Lord Kitchener, who for nearly two years from the outbreak of war had filled with distinction the post of Secretary of State for War in His Majesty's Government, was suddenly cut off in the midst of his labours. Early in June, 1916, he was proceeding to Russia on board the county cruiser Hampshire, on a mission of high import, when the vessel met with disaster and he was drowned.
The Hampshire at the time was steaming along the west coast of the Orkney Islands in rough weather. Suddenly it struck a drifting mine and began at once to settle down by the bows. In a quarter of an hour it had heeled over to starboard and vanished from sight.
The disaster was witnessed from the shore, but no immediate help could be sent on account of the heavy gale and wild seas.
One or two rafts were launched from the Hampshire, but few on board them survived to land on the rocky coast. Attempts were also made to launch boats, and the captain intended that Lord Kitchener should go on board one of them. Whether or not he ever left the Hampshire is uncertain. He died, as he had lived, a brave and fearless soldier.
Survivors state that, when the explosion occurred, he walked from the captain's cabin to the quarter-deck, and there, with characteristic calmness, watched the preparations for abandoning the doomed warship.
Lord Kitchener was born in Gunsborough House, near the little town of Listowel, in County Kerry, Ireland, but the greater part of his boyhood was spent at Crotta House, Kilflynn, in the same district. His father, who was a retired Indian army colonel, was of Suffolk and Leicestershire stock, and had purchased a large estate in Limerick and Kerry which he developed and improved; his mother was the daughter of a Suffolk clergyman. The other members of the family were Chevallier, Arthur, Walter, and Millie; Kitchener, the second son, was named Horatio Herbert, but was usually called Herbert.
It is told that at home young Herbert "never could be kept quiet". He often got into scrapes, but was lucky in getting out of them. Among strangers he is said to have been shy and awkward, and, as he had a habit of wandering about alone, some people looked upon him as a dreamer. He was never good at games, but he learned to swim with his brothers at Bannastrand, on the sea coast, 7 miles from Crotta House. There big waves come tumbling in from the Atlantic, and only strong swimmers can venture to bathe when a heavy "ground swell" is running.
For a time Herbert took little interest in his lessons. This annoyed his father, who knew the boy was quite clever and just required to apply himself. With his brothers he attended a private school, and one day, just before an examination, his father took him to task for his carelessness, and said: "If you do not pass I will put you to the Dame School." When the results came out it was found that Herbert had failed. His father kept his word and sent the boy to the Dame School, saying: "If you do not attend to your lessons there I'll have you apprenticed to a hatter." Herbert felt keenly the disgrace he had fallen into. He made up his mind to study seriously. In time he made splendid progress and became good at arithmetic. By attending to his school work he gave himself the chance he required, and learned how important it was to value time and be industrious in acquiring knowledge that would help him when he grew older.
For a period after school life in Ireland the Kitchener boys studied in Switzerland, residing at the house of their tutor, on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva. They greatly enjoyed their new surroundings, and in their leisure hours engaged in bathing, boating, and mountain-climbing. Having early expressed the desire to become a soldier, like his father, Herbert subsequently removed to London, where he studied for the examination which admits pupils to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He passed successfully in January, 1868, and proved himself to be an excellent student.
By this time his mother had died, and his father, having sold his Irish estate, went to live at Dinan in Brittany. There Kitchener spent his holidays, and waited, after his academy course was finished, for a commission in the army. In 1870 war broke out suddenly between Germany and France. Being anxious to gain experience as a soldier, Kitchener enlisted as a private in the French army. He served, under General Chanzy, in the force which tried in vain to relieve Paris when it was surrounded by Germans. His "baptism of fire" was thus received in France.
Kitchener proved himself a courageous young soldier. Once he made a dangerous ascent in a war-balloon with two French officers to obtain information regarding the enemy's movements.
The military experience he gained in France proved to be most valuable to him. The French army had not been properly equipped, and everything was badly managed. Chanzy's force had scarcely received any training. Kitchener saw how important it was that soldiers should be thoroughly drilled, well organized, and furnished with sufficient supplies of weapons, ammunition, and food. The French suffered defeat because the Germans were prepared for war and they themselves were not.
When the young soldier returned to London he was reprimanded for joining a foreign army without permission from the War Office. He was taken before the Duke of Cambridge, the Commander-in-Chief, who was in doubt whether or not he should receive a commission. With a frown the Duke asked: "What have you to say for yourself? Why did you join the French army?"
Kitchener answered: "Please, sir, I thought I would not be wanted for a time. I was anxious to learn something."
The Duke was satisfied with the young man because he was so frank and showed such great interest in his profession. "I saw," he said afterwards, "that there was real grit in him, and I decided he should have his commission."
