John Campbell

  • The Kitchener Enigma by Trevor Royle
    Joseph, 436 pp, £15.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 7181 2385 9
  • Kitchener: The Man behind the Legend by Philip Warner
    Hamish Hamilton, 247 pp, £12.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 241 11587 6

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.’

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