Who was it who said that the thousandth biography of Napoleon will sell more than the first of any ‘neglected’ second-ranking figure, however significant? Whoever it was, it remains depressingly true, and here are two more biographies of Kitchener – Britain’s closest approach to Napoleon in terms of popular acclaim, though not in military genius – to prove that publishers still believe it. Kitchener has never lacked biographies, either in his lifetime or since his death. The last, by the Canadian George Cassar, appeared as recently as 1977. Before that there was Philip Magnus’s in 1958 and one by General Ballard in 1930, in addition to the three-volume official life published by his former private secretary, Sir George Arthur, in 1920, a host of shorter studies and several investigations into the circumstances of his death. The present offerings add remarkably little to the body of knowledge about Kitchener already available. Philip Warner’s is little more than an opinionated sketch, chatty, anecdotal, unsubstantiated and frequently inaccurate. Trevor Royle’s is an altogether more serious book, a thorough, workmanlike biography which must surely have assembled the last possible jot of evidence on the sinking of the Hampshire. Both authors, however, feel it necessary to present their portraits as the solution to an unsolved biographical mystery.
Today – as for the past fifty years – Kitchener’s legend rests on two images: the famous 1914 recruiting poster ‘Your Country Needs YOU,’ which became a jokey icon of the Swinging Sixties, and his death at sea in the SS Hampshire off Orkney in 1916. The enduring picture here is of Kitchener standing bolt upright, still saluting, as the waters close around him and his hat floats away, like the admiral in Kind Hearts and Coronets. A premature death is, of course, the making of a good legend. Kitchener’s death registered itself in the patriotic mind as a tableau to rank with Nelson expiring in Hardy’s arms at Trafalgar or Gordon’s last stand on the Residency steps in Khartoum. This sort of biscuit-tin iconography cannot be written off as trivial: it is the stuff of immortality.
Kitchener was a legend to his contemporaries before he became either a great poster or a martyr. That was why he was made Secretary of State for War in 1914. This legend, like the posthumous one, had two components. The first was the fact that over the previous thirty years he had contrived to serve conspicuously in all the most newsworthy troublespots of the Empire – Egypt and the Sudan, and India, and South Africa, with Australia briefly thrown in. This made him the outstanding symbol of the worldwide extent of the Empire. The second was his conduct in these places and the image he projected: remote, righteous and ruthless in the exercise of a stern Imperial duty. This made him the archetype of the style of the British Empire, governing inferior peoples firmly for their own good. Put these two together and by 1914 Kitchener practically was the Empire. But his eminence owed less to any outstanding military gifts than to the most shameless self-promotion. That unparalleled exhibitionist Sir Gerald Nabarro once said that without his moustache he might be mistaken for a nobody like Harold Wilson; behind his formidable moustache and haughty stare Kitchener was as scheming and ambitious a self-publicist as ever wore uniform. That poster was his apogee: it might as accurately have been captioned ‘Your Country Needs ME.’
From the moment when, as a young captain doing survey work on Cyprus in 1883, he managed to secure a timely transfer to Egypt by arranging for two telegrams to be sent asking for his release, so that he could safely decline the first, thus gaining credit for what Trevor Royle calls his ‘seeming loyalty’ to his present commander, who then felt obliged to accede to the second, Kitchener was both subtle and determined in ensuring that he always got the posting he considered would best serve his career. As the officer leading the advance party of Sir Garnet Wolseley’s army sent by a reluctant Gladstone to relieve Gordon in Khartoum, and the last man in touch with Gordon before his death, Kitchener contrived to be the only person to come out of that famous debacle with his reputation enhanced – commended in the Times, presented to Queen Victoria and henceforth a popular celebrity. To the understandable jealousy of his rivals, he was now set for promotion well beyond his seniority, culminating in his publicly-acclaimed appointment in 1896 to lead the expedition to recover Khartoum and avenge Gordon, which he achieved at the battle (or massacre) of Omdurman. Thereafter, ringingly ennobled as Baron – later Viscount and eventually Earl – Kitchener of Khartoum, he succeeded, by tireless propagation of his legend among Tory magnates and society hostesses on his annual home leaves, in having himself appointed second-in-command to Roberts in South Africa, Commander-in-Chief under Curzon in India (until their famous quarrel resulted in Curzon’s resignation) and the Governor-General of Egypt – from which stepping-stone he confidently expected to return to India as Viceroy. The often embarrassing directness with which he pressed his claim contrasted with the public face of stern taciturnity but such was the power of his name that he could not easily be denied these positions, even after 1905, by a Liberal Government which bore him no love.
