Lord Herbert Kitchener
Lord Herbert Kitchener; drawing by David Levine

They labor on, these optimistic British biographers, trying to make us love the builders of the Empire. They certainly succeed in making them impressive. Giant, irascible figures, they sweat across deserts, hack their way through leagues of bush growing with equally irascible insects, subdue chieftains, princes, and emirs, lay out cities and span continents with irrigation canals, and—under canvas or in palaces of whitewashed mud—scrawl their long letters to pale, frock-coated politicians in Whitehall whose only wish is that they would be devoured by a lion or accept immediate retirement with an earldom.

But affection is impossible. The more the writers seek to explain the inwardness of these adventures, their secret affections or superstitions, their addictions to brandy and soda or to little boys, the more dismaying and alien they become. Margery Perham’s mighty life of Lord Lugard displayed African and imperial history created by a cold, hard man. All the books about General Gordon, martyr of Khartoum, did no more than reinforce the impression of an eccentric, essentially infantile conqueror, entirely lacking in the capacity for self-analysis or reflection which alone can make such a character interesting. Sir Garnet Wolseley or Lord Roberts (“Bobs”) are what they did rather than who they were. I have a little more sympathy for “Fighting Mac,” General/Sir Hector MacDonald, a son of the Scottish common people who rose through the ranks to become an officer and killed himself in Paris after a homosexual scandal. But there is more humanity in a few pages of David Livingstone’s diaries than in all the biographies ground from the bones of these Victorian dogs of war.

Herbert Kitchener, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, field marshal and sirdar, is another figure who beats off the amateur psychologist and the sympathetic biographer as easily as his whiskered machine-gunners beat off the Dervish cavalry in the Sudan. All about him were colorful personalities: the neighbors of his Irish childhood, Valentine Baker, who led Turkish armies after being cashiered and jailed for allegedly raping a young woman on the Aldershot train, the young Winston Churchill, the Mahdi and his successor the Khalifa, the extraordinary Lord Curzon, the numerous intelligent women like Margot Asquith who answered his discontented letters. But Kitchener himself remains not much more than a stony monument, not even a Sphinx with secrets to be sought but a solid obelisk of career mortared with toil.

His memorial today is a poster, the (rejuvenated and stylized) portrait of Kitchener as the recruiting sergeant who points over his vast mustache and accuses: “Your Country Needs YOU.” Margot Asquith, who tired of Kitchener, said that he might not be a great man but at least he was a great poster. Trevor Royle recalls the final humiliation: the poster was revived in the 1960s as

a crude advertizing symbol, the motif of Carnaby Street and “Swinging London”…by the time his features were appearing on coffee mugs and badges, on tee-shirts and posters, the famous moustache had become a joke, a relic of Britain’s mythical past.

Philip Warner, an altogether stuffier biographer, explodes with an unattractive display of his own prejudices:

Dying for one’s country has a diminished appeal in the late twentieth century…. In fact the whole idea of patriotism has become suspect in many European countries. In Britain there seems to be a widespread credo that to be proud of one’s homeland and heritage is wrong. The ideas and beliefs of immigrant peoples must be given equal place to the ones traditionally associated with this country. In consequence, Kitchener’s statement that “your country needs you” has been rendered almost meaningless.

Warner, however, seems exactly right when he observes: “Kitchener was a hero in his day because his name became a synonym for success.” This is the key to Kitchener’s enormous authority in his own lifetime, and to the uncritical adoration and loyalty which he attracted not only from soldiers but from millions of civilians before and during the First World War until his death in 1916. Historians still, in spite of decades of publication, have to struggle to remind the public that imperial history was studded with spectacular failures not always recuperated by triumphs. Kitchener was a recuperator, even an avenger, of disaster. After the fall of Khartoum and the death of Gordon, Kitchener crushed the Dervish armies at Omdurman in 1898 and recaptured the Sudan. After the series of devastating British defeats in South Africa in “Black Week,” in December 1899, Kitchener replaced Buller and the tide turned against the Boers. He acquired the reputation of a man who won battles.

