Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the third child and second son of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Horatio Kitchener (1805–1894), was born in Ballylongford near Listowel, son of Lt. Col. Henry Horatio Kitchener (1805 – 1894) and Frances Anne Chevallier-Cole. His father had only recently bought land in Ireland under a scheme to encourage the purchase of land after the recent potato famine. He was an unpopular, tenant-evicting, improving landowner, a domestic martinet, and an eccentric who used newspapers instead of blankets in bed."
The year his mother died of tuberculosis, they had moved to Switzerland in an effort to improve her condition; the young Kitchener was educated there. Teased about his strange Irish accent, he devoted himself to his books, and became fluent in French and German. He was then taken to Cambridge at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.
He took the examination in January 1868, passing twenty-eighth out of fifty-six. Kitchener was not a very talented student but on 4th January, 1871, he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. He spent the next two years at the School of Military Engineering in Chatham.
Pro-French and eager to see action, he joined a French field ambulance unit in the Franco-Prussian war. However his father took him back to England after he caught pneumonia after ascending in a balloon to see the French Army of the Loire in action.
His service in France had violated British neutrality, and he was reprimanded by the Duke of Cambridge, the commander-in-chief. He served in Palastine, Egypt, and Cyprus as a surveyor, learned Arabic, and prepared detailed topographical maps of the areas.
Kitchener came to the attention of Brigadier-General George Richards Graves of the War Office staff and was appointed as his aide-de-camp in 1873. The following year he was seconded to the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). Kitchener was a talented linguist and learnt Arabic during this period. He was also respected as a skilled negotiator with local people. In 1878 he was seconded to the Foreign Office and given the task of mapping Cyprus. In June 1879 he was appointed military vice-consul, to Kastamonu Province in Turkey. In March 1880 he returned to Cyprus at the request of the new high commissioner, Robert Biddulph, and for the next two years continued his survey.
In 1883 Kitchener became a Freemason. He was initiated in Cairo at La Concordia Lodge number 1226, English constitution. Throughout his adult life Kitchener was a dedicated and very active Freemason, being a Founder Member of numerous Masonic Lodges and having several Lodges named after him.
Kitchener secured a posting to Egypt early in 1883, at the same time as being promoted captain. In March 1884 General Charles George Gordon was under siege in Khartoum. The British public called for action but it was not until November that the Khartoum Relief Expedition under the leadership of Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley began. Kitchener was an intelligence officer on the mission and he continually pressed Wolseley to push forward more rapidly. By the time they reached the city Gordon was dead.
Despite the expedition's failure to save Gordon, Kitchener emerged with credit and some fame. Promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel in June 1885, he resigned his Egyptian commission and returned to England, where his fame had been spread by the press and his father. The press had a crucial role in creating the Kitchener legend. Kitchener used his new status as a social lion to make many connections which later proved useful.
In 1886 Kitchener was appointed as governor-general of the eastern Sudan. Most of his time was spent dealing with Osman Digna, a major slave trader and a follower of of the Muhammad Ahmad. During a skirmish in January 1888 Kitchener was shot in the jaw. He returned to England on leave, where Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, arranged for him to be adjutant-general of the Egyptian Army, a post he took up in September 1888. He was given the additional position of inspector-general of police in the autumn of 1889.
Kitchener was made commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Army on 13th April 1892. However this offended many who believed he owed his appointment more to his assiduous cultivation of the powerful than to his abilities. Such a view was reinforced by his tour of country houses when on leave in England, and by the prominent persons, including the Prince of Wales, who stayed with him in Egypt.
Kitchener however immediately set about reforming the Egyptian army, gathering around him a cadre of eager young officers... The fact that Kitchener surrounded himself with similar groups throughout his career, and never married, led to speculations that he was a homosexual.
In 1897 Major General Kitchener decided to attempt the reconquest of the Sudan. Kitchener applied to London for a group of special service officers to participate in his largely Egyptian force. George Henderson suggested that Douglas Haig should be sent to serve under Kitchener. It was during this period that the two men became friends.