It was scarcely military ability that won him these promotions – at any rate, the later ones. At desert warfare, he was undoubtedly in his element. Having begun his career as a sapper, he had no romantic vision of war, but a strictly practical one. Starting with a detailed survey of Palestine, he developed a feel for hostile terrain and the logistics of covering empty distances. Physically he was immensely tough; he was also a good horseman and an excellent linguist. He first made his mark in Egypt by his ability to pass himself off, for intelligence purposes, as an Arab. All this, allied to a messianic power to drive himself and others to the limit to achieve a specified goal, was the secret of his success in the Sudan. He was unquestionably the right man for Omdurman, a triumph of logistics and sheer ruthless will. But Omdurman called for no military skill, no weighing of risks or strategic subtlety, no delegation to subordinate commanders: merely the organisational feat of assembling enough men, armed with modern weapons, 1500 miles up the Nile to mow down several thousand dervishes. (Ten to twelve thousand were killed; Kitchener’s losses were 48 dead and 434 wounded.) Omdurman gave no ground – except glory – for posting Kitchener on to the different problems of defeating the Boers and reforming the military administration of India.
He was lucky that his reputation survived South Africa. The one major engagement he fought there, at Paardeburg, he tried to win by the same methods that had worked at Omdurman. Overriding the advice of the more experienced general on the spot that the besieged Boers could more economically be starved into surrender, Kitchener insisted on a frontal assault. The result was a victory in the end, but one obtained at exceedingly high cost and only after Roberts had tactfully diverted Kitchener to other duties. Thereafter, with the Boers apparently beaten, Roberts returned home in triumph, leaving Kitchener to complete what were expected to be the formalities. It was not Kitchener’s fault that these took another two years, as the Boers fell back very successfully on guerrilla tactics. But his method of combating these tactics, by a massive network of blockhouses dividing up the veldt into numbered squares, and the infamous system of ‘concentration camps’ in which thousands of Boer women and children died of typhoid and cholera, was both unimaginative and inhumane. His were the ‘methods of barbarism’ at which Campbell-Bannerman protested so bravely in the House of Commons. Once again, however, Kitchener won in the end. Moreover he was notably generous, more so than Milner, in his desire to conclude hostilities before the last Boer had been shot in the last ditch. This was because he was in a hurry to be off to his next posting in India.
Liberal distaste for Kitchener’s methods had surfaced while he was still in the Sudan. After the battle of Atbara, four months before Omdurman, he had had the captured dervish leader, the emir Mahmoud, whipped in chains behind his victory procession. After Omdurman, he first slaughtered the dervish wounded – arguably an act of humanity, though it disgusted the young Winston Churchill – then razed the Mahdi’s tomb, tossed the bones into the Nile and kept the skull for himself as a macabre souvenir, until obliged by public outcry in Britain to explain that he had intended to donate it to the Royal College of Surgeons. Even Queen Victoria thought that this savoured ‘too much of the Middle Ages’: the Mahdi was ‘after all ... a man of a certain importance’.
It did not, however, dent his popularity, except with a few wet editors and Liberal MPs. There is a tendency, as we congratulate ourselves retrospectively on our Empire and the relatively civilised way in which we got rid of it, to exaggerate its more idealistic side. Kitchener unambiguously embodied the Imperial mission as one of conquest, and the patriotic British public which thrilled to his exploits loved him for it. Kitchener, it could be said, was the Rambo of the 1890s. The comparison is not frivolous: a mass public was just coming into being, but still without the mass media – above all, the cinema, which after 1918 would channel the public’s demand for heroic blood and thunder safely into swashbuckling films indulging escapist fantasy. In 1900 the public needed real heroes and it found them – in Britain, as in France and Germany – in its soldiers and its Empire. At no other period in British history have soldiers enjoyed such glamour. Neither Wellington, in an earlier period, nor Montgomery, in a later, was ever the object of such fervour.