This was not always justified: Royle shows that at Omdurman Kitchener made dangerous mistakes remedied by others (like “Fighting Mac”), while Paardeberg, his first South African victory, cost the British an unnecessarily high price in blood because Kitchener went at the Afrikaner riflemen head-on, as if they had been Sudanese tribesmen. He was not an imaginative commander. But the British needed a winner, and Kitchener was enlisted to be the man who won where others failed. Queen Victoria’s last words were: “What news is there from Lord Kitchener?”


The authority and aura survived, though Kitchener won no more battles. When the 1914 war came, he was an old man but was still thought invincible. Perhaps assonance confused people into supposing he was also invulnerable. When he died, drowned after the cruiser Hampshire struck a German mine off the Orkney Islands in 1916, Britain was incredulous, then despairing. Many, as Royle records, simply rejected the news and concluded that the Germans had captured him or that he was hiding in a cave on the sea bed waiting for a fresh call to save the Empire.

Trevor Royle has dug up plenty of entertaining, often grotesque facts about Kitchener’s childhood in Ireland. There was nothing Irish about the family. Colonel Kitchener, Herbert’s father, came from England and bought an estate cheap, after the Great Famine. He bought Ballygoghlan near the outfall of the Shannon, then Crotta House not far away in Kerry. The colonel loathed the Irish, and they loathed him. His tenants wouldn’t pay their rent, so he turned them out and set the dogs on them, whereupon the Knight of Glyn, a local princelet, set his own dogs on the colonel’s bailiffs. Later, the Knight of Glyn horsewhipped Colonel Kitchener at the Tralee Races. Royle further records that the colonel smelled so terribly that he was known to balladeers of the district as boladh an tsionnaigh—“fox reek.”

None of this fine background had any perceptible effect on little Herbert (born 1850). He went through the normal episodes of English childhood, being staked out under croquet hoops and left to die by his siblings, or organizing the funerals of starlings (a habit which stayed with him all his life, much impressing his aides-de-camp during the Boer War). His mother died when he was very young; he went to a boarding school in Switzerland, and then to “The Shop,” the Royal Engineers’ officer cadet school at Woolwich. With a friend, he paid a brief visit to France to see the final stages of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. After Woolwich, he joined a party financed by the Palestine Exploration Fund and carried out a thorough physical and archaeological survey of the Holy Land, which was at the same time an intelligence operation for the War Office who required proper maps of the Turkish empire. Kitchener took time off to inspect the Russian-Turkish war in 1877, spent some time in the newly acquired British possession of Cyprus as Director of Survey, and then arranged his transfer to Egypt where, in 1883, he secured the appointment of second-in-command of the Egyptian Army’s cavalry.

By now, his character and style were formed. The young Kitchener was a tough, courageous officer with few words. His relationship to the ordinary troops he led, European or Egyptian, was distant, to say the least. Viscount Esher said that Kitchener was “never seen to address or even notice a private soldier.” He was already reluctant to delegate work; this was unfortunate, because—after his meticulous compilation of information during the Palestine survey—Kitchener lost patience with paper work and office routine. As a result, his administration combined autocracy with chaos. Although a stickler for correct dress and protocol, his personal appearance was often shabby, even bohemian. In Cyprus, he had grown the huge mustache which was to identify him for the rest of his life, and acquired a taste for “oriental” atmosphere: incense, rugs, the company of Levantine merchants. Warner feels it necessary to put in a warning word at this point: “The use of incense, incidentally, has no homosexual undertones.”