The plan to take control of Sudan centered around The Battle of Omdurman. The battle began on 2nd September. Kitchener commanded a force of 8,000 British regulars and a mixed force of 17,000 Sudanese and Egyptian troops. Abdullah al-Taashi, the successor to Muhammad Ahmad, had around 50,000 men at his disposal.
Kitchener arrayed his force in an arc around the village of Egeiga, close to the bank of the Nile, where a gunboat flotilla waited in support, facing a wide, flat plain with hills rising to the left and right. The British and Egyptian cavalry was placed on either flank.
Al-Taashi's followers, known as Ansar and sometimes referred to as Dervishes, numbered around 50,000, including some 3,000 cavalry. They were split into five groups--a force of 8,000 under Osman Azrak was arrayed directly opposite the British, in a shallow arc along a mile (1.6 km) of a low ridge leading onto the plain, and the other Ansar forces were initially concealed from Kitchener's force.
Abdullah al-Taashi and 17,000 men were concealed behind the Surgham Hills to the west and rear of Osman Azrak's force, with 20,000 more positioned to the northwest, close to the front behind the Kerreri hills, commanded by Ali-Wad-Helu and Sheikh ed-Din. A final force of around 8,000 was gathered on the slope at the right flank of Azrak's force.
The battle began in the early morning, at around 6:00 a.m. After the clashes of the previous day, the 8,000 men under Osman Azrak advanced straight at the waiting British, quickly followed by about 8,000 of those waiting to the northwest, a mixed force of riflemen and spearmen.
The British artillery opened fire at around 2750 m, inflicting severe casualties on the Ansar forces before they even came within range of the Maxim guns and volley fire. The frontal attack ended quickly, with around 4,000 Ansar casualties; none of the attackers got closer than 50 m to the British trenches. A flanking move from the Ansar right was also checked, and there were bloody clashes on the opposite flank that scattered the Ansar forces there.
Kitchener was anxious to occupy Omdurman before the remaining Ansar forces could withdraw there. He advanced his army on the city, arranging them in separate columns for the attack. The British light cavalry regiment, the 21st Lancers, was sent ahead to clear the plain to Omdurman. They had a tough time of it.
The 400-strong regiment attacked what they thought were only a few hundred dervishes, but in fact there were 2,500 infantry hidden behind them in a depression. After a fierce clash the Lancers drove them back (resulting in three Victoria Crosses being awarded). On a larger scale the British advance allowed the Khalifa to re-organize his forces. He still had over 30,000 men in the field and directed his main reserve to attack from the west while ordering the forces to the northwest to attack simultaneously over the Kerreri Hills.
Kitchener's force wheeled left in echelon to advance up Surgham ridge and then southwards. To protect the rear, a brigade of 3,000, mainly Sudanese commanded by Hector MacDonald, was reinforced with Maxims and artillery and followed the main force at around 1350 m. Curiously, the supplies and wounded around Egeiga were left almost unprotected.
MacDonald was alerted to the presence of around 15,000 enemy troops moving towards him from the west, out from behind Surgham. He wheeled his force and lined them up to face the enemy charge. The Ansar infantry attacked in two prongs and MacDonald was forced to repeatedly re-order his battalions.
The brigade maintained a punishing fire. Kitchener, now aware of the problem, "began to throw his brigades about as if they were companies". MacDonald's brigade was soon reinforced and the Ansar forces were forced back and finally broke and fled or died where they stood.
The Ansar forces to the north had regrouped too late and entered the clash only after the force in the central valley had been routed. They pressed Macdonald's Sudanese brigades hard, but the Lincolnshire Regiment was quickly brought up and with sustained section volleys repulsed the advance. A final desperate cavalry charge of around 500 horsemen was utterly destroyed. The march on Omdurman was resumed at about 11:30.
Winston Churchill wrote: "Thus ended the Battle of Omdurman - the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victors."
