Kitchener, Horatio Herbert

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KITCHENER, HORATIO HERBERT (1850–1916), 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, British Field Marshal, and imperial statesman.

Horatio Herbert Kitchener was born in Ireland in 1850. Trained at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and commissioned in the Royal Engineers, Kitchener served in Palestine and Cyprus before being posted to the Egyptian army.

As its commander-in-chief in the 1890s, Kitchener led the British reconquest of Sudan before being appointed chief of staff to Field Marshal Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts (1832–1914) in the Boer War. After succeeding Roberts as South African campaign commander, Kitchener ran the imperial army in India until 1909, when he was elevated to field marshal. In 1914 he became secretary of state for war, massively expanding the army in anticipation of lengthy hostilities. He was drowned in 1916 when his ship sank on a mission to Russia.

A severe and aloof martial figure, Kitchener acquired an early reputation as a proficient engineer, colonial expeditionary surveyor, and linguist, and went on to become known for obsessively personal control of campaigns, defined by an unwillingness to delegate command authority and a supreme indifference to human casualties, including those on his own side.

Kitchener's career as a commander peaked in the conduct of rural colonial warfare, where large-scale field operations across African territories confirmed his quintessential organizational spade-work and characteristic brutality. This was seen first in the Anglo-Egyptian invasion of Sudan in 1896. In a deliberately slow and methodical advance from Cairo, Kitchener buttressed his technological superiority in firepower and equipment with elaborate desert cartography and a thick flow of local intelligence. His solution to one of the great problems of protracted colonial campaigns, that of transport and supply, was a staged penetration of the Sudan in which his forces advanced more than a thousand miles inland from the Mediterranean. As his expeditionary force marched up the Nile, laborers laid hundreds of miles of railway track and constructed fortified depots, establishing a communications spine back to base. In effect, the pace of conquest was set by the rate of railway building up the main Nile and across the desert, proceeding through a series of spurts and pauses to allow track to be pushed up.

Kitchener was also adroit in exploiting the riverine potential of his route, hauling in gunboats to assist bombardment of the riverbank positions of his Mahdist enemy. This, too, entailed laborious adaptation to local terrain. At times, floodwaters

lifted Kitchener's gunboats over cataracts, but mostly they had to be dismantled at each cataract and completely reassembled after crossing. Exploiting the advantages of industrialization, Kitchener's rail and river movement provided an imposing concentration of logistical and combat power for a thrust deep into the heart of the Sudan.

Kitchener revealed himself as no great tactician in combat with defending Mahdist forces. Although his army was consistently on top, its victories during 1896–1898, even at the decisive Omdurman, were not achieved without difficulties. British organization, British discipline, and British command of technology nevertheless always ultimately tipped the scales against peasant warriors. Constantly hugging the Nile, Kitchener's infantry had the close protection of lethal, high-angle gunboat fire. When his troops could mow down attack formations with magazine rifle and machine gun fire before unleashing cavalry on fleeing survivors, there was little need to move beyond their protective screen.

Britain's Sudanese opponents repeatedly underestimated the invaders' firepower, a misjudgment made worse by traditional tactics of trying to engage at close quarters. Kitchener inflicted huge losses in several encounters that were more massacres than battles. He also sanctioned controversial conduct by his army, including summary executions, looting, and the desecration of religious sites. These were termed politically necessary acts to destroy "the fanatical feeling" of Mahdist Islam.

Kitchener's pulverizing of Sudan provided an indication of his approach to making war upon the republican Boers of South Africa, opponents who, although small in number, were tactically astute, highly mobile horsemen, and well-armed. As Britain's commander during the extended 1900–1902 guerrilla war phase of the South African conflict, Kitchener assumed authority at a time when the war was not going particularly well for the British. His main challenge was devising a strategy to choke roving Boer commandos into submission.

Under Kitchener's familiar iron will, high-level core staff planning became more rigorous, improving coordination between military command and political imperatives. Kitchener boosted the capability of the Field Intelligence Department, stocking it with thousands of local pro-British white agents and loyalist black scouts and spies who monitored the countryside. He drew on his Sudanese experience in engineering and used conscripted African labor to extend river bridging and maintain essential rail communications. Working from a north-south intelligence grid of the South African interior, he completed as well another large feat of military engineering. Thousands of blockhouses were erected; lines of barbed wire were laid down; and telegraph, telephone, and carrier pigeon connections were established to integrate these new fortified positions. The Royal Engineers furnished power and lighting to the network, enabling continuous surveillance. As these grid like catchment zones were established, Kitchener organized fast-moving flying columns to conduct mounted sweeps between them, systematically clearing areas of guerrilla resistance.

Kitchener also hit at republican morale by fostering Boer collaboration with the imperialist cause, placing several thousand surrendered insurgents under the British flag as turncoat National Scouts. This measure fractured the Boers' anti-imperialist war effort and sowed bitter divisions in postwar South Africa between "hands-uppers" and "bitter-enders."

The most fearsome element of Kitchener's counterinsurgency campaign, however, was an intensification of the scorched-earth strategy initiated by his predecessor, Lord Roberts, as a reprisal for resistance to British conquest and occupation. To deny Boer forces supplies and the moral sustenance of civilian support, Kitchener carried the war to thousands of rural homesteads. In an incendiary swathe of destruction, crops were fired, cattle driven off, and houses burnt or dynamited. Women, children, old men, and African tenant cultivators and servants were corralled into white and black concentration camps as refugees or "undesirables" (those with kinsmen on commando). In Kitchener's colonial war of attrition, the chief purpose of internment was to hold an enemy society hostage to force its belligerents into giving up their stubborn fight. Soaring mortality rates in unsanitary camps by 1901 contributed to a rising despair in republican ranks that was decisive in forcing the Boers to capitulate in 1902. Only then, with Boer republicanism crushed militarily, did Kitchener throw his support behind a conciliatory and lenient Anglo-Boer peace to rebuild a white settler order.

See alsoBoer War; Imperialism; Military Tactics; Omdurman; South Africa.


Coetzer, Owen. Fire in the Sky: The Destruction of the Orange Free State, 1899–1902. Johannesburg, 2000.

Holt, P. M. The Mahdist State in the Sudan: 1881–1898. 2nd ed. Oxford, U.K., 1970.

Pollock, John Charles. Kitchener: The Road to Omdurman. London, 1999.

Pretorius, Fransjohan, ed. Scorched Earth. Cape Town, 2001.

Spies, S. B. Methods of Barbarism?: Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics, January 1900–May 1902. Johannesburg, 2001.

Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830–1914. Bloomington, Ind., 1998.

Bill Nasson