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All the way with K of K

by Dr Sarah Engledow, 23 June 2016

Sarah Engledow bristles at the biographers’ neglect of Kitchener’s antipodean intervention.

Studio portrait of Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War, 1914 by J Russell & Sons
Studio portrait of Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War, 1914 by J Russell & Sons

For two hours on 13 November 1915, Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War and the face of World War 1, visited the freezing and verminous Anzacs at Gallipoli. As the men pressed in on him, he said ‘The King has asked me to tell you how splendidly he thinks you have done – you have done splendidly, better, even, than I thought you would’. Turning to his old friend William Birdwood, whom he himself had put in charge, he murmured ‘Thank God Birdie, I came to see this for myself ... I had no idea of the difficulties you were up against’. 

Lord Kitchener in the trenches at Anzac. General Birdwood on Kitchener’s right. Nov 1915 by Brooks, Ernest

In the glittering Edwardian period, Horatio Herbert Kitchener, First Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, was the hottest star in the firmament of the British Empire. He was born in Ireland to English parents in 1850. His mother was tubercular, and his father, a disappointed military man, was a monstrous bully. The Kitchener children were forced to inflict punishments their father devised upon each other. Herbert was once pegged out on his back on the lawn in the sun for hours, his splayed arms and legs roped to croquet hoops. The whole family, including frail Mrs Kitchener, slept under layers of newspapers because Colonel Kitchener loathed blankets. He also detested education. For a while, Herbert attended school in Switzerland, where his mother was confined to a sanatorium. Commissioned into the Royal Engineers in January 1871, he spent some years at the School of Military Engineering and a spell as an aide-de-camp, without hinting at the greatness he’d achieve.  

Kitchener hit his straps in his mid-twenties over four years with the Palestine Exploration Fund. Obsessively focused, leading teams working day and night, he brought the massive project of surveying Palestine in on time and under budget. By mid-1882, he had also mapped Cyprus. From this period, during which he grew his trademark lush moustache and began collecting ceramics, his career skyrocketed. In Egypt, in 1883, he was promoted to captain.  

Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, 1885 by Alexander Bassano

Egypt was nominally under the control of Turkey, but had come under effective control of Great Britain the previous year. Under the control of Egypt, in turn, was Sudan. When forces of the self-styled ‘Mahdi’, Muhammad Ahmad, sought supremacy in the Sudan, the British General Charles Gordon – who had profoundly alarming personal issues – was sent to evacuate Egyptians from the danger area. Instead, once he arrived in February 1884, the iron entered his soul: determined to rout the charismatic Mahdi (who, in the 1966 film Khartoum, was played by Laurence Olivier), he dug in, and got trapped. Up until July, the English parliament declined to send relief on the basis of cost and principle. Once rescuers were dispatched from Egypt, progress to Khartoum was slow. Kitchener, who spoke Arabic, rode disguised as an Arab in advance of the party. Gordon was killed and his head put on display in a Mahdist camp a couple of days before they arrived at the end of January 1885. Henceforth, despite the sudden death of the Mahdi himself in June 1885, most of Sudan remained under Mahdist control. 

Gordon had flouted his orders, but his death outraged the English and most white subjects of the Empire. Soon after he was killed, the New South Wales Government volunteered troops for the Sudan, even offering to pay for equipping and transporting them. It was the first time that soldiers paid by the government of an Australian colony were to engage in an imperial war. That said, as it transpired, their engagement was minimal. On 3 March 1885, 522 men, 24 officers and an artillery battery of 212 men sailed from Sydney Harbour amidst expressions of festivity. They arrived home on 19 June having drilled for weeks, and then guarded railway lines. 

Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, 1890 by Sir Hubert von Herkomer and Frederick Goodall

Sirdar of Egypt from 1892, Kitchener spent years training the army for the re-conquest of the Sudan. From 1896 he led Egyptian, Sudanese and English troops in a war against Mahdist forces that culminated in the massacre of thousands of ‘Dervishes’ at the Battle of Omdurman, and the blowing-up of the Mahdi’s tomb. (The fictional character of Corporal Jones in the British television series Dad’s Army served with Kitchener during the Gordon relief expedition, the re-conquest of the Sudan, the Boer War and World War 1.) Immediately afterward, Kitchener raced to Fashoda, where the French had planted the tricolore, diplomatically to restore British control in the easy French he had acquired in boyhood. He was created Baron Kitchener of Khartoum and Aspall in 1898, and was henceforth known as ‘K of K’, or simply ‘K’. 

Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, 1895 by Alexander Bassano

At the end of 1899, K was called to the South African (Boer) war, to act as chief of staff to Lord Roberts; he spent 1900 organising rail systems and securing supply lines. In November that year Kitchener became commander-in-chief. William Birdwood was amongst his trusted staff, who were often referred to as ‘Kitchener’s boys’. Ruthlessly, through 1901 and early 1902, Kitchener carried out a series of drives to round up Boer guerrillas, wiping out their support networks by razing their farms, killing their animals and collecting their families and supporters into ‘concentration camps’ (it was the first use of this term). In the camps, starvation and disease prevailed; the late historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who was no sensationalist, puts the fatalities at 28,000 Boer women and children,
and 50,000 Africans. 

About 16,000 Australians fought in the Boer war, and as many died of disease as through battle. At the end of February 1902, as the third, dirty phase of the conflict was coming to a close, ‘Breaker’ Morant and his friend Peter Handcock (who were, at that time, not part of an Australian force, but members of a British irregular unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers) were court-martialled and shot for murdering Boer prisoners and a German missionary. Although they didn’t deny killing their charges, they claimed that orders had come from the top – and the top was Kitchener – to ‘take no prisoners’. He makes a rigid yet sly villain in Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant, but there is no direct primary evidence that Kitchener gave the order to take no prisoners. Nor is it certain that he ordered their punishment to make an example of Morant and Handcock, curry favour with the Boers with whom he was attempting to negotiate a peace, appease the Germans, or provide a ‘firm but fair’ counterpoint to his own pitiless modus operandi with the Boers. 

Whatever Kitchener’s matrix of motives, the War Office statement, published in the London Times about five weeks after the executions, made no mention of any claim by Morant concerning instructions from up the line, nor of the defendants’ having been called to arms to help quell a Boer attack in Pietersburg while awaiting trial (which may have entitled them to ‘condonation’ under military law). Australians who persist in regarding ‘the Breaker’ as a hero or victim, and/or those who believe that the trial was shabbily conducted, bear an inextinguishable grudge against Kitchener for signing their warrants of execution, and also, just for being a stiff snob. By May 1902, Kitchener had punished the Boers – and then negotiated with them – to the extent that their leaders were prepared to sign the Treaty of Vereeniging in Pretoria.

After his South African success, K became Commander-in-Chief of Army in India (where Birdwood served with him again). There, he set about consolidating the country’s many large armies into one – all the time, personally, hoping to succeed Lord Curzon, who disliked him, as viceroy. At the end of his Indian period in mid-1909, the Australian prime minister Alfred Deakin cabled Kitchener, asking him to come to Australia to advise on laying down the foundations of a new national land defence system. As it happened, K was in need of a break; he replied to Deakin ‘I will be glad of this opportunity of meeting again men who served so well under me in South Africa, and to help ... with any advice I can give’. 

