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.
Kitchener’s hard visage and personality had been born of a childhood of psychological and physical abuse. His father, Lt. Col. Henry Horatio Kitchener, had attempted to mold his son by subjecting him to a life of near-constant hardship. Eschewing blankets, Henry Kitchener forced his son to sleep on the floor under newspapers despite having a sizable pension from the Royal Army. Once, upon talking back to his father, young Herbert was staking to the ground overnight with croquet hoops. Shuffled off to military school, Kitchener was only allowed to return home years later when a life-threatening battle with pneumonia forced him to take leave from the Royal Military Academy.
Instead of rebelling against his father’s autocratic ways, Kitchener seemingly embraced them in adulthood, providing for a curious juxtaposition of attitudes towards authority. An army man through and through, Kitchener demanded total obedience from his juniors while displaying an arrogant, if not completely dismissive persona, towards his civilian superiors.
He would earn his fame in service in Egypt and South Africa at the turn of the century. Fighting Sudanese rebels, while simultaneously wooing the press, Kitchener would become Baron (on way to Lord) Kitchener and the Governor-General of Egyptian Sudan. To the media, this striking, 6’2″ officer with the graying hair and sun-bleached mustache (he would later color it black to hide his advancing years), epitomized the British colonial ideal. The man now known as “Kitchener of Khartoum” was more than just a military hero, he was a corporate spokesman – his image was emblazoned on biscuit tins, buttons and postcards across the Empire.
The Second Boer War would only enhance Kitchener’s reputation. Assigned as the conflict’s Chief of Staff, Kitchener implemented a brutal campaign against the Boers, creating the first concentration camps for Boer civilians (the name had a very different meaning in 1900). The Army’s total mismanagement of the camps led to nearly 28,000 deaths, provoking an uproar of condemnation from liberal MP’s like David Lloyd George. But Kitchener’s controversial tactics were nevertheless credited with bringing the war to a swift end in 1902.
If the war had shown Kitchener’s appetite for bloodshed, peace showed his political skills. Despite earning the hatred of almost all Boers, Kitchener proved himself their biggest defender in negotiations. While South Africa’s Governor-General and the rest of London wanted a humiliating treaty that would break the political backbone of the Boers, Kitchener fought for generous terms, including a future promise of self-governance. He had done the same in Sudan after a bloody campaign, having the government officially recognize Muslim holidays and forbidding evangelical Christian missionaries from trying to convert the locals. Kitchener had little trouble reconciling such dichotomies. War required hard men willing to butcher their opponents quickly and often without mercy. Peace required merciful men willing to stand up to the butchers. In an era where generals thought themselves politicians without success, and vice versa, Kitchener was perhaps the only figure who could perform both roles with skill.
There had been few other men considered for the post of Secretary of State for War when Britain entered the fight on August 4th, 1914. The Times of London spoke for most Britons as they expressed their “profound satisfaction and relief” with Kitchener’s appointment.
If Kitchener’s War Cabinet colleagues shared such a reaction, it was short-lived. Whereas most of Europe had cheered the various declarations of war, confidentially predicting a brief, sharp conflict that would settle the question of European dominance for the next 100 years, Kitchener was definitely among the minority. Kitchener foresaw a war that would last at least three years and contain untold carnage. It was a war Kitchener believed Britain was completely unprepared to fight. A sea-going nation with no history of the sort of conscripted masses required for industrialized warfare, Kitchener knew Britain would be forced to adopt practices totally without precedent in British history in order to win.
Kitchener would proceed to alienate the nation’s generals as much as it’s politicians. His “New Army” of volunteers, derisively called “Kitchener’s Mob” by his military critics, antagonized the British military elite who disliked leading men who hadn’t been sharpened by the British professional elite through years of training. Kitchener only made his relationship with the military more difficult with his penchant for wearing his Field Marshal uniform as a member of the Cabinet – a not-so-subtle implication that Kitchener was their superior, despite no longer holding a command. Mostly, Kitchener fought over the strategic considerations of the British Expeditionary Force. While many elements of London wanted to fight while there was still a war to conduct, Kitchener wanted to conserve Britain’s limited forces for the long, bloody war ahead.
By the start of 1915, Kitchener’s accuracy in his assessment of the war had made him nearly prophetic in the eyes of many politicians. Thus when Kitchener told the War Cabinet that the trench system had made the Western Front impenetrable, the British search for secondary fronts consumed the nation’s military planners.
Such endeavors would be the beginning of his undoing. Kitchener hadn’t fully supported the Gallipoli campaign, preferring instead to strike the Ottomans at Alexandretta (now, Iskenderun just north of modern Syria in Turkey) in the hopes of cutting the Turks off from their Arabian possessions to the south. But Kitchener did fully back the Mesopotamian campaign, and both battles did little but drain the limited manpower of the Crown and Empire.
