Lord Kitchener, resplendent in his uniform remained a popular figure with the public and the troops.Kitchener was not a man who relished being sidelined, despite which he remained in office after his role as Secretary of State for War was deliberately subverted by his enemies and detractors in 1915, when he went to Gallipoli to assess the situation on the government’s behalf. Decisions were taken behind his back. As The Times noted, ‘in the absence of Lord Kitchener’ a small War Committee had been set up to co-ordinate the government’s organisation for war. [1] It comprised, Asquith, A J Balfour, Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Reginald McKenna, with Sir Edward Grey available when required, and Kitchener when he returned from his visitation to Gallipoli and the Near East. [2] By late 1915, he knew exactly what he was up against. In terms of armaments, Lloyd George had grasped control of the War Office’s ordnance remit and subsumed it into a new department, the Ministry of Munitions. [3] Strategically, Sir William Robertson was appointed Chief of the General Staff on 21 December, effectively taking charge of strategy on the Western Front. Robertson’s focus was exactly in line with the ultimate aim of the Secret Elite. He advocated the concentration of war in Europe in order to bring Germany down. While lack of success on the Western Front and the failure at Gallipoli reduced Kitchener’s standing inside Cabinet, his popularity within the mass of the populace did not waver. In stripping Kitchener of major responsibility for strategy, Asquith was sufficiently astute to retain him in office.

Maurice Hankey, [4] the Secret Elite’s central cog inside 10 Downing Street, was the prime minister’s confidant and most valued advisor. Hankey had been secretary of the powerful think-tank Committee of Imperial Defence since 1908, and was the most knowledgeable and experienced strategist in the country. In Hankey’s diary for 8 December 1915, he noted that Asquith wanted to be rid of Kitchener who, ‘darkens his counsel and is a really bad administrator, and he evidently wants to find some way of fitting K. [Kitchener] into his scheme so that the Govt. can still use his great name and authority as a popular idol … Personally I can see no way of fitting him in without making him a cipher in every sense.’ [5] This was the problem. How could the high priests remove the people’s idol without losing their credibility? The only answer was to find him high profile but marginal tasks to keep him distanced from the centre of power.

Kitchener and Robertson outside Westminster Hospital in 1916.

But Kitchener had always been his own man. He cared nought for politicians and cast doubt on their capacity to act wisely. He expressed these concerns to Sir William Robertson with honest clarity: ‘I have no fear as to our final victory, but many fears as to our making a good peace.’ [6] Such intentions shook the Secret Elite and especially Alfred Milner. Alarm bells rang in the memory of those who served with Lord Milner in South Africa. Kitchener had interfered then, at the end of the Boer War, to bring about his peace. It had taken all of Milner’s considerable influence to stop Kitchener agreeing a date for the restoration of Boer self-government. [7] Milner had gone to war against the Boers to break the mould and recast the country, not negotiate a political peace. Peace terms implied compromise. Milner had admitted to his acolytes that there was no room for compromise in South Africa. But Kitchener ‘paralysed’ Milner, and in his view, betrayed the peace. [8] Consider again the main objective of the Secret Elite. They wanted to break the mould of Germany and recast the country and its colonies so that it would never again pose as a threat to the British ascendency. Surely Kitchener was not thinking about interfering in a European peace – in 1916?

Did Kitchener really see himself as the arbiter of a good peace? Yes, he did. And there was one very important source which corroborated Kitchener’s intentions. Lord Derby, [9] reflected on Herbert Kitchener’s state of mind in his diary in 1938. [10] Had this been published in the years immediately after the war when the official censor edited, withdrew or destroyed information that the government wanted to keep secret, Derby’s evidence would have been buried. Herbert Kitchener held very strong views that he intended to push to the fore when peace was eventually negotiated. Kitchener confided his philosophy to Lord Derby over dinner some three or four days before he sailed on his final journey. Derby took notes immediately afterwards so that he did not have to rely on memory at a later date. He recorded Kitchener’s absolute belief that ‘whatever happened’, at the end of the war, the peace negotiators should not ‘take away one country’s territory and give it to another’. The fate of Alsace and Lorraine was included in his statement: ‘I think if you take Alsace and Lorraine away from Germany and give them to France there will be a war of revenge.’ He was insistent that Germany’s colonies should not be taken from her on the basis that ‘if they have colonies they would go there peacefully and not want to engage in war for new territory.’ [11] His sense of a ‘good peace’ had nothing in common with the complete destruction of Germany.

Ottoman Empire cartoon from around 1900.