Paul Halsall has pointed out: "The Dervish Army, approximately 52,000 strong, suffered losses of 20,000 dead, 22,000 wounded, and some 5,000 taken prisoner - an unbelievable 90% casualty rate! By contrast, the Anglo-Egyptian Army, some 23,000 strong, suffered losses of 48 dead, and 382 wounded - an equally unbelievable 2% casualty rate, thus showing the superiority of modern firepower!"
Kitchener had returned home to England to a mixed welcome. As he rose Kitchener provoked continued resentment and criticism. Anti-imperialists hated his imperial victories and triumphs. Some British officers were jealous of his success, and for varied reasons there was among senior officers much suspicion of him.
Despite radicals' and others' criticism of Kitchener's behaviour, particularly his desecration of the Mahdi's tomb at Omdurman and his taking of the latter's skull, the British public lionized the sirdar... and he was frequently mobbed when he appeared in public.
Kitchener served as governor-general of Sudan from 19th January to 18th December 1899. However, on the outbreak of the Boer War he was sent to South Africa, where he was chief of staff to the commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Frederick Roberts. Kitchener was in charge of the forces at Paardeberg. Lieutenant General Thomas Kelly-Kenny, commanding the British 6th Division, wanted to lay siege and bombard the force led by Piet Cronjé into surrender.
Lieutenant General Herbert Kitchener overruled Kelly-Kenny and ordered the infantry and mounted troops into a series of uncoordinated frontal assaults against the entrenched Boers. Armed with the modern weapons the Sudanese had wholly lacked, the British were shot down in large numbers. It is thought that not a single British soldier got within 200 yards of the Boer lines. During the attack 24 officers and 279 men were killed and 59 officers and 847 men wounded.
After this disaster it was decided to return to the strategy first suggested by Lieutenant General Kelly-Kenny. While Paardeberg was besieged Roberts sent Kitchener to repair the railway system in the Orange Free State. In June 1900, Kitchener was sent to Pretoria to deal with Christian De Wet. For the next two months Kitchener pursued the Boer guerrillas.
To deal with the Boers' guerrilla tactics, Kitchener used two complementary methods. The first was to divide the country up into a grid by building a series of blockhouses and barbed-wire fences, and by instituting drives along these grids using columns of mounted troops.
It was owing to the rugged terrain and the Boers' familiarity with the countryside that this policy was not initially successful. Kitchener's second method was resource denial, achieved by destroying Boer farms and - continuing and intensifying the process begun under Roberts - gathering the occupants, mostly women and children, into forty-six 'refugee' or ‘concentration’ camps where they could not aid the commandos.
Kitchener’s "Scorched Earth" policy included the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms, and the poisoning of wells and salting of fields - to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base. Civilians were then forcibly moved into the concentration camps. Although this tactic had been used by Spain (Ten Years' War) and the United States (Philippine-American War), it was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted.
Hobhouse decided that she had to return to England in an effort to persuade the Marquess of Salisbury and his government to bring an end to the British Army's scorched earth and concentration camp policy. David Lloyd George and Charles Trevelyan took up the case in the House of Commons and accused the government of "a policy of extermination" directed against the Boer population. William St John Fremantle Brodrick, the Secretary of State for War argued that the interned Boers were "contented and comfortable" and stated that everything possible was being done to ensure satisfactory conditions in the camps.
On the outbreak of the First World War, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, appointed Kitchener as Secretary of War. Kitchener, the first member of the military to hold the post, was given the task of recruiting a large army to fight Germany. A.J.P. Taylor has pointed out: "He startled his colleagues at the first cabinet meeting which he attended by announcing that the war would last three years, not three months, and that Great Britain would have to put an army of millions into the field. Regarding the Territorial Army with undeserved contempt, he proposed to raise a New Army of seventy divisions and, when Asquith ruled out compulsion as politically impossible, agreed to do so by voluntary recruiting."
Kitchener’s role in the Cabinet was threefold. He was to manage national recruiting and this was to lead to the legendary ‘wants you’ poster. His second task was to oversee the management of the UK’s industries that now needed to be on a war footing. Kitchener’s third role was to be responsible for military strategy. It was a huge workload for a man who had no great desire to delegate.
