Field Marshal Kitchener Wants YOU!
Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener is an iconic figure. Even if you don’t think you know who he is, you know who he is — he’s the guy on the left. The guy with the moustache. The guy who wants YOU.
Lord Kitchener was The Guy On The Poster is because at the time it was made, everybody knew who he was. He was famous for enforcing the Imperial presence in Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, and India. In 1914, when World War One was declared, he became a cabinet minister — the Secretary of State for War. It was a natural appointment for the man who was emblematic of the success of the British Empire.
And perhaps it was just as natural that his image should become associated with the failure that was the Great War. The Kitchener Poster now speaks to the stupid arrogance of the British Empire’s old-school officer class, of the leadership who thought the troops would be Home By Christmas, of the decision to kill and maim millions of young men. It reminds us of the Wilfred Owen poem, in which the old man refused to sacrifice “the Ram of Pride”, but instead “slew his son/and half the seed of Europe, one by one”.
Lord Kitchener was popular during his lifetime. During WWI, he enjoyed the loyalty of the British volunteer soldiers (these men were even referred to as “Kitchener’s Army”) and the high opinion of the British public. On the other hand, his fellow cabinet-ministers had little confidence in him, going so far as to say that he “made a better poster than a general”. In short, they believed he was just a pretty face; his place in the cabinet was due not to his military competence, but to his popularity and the legitimacy he conferred on the war effort.
The following is an exploration of Kitchener’s life and career through the images that made him a household name. It also explores the complexity of the man behind the icon. Was he really no more than a pretty face?
Horatio Herbert Kitchener began his military career with the Royal Engineers as a surveyor and map-maker in what was then Western Palestine. He subsequently served in Turkey and Egypt. In 1892, he was named Sirdar — the British commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army.
As Sirdar, he began the British reconquest of Sudan. He moved his forces slowly up the Nile river, building a railway to ensure supply lines, and met the Sudanese rebel forces at Khartoum. The Sudanese rebels were led by Abdullah al-Taashi, who had succeeded a self-proclaimed messiah figure, the Mahdi Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad. Unfortunately for the Sudanese, while they vastly outnumbered the British, they were armed with rifles and spears. The British had the Maxim gun, the first self-powered machine gun.
The Battle of Omdurman was a defining moment in Kitchener’s career. The Sudanese lost 10,000 men; an additional 13,000 were wounded, with 5,000 taken prisoner. By contrast, Kitchener’s force got off very lightly, with only 47 killed and 382 wounded. The British public loved him for his overwhelming victory. The British ruling elite appreciated his methodical command style and his efficient use of military resources.
A few weeks after the Battle of Omdurman, Kitchener achieved another important victory — this time diplomatic in nature. As is often the case in the pesky nature of colonial expansion, the French believed decided that they, too, had a claim to the Sudan (the wishes of the Sudanese people were not consulted in this matter). The two nations were on the brink of war. Due in part to the French foreign minister’s wish to gain the assistance of Britain in any future conflicts with Germany, Lord Kitchener was able to talk Marchand into standing down.
To commemorate his successes, Horatio Herbert Kitchener was created Baron of Khartoum in 1898. He was given the nickname “K of K” in the press and enjoyed the high opinion of the public. However, he was not without his critics. A young officer by the name of Winston Churchill, who had also served in the Sudanese campaign, thought that he was a little too brutal about killing the wounded Sudanese.
Lord Kitchener’s next campaign of note was the Second Boer War in South Africa. The reasons for the war are complex, but can be boiled down to conflicts between British emigrants to the area, and the Dutch Boers who had preceded them (as for the African residents, who had actually been there first, once again their wishes were not consulted).
The Boers had begun by besieging garrisons of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberly. In December if 1889, Kitchener arrived as second in command to Lord Roberts, who was leading a surge of British troops to relieve the sieges. A year later, after the defeat of the conventional Boer forces, Lord Kitchener succeeded Roberts.
The war, however, was not over; many Boers were determined to continue it in guerilla fashion. Kitchener realized that fighting the guerillas would require protecting British supply lines from sabotage. He employed armored trains and fortified blockhouses at key points to protect railways. Blockhouses were also built at bridges. They were linked with barbed wire and patrolled nightly.
The other key to fighting the guerillas was to restrict their own access to supplies as well as their freedom of movement. Kitchener, having inherited a “scorched earth” policy from Roberts, continued and expanded that policy. The homes and crops of Boer landholders were burned to the ground restrict the guerillas’ sources of food and refuge. As for the civilians who had been actually living on those farms, they were rounded up and interred in concentration camps. These camps lacked food, medicine, or adequate sanitation to support the large numbers of women, children, and elderly civilians who were interred there. 34.4% of those interred in the camps died there. Most of the dead were children.
