Herbert Horatio Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, is one of Britain’s most iconic military figures. Playing a central role in the early years of World War One, his face adorned one of the most famous wartime propaganda posters ever created, ‘Your Country Needs You’.
Kitchener’s efforts allowed the British Army to become a war machine that sustained four years of brutal warfare in the trenches, and despite his untimely death, his legacy remains almost untouched by any other military figures of his time. But Kitchener’s illustrious career spanned much more than the Western Front.
Here are 10 facts about the varied life of Herbert, Lord Kitchener.
1. He travelled a lot as a young man
Born in Ireland in 1850, Kitchener was the son of an army officer. The family moved from Ireland to Switzerland, before the young Herbert Kitchener finished his education at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich.
He briefly joined a French field ambulance unit, fighting in the Franco-Prussian War, before being commissioned into the Royal Engineers in January 1871. He subsequently served in Cyprus, Egypt and Mandatory Palestine, where he learnt Arabic.
2. He helped complete the definitive Survey of Western Palestine
Kitchener was part of a small team which surveyed Palestine between 1874 and 1877, collecting data on topography as well as flora and fauna. The survey had long-lasting effects as it effectively delineated and defined political borders of the countries of the southern Levant and became the basis for the grid system used in modern maps of Israel and Palestine.
3. He thrived while serving in Egypt
In January 1883, Kitchener was promoted to captain and dispatched to Egypt, where he helped rebuild the Egyptian Army. He was reportedly very comfortable in Egypt, preferring the company of Egyptians, and found himself fitting in seamlessly thanks to his Arabic language skills.
He was promoted twice more, eventually being appointed as Governor of the Egyptian Provinces of Eastern Sudan and Red Sea Littoral in September 1886. An 1890 War Office evaluation described Kitchener as “a fine gallant soldier and good linguist and very successful in dealing with Orientals”.
4. He took the title Baron Kitchener of Khartoum in 1898
As head of the Egyptian Army, Kitchener led his troops through the British invasion of Sudan (1896-1899), winning notable victories at Atbara and Omdurman which awarded him considerable fame in the press back home.
Kitchener became Governor-General of Sudan in September 1898 and began helping to oversee the restoration of ‘good governance’, guaranteeing freedom of religion to all Sudanese citizens. In 1898, he was created Baron Kitchener of Khartoum in recognition of his services.
5. He commanded the British Army during the Anglo-Boer War
By the late 1890s, Kitchener was one of the leading figures in the British Army. When the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899, Kitchener arrived in South Africa as chief of staff (second-in-command) with British reinforcements in December of that year.
Within the year, Kitchener had become commander of the British force in South Africa and followed his predecessor’s strategy, which included a scorched earth policy and keeping Boer women and children in concentration camps. As huge numbers of prisoners arrived in the camps, the British were unable to maintain conditions and standards, causing the deaths of over 20,000 women and children from disease, lack of sanitation and starvation.
As thanks for his service (the British eventually won the war as the Boers agreed to come under British sovereignty), Kitchener was made a Viscount on his return to England in 1902.
6. Kitchener was turned down for the post of Viceroy of India
Kitchener was appointed Commander-in-Chief in India in 1902, with the support of the Viceroy, Lord Curzon. He quickly made many reforms to the army, and conflict between Curzon and Kitchener developed after Kitchener tried to concentrate all of the military decision-making power into his own role. Curzon eventually resigned as a result.
Kitchener served in the role for 7 years, hoping to claim the role of Viceroy of India. He lobbied the Cabinet and King Edward VII, who was practically on his deathbed, but to no avail. He was finally turned down for the role by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in 1911.
7. He was appointed Secretary of State for War in 1914
When war broke out in 1914, the then-Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, had Kitchener appointed as Secretary of State for War. Unlike his contemporaries, Kitchener believed from the outset that the war would last several years, require huge armies and cause huge casualties.
Many credit Kitchener with transforming the British Army into a modern, capable force which had a fighting chance of winning a war waged against one of Europe’s foremost military powers. He spearheaded a major recruitment drive for the army in the summer and autumn of 1914 which saw millions of men enlist.
8. He was the face of the ‘Your Country Needs You’ posters
Kitchener is best known for being the face of one of Britain’s biggest military recruitment campaigns to date. He was aware of the number of men Britain would need fighting in order to stand a chance against the Germans, and began huge recruitment drives at home to encourage young men to sign up.
It was his face, as Secretary of State for War, that was emblazoned across one of the most famous wartime propaganda posters, pointing at the viewer with the slogan ‘Your Country Needs You’.
9. He had a controversial role in the Shell Crisis of 1915
Kitchener had many friends in high places, but he also had plenty of enemies. His decision to support the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign (1915-1916) lost him a good deal of popularity amongst his colleagues, as did the Shell Crisis of 1915, where Britain came dangerously close to running out of artillery shells. He also failed to appreciate the future importance of the tank, which was not developed or funded under Kitchener, but became a project of the Admiralty instead.
Despite losing favour within political circles, he remained widely publicly liked. Kitchener stayed in office as a result, but the responsibility for munitions was moved to an office headed by David Lloyd George as a result of Kitchener’s previous failings.
10. He died in the sinking of the HMS Hampshire
Kitchener was on board the armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire en route to the Russian port Arkhangelsk in June 1916, intending to meet with Tsar Nicholas II to discuss military strategy and financial difficulties face to face.
On 5 June 1916, HMS Hampshire struck a mine laid by a German U-boat and sank west of the Orkney Islands. 737 people died, including Kitchener. Just 12 survived.
Kitchener’s death was met with shock across the British Empire: many began to question whether Britain could win the war without him, and even King George V expressed his personal sorrow and loss at Kitchener’s death. His body was never recovered.