Horatio Herbert Kitchener was born on 24th June 1850 in County Derry in Ireland. His father, a Colonel in the British Army, insisted that his sons were educated by a private tutor. However, they soon moved to Switzerland where Kitchener remained while he attended school.
In January 1868, Kitchener passed the entrance exams for the Royal Military Academy and he passed out in December 1870. After a short amount of time fighting for the French Army in the Franco-Prussian War, Kitchener joined the School of Military Engineering in Chatham, Kent.
Between 1871 and 1914, Kitchener enjoyed a varied but successful career, working in a number of countries including Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine and Zanzibar. He had the opportunity to apply himself to many important projects, such as the survey of the Nile in 1884, fighting in the battle of Toski in 1889 and reorganising the Egyptian Police Force in 1890.
His work impressed senior officers, and he was promoted to Major General in 1896, and then to Govenor General of Sudan and Lieutenant General.
Kitchener went on to fight in the Boer War as Commander-in-Chief South Africa as a full general, and then acted as Commander-in-Chief in India between 1902 and 1909. After being promoted to Field Marshal in 1909, Kitchener was approached by to join the Cabinet.
Prime Minister of Great Britain Herbert Asquith was pleased to have Kitchener - arguably the most eminent soldier in the country - on board, but there were others in the Cabinet who were sceptical when he predicted that the war would last beyond Christmas 1914. In fact, the general belief was that World War One would be over in just four months, hence the rush of many to join the army.
Kitchener was given three main roles as part of his position in the Cabinet: managing national recruiting (which led to the legendary ‘wants you’ poster), overseeing the management of the UK’s industries during wartime, and to be responsible for military strategy.
Unfortunately, Kitchener was not adept at delegating and the workload proved large. He could not even appoint a general staff as all the officers deemed to be competent had been sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force.
Kitchener also struggled to share his workload with the politicians, due to his firm belief that they had little idea of how to manage warfare. His views were so strong, in fact, that he regularly threatened to resign as a result of “interfering”. However, due to Kitchener’s reputation among the public Asquith could not allow him to leave. Thankfully, Kitchener did get on well with First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill - a veteran of the Boer War who had fought in battle.
Kitchener made it clear that he felt the Territorial Army were simply ‘weekend warriors’ who would play no positive part in the war. Instead, he wanted patriotic volunteers who felt truly passionate about the campaign. On 7th August 1914, Kitchener made his first appeal for 100,000 volunteers, beginning with adverts featuring the royal crest that stated “Your King and Country need you” followed by “A Call to Arms” and an age range of 19 to 30.
However, the adverts were later changed to Alfred Leete’s legendary poster that showed Kitchener pointing at the reader alongside the line “Your Country Needs You”. The response was overwhelming, and in 18 months 2,467,000 men had joined up to an army that was actually unable to equip them all.
The BEF in France was commanded by Sir John French, whose plan was directed by the Cabinet and who was told to cooperate with the French army, including commander Joseph Joffre. Kitchener advised French early on that they must not retreat as it would have a huge impact on recruitment in Britain, as well as then men in the trenches.
Sadly, the initial strength of the German Army shocked both French and Joffre, and they made plans to withdraw the BEF. Kitchener was outraged and on 1st September he crossed the Channel to meet them. Kitchener eventually convinced the two commanders to coordinate their moves, so that the BEF was not acting alone and would not be forced to retreat.
It was following this conversation that the German advance began to falter; the Battle of Marne in particular saw the Germans pushed back towards the River Aisne, and so began the trench warfare of World War One.
Despite all the military loyalty Kitchener commanded, politicians began to blame him for any military issue that occurred, including the so-called shell shortage. While he was technically in charge of the UK industries, he could not have been aware of the industrial scale the war would reach when he took up his post in August 1914.
Kitchener also received part of the blame for the Dardanelle’s disaster and this, along with the shell shortage and the lack of success on the Western Front, began to undermine Kitchener’s position. Newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe capitalised on this, running a campaign against him and pushing for his resignation. His authority began to be undermined, and this was pushed further by the creation of a new Munitions Ministry under David Lloyd George, which took over the running of the UK’s industries. However, Kitchener received compensation in the form of being made a Knight of the Garter on 29th May 1915.
Many of the Cabinet started to suggest that Kitchener had served his purpose, and that now it was time for him to leave parliament. Asquith was pressed to either sack him or force him to resign, but was concerned about the public outcry this could prompt due to his still firm popularity among the public. However, Kitchener made this decision easier for Asquith by offering to resign in November 1915.
Asquith still believed Kitchener’s reputation was such that he could not allow him to leave, but he did remove more of his responsibilities so, bu the end of 1915, he was only responsible for administering the War Office. He eventually resigned from the Cabinet when senior army commanders were given free access, which meant they no longer had to go through Kitchener, and so removed his control.
In May 1916, Kitchener received an invitation from Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia, to visit and advise him on military matters. On 5th June, Kitchener set sail from Scapa Glow for Russia on the crosier HMS Hampshire. However, at 19:00, the ship was hit by a German mine and had sunk within 15 minutes. Of the 655 people on board, 643 were killed, including Lord Kitchener, whose body was never recovered.
Despite his controversial career, Kitchener still received tributes from all across the military and political spheres:
“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.”
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