The War Secretary’s managerial skills also left much to be desired. In fits and starts, Kitchener would devise a new plan of action, but often once confronted with hurdles (usually of the political variety), Kitchener would withdraw his objections if he couldn’t dictatorially circumvent those who opposed him. Kitchener had resisted sending his “New Armies” into France out of concern of repelling a German invasion, much to the frustration of Britain’s French ally. Forced by political reality to concede the reallocation of his armies, Kitchener sulked. David Lloyd George, after witnessing Kitchener up close for many months in the War Cabinet, remarked that Kitchener was “one of those revolving lighthouses which radiates momentary gleams of revealing light far out into the surrounding gloom and then suddenly relapses into complete darkness.”
Doubts had crept into the minds of all the Great War’s political and military leaders following years of bloodletting without progress. Figures great and small had seen their stature tarnished by the conflict, and Kitchener was no exception. “If not a great man, he was, at least, a great poster,” H.H. Asquith’s wife Margot sneered about Kitchener, mocking his famous war-recruitment posters that had once adorned every corner of the nation.
In reality, Kitchener had simply been exhausted by the job. The scale of the war effort required trusting subordinates and farming out assignments, and whether by design or temperament, Kitchener couldn’t relinquish control. The result had been a War Cabinet divided in focus, prone to flights of strategic fancy where any diversionary assault or tertiary front could be approved with limited consideration. Kitchener’s colleagues were no longer interested in wearing down his resistance to attacks or new ideas (Kitchener was no proponent of the newly created tank) – they simply wanted him gone.
Removing someone of Kitchener’s stature was easier said than done. Some recommended merely reducing his powers, placing the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in the role of War Secretary for the duration of the conflict. Others suggested moving Kitchener out of Britain entirely, perhaps as the Viceroy of India. Still, Kitchener had influence among the media and rank-and-file Britons. When Parliament attempted to reduce his salary by 100 pounds (an economic rebuke for his handling of the war), Kitchener arrived for his hearing in his dress navy blue Field Marshal uniform and gave a good show of stoic British imperialism, defending his pay and his conduct as War Secretary. The MPs shelved the suggestion.
Few figures in Britain had the clout – militarily or politically – to remove Kitchener without a public outcry. Thus, getting the War Secretary out of the country on various tours of the war fronts and Allied capitals seemed a better tactic. Kitchener embraced the opportunity to leave London, even if he probably knew it was intended to circumvent his authority in the War Cabinet.
Only 12 men would survive the sinking of the HMS Hampshire. Few bodies would be even recovered. Kitchener’s was not among them.
Reactions to the loss varied. Officially, the nation went into mourning. All army officers were commanded to wear black armbands for the following week. Newspapers sold millions of commemorative prints announcing the War Secretary’s death. King George V would write in his diary that Kitchener’s death came as “a great loss” for both Britain and the Entente.
Others were immediately swept up in conspiratorial delusions. The sinking had to be the work of German spies. Or Irish saboteurs. Or maybe Boers still seething over the concentration camps. Some even refused to believe that Kitchener had died; rather that the old Lord was probably in Russia, leading the Tsar’s armies while having a good laugh at his reported demise. Like so many others famous disappearances, rumors of Kitchener sightings would occasional leek into the press well into the 1920s. A hoax involving Kitchener’s supposed remains took Britain by storm in 1926 until authorities discovered the former War Secretary’s supposed coffin was filled with nothing more than tar. Rumors surrounding his death forced the government to reopen an investigation as late as the early 1970s – an investigation which reached the same conclusion that the sinking was caused by a German U-boat mine (the investigation could point to evidence of U-boat logs that U-75 had placed the mine). Doubts continued nevertheless. It didn’t help that some files relating to Kitchener’s death have remained sealed, and will continue to be so, until 2025.
While the public’s reaction would rival the sort of Kübler-Ross process for the deaths of John F. Kennedy or Princess Diana, left unspoken was an element of relief among Kitchener’s contemporaries. As right as Kitchener had been about the start of the Great War, he was equally wrong about how to proceed two years into the fight. Victory in the Middle East or Africa would do little to hasten the end of the war. Either Germany would be defeated in the West or the Entente would fall, and as long as Kitchener stood as a critic of offensive actions on the Western Front, renewed fighting would remain politically problematic.
In the moment of grief and public shock, few publications or individuals had the stomach to second the Manchester Guardian‘s perhaps accurate commentary that “as for the old man, he could not have done better than to have gone down, as he was a great impediment lately.”