Kitchener did not have a general staff as all the most competent officers had gone to France with the British Expeditionary Force. Few would doubt that Kitchener put a great deal of effort into the work required but even he found the going hard. Kitchener was especially against being – as he saw it – harried by politicians.
He believed that politicians had little if any idea how to manage anything remotely concerned with warfare and it soon became obvious that he and some members of the Cabinet would clash. On a number of occasions Kitchener threatened to resign because of what he saw as interfering politicians hounding him.
However, Asquith could not afford to lose Kitchener from his Cabinet, as his status among the public was great. The one politician Kitchener did get on with was the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who was a veteran of the Boer War and had participated in warfare – so he understood the issues that Kitchener had to deal with. Kitchener developed the belief that other members of the Cabinet were nothing more than armchair generals who had little understanding of how to fight a modern war.
Kitchener asked for an initial one hundred thousand - 175,000 men volunteered in the single week ending 5th September. With the help of a war poster that featured Kitchener and the words: "Join Your Country's Army", 750,000 had enlisted by the end of September. Thereafter the average ran at 125,000 men a month until June 1915 when numbers joining up began to slow down.
Kitchener had never disguised his attitude to the Territorial Army. He referred to them as ‘weekend warriors’ and believed that they could play no positive part in the war. He wanted an army made up of patriotic volunteers who would put their heart and soul into the campaign.
Unlike many, he did not see the TA’s as fitting this description. On August 7th 1914, Kitchener made his first appeal for 100,000 volunteers. To begin with the adverts in the newspapers were very staid with the royal crest with “Your King and Country need you” followed by “A Call to Arms”.
The adverts stated clearly stated an age range of 19 to 30. However, these adverts were replaced by Alfred Leete’s legendary poster that showed Kitchener pointing at the reader with “Your Country Needs You”. The response overwhelmed the army. In 18 months, 2,467,000 men joined up only to find that the army did not have enough rifles or uniforms.
The British Expeditionary Force in France was commanded by Sir John French. His overall plan as directed by the Cabinet was to fully cooperate with the French army. Kitchener expressed his belief that the BEF had not been pushed further forward towards the Belgium border. However, the BEF remained where Joffre wanted them to be.
Kitchener advised Sir John French that retreat was unthinkable as it would have a devastating impact on the men in the The British Expeditionary Force and could impact recruiting in the UK. The initial success of the German Army took both French and Joffre by surprise and French made plans to withdraw the BEF.
Kitchener was horrified and ordered French to explain why he was even considering the move. French tried to convince Kitchener but failed and on September 1st Kitchener crossed the Channel to meet the French. The meeting was private but those nearby stated that the raised voices indicated that it was a heated meeting.
It finished with French agreeing to coordinate any of his moves with those of Joffre. It was at this time that the German advance faltered; the Battle of the Marne pushed the Germans back towards to River Aisne and stalemate kicked in with neither side knowing how to defeat the other. It was the start of trench warfare in World War One.
Kitchener soon found out that the loyalty that he could expect from the men who served under him in the army was not necessarily to be found at a political level. He was blamed by politicians for the so-called ‘shell shortage’. While he had accepted being in charge of the UK’s industries for the duration of the war, he could not have envisaged the sheer scale of the war when he took up the appointment in August 1914.
No war in history had been fought on such an industrial scale and no country had ever had to adjust its industrial might accordingly. Industries then were still very heavy in terms of manpower. Yet here was a man cajoling as many young men as was possible to volunteer for the army. The shortfall in manpower was made up by using women. For many men set in their ways, it was a huge change in mindset.
In an effort to find a way to relieve pressure on the Western front, Lord Kitchener proposed an invasion of Alexandretta with Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), New Army, and Indian troops. Alexandretta was an area with a large Christian population and was the strategic centre of the Ottoman Empire's railway network — its capture would have cut the empire in two.
Yet he was instead eventually persuaded to support Winston Churchill's disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915–1916. That failure, combined with the Shell Crisis of 1915 – amidst press publicity engineered by Sir John French – dealt Kitchener's political reputation a heavy blow; Kitchener was popular with the public, so Asquith retained him in office in the new coalition government, but responsibility for munitions was moved to a new ministry headed by David Lloyd George.
