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Horatio Herbert Kitchener
1850 - 1916



The British field marshal and statesman Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum and Broome (), is best known for his service in British colonial wars and administration.

Horatio Herbert Kitchener was born on June 14, 1850, at Crotter House, Ballylongford, County Kerry, Ireland; his father, an English lieutenant colonel, had settled in Ireland. Educated in Switzerland, Kitchener entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1868, served briefly with the French against the Prussians in 1870, and took his commission in the Royal Engineers in 1871. He entered routine army service at home but in 1874 began his connection with the Near East on loan to the Palestine Exploration Fund. In 1878 he began a survey of Cyprus after its acquisition by Britain, serving briefly as a vice-consul in Asia Minor and visiting Egypt unofficially in 1882 to join the British campaign against the nationalists.

Years in Egypt

At the end of 1882 Kitchener was appointed second in command of the Egyptian cavalry and served with Gen. G. J. Wolseley in the 1884 attempts to rescue Gen. C. G. Gordon. He resigned the Egyptian army command in 1885, serving at the end of that year as British representative on the International Commission to delimit the sultan of Zanzibar's mainland territories.

In the summer of 1886 Kitchener was appointed governor general of the eastern Sudan with headquarters at Suakin; and in September 1888 he became adjustant general of the Egyptian army, directing the cavalry in the battle of Toski in August 1889, which removed the last threat of a Mahdist invasion of Egypt. Until 1892 he was involved in reorganizing the Egyptian police.

In April 1892 Kitchener took command of the Egyptian army as its "sirdar" and began preparing the plans for the Anglo-Egyptian invasion of the Mahdist-controlled Sudan, to take the form of a systematic advance up the Nile. The advance on Dongola began in 1896, and Abu Hamed fell in 1897. The advance continued steadily throughout 1897, and the end of the year saw the British government authorize the final advance on the Mahdi's capital at Omdurman. Here, on Sept. 2, 1898, the Caliph was defeated, and Khartoum was occupied a few days later. There followed the Fashoda crisis, in which Kitchener and the French colonel J. B. Marchand confronted each other with their flags on the Nile. Under British pressure, the French gave way and withdrew Marchand's force. Kitchener went in triumph to London, received a peerage, and returned to the Sudan as its first Anglo-Egyptian governor general.

South Africa and India

In October 1899 the Anglo-Boer War erupted in South Africa. In December 1899 Kitchener joined Lord Roberts as his chief of staff. By the end of 1900, the British had reversed their early defeats and occupied the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Lord Roberts returned to England, and Kitchener was made commander in chief in South Africa. The Boers now resorted to guerrilla warfare, and Kitchener responded with a ruthless policy designed to cut off the Boers from their supplies among the friendly Afrikaners. The countryside was divided up into closed areas with lines of blockhouses and barbed wire, farms were destroyed, and the women and children were herded into "concentration camps," where the death rates from disease were appalling. These policies did much to strengthen antiwar feeling in Britain, and Kitchener himself keenly felt the odium directed against him, to the extent that he allowed the Boers to win gains in the Peace of Vereeniging of May 31, 1902.

From 1902 to 1909 Kitchener was commander in chief in India, concerning himself with extensive reforms of the Indian army and quarreling with the viceroy, Lord Curzon, who resigned in 1905 as a result. Kitchener succeeded in carrying through a large measure of reform after 1905. In September 1909 Kitchener left India and was given the rank of field marshal. He now traveled widely in the Far East, the Antipodes, Turkey, and East Africa and began serving on the Committee of Imperial Defence after 1910. In September 1911 he returned to Egypt as head of the British administration, ruling for 4 years. In political matters Kitchener granted little of substance to the nationalists, and in economic policies he ruled as a benevolent despot, undertaking more in land reform and creating more security for poor peasants than any previous administrator.

In June 1914 Kitchener received his earldom. While still in England, he was appointed secretary of state for war on Aug. 3, 1914. It was his task to create the new armies for France, to mobilize industry for the war, and to control military strategy. In 1916 Kitchener set out in H.M.S. Hampshire for a visit to Russia, but the ship struck a mine on June 5 and was sunk. His body was never recovered.


