Kitchener, Horatio Herbert (1850–1916)

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British military leader.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Horatio Herbert Kitchener, Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, was Britain's most respected military figure. Yet by the time of his death two years later, his career was waning. He still stood high in the assessment of the general public but a good deal lower in the judgment of the political elite.

Kitchener was born in 1850, the son of a British colonel. After studying at the Royal Military Academy in 1868–1870, he qualified for a commission in the Royal Engineers. In 1871 he served with France's republican army in the attempt to rescue Paris from the Prussians. At the time, this action met with disapproval at home, but in 1914 it constituted a mark to his credit. Yet its real importance lay elsewhere. It was virtually the only time in a career of forty years that Kitchener saw battle in Europe. His huge reputation was gained in campaigns against the followers of Muhammad Ahmad (1844–1885) in the Sudan and against the Boers in South Africa, and his considerable administrative experience was secured in ruling foreign territories like Egypt and South Africa. By mid-1914 Kitchener was a field marshal, a founding member of the Order of Merit, and an earl.

On 3 August 1914, Kitchener, who was in Britain at the time, was summoned to London. The prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith (1852–1928) offered him the post of secretary of state for war—a key position in the civilian government. The appointment was wildly popular—Kitchener was known and highly regarded nationwide. He had already perceived, accurately if not quite as uniquely as is often claimed, that the war in which Britain was now involved would be a long struggle and that Britain would have to raise a major army and play a full part. That is, he recognized that Britain could not afford to limit its involvement to securing command of the seas and helping to meet the economic demands of a coalition war.

Yet his qualifications for this new task were less than total. His statement in 1915, in response to information about the impenetrable trench obstacles that British forces had attempted to assail, was simply one of bafflement: "This isn't war. I don't know what is to be done." Furthermore, he had little experience of military organization at home, or of the methods and machinery of the war office. And, having accepted a post in the civilian cabinet that was ultimately responsible for waging the war, he had little inclination to explain or justify his decisions to a gathering of individuals in whom he felt little confidence.

Yet it was hardly his fault if, along with himself, the cabinet, Parliament, and nation had eagerly adopted a widescale British involvement in a great international struggle. He set about providing the machinery, and the inspiration, for the creation of a mass volunteer army, stipulating early on its eventual expansion to seventy divisions—as against the six regular and fourteen territorial divisions then in existence. It has been argued—and probably with reason—that instead of creating his "New Army" (or "Kitchener's Army," as it was loudly proclaimed) from scratch, he would have done better to expand the existing territorial divisions and so avoided a military force in three distinct parts. But the fact remains that less than two years into the war the seventy divisions of British volunteers that Kitchener had summoned forth were trained and ready to take over the principal battle against the Germans.

Despite these accomplishments, the war was not a year old before Kitchener came under severe attacks from certain cabinet colleagues and sections of the press. He dealt expeditiously with a crisis early in the war, when the British Expeditionary Force was being driven steadily back toward Paris, and its commander, Sir John Denton Pinkstone French (1852–1925), proposed separating from the French and retreating to the coast. Kitchener, dressed perhaps inappropriately in the uniform of a field marshal, traveled to France to call Sir John to order. Thereby the military alliance with the French was preserved and the path set for an Allied victory at the Marne. So far Kitchener had done well. But the following April, when a British offensive suffered severe rebuff, he became the target of savage criticism, particularly by the Northcliffe press ("Lord Kitchener's Tragic Blunder"). The grounds of attack were provided by Sir John French and were of doubtful quality. But cabinet members had become tired of Kitchener's authoritarian manner, desperate overwork on less-than-important matters, and reluctance to recognize that munitions production was much more an industrial than a military matter. As part of the political upheaval in May, Asquith created under David Lloyd George (1863–1945) a ministry of munitions, which diminished much of Kitchener's power.

Munitions had been only one cause of political unrest. Another was dispute over the merits or folly of trying to capture Constantinople by forcing the Dardanelles. Initially Kitchener had endorsed this proposal as a purely naval activity, saying that if the fleet did not succeed the operation could be abandoned. But he then decided that the British Empire could not sustain a rebuff at the hands of the Turks and that an army must be sent to Gallipoli. For the rest of 1915 his actions were dogged by this alarming miscalculation, which culminated in November in his journeying to the Dardanelles and concluding that the endeavor must be abandoned.

On his return to Britain he offered the prime minister his resignation, which was declined. But his situation thereafter was much that of a figure-head, not least when Sir William Robert Robertson (1860–1933) was appointed chief of the imperial general staff with the sole authority to advise the cabinet on strategy. Yet, because of his reputation and personality, Kitchener remained an important public figure. His death on 5 June 1916 was an unprecedented calamity for the general public. And the great volunteer army of three million, raised at his call and about to take on the principal task of waging the war on the Somme, indicated the power of his endeavors.

See alsoWorld War I .


Cassar, George H. Kitchener: Architect of Victory. London, 1977.

——. Kitchener's War: British Strategy from 1914 to 1916. Washington, D.C., 2004.

Magnus, Philip Montefiore . Kitchener: Portrait of an Imperialist. New York, 1959.

Robin Prior