The treatment of Boer civilians was not popular when it reached the British public. Support for the war, which had gone on much longer than anticipated, was already waning. The idea that British officers and gentlemen could round up white women and children and subject them to camp conditions was appalling (black Africans were also rounded up and interred in separate camps; little concern was shown for them). In 1901, Kitchener wrote to a member of parliament stating that no more Boers were being taken into the camps.
What Kitchener failed to mention is that the Boer civilians, whose livelihoods had been decimated, were left to be supported by the guerilla fighters. The guerillas lacked supplies themselves, and were further handicapped by the civilian presence. It was a shrewd, cynical maneuver that gave the Boers one more reason to surrender.
In the mean time, it was convenient for the British Army to show that it was taking steps to discipline those who had mistreated Boer prisoners. The Breaker Morant case was a perfect opportunity to make an example out of a low-ranking officer. Australian Lieutenants Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton were court-martialed, accused of summarily executing eight Boer prisoners of war. Breaker Morant admitted to the executions, defending his actions on the grounds that he was following a “shoot to kill” order. The court martial was highly irregular, with important witnesses transferred out of South Africa, evidence being withheld by the prosecution, and other procedural problems.
Breaker Morant and Peter Handcock were found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad. Lord Kitchener signed the orders himself. George Witton’s sentence was commuted, also by Kitchener. Oddly, no official account of the trial survives, leaving Witton’s account of the case as the only primary source.
Lord Kitchener happened to be in London on leave in August of 1914. He was planning to retire. Then World War I broke out.
Prime Minister Asquith quickly appointed Kitchener to be Secretary of State for War (the title is usually shortened to “War Secretary”). He was well-known, widely liked, and inspired the public’s confidence. As War Secretary he would have three main responsibilities: he would oversee recruitment, he would mobilize industry for the war effort, and he would be responsible for Britain’s general strategy for the war.
From the beginning, he suffered with friction from the rest of the cabinet, most of whom lacked his experience in warfare. He resented interference from career politicians, who he saw as “armchair generals”. For their part, the rest of the cabinet could not understand Kitchener’s insistence that the war would long and arduous. They thought the troops would be home by Christmas.
Lord Kitchener threatened to resign from Asquith’s cabinet many times over his clashes with other members. However, Asquith needed the legitimacy that Kitchener conferred on his wartime government. The only member of Asquith’s government Kitchener could tolerate was a man by the name of Winston Churchill, who was himself a veteran of the Sudan and of the Boer Wars.
When Britain entered WWI, it had little in the way of a standing army. Germany was the strongest military power on the planet. Alone among members of Asquith’s government, Kitchener foresaw that the Great War would be a long slog, lasting at least three years and taxing the Allies’ manpower sorely. The public, like the cabinet, believed that the war would be over in a few months. Young men signed up in droves, afraid of “missing the action”.
One of Kitchener’s tragic miscalculations was the encouragement of “pal battalions”. He believed that people would volunteer more readily, and would enjoy higher fighting morale, if they were allowed to serve alongside with people they knew. These “pal battalions” consisted of young men from the same village, or the same school, or the same workplace. When these battalions were sent over the top, their home towns suffered disproportionate losses.
Kitchener believed that Britain could only win the war by means of attrition. Germany had better ground, and they were years ahead of Britain in terms of their war machine. Britain’s only hope, as Kitchener saw it, was to wear down the German army over the course of years. All the while he would keep a large number of troops in reserve to be deployed to overwhelm the Germans were exhausted. Kitchener believed that the British Army would need at least a million new men in order to accomplish this.
Ironically, the large numbers of volunteers who responded to his call found themselves, in many cases, without rifles and uniforms. War production had not caught up with the new army’s demand for supplies, and the new troops could not be sent to France if Kitchener had wanted to send them. Most of Kitchener’s Army would not see action until after his death — at the bloody Somme offensive in 1916.
The Gallipoli campaign was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty. The Ottoman Empire had entered the war in October of 1914. By joining with Germany and Austria-Hungary, they prevented the British and French from supplying the Russians by sea. Churchill believed that some of the Royal Navy’s older vessels could be employed to capture the Gallipoli peninsula. The Allies would then control the adjoining Dardanelles straits, and would be able to send supply ships to Russia from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
Churchill originally believed that the Gallipoli could be secured by naval operations alone. In February of 1915, he send a fleet of French and British vessels — those that were deemed obsolete, and useless against the German navy — to secure the peninsula. The ships faced shelling from Ottoman forts, and many were destroyed by mines. These losses were deemed unacceptable, and the fleet withdrew.
