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Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener (24 June 1850–5 June 1916)

 

The major who helps Rupert Clinton mount his expedition of rescue for his lost brother Edgar in Storm Over Khartoum was barely at the start of his meteoric career. Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the eldest son of a lieutenant-colonel, entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1869 as a cadet of the Royal Engineers. In the spring of 1871 he obtained his commission, and for the first ten years of his military service remained an obscure officer, performing his duties with regularity, but giving no promise of the talents and character which he was later to display. In 1874 he was assigned by the Palestine Exploration Fund to a mapping-survey of the Holy Land, where he learned Arabic. At that time, knowing a language with which few British officers were familiar was as valueless as Patagonian. But that was about to change.

 

The year 1882 brought the British fleet to Alexandria to help counter the Urabi rebellion, and the connection between England and Egypt began to be apparent. Kitchener did not neglect his opportunity. The British government decided to send an army to Egypt. British officers and soldiers were badly wanted at the front and an officer who could speak Arabic was indispensable. So Kitchener came to Egypt and set his feet firmly on the high road to fortune. On his arrival, Lord Wolseley soon found employment for the active officer who could speak Arabic. He served through the campaign of 1882 as a major. He then joined the new Egyptian army which was formed at the conclusion of the war, as one of the original 26 officers with the rank of bimbashi (major). In the 1885 Nile expedition for the relief of Khartoum his Arabic made him the best officer to act as Wolseley’s head of the Intelligence Department where he found ample opportunity for his daring and energy. His aid in Rupert Clinton’s exploits in Storm Over Khartoum, while fictitious is perfectly believable.

 

Already in place at Suakin (where the final meeting between Kitchener and Rupert Clinton takes place), in 1886 he was appointed Governor of Suakin. This administrative post did not satisfy Kitchener, who was eager for more responsibility and more danger. He harried and raided the surrounding tribes; he restricted and almost destroyed the slender trade which was again springing up, and in consequence the neighbourhood of Suakin was soon in even greater ferment than usual. This culminated at the end of 1887 in the re-appearance of Osman Digna. However, the defences of the town had been greatly strengthened and improved by Kitchener, and Osman Digna retreated.

 

The government had strictly forbidden British officers or Egyptian regulars to undertake any offensive action, but Kitchener persuaded a battalion of local ‘friendlies’ to pursue, and Kitchener could not resist following them up. On 17 January 1888, the ‘friendlies’ attacked Osman Digna’s camp at Handub and were successful in driving off the Hadendoa Dervishes. Unfortunately, they then began to loot the town and fell easily before the reformed Dervishes. When Kitchener arrived on the scene he was faced with a disaster and received a wound to the jaw while covering the retreat of the ‘friendlies’. The losses amounted to 20 tribesmen killed and two British officers and 28 regulars injured. As a result, while he was praised for his bravery, Kitchener was filed under ‘unreliable’ in adminstration.

 

In the summer of 1888 he was transferred to a purely military appointment as Adjutant-General of the Egyptian army. For the next four years he worked busily in the War Office at Cairo, making useful reforms and economies, revealing in the process powers of organisation which ultimately led to the position in which he became a household name. In 1892 the post of Sirdar (Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian army) became vacant. The favourite for the post was Colonel Wodehouse, in command of the Wadi Halfa field force – by then the frontier with the Mahdiya state – and from where his large force had been in continual contact with enemy. However, in Sir Evelyn Baring – Lord Cromer – who was the British Consul-General in Egypt, Kitchener had an ardent admirer, and he turned the scale. To the astonishment of the Egyptian army, Kitchener was promoted Sirdar, with the rank of major-general in the British Army. Lord Cromer had found the military officer whom he considered capable of re-conquering the Sudan when the opportunity should come.

 

In 1896 he led his British and Egyptian forces up the Nile, building a railway to supply arms and reinforcements. His army pushed relentlessly southwards, defeating the Dervish army of the Khalifa at the battle of the Atbara River and climactically at Omdurman on 2 September 1898, near Khartoum. These latter events are recounted in Avenging Khartoum, the sequel to Storm Over Khartoum.

 

Kitchener’s success in the Sudan won him national fame but also criticism for the brutality which he had shown in suppressing the Mahdiya state. A press campaign that would also dog him during the Boer War (1899–1902). And yet there, as in the Sudan, his conduct in the aftermath could not have been more different. In the Sudan, Kitchener instituted good governance, which included education for children regardless of creed or background, religious tolerance, the rebuilding of damaged mosques, the prevention of evangelical Christian missionaries from attempting to convert the Muslims, reformed debt laws and extensive aid to the farmers impoverished by the Dervishes. In South Africa he clashed with his hardline conservative peers who wanted the Boers humiliated. In the end, he had his way and negotiated the more generous treaty that recognised Afrikaaners’ rights and promised future self-government.

 

Kitchener was made Commander-in-Chief, India (1902–09), during which time he reorganised the Indian Army. In 1910 he was promoted to army’s highest rank of Field Marshal and waved the imperial flag on a tour of the world, while lobbying for the position of Viceroy of India. In this he was disappointed through political infighting but returned as Consul-General to Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (1911–14), ruled by Khedive Abbas Hilmi II (the Ottoman sultan’s viceroy).

 

At the outset of World War I (1914–18), Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War and his recruitment poster became one of the conflict’s most enduring images. To the government’s distress, he predicted a long and bloody business that would eat up men to the last million. In spite of his usual vigorous approach to dealing with Britain’s enemies, at its conclusion he advocated a generous settlement. On his way to visit Russia in a diplomatic capacity on 5 June 1916, the warship HMS Hampshire, on which he and his entourage were travelling to Archangel, struck a mine during a heavy gale and sank west of the Orkney Islands. Kitchener, his staff and 643 of the crew of 655 were drowned or died of exposure. The Sirdar’s body was never found.

Herbert Kitchener

© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener and, below, the famous recruitment poster that incited British men by their hundreds of thousands to volunteer for the bloodiest war in history.

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