Lord Kitchener - A Sketch of his Attribute and Achievements
A biographical window on the British Empire’s greatest military leader.
1. Initial Summary
Kitchener was the quintessential British Army Officer of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. I have no hesitation in declaring his contribution to British hegemony in Egypt, the Sudan, South Africa and India was of the highest value and calibre. His contemporaries marked these achievements by the great honours conferred upon him. They knew him better than we do and we should take our lead from them particularly Edward VII and later George V. The Royal Family is always close to our senior military personnel and that was the case in Kitchener’s epoch. As the Oxford DNB entry brings out he had the ability to be conciliatory e.g. Fashoda Incident with France Upper Nile 1897 and The Treaty of Vereeniging 31 May 1902 (South Africa with the Boers).
2. Contrast with Petain
He was first and foremost a dedicated Army Officer who achieved the highest rank. The comparison may properly be made to his French counterpart Marechal Philippe Petain. Their careers spanned the pre-War years and the Great War itself. Petain was to encounter severe historical opposition through his political leadership of Vichy France in World War II. Kitchener excited political dissent himself but was never accused of traitorous conduct. His demise by the mine impact at sea was not his doing. They both were greatly in demand politically Kitchener in Whitehall World War I as Petain was in Vichy France in World War II. Who made the better general? Probably Petain who had a much more important field command at Verdum in World War I than Kitchener ever had. Kitchener’s commands in the field Sudan and South Africa were essentially colonial engagements. Kitchener had no field command in World War I and was drowned in 1916 whilst serving as Minister for War in the North Sea. Petain lived out his post Second World War years on sufferance a prisoner of the French 4th Republic. On balance Kitchener takes the political and administrative prize for his work of recruitment in World War I. Petain’s noble political stand at Vichy will never be recognised so that verdict has to go against the Marechal, however much I support him (see my Petain essay released 25 July 2013 on Kindle).
3. The New Armies
Mass Volunteer Force: The Great War
This military effort never seen before or since in Britain was Kitchener’s greatest contribution to his Country ever and in the Great War. Conscription was eventually required such was the Western Front casualty toll and the length of the attritional War. Once more the Oxford DNB flags up Kitchener’s prescient realization the War would last at least three years. Thus as Secretary of State for War he committed us to the Volunteer Army policy in 1915. He had the courage to take this bold step which was greeted with great gusto by the people of Britain. The new armies were trained on Salisbury Plain and their Baptism of fire was the terrible cost in lives of the Somme advance in 1916. His volunteer army paved the way to conscription in Britain in 1916 – 1918. At least he and the British people tried the volunteer method successfully. To have gone straight into conscription would have shown a lack of preparedness to willingly fight the enemy on the front that really mattered. The Western Front as Kitchener (and Petain) well knew was the Front that counted. You do not force people into battle rather they go with you freely or not at all. Kitchener understood this quality in the British. This was particularly the case with the exacting nature of the attritional static trench warfare requiring persistence and daily endurance. As Kitchener sensed it was a fight that would go the full distance and required the greatest degree of commitment and bravery that only a volunteer army may demonstrate. The volunteer armies were the exemplary example to the conscript armies that followed in 1916 – 1918. Kitchener had set up the victory on the Western Front before he died with Field Marshal Douglas Haig and Foch and Petain. That is where the First World War was decided. The British Contribution in volunteer fighting men in 1915 – 1916 was crucial in wearing down Germany in the west in France and slowing down Germany on their Eastern Front against Russia.
Why did Kitchener sail for Russia on 5 June 1916 in HMS Hampshire – a destroyer? Clearly he could see the vital importance of keeping Germany occupied and tied down on two fronts Russia and France. He may have envisaged the collapse was coming in the East such was his strategic acumen and insight. He could not engineer a Russian Victory in the East but he could gain valuable intelligence on how long Tsarist Russia would go on fighting Imperial Germany to form his own strategy on return to London for France. The answer is the year after he died in 1916 Russia made peace in 1917. Kitchener knew the Russian collapse was coming soon and he wished to arm himself with this intelligence for the defeat of the resulting ‘big push’ by Germany as it came in March 1918 following Russia’s capitulation and the release of Germany’s Eastern Front troops and their transfer to the Western Front (see my WW1 Essay released on Kindle 31 July 2013).
Kitchener put himself on the line by going on this dangerous Russian mission himself as he considered it so important. The Great War would be decided in 1918 but he could easily have stayed in London and sent an underling – not Kitchener. He led from the front even as a Field Marshal, an Earl and Minister for War himself. He never shirked danger whether real, political or gossip. He was the ultimate utterly professional and disciplined British Soldier and Officer to his dying day. He knew no other profession and laid down his life for his friends. We may be eternally grateful to him for his formidable example.