Can you imagine the impact these words would have had inside the closed corridors of the Foreign Office. Kitchener’s sentiments ran contrary to all that the Secret Elite had worked towards. Leave Alsace and Lorraine as part of Germany? Let them keep their colonies? Good grief, would he next advocate the restoration of the Ottoman Empire? He still held influence in these eastern parts, and the British government had great ambitions for Persia after the war. Surely not. Kitchener spoke heresy. Such sentiments stood to undo the war against Germany which the Secret Elite had so carefully planned  [12]

Kitchener had also confided in Sir Douglas Haig [13] that only a decisive victory against Germany followed by a fair peace treaty, would prevent further wars in Europe. He had come to the conclusion that the war should not be about the conquest of Germany. [14] In the eyes of the Secret Elite, he had completely lost focus. Imagine if the concept of a ‘fair peace’ had been leaked to the men in the trenches. That the great man himself was thinking ahead towards peace, had implications for the murderous continuation of war. And not just peace, but a fair peace? To the powers behind the government it was unthinkable. Unimaginable. Consider the impact which Kitchener’s words would have had amongst his armies if in recognising that the war had become a stalemate, he advocated an end to hostilities. If it was put about that the commander-in-chief thought that enough was enough they would have cheered him to the echoes. It would have acknowledged that he thought more of the safety and survival of his own men than the continuation of a bitter struggle to the death with Germany, Kitchener had become more than just a liability. He was a danger to the Secret Elite’s ambitions. His future intentions put everything at risk.

President Wilson's election campaign in 1916 stressed that he kept the nation out of the world war.

Matters were exceptionally sensitive in 1916. There was much talk of peace and peace conferences. Most of it originated from America where President Wilson had an election to win and ‘peace’ was a vote-catcher. The war had reached a point of deadlock; victory was only likely to be achieved by the ‘guerre d’usure’, the war of exhaustion. Certainly, Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, was in regular touch with the President through the controlling offices of his White House minder, Edward Mandell House, [15] but peace was not an issue that any of the warring nations could be seen to contemplate. Yet a deal took shape. Mandell House and Grey jointly drafted a confidential memorandum on 22 February 1916 which was confirmed by the President. It proposed the restoration of Belgium, the surrender of Alsace and Lorraine to France, the acquisition of an outlet to the sea for Russia, and compensation to Germany in territories outside Europe. If Britain and France thought the time was right, President Wilson would propose that a ‘Conference should be summoned to put an end to the war. Should the Allies accept this proposal and Germany refuse it, the United States would probably enter the war against Germany.’ [16] Sir Edward Grey had actually worked with Edward Mandell House to construct a memorandum which by definition was a basis for a negotiated peace. [17] By the end of the year Grey would be replaced as Foreign Secretary by Arthur Balfour who was in the inner core of the Secret Elite. [18]

Loos casualties. The luckier few - the walking wounded. Casualties were enormous.

But what to do with Kitchener? He was an enigma indeed. After the horrendous casualties at Loos in September 1915, nine cabinet ministers urged Kitchener to force Asquith to accept conscription, but he would not be disloyal. The Prime Minister warned his Secretary of State for War that this move had been instigated by Lloyd George (whom Kitchener loathed) to undermine him, but added confidently ‘so long as you and I stand together, we carry the whole country with us. Otherwise the deluge.’ [19] He needed Kitchener to take the flack.

In June 1916, Asquith accused him behind his back of abdicating his responsibilities and lying. Undoubtedly it suited the prime minister’s purpose to deflect criticism away from himself. He derided Kitchener’s tortuous speech and his repetitive presentations [20] but was obliged to defend him in Parliament in a brief but brilliant oration which was cheered from all sides. [21] Kitchener, for his part, kept faith in Asquith. Lord Derby wrote in his diary that Kitchener was devoted to the prime minister and liked him very much indeed, which may partly explain why he stayed his post. [22] As Asquith sat down in Parliament on 1 June, the conservative leader Bonar Law leaned forward and whispered; ‘That was a great speech, but how after it shall we ever get rid of him?’ [23]

How indeed?

[1] The Times, 12 November, 1915, p. 9.
[2] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 338.
[3] See blog Munitions 4: Lloyd George And Very Secret Arrangements. Posted on 24 June 1915.
[4] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 313.
[5] Stephen Roskill, Hankey, Vol. 1, 1877 – 1918. p. 237.
[6] Sir George Arthur, Kitchener vol. III, p. 299.
[7] Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, p. 570.
[8] Ibid., p. 551.
[9] Lord Derby, Edward George Villiers Stanley, 17th Earl aided Kitchener in promoting recruitment. In October 1915, as Director General of Recruitment, he introduced a scheme which included enlistment and conscription. Asquith made him Under-Secretary of State for War after Kitchener’s death. Derby was one of the few politicians whom Kitchener trusted.
[10] Randolph S Churchill, Lord Derby, King of Lancashire, p. 210.
[11] Ibid.
[12] The complete history of the Secret Elite’s drive to create a war with Germany is contained in Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor’s Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, published 2013.
[13] PRO 30/57/53 Kitchener Papers.
[14] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 348.
[15] Edward Mandell House was President Wilson’s eminence grise in the White House. closely associated with the Morgan financial empire in New York, House was very much an anglophile who advised the President on all aspects of the war in Europe.
[16] Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-Five Years, Vol III, p 63.
[17] Ibid., pp. 68-71.
[18] Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 312.
[19] John Pollock, Kitchener, p. 453.
[20] George Casssar, Kitchener: Architect of Victory, p. 474.
[21] The Times, 1 June, 1916, p. 10.
[22] Churchill, Lord Derby, p. 210.
[23] Pollock, Kitchener, p. 471.