Field Marshall Lord Kitchener’s face and pointing finger proclaiming ‘Your country needs you’, often copied and mimicked, is one of the most recognisable posters of all time.
Born 24 June 1850 in County Kerry, Ireland, Kitchener first saw active service with the French army during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and, a decade later, with the British Army during the occupation of Egypt. He was part of the force that tried, unsuccessfully, to relieve General Charles Gordon, besieged in Khartoum in 1885. The death of Gordon, at the hands of Mahdist forces, caused great anguish in Britain. Thirteen years later, as commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army, Kitchener led the campaign of reprisal into the Sudan, defeating the Mahdists at the Battle of Omdurman and reoccupying Khartoum in 1898. Kitchener had restored Britain’s pride.
His reputation took a dent however during the Second Boer War in South Africa, 1899-1902. Succeeding Lord Roberts as c-in-c in November 1900 with the idea of mopping up outstanding pockets of resistance, Kitchener resorted to a scorched-earth policy in order to defeat the guerrilla tactics of the Boers. Controversially, he also set up a system of concentration camps and interned Boer women and children and black Africans. Overcrowded, lacking hygiene and malnourished, over 25,000 were to die, for which Kitchener was heavily criticised.
The criticism however, did not damage Kitchener’s career, becoming first c-in-c of India, promoted to field marshal, and, in 1911, Consul-General of Egypt, responsible, in effect, for governing the whole country.
‘Your country needs you’
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Lord Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War, the first soldier to hold the post, serving under Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government. Bleakly, he predicted a long war, a lone voice among the government and military elite who anticipated a short, sharp conflict. Britain, Kitchener argued, would need an army far larger than the existing 1914 professional army, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). But the British, unlike their European counterparts, were against conscription. The answer was to raise an army of volunteers thus Kitchener went on a recruitment drive. From 7 August 1914, Kitchener’s poster appeared across the country. The government hoped for perhaps 100,000 volunteers within the first six months. Any more would cause logistical problems. In the event, they got two million by the end of 1915, such was the extent of British patriotism and British naivety.
‘A great poster’
Popular with the public but less so with the government, who found him taciturn and difficult to work with, the failure of the Gallipoli campaign saw Kitchener’s prestige fall. In December 1915, Lord Kitchener suffered a demotion. He had offered to resign, but the government, knowing how popular he was with the public, daren’t let him go. The prime minister’s wife, Lady Margot Asquith, once famously said, ‘if Kitchener was not a great man, he was, at least, a great poster.’ (Although Lady Asquith later assigned the quote to her daughter). Kitchener’s successor as secretary for war and eventual prime minister, David Lloyd George, thought little of Kitchener and criticised his wartime role in his 1937 War Memoirs. (Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Britain’s c-in-c from December 1915, was another victim of Lloyd George’s post-war denunciations).
In June 1916, Lord Kitchener was sent on a diplomatic mission to Russia to try and better coordinate the Western and Eastern Fronts. On 5 June, the ship he was travelling on, the armoured cruiser, HMS Hampshire, hit a German mine off the Orkney Islands and sunk. Nearly all drowned. Kitchener’s body was never found, leading to several conspiracy theories that he had become too much of an embarrassment and liability, and had been assassinated. That David Lloyd George, at the time the Minister for Munitions, was supposed to have been accompanying Kitchener but cancelled at the last minute, merely added to the speculation. The editor of the Manchester Guardian remarked that Kitchener ‘could not have done better than to have gone down, as he was a great impediment lately’.
Lord Kitchener’s death shocked the nation and he was deeply mourned. But today, almost a century on from his death, his poster remains one of the iconic images of the twentieth century.
Lord Kitchener’s Death Plaque and me
A friend of mine recently bought for a tidy sum Lord Kitchener’s Memorial Death Plaque. He asked me to get it valued. These 12 cm diameter bronze plaques (click picture to enlarge, although this one is not Kitchener’s) were presented to the next of kin of those that had died during the Great War in the name of Britain and her empire. The design is that of Britannia holding a trident aside a lion. Beneath her is another lion gorging the German eagle, and the two dolphins are meant to represent Britain’s sea power. The inscription reads ‘He died for freedom and honour‘. About 1,300,00 were presented and my friend has a rather macabre collection of over 3,000, including this one of Kitchener’s. I took it to an auction house in London and yes, it was genuine but, given Kitchener’s status, there are about five or six in existence. Nonetheless, my friend seems delighted to be the owner of one.
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.