Herbert Horatio Kitchener was born in Ireland on 24 June 1850, the second son in a family of five children. His father, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Horatio Kitchener, had served in the 13th Light Dragoons and in the 29th Foot, in India, until his retirement in 1849.

In 1863 the family moved to Switzerland where his mother died at the age of 38. His father re-married and moved to New Zealand, leaving his younger children in Switzerland to complete their education giving Kitchener a good knowledge of French and German.

In 1868 he entered the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich and on 4 January 1871 was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. Prior to his commissioning, however, Kitchener and a colleague, motivated by a spirit of adventure, went to France and joined General Chanzy's Army of the Loire.

Their objective was "to witness war at first hand" in the Franco-Prussian conflict but the experience was short-lived. Chanzy was defeated and Kitchener caught pneumonia. On returning to England he was ordered before the Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Cambridge, to explain his behaviour in joining a French force, in defiance of Englands strictly neutral role in that conflict. He got away with it as the Duke said that he would probably have done the same thing in Kitchener's place.

Following 3 years training in Military Engineering at the School of Military Engineering in Chatham, and in Aldershot, he was offered the appointment of Surveyor in Palestine in 1874 by the Palestine Exploration Fund. In 4 years a complete map of Western Palestine was produced, showing every village and geographical feature. This project added much local experience and a knowledge of Arabic to Kitchener's range of skills.

This was followed, in 1878, by the survey of Cyprus but active service was needed to bring Kitchener into prominence. He made many friends in Cyprus, often in religious circles, and Major General Sir Robert Biddulph, with whom he had had a number of altercations, spoke warmly of his professional skills and self-reliance, but added that he was "rather impulsive and does not always foresee results".

In 1882, when on sick-leave in Alexandria, and with revolt brewing in Egypt's southern province of Sudan, he was offered the appointment of Second-in-Command of a regiment of Egyptian cavalry, then in the course of formation, in the rank of Captain. But he was still unknown, having had no opportunities to participate in any of the recent colonial campaigns.

At the end of 1883, a small British force had been massacred by the forces of the Mahdi, who was now master of almost the whole of the Sudan except for a few towns. By January 1884, all the garrisons except Khartoum had been lost.

Major General Charles Gordon, another Royal Engineer, was quickly despatched to Khartoum, arriving there in February, but within a month that garrison was cut off and under siege. While Gordon was on his way from Cairo to Khartoum, Kitchener carried out a reconnaissance into Upper Egypt to assess whether water resources and terrain would allow a relief expedition to get supplies and reinforcements through to Khartoum safely.

It was assumed that the British Government would quickly authorise such an expedition but this did not happen. Kitchener was first ordered to undertake it, but was then instructed to wait at Aswan. To this he commented - "if we go on much longer in this way, Gordon's blood will be on Gladstone's head".

By May, Kitchener had been ordered to Upper Egypt with his Abadeh Field Force to organise a line of desert strongpoints between the Nile and the Red Sea. To remain inconspicuous, he wore Arab robes, was heavily bearded and rode with an escort of no more than 20 men, all intensely loyal.

He became equally respected in high places and with his troops for his energy and devotion. His ability to move among the tribes, often at great personal risk, enabled him to detect loyalty or treachery among the local leaders.

The telegraph link between Khartoum and the outside world had been cut and Kitchener organised a team to carry messages to and from Gordon. His admiration for Gordon was enormous but the situation in Khartoum grew steadily worse.

In August, Parliament was asked for funds to send a relief expedition to Egypt, but it was not until almost the end of 1884 that troops arrived in Debbeh, having been sent up the Nile rather than by the shorter route across the desert.

On 7 January 1885, Kitchener left Korti with the advance party of the force intended to relieve Khartoum, but they were too late. On 2 February they reached Gadkul where they were horrified to learn that Khartoum had fallen on 26 January and that Gordon had been murdered. After the death of Gordon, the relief expedition temporarily ground to a halt and in May Gladstone ordered total evacuation. Kitchener could foresee many problems - the welfare of the Sudanese and the safety of Egypt and the Suez Canal.