Much “enigma” has been attached to this aspect of Kitchener. He never married, although he tried to do so on a couple of occasions without much urgency, and selected only unmarried officers for his Sudanese forays. In South Africa, he was playful and affectionate with young officers on his staff, especially with “the Brat”—Frank Maxwell, his aide-de-camp. What does this add up to? The answer is that it adds up to a typical Victorian officer-bachelor, attracted to women but at once too busy and too shy to get easily entangled. Both Warner and Royle make this clear, and Royle has made good use of Kitchener’s letters to his sister, which are full of accounts of minor flirtations. There is no evidence that Kitchener was homosexual, just as there is no evidence that he ever had sexual intercourse with woman, man, or beast.

His face at once fascinated and disturbed those who met him. Above the whiskers were two widely set, staring eyes. Their famous mesmeric power came from the fact that one eye had a slight cast, and from damage done to his facial muscles by desert winds and sandstorms. Hitler, although his features were pasty and pudgy and his eyes glaucous, had a similar physical effect on those who met him. The most telling description remains that by the young Winston Churchill, on the battlefield of Omdurman, words that betray Churchill’s instinctive recoil from a man who threatened to dominate him. “He turned his grave face on me. The heavy moustache, the queer rolling look of the eyes, the sunburnt and almost purple cheeks and jowl made a vivid manifestation on the senses.”


In Egypt, Kitchener made a reputation with extraordinary speed. British public opinion, alarmed and then enraged over the failures to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum in 1885, selected Kitchener as a man of action who might have rescued Gordon if he had been in command. The press puffed him; when he returned to London on leave, important hostesses invited him to dinner, and Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, had Kitchener to stay. Neither of these books quite explains how this astonishing social climb was achieved. His brother officers in Egypt decided Kitchener was a careerist, and resented him.

In 1896, Kitchener led his armies to recapture Khartoum and avenge Gordon at the battles of Atbara and Omdurman. The second battle, especially, was a mechanical massacre. Royle, as I have mentioned, thinks that Kitchener made dangerous mistakes and might have been defeated by the charges of the Khalifa’s men on horse and foot. This is a brave try at injecting suspense into a one-sided engagement. Eleven thousand Dervishes were killed at Omdurman, while the British lost only forty-eight men, half of them Egyptians.

Afterward, Kitchener displayed his harsh side. He had already allowed the defeated Sudanese leader at Atbara to be led bound and pelted in a victory parade. Now he blew up the Mahdi’s tomb at Khartoum, throwing the saint’s bones into the Nile and keeping his skull as a souvenir in a kerosene can. Admittedly, this barbarity was outdone by Sir Reginald Wingate, who caught and killed the fugitive Khalifa and took his skull home to be used as a champagne bumper at parties. But Kitchener was also an unattractive, Victorian mixture of callousness and sentiment, weeping copiously in public as the band played Gordon’s favorite hymn, “Abide With Me,” at a service after the battle.

The skull incident (upset by criticism, he later had it buried) also reveals another curious streak in Kitchener. He was a mild kleptomaniac. Trevor Royle describes his habit of visiting other people’s houses, admiring small objects, and expecting them to be presented to him. If they were not, he sometimes slipped them into his pocket. Many families learned to stow away their china and valuables before he called. (This trick of “admiring” small objects was also practiced by the late Queen Mary, wife of George V, another magpie.)

In South Africa, where Kitchener reversed the fortunes of the Boer War, he complained that the Boers compared badly to the Sudanese; instead of standing up to be shot at, they did unmanly things like concealing themselves in trenches or sniping with accurate rifles. In the second phase of the war, Kitchener was responsible for the establishment of the concentration camps (internment camps would be a fairer term) in which thousands of Afrikaner women and children died of entirely preventable epidemics. This, however, was not another example of his capacity for cruelty, but a result of his incompetence as an administrator and his refusal to take any notice of “printed rot,” as he called official reports and inquiries. It should be said that, unexpectedly, Kitchener was a good diplomat. He handled the Boer commanders with humanity and skill at the peace talks, just as he had avoided war between Britain and France back in 1898 by using charm and good manners on Major Marchand during the “Fashoda Incident” on the Upper Nile.