Kitchener also received his share of blame for the Dardanelle`s disaster. The combination of a lack of success on the Western Front, a huge increase in the number of casualties, the ‘shell shortage’ and the failure of the Dardanelle’s campaign greatly undermined Kitchener’s position.
The newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe conducted a campaign against Kitchener in his newspapers and pushed for his resignation from the Cabinet. Kitchener’s authority was further undermined by the creation of a new Munitions Ministry under Lloyd George. This took over the running of the UK’s industries. To compensate Kitchener, he was made a Knight of the Garter on May 29th, 1915.
The Cabinet was in agreement over a withdrawal from the Dardanelle’s – all except Kitchener. He considered withdrawals to be a sign of weakness that would encourage the enemy. It was the same approach that had led to a breakdown in his relationship with Sir John French at the start of World War One.
Many in the Cabinet felt that Kitchener had served his purpose but now had to move on. They pressed Asquith to either sack him or push him into resigning from the Cabinet. Asquith was in a difficult position because Kitchener was still something of a talisman to the public and a sacking would not be greeted well.
Kitchener spared Asquith this problem when he offered to resign in November 1915. Asquith refused to accept it believing that his public aura, regardless of Northcliffe’s campaign, far outweighed the thoughts expressed by his Cabinet. However, Asquith did remove from Kitchener more of his responsibilities so that by the end of 1915, he was only in charge of administering the War Office.
He finally resigned from the Cabinet when senior army commanders were given free access to the Cabinet – previously they had to go through Kitchener, which to some extent gave him control over who in the army met with the Cabinet and who did not.
In May 1916, Kitchener received an invite from Nicholas II, Tsar or Russia, to visit Russia and advise him on military matters. On June 5th Kitchener set sail from Scapa Flow for Russia on the cruiser ‘HMS Hampshire’. At about 19.00, the ‘Hampshire’ hit a German mine and within 15 minutes had sunk. 643 out of the 655 on board drowned or died of hypothermia. Kitchener was among the dead. While some bodies were later retrieved, his body was never found.
Even those with whom he had clashed paid tribute to him: “It would be idle to pretend that in the past two years I have always seen eye to eye with the great Field Marshal who has been taken from us, but such divergence of opinion as occurred in no way interfered with the national interests nor did it ever shake any confidence in Lord Kitchener’s will, power and ability to meet the heavy demands I had to make upon him.” A highly religious man, Kitchener once stated his own attitude: “Not to work to one’s full, is to defraud God.”
The journalist, Charles Repington, had a more positive view of Kitchener but was still critical of his role in the war: "The services which he rendered in the early days of the war cannot be forgotten. They transcend those of all the lesser men who were his colleagues, some few of whom envied his popularity. His old manner of working alone did not consort with the needs of this huge syndicalism, modern war. The thing was too big. He made many mistakes. He was not a good Cabinet man. His methods did not suit a democracy. But there he was, towering above the others in character as in inches, by far the most popular man in the country to the end, and a firm rock which stood out amidst the raging tempest."
In the spring of 1916 Herbert Asquith decided to send Kitchener to Russia in an attempt to rally the country in its fight against Germany. On 5th June 1916, Horatio Kitchener was drowned when the HMS Hampshire on which he was traveling to Russia, was struck a mine off the Orkneys. C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, remarked: "he could not have done better than to have gone down, as he was a great impediment lately".
After his death he was criticised, and often dismissed as a great poster but not a great administrator. Lloyd George for instance – who may have taken credit for some of Kitchener's achievements in the field of munitions – was critical of Kitchener in his War Memoirs. After many years' experience of commanding relatively small forces in imperial campaigns, Kitchener had made his reputation worse by his habit of secrecy, unwillingness to explain his actions to his colleagues, and reluctance to delegate.
Many Kerry Men fought under Lord Kitchener, here are a few from Tralee and Ardfert.