Writing in the era of decolonisation and apologetic retreat from the very idea of Empire, Philip Magnus did not attempt to disguise his distaste for Kitchener’s character or for the cause he served. He gave full weight to the business of the Mahdi’s skull, the concentration camps and to all his subject’s least endearing habits, before concluding sternly that ‘his strenuous life of service on the frontiers of Empire provided ... a rich but increasingly rootless and unsatisfied bourgeoisie ... with a species of vicarious atonement for a subconscious sense of guilt as it plunged ever more deeply into material pursuits and pleasures which helped to precipitate the catastrophe of 1914.’ Scarcely a celebration. What a contrast is offered by Trevor Royle and Philip Warner! Magnus was writing in the chastened aftermath of Suez: theirs is the triumphalist tone of the Falklands, taking a robust view of the methods that may regrettably be necessary to govern empires. ‘It was brutal, savage and above all degrading,’ Warner writes with approval of the humiliation of Mahmoud: ‘Kitchener knew exactly what he was doing.’ Royle is less explicit, but he glosses over all the awkward corners in Kitchener’s career. The desecration of the Mahdi’s tomb he describes as a ‘disagreeable’ task, blurring the question of whether it was disagreeable to Kitchener or is so to us. Of the slaughter of the wounded after Omdurman, he writes that ‘Kitchener was too cautious a commander to have allowed his hour of triumph to be soiled by such an order, although he may well have turned a blind eye to what was happening.’ Elsewhere he writes of Kitchener’s ‘tendency towards harshness ... bordering on cruelty’. His criticism is always qualified: the image of the great Empire-builder must not be seriously tarnished. Both these books, rediscovering the Empire with a determinedly unapologetic pride, are characteristic products of Mrs Thatcher’s neo-Victorian revolution in values.
The climax of Kitchener’s life was 1914-16. When war broke out, Asquith had practically no choice but to appoint him Secretary of State for War. The office was providentially vacant, and Kitchener was providentially home on leave. He was appointed for all the wrong reasons. He was a military man in a traditionally civilian post. He had no knowledge or understanding of domestic politics or the Cabinet system through which he would have to work. He had not spent a winter in England for more than thirty years. As a soldier he had no experience of war in Europe. He was appointed entirely for his ‘legend’, as a symbol of Britain’s determination to win what was universally expected to be a quick victory.He should have been a disaster; in many respects he was a disaster. One of the earliest and most influential minor studies, Lord Esher’s The Tragedy of Lord Kitchener, published in 1921, vividly portrayed the poor old general in the ‘twilight of his career blundering bewildered around Whitehall, despised by his Cabinet colleagues while still the idol of the unknowing public, and therefore irremovable. Lloyd George’s War Memoirs powerfully endorsed the same picture. But, as Trevor Royle points out, it was also Lloyd George who delivered the most telling tribute to Kitchener when he compared him, memorably, to ‘one of those revolving lighthouses which radiate momentary gleams of revealing light far out into the surrounding gloom, and then relapse into complete darkness’. The astonishing thing is that for all his lack of knowledge and experience of the capabilities of modern European armies, Kitchener threw a more penetrating light on the nature of the war into which Britain had so gaily entered than anybody else in the country, military or civilian. From the very beginning he alone insisted that it would last at least three years and that if Britain was to make any useful contribution to winning it she would have to give up her comfortable traditional notions of patrolling the seas while her allies fought the war on land.
How did he hit upon this insight? It was, of course, of a piece with his own record of achieving victory by sheer weight of numbers and fire-power, rather than by subtlety. That was one African lesson which could be applied in Europe. But neither of these authors can suggest any answer to what is surely the real enigma of Kitchener’s career: how he arrived at this blinding and unpopular truth. It was not in Kitchener’s nature to explain his reasons. Such was his stature in the Cabinet in August 1914 that his colleagues were in no position to query them. The fact remains that, as David French recently wrote in British Economic and Strategic Planning, 1905-1915: ‘Within a few days of becoming Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener was responsible for one of the most complete and far-reaching reversals of policy of the whole war. In place of what had passed for a manpower policy before the war, Kitchener substituted one of his own, and almost completely undermined or simply ignored every precept of “business as usual”.’ The creation of the ‘New Armies’, spurning conscription and the framework of the Territorials, was largely Kitchener’s work. That the equipping of them was a shambles of disputed control, and the uses to which they were put tragically futile, cannot be laid at Kitchener’s door. The blame, as David French demonstrated, lay less with the failings of the Secretary of State, great though these were – in South Africa they had called him ‘Kitchener of Chaos’ – than with the total unpreparedness, unbusinesslike methods and divided counsels of the Government into which he was so abruptly inserted. An administration geared to victory, Asquith discovered to his cost, could not be created simply by drafting in a legend.
Though by the time he died his hero’s death he had unquestionably become an embarrassment – an extinct lighthouse – 1914 was nevertheless Kitchener’s finest hour. Horrific though the human consequences of his vision were, he was right when all around him were deceived. By comparison with Armageddon, Omdurman and Paardeburg pale into insignificance. The so-called ‘tragedy’ of Lord Kitchener was really his apothesis. But there is a curious irony about this: the office in which he achieved his real claim to immortality was the one job which, in all his long career of single-minded self-promotion, this exceptionally ambitious man did not want and tried, with rare modesty and self-knowledge, to decline.