So it came about that, at twenty, Kitchener was gazetted as a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. From the outset he showed great promise as a diligent and painstaking officer. After three years' service at home he joined the staff of the Palestine Exploration Fund, with purpose to gain practical experience in surveying work.
His duties in the Holy Land were of an arduous kind. He had to assist in preparing accurate maps of the country, showing every town and village and natural feature in detail, and was consequently kept continually "on the move". Much of his time was spent in desolate places. High mountains had to be climbed, and long, slow journeys made across bleak deserts in burning sunshine. Life in the sleepy villages and unhealthy towns offered few attractions and hardly any comforts to a European. Kitchener endured considerable hardships, suffering now from heat and now from cold, and had several attacks of fever. On one occasion he was struck with snow blindness—a painful eye trouble caused by the dazzling reflection of bright sunlight on wastes of mountain snow; on another he had a touch of sunstroke.
Being brought into contact with the natives, some of whom were always attached to the party as servants, Kitchener learned Arabic, and was consequently able to talk with them and study their manners and customs. He found it convenient sometimes to wear native costume, and when he allowed his beard to grow, and his face was tanned by the sun, he is said to have been mistaken for some great Arab chief on making appearance for the first time in a lonely village, mounted on a camel.
"Camels", he once wrote, "are bad beasts for survey work. I used to keep mine at a good trot for a bit, until he got cross, which he showed by roaring, and then suddenly shutting up all four legs and coming to the ground with a thud, at the same time springing up again and darting off in an opposite direction."
Now and again exciting adventures were met with. One of these occurred in the vicinity of Ascalon. This ancient city of the Philistines is referred to in the Bible as Askelon. Samson visited it, and slew there thirty of the enemies of his country. It is of special interest to a soldier because it was occupied in 1192 by King Richard I of England, "the Lion Heart", after he had defeated Saladin, a Khurd who had become King of Egypt. The battle took place during the course of the long struggle between the Christian Crusaders and the Moslems for the possession of the Holy Land.
Ascalon is situated on the shores of the blue Mediterranean, and, the afternoon being very sultry, Kitchener and Lieutenant Conder, his senior officer, decided to bathe. They were not long in the water when Conder was carried towards dangerous broken water by a strong current. Struggle as he might, he was unable to return to the shore. It was well for Kitchener that he had learned to swim among the great billows on the south-western coast of Ireland. Perceiving that his friend was in peril, he struck out boldly to rescue him from certain death. After a desperate struggle he was able to assist Conder to dry land.
He saved Conder's life on yet another occasion. They were engaged at the time—it was on 10th July, 1875—beside the little town of Safed, in Galilee, not far from the place where Christ performed the miracle of feeding over 4000 people with seven loaves and a few little fish. Suddenly the surveyors' camp was attacked by a mob, who shouted: "Kill the Christian dogs!" Neither the officers nor their native servants carried weapons. Conder was struck on the head by a man who wielded a club. "I must inevitably have been murdered", he wrote afterwards, "but for the cool and prompt assistance of Lieutenant Kitchener, who managed to get to me and engaged one of the club men, thereby covering my retreat. A blow descending on the top of his head he parried with a cane, which was broken. A second blow wounded his arm." Kitchener, however, held his ground until the rest of his party had retreated, after which he made his escape. A musket was fired, and the bullet whizzed past his ear like a bee in flight. Then a native ran after him, brandishing wickedly a naked scimitar, but was unable to get to close quarters. Stones were thrown by the mob of cowards, and Kitchener was struck by a big one on the left thigh. Fortunately a party of Turkish soldiers came on the scene and the attackers were put to flight.
After six years of hard work, which was very thoroughly done, Kitchener was able to hand over to the Palestine Fund Committee a complete map of Western Palestine on the scale of 1 inch to a mile.
When the war between Russia and Turkey came to a close, the island of Cyprus was occupied by Britain. Kitchener organized the new courts there and conducted the surveying work. He also acted for a time as British Vice-Consul in Asia Minor, and did much to restore order and improve the condition of the natives who had been ruined by the war.
His next opportunity came when Britain had to occupy Egypt, which was in a state of rebellion and bankruptcy owing to bad government. It was found necessary to reorganize and train a native army under British officers. General Sir Evelyn Wood became Sirdar, or Commander-in-Chief, of the Egyptian forces, and, as Kitchener knew Arabic, he was appointed second in command to Colonel Taylor of the 19th Hussars. Taylor was not long in recognizing the young officer's abilities. "He's quiet," he said to a friend in 1883, "and he's clever."
