His face was known to every Briton during World War One. As Secretary of State for War, it was his responsibility to fill the rolls of the British Army in the face of appalling attrition; with an all-volunteer force in the first half of the war, persuasion was necessary, and one of the most successful posters used in the recruitment campaign was one in which Kitchener himself pointed at the viewer and called upon him to serve his country. While this image was largely a question of style, it also points to Kitchener’s main achievement in the First World War: the reconstruction of the British Army in the wake of the losses of 1914.
Horatio Herbert Kitchener was born in Ireland in 1850. His military career began at the Royal Military Academy. In 1871 he joined the Royal Engineers, which soon brought him to a series of posts in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. His most consequential posting was in the Sudan, where he won the battle of Omdurman in 1898. Britain saw its interests in the Sudan reaffirmed, and in return, Kitchener became a baron.
Because of his proven success, Kitchener followed Britain’s military priorities in the years leading up to World War One, with his place in the Peerage rising correspondingly. The British government turned to Kitchener to run the Second Boer War, significantly placing him in two key positions, namely those of commander in chief and chief of staff. British victory in 1902 brought him the title of Viscount and another important assignment. He spent seven years as the head of British forces in India, during which time he rebuilt that command. Then, from 1911 to 1914, he oversaw British interests in Egypt under the title of Agent.
1914 saw the beginning of the First World War, and Kitchener’s country needed him closer to home. He was brought into the government as Secretary of State for War on August 7, which was accompanied by a military promotion to the rank of Field Marshal. Soon he also became the first Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, a title that gave him the nickname “K of K.”
One often finds that a person’s advantages and flaws are just variations on the same trait. In one sense, Kitchener’s appointment was inspired; as a lifelong military man, chosen because of his proven record, he was above petty politics and conducted himself accordingly. This contributed to a reputation for solidity and firmness of purpose at a time when both were much needed. This same trait worked against him in the day-to-day affairs of government, in which he had little patience for the forms of civilian governance and little skill at building relationships among his colleagues. To the public, he became the cornerstone of war policy; to those around him, he could be the millstone about their necks.
His tenure in office would be brief, lasting less than two years, but he would leave a lasting mark on the British war effort. Demonstrating unusual clarity of thought, he recognized that the war would be long when others, caught up in the emotions of 1914, anticipated closure by the end of the year. He expected the war to last no fewer than three years, and made his first major contribution to the war effort by making his plans accordingly.
While his relationship with fellow British policymakers was often contentious and unpleasant, he proved surprisingly capable in his dealings with the French; of course, it helped that Kitchener was a willing advocate for giving all possible assistance to his continental ally. In one notable manifestation of Kitchener’s eagerness to support France in the field, he personally directed Sir John French to step up his efforts in the northern sector of the Western Front. Kitchener did much to smooth out the differences between Britain and France.
If Kitchener’s influence was salutary on the Western Front, it was less beneficial in the Mediterranean. Kitchener was a leading proponent of fighting the Turks at the Dardanelles. The strategic value of this campaign may be questionable, but it can be understood in light of his previous experience on behalf of the British Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. Less defensible are the measures he undertook to carry out the campaign. Simply put, he did not do enough to ensure that his men were sufficiently well-supplied for the task at hand, and his manner of dealing with those around him meant that no one else made up for it. When the Gallipoli Offensive miscarried, Kitchener lost much of his prestige in the government. A new Chief of Staff, Sir William Robertson, overshadowed him in military matters.
One serious consequence of Kitchener’s managerial style before his star fell was that military planning became increasingly insulated against political influence. In limited circumstances, this can become an advantage, but in the larger picture, it posed a serious problem for a Western democracy, and this was not fully redressed until the final months of the war.
At the same time, Kitchener performed one major service that outweighs many of his faults: he ensured that Britain could field a sufficient number of men during the first half of the war, before Britain adopted the draft. Britain’s army had always been relatively small; in terms of grand strategy, this island nation has long placed a greater emphasis on the strength of its navy than on its army. In 1914, Britain began the war with the army in which Kitchener had served in the wars of the late nineteenth century: it was small, but comprised of professional soldiers who served on a voluntary basis, with a high level of training.
This army was deployed in Belgium and northern France in 1914 as the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, and that BEF was largely wiped out by the end of that year. It had staved off German attacks from Mons to Ypres, but in the process it was reduced to a shadow of its former self. The survivors would go on to play an important role in training the raw recruits that would fill out the British rolls in 1915, but first, these recruits needed to be raised. Kitchener, with his foresight concerning the length of the war, carried out a very successful public relations campaign to drum up new recruits. His most successful product, the poster featuring his face, would become a model for similar posters in the future, ranging from the American “Uncle Sam” recruitment poster to Bolshevik recruitment campaigns in the Soviet Union. The level of his success is best told by a pair of numbers: in 1914, Britain possessed 20 divisions, which grew to 70 divisions by 1916.
Kitchener’s contributions were cut short on June 5, 1916. Kitchener was a passenger on the HMS Hampshire, bound for Russia, when the cruiser was sunk by a mine laid near the Orkneys. In the eyes of the public, this was perceived as a grievous loss. Subsequent historians, taking cues from vicious attacks made in hindsight by slighted subordinates, have taken a dimmer view of Kitchener’s place in history. Still, he played an instrumental role in making the 1918 victory possible by laying solid foundations for the army that Britain would have available in 1917. Without Kitchener or someone like him, Britain’s prospects in the second half of the war would have been much gloomier.
Cassar, George. Kitchener’s War: British Strategy from 1914-1916. Potomac Books, 2005
Forty, Simon. World War I: A Visual Encyclopedia. PRC Publishing, 2002
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. Arms & Armour, 1996
Livesey, Anthony. Great Battles of World War I. Smithmark Publishers, Inc. 1997
© 2012, 2013. All rights reserved.