In 1902, Kitchener went to India as commander in chief. There he lived in enormous state, pursuing an interminable feud with the viceroy, Lord Curzon, over the question of civil control of the Indian Army. Curzon found him impossible, and called him “a molten mass of devouring energy and burning ambition.” In British India, their quarrel became legendary, the war between Mulki Lat (“Lord of the Realm”) and Jangi Lat (“Lord of the Sword”). It was conducted by a series of spectacular intrigues and devious memoranda, the two Lords of Realm and Sword going behind each other’s backs and above each other’s heads in a Highland reel of rivalry. Lady Curzon tried to mediate. In the end Kitchener won, but Curzon published some of the documents of the dispute after leaving India in 1905, doing Kitchener some damage.

The subject of this vendetta is now without interest. Perhaps its most important result was to turn the London press against Kitchener. In the old days the papers had fawned on him, although Kitchener did not return the affection, observing, “Get out of my way, you drunken scum!” to journalists waiting to interview him in the Sudan. Now Fleet Street became more critical. The Liberal press had always treated him with doubt; from 1905, this suspicion spread to Conservative newspaper owners as well.

After another spell in Egypt, Kitchener was recalled to London as secretary of state for war in 1914. As Royle remarks, he was the first soldier to sit in a British cabinet since General Monck in 1660. But Kitchener was now sixty-four, and his energy was running down. As a symbol, as a recruiting poster for the volunteer armies, he was useful. But in fact the “man of victory” contributed ideas, some of them pessimistic, rather than leadership in the field. Kitchener saw that the war would last for years, long before his cabinet colleagues understood it, and warned at the outset that Britain was going to require armies numbering millions. Early in 1915, he concluded that the German trench line in the West could neither be broken nor “invested,” and that the war would have to be won elsewhere. This led him to insist on support for Russia, and to back Churchill’s attempt to open a new front in the Dardanelles.

Wise as all this was, Kitchener was unable to prevent the useless Anglo-French offensives on the western front which were to cost millions of lives. Indeed, Kitchener insisted on the calamitous British “push” at Loos in 1915, more because he wanted to reassure the French than because he supposed it could succeed.

Kitchener, who had once seemed impassive to casualties, now grew privately distraught at the death lists. He laid the foundations for an enormous increase in munition supplies, for which Lloyd George later took all the credit. Meanwhile, he was blamed for the lack of shells. In political circles, people began to suggest that he should be retired. The British people, however, continued to worship Kitchener, who told Haig: “Rightly or wrongly, probably wrongly, the people believe in me. It is not therefore me that the politicians are afraid of, but of what the people would say to them if I were to go.”

This was an impasse. He could not be replaced, and yet—especially after the failure of the Dardanelles expedition—he no longer had any idea how to win the war on land. The problem was solved in June 1916. Kitchener set off by sea for Russia, on a mission to bolster Russian morale and discuss the supply of munitions from Britain. The cruiser HMS Hampshire sailed from Scapa Flow for Archangel on June 5. Less than three hours later, she struck a mine laid off the west coast of Orkney by a German submarine. Officers shouted, “Make a gangway for Lord Kitchener” as the ship listed. He was seen by one survivor standing calmly on deck, waiting for a boat. Then the cruiser stood on her head and sank. Kitchener’s body was never found.

A.J.P. Taylor ends a footnote biography of Kitchener as follows: “Drowned on way to Russia 1916; promised posthumous glory after the war; received none.”* His death did not release any fresh ideas of how to win the war, which dragged on in much the same way. A month after the Hampshire went down, Kitchener’s volunteer army was annihilated on the Somme, and the whole British attitude to war began to change. No military commander was ever trusted blindly again. In the Second World War, Montgomery was admired and feared, Alexander and Wavell were loved by the few who knew them well. But Kitchener was the last idol.

This Issue

November 6, 1986