There had arisen in the Sudan a religious pretender, called "The Mahdi"; his chief disciple was a man who afterwards became "The Khalifa". The Mahdi's forces took possession of some of the southern provinces, and Colonel W. Hicks, known as Hicks Pasha, who led a native army against the rebels, was cut off and perished with his whole force. Then General Gordon was sent from London to Khartoum to restore order in the Sudan. This gallant soldier soon found, however, that the Egyptian troops under his command were no match for the rebels, so he appealed for British reinforcements. But, unfortunately, the Home Government did not fully grasp the situation until it was too late. By July, 1884, Khartoum was surrounded by the armed followers of the Mahdi, and before the relief expedition arrived the city fell and Gordon was slain. The garrison had held out for 337 days, and were overcome on 26th January, 1885.
Kitchener acted as an Intelligence officer with the relieving-force. Disguised as an Arab, he managed to send messages to Gordon during the siege. In Gordon's journal there is an entry: "If Kitchener would take the place he would be the best man to put in as Governor-General". The story of how Gordon watched daily for the coming of the British troops, and how in the end he was struck down by a Dervish's spear, was related in Kitchener's official report.
After Khartoum fell Kitchener came home, and was sent to Zanzibar as one of the Commission appointed to fix the new boundary between German and British East Africa.
In 1886 he returned to the Nile valley as a Governor-General. The rebellion had spread northward, and he took energetic measures to restore order in the area under his control. At Suakin he defeated with heavy losses the notorious Osman Digna, a Turkish slave-dealer who had espoused the cause of the Mahdi. During the battle he sustained a serious wound, a bullet having entered his jaw and lodged in his neck. He was sent to hospital and then invalided home. By this time Kitchener had attained the rank of Colonel. Soon afterwards he became Adjutant-General of the Egyptian army.
The Dervishes in the Sudan were now becoming more and more daring and aggressive, and seemed determined to extend their power into Egypt proper. Preparations had therefore to be made to crush them. In 1892 Kitchener was appointed Sirdar, or Commander-in-Chief, and did his utmost to improve the Egyptian army, which was being trained by capable British instructors. His headquarters were at Cairo, within sight of the three greatest pyramids and the wonderful sphinx. There he planned his campaign against the Dervishes, and began the construction of a railway towards the south, so that the army, as it advanced, might be well supplied with food and ammunition and reinforced when necessary without delay. The work he undertook required great skill in management and constant and anxious attention to the minutest details.
An early success was the capture of the province of Dongola, which had been over-run by hordes of desert robbers, who murdered and enslaved the Egyptians and turned a fertile district into a wilderness.
By constructing a railway across the desert from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hamed, between which places the Nile curves like the letter U, Kitchener was able to shorten his advance south-ward. Then Berber was occupied, the Dervishes having fled from it in panic. About 200 miles distant lay Khartoum and the city of Omdurman, built by the Mahdi on the opposite side of the river.
The Khalifa's advanced force took up position beside the Atbara River which flows into the Nile. Kitchener prepared to attack it, and was able to bring up a brigade of British troops along his new railway to reinforce the Egyptian army. It consisted of Warwicks, Lincolns, Seaforths, and Camerons.
On 7th April, 1898, Kitchener was only 7 miles distant from the Dervish army, which lay behind a zareba—an obstruction made of piled-up thorns. A rapid night march brought the army into close contact with the enemy, and at daybreak the British guns opened fire. Before eight o'clock the infantry charged and took the zareba, the Egyptian soldiers displaying much courage and skill in friendly rivalry with their British comrades. Three-quarters of an hour sufficed to destroy the Khalifa's army, which lost about 3000 in killed alone.
Kitchener next prepared for the final blow at Omdurman. The railway was extended southward, and Atbara became a great centre for supplies.
The Khalifa had an army of over 40,000, and the British and Egyptian troops did not exceed 22,000. On 2nd September the opposing forces met in conflict outside Omdurman.
Kitchener had taken up position the night before and the battle commenced at six o'clock in the morning. This time the Dervishes made the attack while the British artillery shelled them. On they swept, like foaming billows, until at the 2000-yards range they met the thick and accurate shower of rifle bullets which cut them down as corn is cut down by a scythe. Again and again they tried to reach the British lines. Then the Lancers charged to clear the way to Omdurman. They met and broke up a concealed force of swordsmen, and Kitchener advanced on the city to prevent the enemy occupying it and so prolonging the struggle.
While this movement was being carried out, a reserve force of 15,000 Dervishes attacked the Egyptian wing of the army. This native brigade was commanded by General Hector MacDonald, who showed magnificent coolness and bravery. He re-arranged his troops and opened fire, scattering the advancing host and completing the victory.
Kitchener had halted and sent reinforcements to MacDonald, but success was assured before they arrived. Then he occupied Omdurman and Khartoum. The power of the Khalifa was thus shattered after long years of hard work under the wise direction of Kitchener. In time the whole of the Sudan was rendered peaceful. It is a vast country, about a million square miles in extent—twice as big as France and Germany combined. When it was controlled by the Mahdist power Egypt was never secure.
