This next series of blogs concentrates on Field Marshal, the Earl Kitchener, the Empire’s most decorated and famous soldier. Controversy still surrounds his appointment in 1914, his performance as Secretary of State for War, especially over armaments, and the circumstances of his untimely death in 1916. Some deeply valid questions still remained unanswered a century after his death.

Lord Kitchener, the most famous and admired soldier in the British Empire in 1914.

Official histories would have us believe that at the outset of the war, Herbert Kitchener was, by chance, in Britain. His biographer, Sir George Arthur termed it ‘an almost accidental presence’. [1] Not so. Kitchener was in England at the behest of King George V. He had been elevated to an Earldom by royal command in July, [2] and was still in England, on leave from his post as Consul General in Egypt, in early August. The story that Herbert Kitchener just happened to be ready and available to serve his country in its moment of dire need in August 1914 is part of the mystique and folklore which has conveniently camouflaged the secret preparations that had been made for war against Germany. Nothing was left to chance, least of all, Kitchener’s presence and availability to step into the vacant post of Secretary of State for War. Had he been asked to take office in July when he first arrived, the message which would have been instantly translated to Berlin would warn of war to come; Germany would have immediately recognised that Britain was intent on war despite the lies and protestations made by Sir Edward Grey that Britain intended to stay out of the impending conflict [3] . As in all circumstances, the Secret Elite required the enemy to strike first to provide the excuse for action. They waited. Kitchener had to be patient.

For the job lay vacant. After the refusal of senior military figures to prepare to take action against Ulster in March 1914, (commonly called The Curragh Mutiny) John Seely, then Secretary of State for War had been obliged to resign. Herbert Asquith still hesitated to fill the post and undertook all its associated duties, as well as those of prime minister. By any standards it was a ridiculous workload, but there was little else he could do.

Asquith’s problem was disconcerting. No member of his existing Cabinet could be trusted with the War Office. The prime minister confessed so in writing to his beloved Venetia Stanley on 5 August. [4] The few who knew that war had been ordained against Germany already held key Cabinet Posts. Churchill at the Admiralty could not be moved. Neither could Sir Edward Grey from the Foreign Office nor Lloyd George from the Treasury. Richard Haldane, Asquith’s life-long friend and former War Office incumbent, would have been his perfect choice for re-appointment, but Haldane had been unfairly tainted by the press as pro-German, and his appointment would have caused disquiet. [5]

As Prime Minster, Asquith wanted to stay loyal to Richard Haldane but pressure from the Secret Elite forced him to accept Kitchener.

Any incomer would have to be briefed about the preparations for war. The well-structured plans from the Committee of Imperial Defence and the military ‘discussions’ that had been ongoing with France and Belgium for more than eight years were still more guarded than any other state secret. [6] His dilemma centred on the fact that there was no politician in his government whom Asquith dared trust with such knowledge, and certainly no Liberal back-bencher. On the positive side of this strange equation, a vacant post suggested that Britain was ill-prepared for war and had no intention of engaging in war. In the aftermath of the near revolt of the army over its possible involvement in restraining Ulster and the unprecedented tensions in Ireland, it seemed that the War Office had been downgraded; subsumed into a mere department of the prime minister’s office.

Random chance is a poor excuse why, as war was about to unfold, the most famous and decorated British military officer of the age was in London, not Cairo. His biographer claimed that Kitchener only realised how imminent a European war was, after he lunched at the German Embassy on 21 July. [7] He met with Churchill over dinner ‘two or three times’ in the week before the war and discussed ‘all the possibilities as far as we could see them.’ [8] The imminent war was why they met, the First Lord of the Admiralty and the most popular and high-profile military figure in the Empire. And we are asked to believe that these were chance factors. One has to remember that in the public domain Kitchener ‘was looked upon as a martial demigod, different and superior to other men, a brilliant soldier who could act as a national saviour in the effete councils of the Liberal politicians.’ [9] And the public has always loved a hero.

