Horatio Herbert Kitchener

Horatio Herbert Kitchener
Horatio Herbert Kitchener

Herbert, first earl Kitchener of Khartoum and of Broome, was born near Listowel in County Kerry, Ireland, to English parents, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Kitchener, a retired army officer, and his first wife, Frances Anne.

He attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, graduating in 1870 and receiving his commission in the Royal Engineers the following year. He spent his early years in the army engaged in survey work in Palestine and Cyprus before accepting an assignment in Egypt in 1882, where through hard work and dedication he earned rapid promotion.

In 1898, as sirdar (commander in chief) of the Egyptian army, he completed the reconquest of the Sudan by destroying a Mahdist army at Omdurman with a force half the size of the Mahdi's. He soon learned that a small French expedition under Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand had cut across central Africa and planted the French flag at Fashoda.

Loading five gunboats with soldiers, Kitchener headed upriver and confronted Marchand, forestalling his efforts to establish French sovereignty over parts of the Sudan. Returning home, Kitchener was raised to the peerage as Baron Kitchener of Khartoum and appointed governor of the Sudan.

After a series of losses by British forces in the Boer War, Kitchener was sent to South Africa in 1899 to serve as the chief of staff to Lord Roberts. The following year Roberts, having defeated the main Boer armies, turned command over to Kitchener. But the war was far from over, as the Boers adopted guerrilla warfare; Kitchener responded by adopting drastic measures that wore down the Boers, who accepted peace terms in 1902.

Back in England, he was created viscount and took up the post of commander in chief of the army in India. Although bitterly disappointed that he had not been appointed viceroy of India, he accepted the post of British agent and consul general in Egypt in 1911. As virtual ruler of Egypt, Kitchener devoted himself to developing its economic resources and protecting and improving the interests of the fellaheen (peasants). For his services he earned an earldom in 1914.

When it appeared that war with Germany was imminent in August 1914, Kitchener was appointed secretary of state for war. As he was the most acclaimed soldier in the land, his cabinet colleagues stood in awe of him and in the beginning allowed him to run the war as he saw fit. Kitchener alone believed that the war would last at least three years and that to win Britain would need to place a million-man army in the field.

To that end, he would need to depend on patriotic enlistment, not conscription, which would not be adopted in Britain until the spring of 1916. Aiming for 70 divisions, as compared to the six available in 1914, Kitchener's recruitment campaign, highlighted by his famous poster "Your Country Needs You," drew in nearly 2.5 million volunteers.

Kitchener poster: Your country needs you
Kitchener poster: Your country needs you

His second great service was to prevent Sir John French, commander in chief of the British army, from quitting the battle line in September 1914, a move that would have led to the piecemeal defeat of the Allies.

The onset of trench warfare at the close of 1914 gave rise to many unprecedented problems. Exacerbating the difficulties were the politicians, who intervened repeatedly in the conduct of the war, dragging the country into three disastrous expeditions in 1915: Gallipoli, Salonika, and Mesopotamia.

Coinciding with the ill-advised sideshows were the French's badly bungled operations on the western front, with each defeat contributing to the erosion of Kitchener's once immense reputation. Though they were hardly his fault, he was held responsible as the supreme warlord when things went wrong.

An influential section of the cabinet came to see his methods as the principal cause of the defeats, rather than the outcome of their own interference, and gradually stripped him of much of his authority.

Late in May 1916, Kitchener accepted an invitation to visit Russia in the hope that he could use his influence to bolster the waning enthusiasm of the Russian armies. On June 5 the cruiser HMS Hampshire, carrying Kitchener to Archangel, hit a mine and sank, and practically everyone aboard, including Kitchener, were lost.

Recent scholarship has refuted many myths about Kitchener that his detractors circulated after his death. That he made mistakes is undeniable; he refused to admit his cabinet colleagues into his confidence, was unable or unwilling to delegate authority, and tended to ignore the Imperial General Staff. That said, his accomplishments greatly overshadowed his errors.

He not only single-handedly kept Britain in the war when the French wanted to cut and run, but also built a formidable army, which sustained the Allies in the war, stepping into the breach left by the collapse of Russia and the exhaustion of France. When everything is said and done, it can be fairly claimed that Kitchener contributed more to the victory of the Allies than any other single individual.