For his great services the Sirdar was raised to the peerage as Lord Kitchener of Khartoum and of Aspall and given a grant of £30,000. Both Houses of Parliament thanked him cordially. "He has written a new page of British history," declared a prominent statesman, "and has blotted out an old one."
When the Boer War broke out, on 9th October, 1899, Lord Kitchener, as Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of the Sudan, was engaged in schemes for the good of the people who had come under our care. But towards the end of the year he was called to South Africa. The Boers had proved to be powerful opponents, and the British forces had met with disasters at Colenso and Magersfontein. Strong reinforcements were dispatched across the seas, and Lord Roberts was appointed to the supreme command. Kitchener was asked if he would act as chief of staff to this great soldier, and his reply by telegram was: "Delighted to serve in any capacity under Lord Roberts ". He gave loyal assistance to his superior officer. When Lord Roberts was returning to this country, after the capture of Pretoria, he said: "I am glad to take this opportunity of publicly expressing how much I owe to his wise counsels and ever-ready help. No one could have laboured more incessantly, or in a more self-effacing manner, than Lord Kitchener has done." Kitchener has always been ready to do his duty for the sake of the Empire.
The tide of battle turned soon after the arrival of Roberts and his assistant in South Africa. Kitchener reorganized the transport service and planned the relief of the besieged town of Kimberley and the capture of Cronje and his army at Paardeberg. In time the British troops swept northward and occupied first Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, and then Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal. Afterwards Lord Roberts returned to this country, and Lord Kitchener was given supreme command.
The Boers no longer fought pitched battles, but waged what is known as guerrilla warfare. They scattered all over the country in small forces, striking at the British where opportunity offered. As they were well mounted they were difficult to "round up". But Kitchener, by the exercise of skill and persistence, at length overcame all difficulties, and, having opened up negotiations with his opponents, brought the war to a close by the Peace of Vereeniging. On his return home he was created a Viscount and decorated by King Edward with the new and distinguished Order of Merit.
He next went to India as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. For seven years he served in this capacity and introduced many reforms. He greatly improved the system of training and completely re-organized the various forces. When he left India its army was ready for any sudden call, and was stronger than ever it had been.
Afterwards Kitchener was sent to Australia, where he examined the defences, and worked out a scheme for training the Dominion's new army of 80,000 men. Then he paid a visit to New Zealand, the Government of which he provided with a similar scheme for its citizen forces. From New Zealand he travelled to Canada, where also he was consulted regarding military preparations.
In September, 1911, he returned to Egypt as the British Agent, and thus became chief administrator of that country. He threw himself heart and soul into the work. Like the great Egyptian kings of ancient days he did his utmost to make the country prosperous and contented. New laws were established to improve the lot of the fellah, or peasant, who tills the little farms in the Delta and Nile valley. "Lord Kitchener ", wrote a native in 1913, "is the most popular figure in Egypt to-day. He has made all the Egyptians realize that he is the friend of the Egyptians and understands their needs." One of the many schemes he has favoured is to reclaim a large portion of desert land by irrigation, and to give free gifts of 5-acre farms to native settlers.
When the present world war broke out, our great soldier and statesman was in London consulting the Government regarding his plans to develop and improve Egypt for the benefit of its people. He was about to return, but his services were required at home. He was asked, and consented, to undertake the duties of War Secretary.
It then seemed as if his whole life-work had been directed to prepare him for this responsible post. Our soldiers were to fight beside those of our great ally, France: Kitchener had himself served in the French army. Those dominions of the British Empire—Australia, New Zealand, and Canada—which resolved to send contingents to aid in the struggle, were familiar to him; he had helped to reorganize their forces and their system of training. He understood the needs of South Africa. Turkey, too, declared war, and Kitchener knew Turkey. Egypt was threatened: no one knew Egypt better than Kitchener; he was familiar also with the area through which troops attacking it must march, having surveyed that very land. From India came offers of help which were accepted. Our army was then strengthened by those brave native soldiers whom Kitchener had striven to make more efficient when acting as their Commander-in-Chief. And last, but not least, the young men of the home country who admired and trusted the great soldier responded to his call for recruits in the hour of peril, with the result that "Kitchener's Army" came into being.
One is reminded of the stirring little speech he made to a gathering of representative soldiers in South Africa after peace was signed. In the course of it he said:
"What have you learned during the war? Some have learned to ride and shoot; all of you have learned discipline, to be stanch and steadfast in the hour of danger, to attack with vigour, to hold what you have gained.
"You can never forget the true friends and comrades by whose side you have stood in a hundred fights. Even the hardships which you have so cheerfully endured will in the remembrance be only pleasures.
"Teach the youths that come after you what you have learned.
"Keep your horses and rifles ready, and your bodies physically fit, so that you may be prepared at any time to take your part in the great Empire which unites us all."
Here we have the Kitchener motto, which should never be forgotten—Be Prepared.