Field Marshal Lord Kitchener arrived in Darwin four days before Christmas 1909. Travelling with him at the public’s expense was his companion, Captain Oswald FitzGerald of the 18th Bengal Lancers. The men had met in 1907, and from that time, according to biographer Philip Magnus, ‘Kitchener never looked elsewhere, and their intimate association was happy and fortunate. FitzGerald, like Kitchener, was a bachelor and a natural celibate.’ Claiming to have sensed imperial ambitions in Japan – where, as in China, he had filled many trunks with ceramics, paying for many of them himself –  Kitchener found Darwin’s harbour promising, but its defences and communications wanting. Proceeding via Townsville, he was received with rapture in Brisbane on New Year’s Day. On January 4th he journeyed to Newcastle and evaluated Fort Scratchley, conducting himself with the reserve and taciturnity that was noted wherever he went; the local paper reported that ‘as cheer after cheer went up he remained perfectly composed, and but for the raising of his hat in response to the demonstration of welcome, might have been absolutely unconscious that he was the object of admiration and eulogy on all sides.’ On 5 January he took the train to Sydney. At Bathurst five days later, he unveiled a memorial to men lost in the Boer War. He was in Melbourne for a full week from the 11th; on 20 January he had a few hours in Adelaide, greeting old soldiers and taking afternoon tea at the Adelaide Club before departing on the Mooltan for Fremantle, where he arrived four days later. In Bunbury, he was presented with three trays of locally grown fruit; soon after, the Agricultural Society received his letter of thanks and congratulations. Meanwhile, Perth’s Western Mail wrote

‘The people of the Commonwealth are awakening to a real consciousness of their defencelessness and of the tempting prize their country offers ... The creator of army, a very marvel of organising genius, a sternly practical soldier of most exalted rank, comes along at the psychological moment, ready and willing to study our defence problem ... [and is] hailed everywhere with jubilation.’ 

Having spoken in favour of a ‘systematic, statesmanlike and comprehensive’ policy of railway extension throughout Australia – and, when pressed, having declared the Perth cadets to be ‘fine little chaps’ – the colossus of empire sailed from Albany on 29 January, carrying away a gift of Indigenous Australian weapons and apparel from the Museum. Less than a week later, he was to depart Melbourne for Tasmania; on 12 February, having returned to Melbourne, he departed for New Zealand. To a friend, he wrote that the most exhausting aspect of touring was the attention he received from local dignitaries; indeed, in Dunedin, the Mayor punched the prime minister, Joseph Ward, in the jaw, and shouldered him aside to take his seat next to Kitchener in a carriage (Kitchener, it was reported, didn’t blink an eyelid during the jealous exchange). 

Notwithstanding his incredible schedule of travel by almost every kind of vehicle that had yet been invented, Kitchener wrote his forty-five page report while he was on the move, and by the third week of February parts of its contents were being reported in Australian papers. In essence, the Kitchener Report took the Defence Act as its base, but presented a workable, practical scheme for compulsory part-time training for all males between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, which would lay the foundation for a standing army of 80,000 men for defence and a mobile striking force. About half the report was taken up with detailed instructions for the organisation of martial units around the country, and most of the rest set out a firm structure for the military college that had been proposed in the successive iterations of the Defence Act. In addition, commenting that Australian railways, in their current form, would be more favourable to an invading enemy than to the defence of the country itself, Kitchener strongly recommended the formation of a war railway council. In parliament, Deakin announced that Kitchener, having organised several armies already for the defence of the Empire, had knitted together the parts of the Act in a way that the government, having no pattern, could not have hoped to do. 

Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, 1910 by Bassano Ltd

Soon after the release of Kitchener’s report, an Australian, William Throsby Bridges, who had served in Africa in 1899, was headhunted as the first commandant of the military college. At the time, Bridges was not long into a post in London, and he was rather irritated about being pressed to come back, but the defence minister, Joseph Cook, was insistent. The Australian High Commissioner in London, Sir George Reid, sent Kitchener a marconigram asking him to meet Bridges there before the latter left for Australia in the Malwa; they exchanged their impressions of West Point, the American academy upon which, on Kitchener’s recommendation, the Australian college would be modelled. Although in March 1910 it was still expected that the college would be in Sydney, Bridges felt it should be away from the existing capital cities, and others favoured the site of the future national capital. An amendment to the Defence Act in January 1911 implemented most of the recommendations in Kitchener’s report. Bridges came to the federal territory in July that year, and nominated the site of Duntroon for the Royal Military College, which opened very soon afterwards. 

