In August 1914, Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, Earl Kitchener of Khartoum and of Broome, was a Royal Engineer with an illustrious career behind him:
- Served in Palestine/Cyprus/Sudan, 1878-83.
- Participated in reorganisation of Egyptian Army and an unsuccessful attempt to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum, 1883-85.
- Governor General of Eastern Sudan, 1986-88.
- Participated in the repelling of the Mahdist invasion of Egypt, 1989.
- Sirdar (C-in-C), Egyptian Army and relaunched anti-Mahdist campaign in Sudan, 1892-98.
- Victor of the Battle of Omdurman, Sudan 1898.
- Governor of Sudan, 1898.
- Chief of Staff to Lord Roberts, Boer War, South Africa, 1898.
- C-in-C, Boer War, South Africa, 1900-02.
- C-in-C, India, 1902-09.
- Consul-General of Egypt/Sudan, 1911-14.
Although he had been lauded as the British hero of the pre-war years, K of K (Kitchener of Khartoum) as he was widely known, was also said to be an autocratic and egocentric mystic. He was renowned for not being a team player and scornful of the ways of bureaucrats and politicians.
Even so, at the age of 64, when the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, unexpectedly called on him to serve in his government in August 1914, Kitchener took on the burden of Secretary of State for War (Minister of War).
Kitchener immediately launched a highly successful campaign to raise New Armies for the battle on the Western Front. Perhaps fortunately, he was not to live to see the volunteers of the New Army go into action on the Somme in July 1916, one year earlier than planned. But they formed the fore-runners of the largely citizen British Army of the Great War that together with its Allies, was able to humble the mighty German Army and its Central Power allies, and bring the Great War to a conclusive end in November 1918.
Organising the War
In August 1914, Kitchener was one of the first to appreciate that the Great War would not 'be over by Christmas'. He predicted it would last for years - his first estimate in 1914 was three years - and that it would involve millions of casualties. Accordingly, he knew that Britain's small Regular Army, even with the ready support of volunteer cadres from the British Empire, was insufficient for the task; a New Army of 100,000 volunteers was required immediately, with more to follow.
Controversially, he declined to use the existing Territorial Army infrastructure as the nucleus upon which to build the New Army, as well as positively discouraging conscription and, by default, the planning of manpower usage in industry.
His rationale for not using the Territorial Army was three-fold. Firstly, there was his innate preference for the training procedures and methodology of the Regular Army that he knew so well. Secondly he was concerned that since the Territorials were only contracted to fight on home territory, insufficient numbers would volunteer to fight overseas. And, thirdly, he considered that the Territorials were required to do the job for which they were intended and trained: they had be there to resist a possible German invasion when the majority of the Regular Army was moved to France as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
All in all, Kitchener considered it best to start from scratch and create a New Army trained to fight a modern war on foreign territory. Of course, he had no idea that this was to lead to four years of static trench warfare on the Western Front. Or that there was little understanding of exactly what this would entail in terms of trained soldiers and munitions, logistics and communications.
One Kitchener's first actions - or that of an unknown member of his staff - was to order the production of thousands of copies of a colourful poster - based on a front cover of The London Opinion magazine - of himself wearing his Field Marshal uniform, and pointing a semi-accusatory index finger. The poster was set out as follows.
Copies of this poster were displayed on the notice boards of town halls and public buildings, from 'John o'Groats to Lands End. Instantly, they produced a flood of volunteers from all walks of life, including workers in the soon to be vital industries supporting the war effort. It was claimed that overall the poster stimulated the recruitment of three million men for the New Armies.
Gearing up for War
The army recruiting centres and the receiving barracks were inundated by eager volunteers in their thousands. By September 1914, half a million had volunteered. So many that some centres were overwhelmed, and disappointed volunteers were simply signed up and sent home to await a call-up. Equipment and accommodation was in short supply, so volunteers were trained in their civilian clothes and billeted with the general public until the necessary miltary facilities could be completed.
Kitchener's Ministry organised a vast building campaign of army barracks and training grounds, and many buildings were requisitioned. Huge contracts for material to feed, clothe and arm the recruits were commissioned, and peacetime industries were turned over en bloc to war production. Within six months, munitions production had risen by 2,000%. One important source that Kitchener authorised, on his own initiative, was a group of American contractors who had enormous ready, and latent, production capacity for the material of war.
One of the many serious production problems that Kitchener encountered was that of insufficient shell production, which was further exacerbated by the draining away of munitions workers into the army. The failure to supply enough artillery shells to the Western Front was exacerbated by faulty fuses that caused many shells to not explode on contact, or to even worse, to explode prematurely in the barrel. This situation rapidly escalated into the Shell Crisis of 1915. Kitchener readily assumed some of the blame, but it was left to David Lloyd George as Munitions Minister to finally rectify the problem.
Strategies, Good and Bad
In his dealings between the Government and the Army, Kitchener deliberately encouraged in the Army an aura of independence from political control that subsequently proved to be difficult to realign. He also retained a strong sense of the desirability of securing a strong British Empire. He foresaw the British role to be that to be the final arbiter of the outcome of the Great War, when the French and Russians fought the Central Powers to a standstill in their Continental War.
Kitchener was also at odds with the proposal of the War Cabinet for the Dardanelles Campaign. First, he strongly supported the Westerner politicians in their advocacy of the pro-French strategies of Field Marshal French and General Haig. He then opted for an entirely different strategy of attacking the Ottoman Empire's railway system. When he was finally persuaded to support a land orientated modification Churchill's Dardanelles plan in 1915, he failed to ensure the efficacy of the operational plan or to provide adequate follow-up of reinforcements and supplies.
The failure of the Gallipoli Campaign reflected badly on Kitchener's reputation, and this, in turn, prevented him from exercising his former authority in preventing the Salonika Campaign that was launched on a large scale in October 1915.
In February 1916, he offered his resignation to the Prime Minister, but it was declined. There was, however, some relief among the Cabinet members when it was decided the Kitchener should lead a mission to Russia for talks with Tsar Nicholas II concerning the flow of relief supplies to Russia.
The Final Mission
On the 5th June 1916, the British cruiser HMS Hampshire, whilst fighting through a Force 9 gale, struck a German mine laid in the seas off the Orkneys by the German submarine U- 75. Kitchener and many of the crew were lost; amidst claims of poor rescue procedures.
Great public mourning and dismay followed the confirmation of the death of Kitchener, aged 66. But, many in the Government felt an impediment to its consensus and smooth running had been removed.
Over time, Kitchener's inspirational contribution in the early chaotic and fearful days of the Great War has not been forgotten. And, whilst acknowledging his personal foibles, his reputation as a great British soldier doing a difficult job in the Great War, has been largely restored by careful historical research.