The Last Idol

Kitchener: The Man Behind the Legend

by Philip Warner
Atheneum, 247 pp., $15.95

The Kitchener Enigma

by Trevor Royle
Michael Joseph, 436 pp., £15

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…

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