As Kitchener compiled his report on the disaster, he commented - "Never was a garrison so nearly rescued, never was a commander so sincerely lamented". He determined revenge. By mid-July he was back in England, now a Lieutenant Colonel, and, with members of the Camel Corps, was commanded to Osborne House, in the Isle of Wight, to receive the thanks of Queen Victoria.

In November 1885, after some well-earned leave, he was appointed British representative on the Zanzibar Boundary Commission. This was not to Kitchener's liking. Frontiers were ill-defined, with Germany annexing parts of what are now Kenya and Tanzania. Much was settled in the capitals of Europe and the commission had wasted much valuable time and energy, although it brought warm approval from the Foreign Secretary and the CMG for Kitchener.

On his way home in August 1886 he received a cable while in Suez appointing him Governor-General of the Eastern Sudan and the Red Sea Littoral, including the port of Suakin ; a powerful title but with limited responsibilities. The main objectives were to safeguard the approaches to the Suez Canal and to contain gun-running into the Sudan.

In April 1887, Kitchener was promoted to Colonel and was also appointed an ADC to Queen Victoria. Compliments flowed, both in respect of his civil and military skills and the fact that he spoke fluent Arabic. Clearly, he was on the way up.

During this period, however, he had sustained a nasty facial wound in a skirmish with the forces of the Mahdi. The wound had failed to heal and in early 1888 he returned to London for treatment.

While on leave he was summoned by the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, who was also Foreign Secretary, and was offered the post of Adjutant-General of the Egyptian Army. Trouble flared again in August 1889 ; the Dervishes invaded Egypt but were defeated at Toski. Once again, Kitchener, now a Brigadier General, received glowing reports on his wide-ranging abilities, but he was not universally popular due to a somewhat brusque manner.

In 1892, Kitchener was appointed Sirdar (C-in-C) of the Egyptian Army, a rare achievement for someone only 41 years of age. But a re-conquest of the Sudan was not expected for many years, due to a lack of funds, and the appointment called for an administrator as well as a soldier, with good experience in that part of the world. Kitchener fitted the job specification well and in 1894 he was knighted, having been awarded the CB in 1889. On every home leave he had lobbied for the re-conquest of the Sudan, but no approval of his proposals was given.

In March 1896, however, the situation changed. An Abyssinian army had almost wiped out an Italian force which was advancing westwards from their colony of Eritrea. Frantic requests from the Italians led to Lord Salisbury ordering the Egyptian army to move into Dongola, the northernmost province of the Sudan.

Kitchener's long-standing wish to avenge the murder of Gordon had been at least partially granted.

Many of the problems during the 1896-1898 campaign were more in the nature of a civil war than an invasion. A harsh climate and the financial and political constraints emanating from London made Kitcheners task a mammoth challenge. Inevitably, he made a number of enemies, but after many actions and skirmishes, his force entered Dongola on 22 September 1896.

In November 1896, when in England to secure money from the Treasury to continue the campaign, and recently promoted to Major General, he was commanded to dine with Queen Victoria at Windsor and was subsequently appointed KCB. With considerable skill, he persuaded the Chancellor of the Exchequer to grant the necessary funds and returned to Egypt at the end of the month to continue his task.

Kitchener's plan now involved the building of a railway line from Wadi Halfa across the desert, thus cutting out a vast curve in the Nile and several difficult cataracts.

A young Sapper officer, Lieutenant Percy Girouard, a French Canadian, surveyed, designed and directed this operation which presented numerous problems due to the terrain, the climate and the lack of water.

His force continued its advance south and on 2 September 1898 Kitchener completely destroyed the army of the Mahdi at Omdurman ; Gordon's death had been finally avenged. For this success he was raised to the peerage and took the title of Baron Kitchener of Khartoum.