It was the implementation of the Kitchener Report that enabled the famous mobilisation of the AIF within six weeks of the declaration of the First World War in August 1914. With the perspective conferred by the passing of a hundred years, some historians have suggested that, while he spoke persuasively of defence, Kitchener’s object was always to facilitate the assembly of an Australian force capable of being roped into the war that many, by 1910, sensed was coming in Europe. On one hand, the time was right for K to foment Australians’ fear of Japan, which had been victorious over Russia in 1905, had ravaged the indigenous population of Taiwan, and was to annex Korea in 1910. On the other, it was discourteous of him, because after 1905 the British had signed a Treaty of Alliance with Japan, in which each power promised to come to the aid of the other in the event of an attack; Prince Arthur himself had conferred the Order of the Garter on the Emperor and the Order of Merit on General Togo. Whatever the old soldier’s private purpose, in October 1914, soon after he had been granted an earldom, it was reported that at his ‘personal request’ third-year class cadets at Duntroon Military College were to be attached to the Second Expeditionary Force as second lieutenants. As for William Throsby Bridges, he was to die in agony from a gunshot wound sustained at Gallipoli, twenty days after the landing.

Britons. Join Your Country’s Army! 1914 by Alfred Leete

Soon after returning to England in the wake of his long southern tour, Kitchener bought Broome Park, a sixteenth century estate lying between Canterbury and Dover. From that time all his leisure hours were dedicated to the renovation of the stupendous house and grounds, and its decoration with treasures he had received, purchased and looted from foreign lands. His balls had been the talk of all India, and at Broome Park, according to Magnus, he often entertained at home, taking immense pains to set his table and arrange flowers with his own hands (the biographer notes that it also pleased K to ‘attend personally to all the needs of his pet poodle’). Despite his contentment at home, K returned to Egypt as agent and consul-general from 1911 to 1914. In August that year – having never engaged in political debate, having never been noted for cooperation, and feeling himself to be an old man – he became Secretary of State for War. Within weeks, his became the gimlet-eyed face on a magazine cover that evolved into the world’s most-appropriated poster, bearing the words ‘Your Country Needs You’, or variants thereof. Throughout the first half of the war, as he frustrated his Cabinet colleagues more and more, he was to command massive public support which translated to huge-scale enlistment in ‘Kitchener’s Army’. In November 1914, Kitchener assigned to William Birdwood command of the forces raised by Australia and New Zealand for service in Europe. Birdwood reached Egypt, where the men were assembling, on 21 December 1914. By April, there were about 30,000 men and boys there from Australian and New Zealand, waiting to go to France.

Lord Kitchener's message to the troops, c. 1914–18

The British Expeditionary Force was floundering on the western front in the first half of 1915, and by mid-year, Kitchener was under media fire for its desperate shortage of shells. At the same time, he was wrangling with Winston Churchill – more than twenty years his junior, yet first lord of the Admiralty – over whether a new, logistically and geographically unrelated campaign in the Dardanelles was going to be a naval affair, with a few troops sent in to finish up what the gunboats and minesweepers had all-but achieved, or whether a major military presence would be required from the outset. Initially, Churchill seemed confident that a passage through the Dardanelles could be achieved by naval bombardment of Turkish positions, with the dreadnought Queen Elizabeth leading the assault, but increasingly, as weeks wore on, he entreated Kitchener to commit a substantial military force. Kitchener had been in favour of an attack on the Ottoman Empire via the Dardanelles, but had seen it as the navy’s business. Now, he had to choose between continuing to throw all military resources at the western front, and opening up an entirely fresh sphere of action on the ground in the Dardanelles, a campaign for which there was not even an adequate map. 

At the beginning of the war, less than six months earlier, England and Germany had both been keen to have Turkey as a best friend. Now, nobody really knew what the Turks were doing, or how much support Germany was providing to them. Nobody knew what the consequences of victory against the Turks would even look like; many of the suggested outcomes, to do with alliances and division of spoils, were conjectural. For the secretary of state for war, there was simply too much going on for a decision to be made, let alone explained. While the issue of the number and role of troops was still hazy (as it remained), Churchill began the naval campaign precipitately on 19 February, thinking to capitalise on a Turkish shortage of ammunition. On March 10, Kitchener agreed to dispatch the English 29th division, who’d been destined for France, ‘on loan’. 

