Kitchener: From Pariah to Hero

By Anne Samson

The name Lord Kitchener might not mean much to many today, however his face as the poster ‘Your country needs you’ is almost internationally recognised. At the turn of the 20th century Henry Horatio Kitchener was the British Empire celebrity of the day, yet for those of us growing up in South Africa, his name was (and for some still is) synonymous with butcher, scorched earth, and concentration camps. In Britain, for many he’s linked with ammunition shortages, and sending young men to be needlessly slaughtered on the battle fields of the Western Front.

With 53 biographies on the man, what more could there be to write about him? Most of them recount the same story in different words or focus on a particular encounter he had with individuals such as his five-year conflict with Viceroy of India Lord Curzon, his reliance on sword-arm Ian Hamilton, disagreements with Lords French and Haig and his failure at the War Office. The most comprehensive, detailed and balanced biography has to be that by John Pollock. So where does Kitchener: The Man not the Myth fit in? Especially as there’s a book similarly entitled, Kitchener: The Man Behind the Legend by Philip Warner. While Warner has tried to understand the personality behind the man known as Kitchener, K of K or simply K, he has kept to the traditional themes covered in previous studies, none of which answered a question I had stumbled upon when completing my thesis between 1998 and 2004: why did Kitchener not want to go to war in East Africa in 1914 and 1915?

Cyprus Survey Staff 1883

Superficially, this question was answered for my thesis using Pollock and a few others: Kitchener owned a coffee farm in, what is today, Kenya and had been involved in Zanzibar Boundary Commission having actually walked the land. A subsequent discovery of correspondence with General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien about his appointment to command the forces in East Africa suggested there was far more to Kitchener’s anti-war position than self-preservation of his farm. Trying to reconcile my perceptions of Kitchener with the man who stood his ground on the East Africa campaign resulted in the discovery of a personality hitherto unexposed and unexplored in the existing biographies.

While most biographers tend to regard Kitchener as a complete man, that is the same at the end of his career as at the start of his career showing a consistency of action and behaviour over time, in Kitchener: The Man not the Myth, I have explored the development of the man, how he learnt from past experiences, the challenges he faced in being a British citizen but not of the establishment or culture. It is only in understanding how much of an outsider Kitchener was in the British Army that one can appreciate his decision-making and actions. As with all human beings, he had faults but it’s how he managed these to achieve what he did that turned him from being a pariah in my books to a hero.

War work

Researching Kitchener, although straightforward in the sense of reading as many of the existing biographies as possible and focusing on the ‘glossed over’ statements alongside some archival investigation to clarify earlier interpretations of statements and views, presented some difficulties in terms of insight. While most biographers infer Kitchener’s dislike of women and insistence on having unmarried men on his staff, the sources presented a different picture. The result is a section on Kitchener’s women to compliment that on Kitchener’s ‘band of boys’. His encounter with Millicent Fawcettt in South Africa over the concentration camps and his relationships with his nieces, one being Fanny Parker, sheds interesting light on his attitude to the suffrage movement and use of women in war. Another challenge was presented by his seeming aloofness and sulking when things did not go his way contrasted with the number of occasions subordinates were surprised by tears running down his cheeks. His foresight in using and embracing technology was an unexpected discovery as was his linguistic ability, and attitude towards religion and the use of indigenous forces. Kitchener’s clear sense of priority and allegiance to his monarch and his views on how an army should be run led to him being misunderstood on many an occasion, sometimes with unfortunate and sad consequences such as the death of Hector MacDonald.

It’s worth saying this book is not a military study. While the Sudan campaigns and the 1899-1902 war in South Africa including Paardeberg are mentioned, they are not discussed in detail as other more qualified authors have done this. Whether Kitchener was right in reforming the India Army and his ensuing conflict with Curzon has also been left to others more qualified. What Kitchener: the man not the myth does is provide alternative interpretations for his actions and extract from these events what Kitchener learnt on his route to being asked to fill the role of Secretary of State for War. His anomalous position as a civilian in authority alongside not relinquishing his military role, in what Prime Minister Herbert Asquith described as an ‘experiment’ provides evidence of the breadth of skill and knowledge Kitchener was seen to have in Britain’s time of need, yet his very strengths led to his fall from grace despite this experiment and his achievements.

A relaxing golf

As with all studies, more questions have been raised. For myself, these concern the East Africa campaign of World War One and the role of railways in the African campaigns. For others, I hope this new insight into Kitchener will lead scholars to consider his and other senior military officials of the time’s military actions in new lights.

Kitchener close up – Horse Guards

Dr Anne Samson is a specialist of World War One in Africa, with a particular focus on British East, Central and Southern Africa. She runs the Great War in Africa Association (https://gweaa.com) and has numerous publications to her name on the African campaigns. These, together with talks she’s presented, are listed on her website http://www.thesamsonsedhistorian.wordpress.com

You can buy ‘Kitchener: The Man not the Myth’ here.