Even so, Asquith was tempted to defy public opinion and reappoint Richard Haldane. The Secret Elite inner-core was not. Whatever his previous difficulties over the ending of the Boer War, (Milner had been very annoyed by Kitchener’s willingness to accept compromises with the Boer leaders in 1901.) Alfred Milner considered Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener as the only man with enough driving force for the job. [10] Kitchener already knew that war with Germany was in an advanced stage of preparation. Asquith had approved his membership of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) some years before, [11] and we know that Winston Churchill regularly updated him. Yet Asquith hesitated to break with tradition and appoint a Field Marshal to his Cabinet. Sir Henry Wilson, at that point a Brigadier-General, and the most knowledgeable military ‘expert’ on the long planned war against Germany relayed the prime minister’s hesitations to Alfred Milner and his Secret Elite colleagues. They were also dismayed when the dithering prime minister failed to dispatch the British Expeditionary Force to France immediately. Asquith was infamous for his indecision. Fearing a tardiness that might mortally damage their plans, Milner and his Secret Elite took direct action.

Lord Kitchener at War Office

A newspaper campaign in favour of Kitchener’s appointment had gathered quick momentum. On the morning of 3 August, hours before Sir Edward Grey’s infamous Statement to Parliament, The Times carried an article by their military correspondent, Colonel Repington [12] demanding Kitchener’s appointment. [13] On the following day a Times Editorial trumpeted public confidence in him and pressed the prime minister to make a formal appointment ‘at least for the term of the war’. [14] The Westminster Gazette and Northcliffe’s Daily Express insisted on Kitchener’s appointment. Rumours that Asquith intended to return Haldane to the War Office were later denied by him with a sarcastic parliamentary swing at his critics; ‘Lord Kitchener’s appointment was received with universal acclamation, so much so indeed that it was represented as having been forced upon a reluctant Cabinet by the overwhelming pressure of an intelligent and prescient Press’ [15]

Asquith’s bold claims do not hold true in the light of later memoirs. The appointment of a new Secretary of State for War remained in the balance. One of the inner-core of the Secret Elite, Leopold Amery, [16] revealed that Milner had literally put Kitchener into a taxi to confront Asquith in Downing Street and demand his appointment. Kitchener was instructed to tell the prime minister that he would return immediately to Egypt unless Asquith gave him the War Office. [17] As ever, the Secret Elite held sway and Asquith was left to reconcile his Cabinet colleagues to the highly unusual presence of a Field Marshal in a Liberal Cabinet.

Illustration showing Lord Kitchener receiving Lord Roberts in his desk in the War Office.

A War Council was held on 5 August. It comprised select politicians [18] and the top men from the ‘Roberts’ Academy’. [19]Lord Roberts himself was present with Kitchener, Sir John French, Douglas Haig, Haldane, Grey, Asquith and, since it was essentially an extension of the Committee of Imperial Defence, its secretary, and Secret Elite member, Maurice Hankey [20] Though he had retired from his post ten years previously, Lord Roberts’ presence was a reflection of the power he still exercised within the British army.

This was the Secret Elite War Council and their chosen military marionettes, an exclusive cabal of men who had planned the war, prepared the nation for war and proposed to run the war. Their task was to crush Germany, a mighty ambition that they knew would take years to achieve. Still the general expectation that it would all be over by Christmas boosted morale and hundreds of thousands of willing volunteers who would be sacrificed to that end, flocked to the colours.

It was not to be so straightforward, for the perfect candidate had a mind and approach of his own.

[1] Sir George Arthur, Life of Lord Kitchener, Vol III, p. 1.
[2] Sir George Arthur, Life of Lord Kitchener, Vol II, p. 346.
[3] Mensdorff to Bechtold, 29 July 1914, in Imanuel Geiss, July 1914, p. 277.
[4] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 157.
[5] Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-Five Years Vol.II, pp. 286-287.
[6] Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, p. 186-188.
[7] Arthur, Kitchener, Vol. III, p. 2.
[8] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, p. 190.
[9] A M Gollin, Proconsul in Politics, p. 240.
[10] J Lee Thomson, Forgotten Patriot, p. 309.
[11] Stephen Roskill, Hankey, 1877-1918, p. 134.
[12] The Times’ military correspondent, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Repington was allowed privileges accorded to no other journalist. As Lord Northcliffe’s man, he was regularly given access to the most senior military staff, even on the Western Front. He had his own desk at the War Office.
[13] Brock, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 152.
[14] The Times, 4 August, 1914, p. 5.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 68 and p. 312.
[17] Leopold Amery, My Political Life, Vol. II, pp. 21-23.
[18] Brock, Letters to Venetia Stanley, pp. 157-8.
[19] Docherty and Macgregor, Hidden History, pp. 194-202.
[20] National Archives, CAB 21/ 1/ 1.