France was commanded by Sir John French. His overall plan as directed by the Cabinet was to fully cooperate with the French army. Kitchener expressed his belief that the BEF had not been pushed further forward towards the Belgium border. However, the BEF remained where Joffre wanted them to be. Kitchener advised Sir John French that retreat was unthinkable as it would have a devastating impact on the men in the BEF and could impact recruiting in the UK. The initial success of the German Army took both French and Joffre by surprise and French made plans to withdraw the BEF. Kitchener was horrified and ordered French to explain why he was even considering the move. French tried to convince Kitchener but failed and on September 1st Kitchener crossed to Channel to meet French. The meeting was private but those nearby stated that the raised voices indicated that it was a heated meeting. It finished with French agreeing to coordinate any of his moves with those of Joffre. It was at this time that the German advance faltered; the Battle of the Marne pushed the Germans back towards to River Aisne and stalemate kicked in with neither side knowing how to defeat the other. It was the start of trench warfare in World War One.
Kitchener soon found out that the loyalty that he could expect from the men who served under him in the army was not necessarily to be found at a political level. He was blamed by politicians for the so-called ‘shell shortage’. While he had accepted being in charge of the UK’s industries for the duration of the war, he could not have envisaged the sheer scale of the war when he took up the appointment in August 1914. No war in history had been fought on such an industrial scale and no country had ever had to adjust its industrial might accordingly. Industries then were still very heavy in terms of manpower. Yet here was a man cajoling as many young men as was possible to volunteer for the army. The shortfall in manpower was made up by using women. For many men set in their ways, it was a huge change in mindset.
Kitchener also received his share of blame for the Dardanelle’s disaster.
The combination of a lack of success on the Western Front, a huge increase in the number of casualties, the ‘shell shortage’ and the failure of the Dardanelle’s campaign greatly undermined Kitchener’s position. The newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe conducted a campaign against Kitchener in his newspapers and pushed for his resignation from the Cabinet. Kitchener’s authority was further undermined by the creation of a new Munitions Ministry under Lloyd George. This took over the running of the UK’s industries. To compensate Kitchener, he was made a Knight of the Garter on May 29th, 1915.
The Cabinet was in agreement over a withdrawal from the Dardanelle’s – all except Kitchener. He considered withdrawals to be a sign of weakness that would encourage the enemy. It was the same approach that had led to a breakdown in his relationship with Sir John French at the start of World War One. Many in the Cabinet felt that Kitchener had served his purpose but now had to move on. They pressed Asquith to either sack him or push him into resigning from the Cabinet. Asquith was in a difficult position because Kitchener was still something of a talisman to the public and a sacking would not be greeted well. Kitchener spared Asquith this problem when he offered to resign in November 1915. Asquith refused to accept it believing that his public aura, regardless of Northcliffe’s campaign, far outweighed the thoughts expressed by his Cabinet. However, Asquith did remove from Kitchener more of his responsibilities so that by the end of 1915, he was only in charge of administering the War Office. He finally resigned from the Cabinet when senior army commanders were given free access to the Cabinet – previously they had to go through Kitchener, which to some extent gave him control over who in the army met with the Cabinet and who did not.
In May 1916, Kitchener received an invite from Nicholas II, Tsar or Russia, to visit Russia and advise him on military matters. On June 5th Kitchener set sail from Scapa Flow for Russia on the cruiser ‘HMS Hampshire’. At about 19.00, the ‘Hampshire’ hit a German mine and within 15 minutes had sunk. 643 out of the 655 on board drowned or died of hypothermia. Kitchener was among the dead. While some bodies were later retrieved, his body was never found.
Even those with whom he had clashed paid tribute to him:
“It would be idle to pretend that in the past two years I have always seen eye to eye with the great Field Marshal who has been taken from us, but such divergence of opinion as occurred in no way interfered with the national interests nor did it ever shake any confidence in Lord Kitchener’s will, power and ability to meet the heavy demands I had to make upon him.”
A highly religious man, Kitchener once stated his own attitude: “Not to work to one’s full, is to defraud God.”
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