Lord Derby and David Lloyd George in close conversation. He was a personal friend of George.Inner-core members of the Secret Elite were very concerned. They had erred in their judgement about Kitchener. Lord Milner, especially so. Yes, he had pushed him into the post of Secretary of State for War in August 1914 expecting an entirely different approach from that of the Boer War and in most respects he had been correct. Kitchener was a member of Asquith’s Cabinet and theoretically subject to both collective responsibility and the authority of the Prime Minister. Had Milner been lulled into complacency by Kitchener’s reassurance that the war would take three years or more? He had been the first to predict a long war. Now Kitchener was reported to be talking about a fair peace. He had said so to Sir William Robertson and confided his intentions to Sir Douglas Haig. Worse still he talked about being one of the ‘English delegates when Peace was made’ to Lord Derby. [1] There were no circumstances in which this could be allowed.

Milner had held a grudge against Kitchener that dated back to his Boer War years. He wrote then, ‘Kitchener, a man of great power, is stale. Worse than that, he is in a hurry. Now the essence of the business in its present form [ending the Boer war] is that it must be done gradually’. These words were penned in 1900 in reference to a different war, [2] but in terms of the Secret Elite’s fundamental aim to crush Germany, Kitchener clearly retained a capacity to interfere about which Milner was deeply suspicious.

Kitchener sitting comfortably with the Boer leaders at the Treaty of Vereeniging. Milner was angry at his intervention.

What was worse, Kitchener had taken it upon himself to promote a peaceful settlement to the Boer War rather than the clear-cut military victory for which Milner had so yearned. He had wanted an outright victory in South Africa so that he could recast that country just as Bismark had recast Germany. The idea of peace disgusted Alfred Milner. Peace meant compromise, and there was no room for compromise; not with the Boers in 1902, [3] and not with the Germans in 1916. The Secret Elite wanted to recast Germany and re-affirm the primacy of the British Empire. Kitchener’s whispered ambition put all of that, and more, at risk. He had become a very serious liability. But what could be done?

Lord Kitchener knew that the government wanted him out of the way [4] which naturally made him wary of any design which meant he had to leave the country. At the end of April 1916, Asquith first suggested a political mission to Russia to discuss munitions and stiffen the Czar’s resolve to stand firm against Germany. Originally, he nominated Lloyd George to head the visit and it was suggested that Maurice Hankey might accompany him. [5] Not likely.

Optimised by Greg Smith

That same day Hankey claimed to have heard from the War Office that Kitchener wanted to go to Russia [6] and began lobbying to that effect. He wrote in his diary that ‘K[itchener] likely to accept and likely to ask me [to accompany him] – but I shan’t go.’ [7] Hankey stood his ground and refused. Absolutely; but at the same time he actively lobbied for support inside the War Committee in favour of Kitchener. Keep in mind that theoretically Hankey was just the secretary to the Committee. We now know that he was a key figure inside the Secret Elite [8] whose influence grew by the day. Consider the sequence of events. A mission which began as a putative political visit to Russia by the Secret Elite’s men, Lloyd George and Maurice Hankey began to change its shape and purpose. According to his biographers, Kitchener ‘suddenly announced that he would like to head the mission.’ [9] How convenient. Was this really Kitchener’s idea?

Sir john Hanbury-Williams in Russia

Strange forces were at work and not one of them was sudden. The Secret Elite’s man in Petrograd, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, [10] took steps to encourage Kitchener to travel to Russia. He wrote directly to the Secretary of State for War on 12 May to underline the Czar’s ‘pleasure’ on hearing that Kitchener might come to Russia. [11] That was precisely two whole weeks before the War Committee approved the mission. King George V was the surprised recipient of an upbeat telegram from the Czar on 14 May describing Lord Kitchener’s coming visit to Russia as ‘most useful and important’. Someone had jumped the gun. The King demanded clarification. Twelve days would pass before such a decision was ratified. In the meantime, it was suggested that the Russian Ambassador, having heard that Kitchener might visit Russia, had presented the rumour as fact to the Czar’s court in Petrograd. [12]

By all accounts, written, of course, after the fact, and written to suggest that the Germans knew that Kitchener was destined for Petrograd, his impending visit was allegedly common knowledge by the third week in May. [13]

Interesting. In fact no firm decision had been taken by the War Committee in London. When it was, the arrangements were substantially different. Firstly, Lloyd George was removed from the equation. Out of the blue, Asquith decided that he needed Lloyd George to go to Ireland to settle the aftermath of the Easter Rising. [14] He wrote a very brief note to him in secret on 22 May urging him to ‘take up Ireland: at any rate for a short time’. [15] How strange. Lloyd George had never been involved in Irish matters before.

