Despite rough seas, the HMS Hampshire was making good time on June 5th, 1916. Having left the main British naval base in Scapa Flow, Scotland, the cruiser was easily outrunning its destroyer escort.
With the wound of Jutland fresh in the minds of the admiralty, the HMS Hampshire had been assigned a circuitous route through the Orkney Islands to avoid German U-boats and yet another British naval casualty. Besides, the HMS Hampshire was carrying precious cargo – the Secretary of State for War, Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener. The man whose image had called millions of Britons to service in the Great War, had seen his political star dim by 1916, as his support of tertiary British fronts and efforts just short of conscription hadn’t produced his promised results. Still, Kitchener maintained some of his pre-war aura as the heroic pragmatist with a golden touch. His dire warnings on British manpower – that the war would be won by the nation capable of finding the “last million men” – had echoed in the halls of power only months earlier.
Kitchener’s mission aboard the HMS Hampshire had him en route to the Russian port of Arkhangelsk, where the Secretary was charged with negotiating yet another agreement for supplies with the Tsar’s failing government. He would never arrive.
At 7pm, an explosion tore through the hull of the HMS Hampshire – the victim of a U-boat placed mine. The ship starting listing immediately, on it’s way to sinking within 15 minutes. As sailors scrambled towards the few lifeboats that were being lowered, a figure caught their eye. Standing calmly on the starboard side of the vessel, casually chatting with fellow officers was the War Secretary himself. It would be the last time anyone would see Lord Kitchener again.
“We hoped against hope, but no doubt now remains. A great figure gone. The services which he rendered in the early days of the war cannot be forgotten…He made many mistakes. He was not a good Cabinet man. His methods did not suit a democracy. But there he was, towering above the others in character as in inches, by far the most popular man in the country to the end, and a firm rock which stood out amidst the raging tempest.”
–Journalist Charles Repington upon Kitchener’s passing
With the passage of 100 years, the reputation and impact of Herbert Horatio Kitchener is difficult to relay without invoking the comparison to another titan of war-time Britain just a conflict later – Winston Churchill. Like Churchill in World War II, Kitchener was an aging war hero; a walking anachronism that nevertheless personified the English ethos of their eras and inspired a generation’s trust and admiration. Unlike Churchill, Kitchener would never live to see his legacy repaired by victory. Continue reading