In 1899, while still Sirdar (C-in-C) of the Egyptian army, he was promoted Lieutenant General. and appointed Chief of Staff to Lord Roberts in South Africa. When Roberts returned to England in 1900, Kitchener was promoted to General and appointed C-in-C. In addition to constant military activity, his handling of the peace negotiations at Vereeniging, which brought the Boer war to an end, illustrated his considerable abilities as a statesman.

On returning to England in July 1902, he was created a Viscount and received the Order of Merit from King Edward VII. There was little opportunity for rest and in 1903 he was sent to India as C-in-C. Travelling by way of Khartoum, he had the pleasure of opening the Gordon Memorial College, built with funds donated by the people of Great Britain at the end of his service in the Sudan.

Arriving in India on 28 November 1902, Kitchener set about a comprehensive re-organisation of both the British and Indian armies at the behest of Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, who saw uncontrolled expenditure on all sides. The entire structure was muddled and inefficient and the lines of communication were tortuous.

Troops were formed into Brigades and Divisions, and the regiments of the Indian army were numbered instead of being divided among the Bombay, Bengal and Madras armies, a legacy of the old East India Company. While there were no major warlike operations during his time in India, there was plenty of scope for his organising talents.

However, there was at the time considerable conflict between Kitchener, as the military commander, and the member of the civilian government who was responsible for supply. This led to a major breakdown in the relationship between Kitchener and Lord Curzon. Little did they know that less than ten years later they would both be attending cabinet meetings in Downing Street. He was appointed Colonel Commandant of the Royal Engineers in 1906.

Kitchener left India in 1909 but before returning to England he carried out a tour of inspection of many of the Empires forces, with the result that compulsory military training was introduced in Australia and New Zealand.

Promoted to Field Marshal, he was appointed Agent and Consul General in Egypt and arrived in Cairo on 28 September 1911. The old conflict between civil servants and military commanders still existed and Kitchener had to walk a tight-rope in keeping the peace in what was a somewhat sensitive environment. Despite this, he retained almost universal popularity.

As he left Cairo for some leave on 18 June 1914, he learned that he was to be created an Earl and took the title of Earl Kitchener of Khartoum and of Broome. Broome Park, his English home, lies midway between Canterbury and Dover.

War clouds were gathering and Kitchener was apprehensive lest he be prevented from returning to Cairo ; however, he was relieved when the Foreign Office instructed all those on leave to return to their posts. On the other hand, colleagues and the press were signalling that, if war was to come, he was the only war leader which the nation could trust.

On Saturday 1 August 1914, he visited Broome Park "for a last look round" (workmen were still on site). On Bank Holiday Monday, 3 August, he drove to Dover to start his journey back to Cairo. But, as the boat was about to sail, he was persuaded by various colleagues, who had travelled down from London on the boat train, to return with them to the capital. Here he found a note from the Prime Minister saying that "I was anxious that you should not get beyond the reach of personal contact and assistance".

The British ultimatum to the Germans, who had already invaded Belgium, expired on 4 August and the country was at war. Kitchener had a meeting with the Prime Minister on that day advising him of his wish to return to Egypt, but adding that if forced to stay in London he would accept nothing less than full authority as Secretary of State for War. The Foreign Secretary still wanted him to return to Cairo, but on the following morning Asquith formally offered him the post he had requested.

He accepted with some reluctance, on the understanding that he entered the Cabinet as a non-party, non-political soldier for the duration of the war only. His post in Cairo would remain open, but no one could foresee how things would develop. When news of his appointment broke, there was nationwide relief and approval. Already a national hero and well-known for his courage and determination, his background was clear of failure and he had not been involved in recent political disputes.

Kitchener's first task was to put some life into a lethargic War Office and to obtain cabinet support for what many saw as extreme views on immediate military strategy. In the first place, he envisaged a long war - 3 years - whereas many of his new colleagues believed that all would be over by Christmas 1914. To win, he said, required a million men, including 100,000 immediately. The latter were to be volunteers and a major recruiting campaign was launched with the famous poster headed - "Your King and Country Need You". Conscription was not considered at that stage.

Almost immediately, however, Kitchener clashed with his military colleagues, both British and French, on a number of fundamental aspects of policy and strategy. But recruits poured in, many of them being formed into "local" battalions where they were friends and colleagues already, thus creating an almost immediate camaraderie.