David-Lloyd-George 1915

In consequence, he made a brief attempt to forge some consensus in Ireland, promising the Unionists that Ulster would be excluded from Home Rule and the Nationalists that any such arrangement would only be temporary. [16] The serpent spoke with false tongue, and slithered out of his Russian commitment. As he put it: ‘Much against my own inclination, I decided that I could not refuse Mr Asquith’s request [to switch his priority from Russia to Ireland.]’ [17] Lloyd George never did anything that was not in his own best interest. Thus, by 26 May it had been decided that Kitchener would go alone accompanied by his personal staff. [18] Allegedly, this was already common knowledge in Petrograd. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Final authorisation for Kitchener’s mission to Russia was approved on 26 May by the War Committee. One day later, Hanbury-Williams was given notice that Lord Kitchener and his staff (including three servants) would set sail for the Russian port of Archangel. [19] Kitchener was clearly keen to meet the Czar but was suspicious of the government’s intentions once he was out of the country. He left Lord Derby with a private code by which he could be informed of any further changes which might take place while he was away. [20] He had every right to suspect dirty deeds. Alerted in early June to the possibility that his proposed visit to Russia might have to be put back several weeks to accommodate the Russian Finance Minister, Herbert Kitchener almost abandoned the mission. He wrote to Hanbury-Williams warning that ‘ owing to the military situation’ he could not spare time later in the year and if the visit was postponed, it would have to be abandoned altogether. [21]

Kitchener was aware of Haig's planned dates for the Somme offensive, July 1916

He knew the timing of the proposed summer offensive in France and was determined to be back at his desk in the War Office before the action began. Here was an unexpected twist. Kitchener was prepared to abandon the mission unless it remained set in its allotted time frame. Hanbury-Williams moved fast. He immediately assured Kitchener that he had spoken to the Czar who ‘repeated twice that he wished you to come’ and thought ‘your visit one of importance and would be of benefit to both countries.’ [22] They desperately wanted Kitchener to go to Russia. But why? If Kitchener was in position to call off the visit to Russia as late as 3 June 1916, [23] it could hardly have been deemed important.

Look what had happened. The so-called political mission by Lloyd George and Hankey to Russia had been transformed into a personal visit to the Czar by Field Marshal the Earl Kitchener. What’s more, the mission was represented as the Czar’s idea. On 26 May Kitchener informed the Russian Ambassador that the War Council had agreed that he should accept the Czar’s invitation to Russia. [24] How clever. At a stroke, should anyone ask awkward questions about the purpose of Kitchener’s visit, the answer was that he had been personally invited by Czar Nicholas II.

Famous last picture of Kitchener aboard HMS Iron Duke, Admiral Jellicoe's flagship.

The Secret Elite agents who had originally been asked to lead the mission had slipped away to concentrate on other ‘priorities’. Kitchener was to go alone. Why?

[1] Randolph Churchill, Lord Derby, King of Lancashire, pp. 209-10.
[2] Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, p. 469.
[3] Ibid. p. 551.
[4] Churchill, Lord Derby, p. 210.
[5] Stephen Roskill, Hankey Vol. I, 1877-1918, p. 268.
[6] ibid. p. 269.
[7] Nationals Archives, CAB 42/13 4/5/16.
[8] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, pp. 153-60 and p. 313.
[9] That it suddenly became Kitchener’s idea is promoted by several historians including Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma p. 356 , and in John Pollock, Kitchener, p. 469.
[10] Sir John Hanbury-Williams was Lord Milner’s military secretary in South Africa before becoming secretary to the Secretary of State for War in 1900. He acted as Chief of the British Military Mission to Russia (1914-1917 ) and was instrumental in requesting that Britain attacked the Dardanelles on behalf of the Czar’s government. See blog
[11] PRO 30/ 57/ 67.
[12] Pollock, Kitchener, p. 469.
[13] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 357.
[14] This was an unexpected request which temporarily took Lloyd George out of the equation for the proposed trip to Russia. He had absolutely no experience of Irish matters. He had always voted in favour of Home Rule and his strange intervention in 1916 changed nothing. According to the Irish historian, Jonathan Brandon, his duplicity sealed the fate of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
[15] Secret letter from Asquith to Lloyd George, 22 May 1916, quoted in Lloyd George’s War Memoirs, p. 419.
[16] Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes, p. 450.
[17] Lloyd George, War Memoirs, p. 420.
[18] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 357.
[19] PRO 30/57/67, 27 May 1916.
[20] Randolph Churchill, Lord Derby, p. 210.
[21] Sir John Hanbury-Williams, The Emperor Nicholas II, as I knew him, p. 98.
[22] Ibid., p. 99.
[23] Ibid., pp. 98-99.
[24] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 358.