KITCHENER, Field Marshal Horatio Herbert, Earl Kitchener of Khartoum (1850–1916)
Plaque erected in 1924 by London County Council at 2 Carlton Gardens, St James‘s, London, SW1Y 5AA, City of Westminster
Field-Marshal EARL KITCHENER of Khartoum, K.G. (1850-1916) Lived here 1914-15
The soldier-politician Lord Kitchener is best known from the First World War recruiting posters that bear his ferociously moustachioed face, pointing finger and the words ‘Your Country Needs You!’. He is remembered too for the ruthless policies he pursued during the Second Boer (South African) War, which led to many civilian deaths.
Early life and Career
Kitchener was born in County Kerry in Ireland, where his eccentric English father – who slept under newspapers instead of blankets – had recently bought land. He was educated at the Royal Military Academy and entered the Army in 1871. All of his military and most of his civilian appointments were based abroad: he was both a product of the British Empire and an important figure in its history.
Within the Army, he gained credit for a survey of Palestine, and came to wider attention as Commander-in-Chief (Sirdar) of the Egyptian Army (1892–9). In this capacity, he secured the reconquest of Sudan with victory at the Battle of Omdurman (1898) – a battle of machine guns (British casualties: 48) against spear carriers (Sudanese casualties: about 11,000). This was seen as avenging the earlier death of General Gordon at Khartoum and led to Kitchener being feted as a public hero.
The Boer War and After
After a brief spell as Governor-General of Sudan (1899) Kitchener became a key figure in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), first as chief of staff under Lord Roberts and then as overall commander. After the Boers rejected his peace terms, Kitchener pursued a ‘scorched earth’ policy of destroying their farms, and he expanded the use of detention camps, which had been begun by Lord Milner.
As many as 26,000 people – some estimates say more – died of disease and starvation in the camps. This was a greater number than died in battle; it included black South Africans as well as Boers, and led to a wave of revulsion in Britain. The camps used by Kitchener have since been cited as a precursor to the concentration camps used by the Nazis.
Kitchener served as Commander-in-Chief in India (1902–9). He brought in army reforms there, but clashed with Lord Curzon, the Governor-General. Having been disappointed in his wish to succeed to that post, he became British Consul-General in Egypt (1911–14).
First World War and Curzon Gardens
At the outbreak of the First World War, Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War. He laid plans to increase munitions production and to expand the British Army with volunteers, having correctly anticipated a long war of attrition. Hence came the famous recruitment poster featuring his image.
It was between August 1914 and February 1915, while he was Secretary of State for War, that Kitchener lived at 2 Carlton Gardens, a splendid semi-detached house with views over The Mall and St James’s Park. It was lent to him – complete with its domestic staff – by his friend Harriet, Lady Wantage (1837–1920). He lived here with his personal secretaries Captain Oswald Fitzgerald (d. 1916) and (Sir) George Arthur (1860–1946), and afterwards moved a short distance west to York House, which is part of St James’s Palace.
Kitchener drowned, along with his entire entourage, when the cruiser HMS Hampshire, carrying him on a special mission to Russia, struck a German mine in June 1916. The news was met with widespread mourning. There were a number of conspiracy theories about his death – as there often are when a prominent figure dies unexpectedly.
In his lifetime, Kitchener was showered with honours: he was made Baron Kitchener of Khartoum in 1898, and advanced to an earldom in 1914. One of the first inductees to the Order of Merit in 1902, he was made a Knight of the Garter (KG) in 1915. This honour is cited on the plaque – which was one of the earliest of a new design produced by Doulton, decorated with a victor’s laurel wreath. It was granted just eight years after Kitchener died.
However, at the time of his death, some of Kitchener’s cabinet colleagues were devising ways to ease him out. Lloyd George, for one, thought that he had ‘great driving force, but no mental powers’. One historian has judged that, outside his comfort zone of an autocratic military role, Kitchener was ‘a wretchedly bad politician’.
As one of the military commanders who oversaw the First World War campaign, with its catastrophic loss of life, Kitchener’s soldiering has come in for criticism too. However, some historians now consider that personal animosities led to him not receiving the credit he was due as a military commander and planner. His Oxford DNB entry calls him ‘the architect of … victory in the First World War’.
Kitchener never married, which – along with an apparent preference for the company of young men and an interest in collecting porcelain – has led to assertions that he was privately homosexual. There appears to be no real evidence for this. Charges that he was an energetic social climber, with an acquisitive nature that bordered on avarice, seem to rest on much firmer foundations.
K Neilson, ‘Kitchener, Horatio Herbert, Earl Kitchener of Khartoum’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2011) (subscription required: accessed 24 Feb 2021)
J Ramsden (ed), The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics (Oxford, 2002), entry by Keith Jeffery
A Pitzer, ‘Concentration Camps Existed Long Before Auschwitz’, Smithsonian Magazine, Nov 2017 (accessed 24 Feb 2021)
T Royle, The Kitchener Enigma (London, 1985)
C Brad Faught, Kitchener: Hero and Anti-Hero (London, 2016)