In France, problems soon arose and both British and French armies were forced to retreat. Relations between the two countries became strained and after much discussion in cabinet, Kitchener decided to go to France immediately to sort things out. A strategy was agreed leading, at the beginning of September, to the Battle of the Marne and the first major setback for the Germans.

In addition to recruitment, munitions and general strategy, Kitchener became involved in the re-structuring of the medical services, both in England and in France, many of which were initially being run by "enthusiastic amateurs", often leading to muddle and misunderstanding. His involvement in matters political and military, both in England and in France, was continuous and un-ending. He negotiated supplies with American sources and gave whatever help he could to the French with munitions and equipment following the loss of much of their own industrial capacity from the German advance into northern France.

But he could never understand politicians and had many disputes with his colleagues in the cabinet and, indeed, with some of the civil servants with whom he was in constant contact. By the end of 1914, the situation in France had settled into one of trench warfare with a series of bombardments, assaults and mounting losses on both sides, without any clear-cut results. Various suggestions for attacking the Germans via the side door were considered until finally, with support from Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, plans were made for an invasion of Turkey, with whom Britain had been at war since November 1914.

To launch this offensive the Royal Navy attacked the Turkish fleet in the Dardanelles on 18 March 1915 and a seaborne assault on the Gallipoli peninsula was launched on 25 April. This assault force comprised mainly Australian and New Zealand troops but the whole operation was a disastrous failure and resulted in ultimate withdrawal after suffering enormous casualties.

The war dragged on in France and Kitchener became almost continuously involved in political argument and discord within the cabinet, to the extent that on several occasions he felt that, by now 65, he must resign but each time he was talked out of it.

In May 1916, however, the Russian Emperor advised King George V that a visit to Russia by Lord Kitchener would be "useful and important". Accordingly, the navy provided the cruiser HMS Hampshire and on 5 June Kitchener sailed from the Orknies bound for Archangel. But unknown to anyone a German submarine had, a few days earlier, laid a string of mines in the area, with the objective of sinking or at least hindering ships of Admiral Jellicoes fleet based on Scapa Flow.

The weather was bad, the sea was rough and the escorting destroyers could not keep up with the Hampshire, which was keeping close inshore to avoid the worst of the weather. Just before 8 pm the Hampshire struck one of these mines and the "Abandon Ship" order was given, but within just a few minutes the ship went down in 40 fathoms of ice-cold water. Only 12 from a complement of more than 600 survived ; those who had survived the explosion were killed by the intense cold. Kitchener's body was never found.

Public grief was widespread and troops in France were bewildered and in shock at this tragedy. Kitchener had achieved his objective of raising new armies but would have been saddened by the loss of 19,000 men on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, less than as month after his death.

A memorial service was held in St. Pauls Cathedral on 15 June 1916 and, in a unique tribute, brief services were held simultaneously at two mile intervals behind the lines in France, well within the sound of the guns. In high places, compliments and criticisms flowed for many years and Kitchener was often blamed for things which did or did not happen, when he was not present to defend a particular situation.

Tributes flowed from all quarters -

"It was only when the Last Post rang out that one realised that one was there to mark the passing of a great man, from a great work well done, into eternity" - Brigadier General Charteris, representing Field Marshal Haig and his Headquarters.

"He will live in history amongst the greatest of Great Britain's sons, but it is well that the world should know that this straight, true, stern man had a heart as tender as his will was strong" - Sir Frederick Milner.

Nine years later, a Kitchener memorial chapel was dedicated in St. Pauls Cathedral, London. The Roll of Honour of the Royal Engineers stands near a life-sized effigy in white marble lying on a sarcophagus. A statue of Earl Kitchener, seated on a horse, stands at the entrance to the Royal Engineers barracks in Chatham which bears his name. This is a replica of the original in Calcutta and stood from 1921 until 1958 in Khartoum, when it was returned to this country and presented to the Corps of Royal Engineers.











This web page was last updated on: 12 December, 2008