Lord Kitchener, Chief of the British General Staff, visiting British troops in the trenches, Dardanelles Area, Turkey. Nov 1915. by unknown

The rest is history well-known to Australians. Starting on 25 April, more than 8000 Australians were to die in the Dardanelles campaign; as well as perhaps 213,000 British men, about 34,000 of them from the 29th Division; ten thousand French troops, many of them Senegalese; and a thousand Indians. More than half of the British died of disease. Nothing was gained, and none can say what was lost on the Western front through the diversion of troops to Turkey. To the last, nonetheless, Kitchener hated the idea of a withdrawal from the Dardanelles because he feared a ‘conflagration’ if the British were to lose face in the Muslim world (there were, for example, about 60 million Muslims in India). Still, he was moved by the conduct and condition of the men he met and heard about at Gallipoli. All his life, Birdwood, who credited Kitchener as his greatest influence, was to remember how, during K’s visit there in November, ‘he squeezed my arm and pressed it. He was normally so very undemonstrative’. In the weeks that followed, with great reluctance and in fear of the immediate outcome and subsequent ramifications, Kitchener recommended an evacuation to the War Cabinet. As it transpired, the covert removal of some 40,000 troops, planned by the Australian Charles Brudenell White and completed on the night of 19–20 December 1915, was a triumph. 

Kitchener’s is no longer a household name. Yet all kinds of depictions of him remain, including a life-sized marble figure of the man in full regalia sculpted by Reid Dick that lies in its own chapel in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. The National Portrait Gallery of Australia has recently purchased a more modest representation of K, whittled from jarrah and not much bigger than an Action Man. Its maker, William Howitt, began his career in the United Kingdom, decorating ships’ interiors and fashioning ecclesiastical trappings. Arriving in Melbourne in 1888, he established a sufficient reputation to be commissioned, in 1896, to make the pulpit, bishop’s throne and other furnishings for St Paul’s Cathedral. About three years later he moved to Perth, where he taught and sculpted with success. 

Howitt worked in a variety of native timbers, but he favoured jarrah, in which he produced reliefs that were displayed at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 and in San Francisco in 1915. In between, in 1904, his sectional model of the Great Boulder Mine was presented to the Princess of Wales. His idiosyncratic magnum opus, teaming a peace-themed sideboard with a dining suite and occasional table incorporating medallion portraits of leaders of World War 1, including Kitchener, Birdwood, Joffre, Haig and the Maharajah of Bikaner, was carved over a period of six years while he was attached to a property belonging to Western Australia’s pioneering Hardey family. The furniture, and the figurine, were auctioned from the Hardey collection in 2015. It is not clear whether the figure was made concurrently with the furniture or dates from the exhilarating days of K’s visit to Western Australia, when he slipped ashore unperceived at the wrong end of the quay, rendering the official welcome a farce.  

By the end of 1915, Kitchener’s Cabinet colleagues were thoroughly exasperated by his way of working, and the responsibilities he’d borne alone – incredibly – until then, were divided. Yet the citizens of Empire were united in shocked dismay when in June 1916, hms Hampshire, on which K and Captain FitzGerald were travelling to Archangel, came into contact with a German mine not far out of Scapa Flow. Kitchener’s body was never found; FitzGerald’s washed ashore. K’s will had left his great Kenyan landholdings (traditional lands of the Nandi people) to FitzGerald, but inheritance issues were complicated by uncertainty as to which man died first. 

The commission of enquiry into the Dardanelles campaign opened a month after K’s disappearance. Because he was unable to speak for himself, he was largely omitted from liability for the poor planning, supply problems, procrastination and personality clashes identified by the commission in its final report into the affair, nearly a hundred years old, but apt to give rise to hot tears to this day. Lest we forget. 

We acknowledge the gracious assistance of the National Portrait Gallery, London in providing a number of images of works from their Collection for this article.

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