After the naval failure, Kitchener allowed Churchill to attempt a ground assault. In spite of the Ottomans’ having bested their fleet, it seems that the British leadership simply proceded on the assumption of the inferiority of Ottoman forces. In the six weeks it took the Allies six weeks to mobilize their army, the Ottomans prepared their defenses. The Gallipoli Campaign began in April of 1915. When it ended in January of 1916, both sides had suffered a total of half a million casualties. The affair was nicknamed “The Dardanelles Disaster”.
The Dardanelles Disaster coincided with the Shell Crisis of 1915. The crisis began when Sir John French, then Commander-in-Chief of British forces on the Western Front, was quoted in The Times as blaming the loss of the Battle of Aubers Ridge on an insufficiency of munitions. The Guardian carried the story in a more sensationalist style under the headline “Lord K’s Tragic Blunder!”.
The Shell Crisis forced Asquith to re-form the government as a coalition. Conservative politician David Lloyd George was named Munitions Minister. Lord Kitchener, still popular, was kept on as Secretary of State, but with significantly reduced responsibilities; he lost control over war production, and was marginalized as a military strategist.
In June of 1916, Lord Kitchener was sent to Russia to perform a diplomatic mission. He was travelling on the armored cruiser HMS Hampshire in a force nine gale when it hit a German mine and sank off the Orkney Islands. Of the 655 crew aboard, 643 perished. Lord Kitchener’s body was never found. David Lloyd George succeeded him as War Secretary.
Less than a month after Kitchener’s death, on July 1st, 1916, the Battle of the Somme commenced. Many of the young men who had enlisted in response to Kitchener’s entreaties went over the top. For most of them, it was the first action they had ever seen. For all too many, it would be the last.
The Battle of the Somme has become a by-word for military incompetence. The battle began in July 1916 and continued until mid-November. By that point there were a total of a million casualties on both sides. British casualties numbered more than 350,000; the North of England, which had supplied many of the Pals Battalions, was particularly hard hit. The dead included Raymond Asquith, son of Prime Minister Asquith. Asquith himself was forced out of government in December of 1916, to be succeeded by Lloyd George.
The Somme has a complex historical legacy. Many leaders were opposed to the offensive. Kitchener had hoped to keep his “new army” in reserve. General Douglas Rawlinson, serving at the time under General Haig, opposed a massive infantry maneuver. General Ferdiand Foch, who would become Marshal of France later in the war, thought that the Somme offensive would achieve little. Indeed, by the end of the offensive, the Allies had gained only 7 miles at the point of deepest penetration. According to some calculations, the British lost two men for every centimeter of ground gained.
In recent years, historians have come to believe that the Somme was “politically and militarily inevitable”. The Somme may have marked the beginning of the Western Front attrition that would ultimately result in victory for the Allies. Kitchener himself foresaw this attrition; the German forces were ground down, and the Allies were assisted by the arrival of fresh “reserve” troops when the United States entered the war in 1917.
As the face of the British “new army”, it is natural that Lord Kitchener should come to be blamed for the tragic mistakes of WWI. In the comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, the military leadership is represented by the character of General Melchett, played by Stephen Fry. Like Kitchener, Melchett wears his dark hair slicked back and sports an enormous walrus moustache. He is portrayed as foolish, arrogant, and careless of the lives of men under his command.
I’ve always conflated Lord Kitchener and General Melchett in my mind. I see the Kitchener Poster and I hear Stephen Fry’s voice saying “Your Country Needs You! Baaaaaah!” There was something comforting, I think, in seeing Kitchener and his ilk as buffoons; if they were genuinely stupid people, it would explain the waste and bloodshed, not just in World War One but throughout Britain’s colonial wars.
It is much less comforting to realize that Kitchener was a competent military strategist, and that the choices he made were deliberate and considered. He knew that war is psychological as well as military. He knew that by slaying the wounded at Omdurman, by burning the Boers out of their homes, he was attacking the morale of his enemy. Likewise, he knew that Germany held many advantages in the Western Front, and that Britain’s only choice was to maintain a standstill until attrition could be achieved.
He may not have known how to fight a modern war — nobody did, because nobody had done it before — but he knew that the casualty rates would be appalling, that Britain’s victory would only be assured by the “last million” men it could throw into battle. He knew that Britain would need a new kind of army. He told the young men of that nation that their country “Needs YOU!”, knowing that they would join up, knowing that many would never come home again.