Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener 8: What Happened? None of Your Bloody Business

Marwick Head on a quiet evening. In a force 9 gale it is a death-trap.

On 5 June 1916, at 7.45 pm GMT, an urgent telegraph was sent from Birsay Post Office to Kirkwall and Stromness. It read ‘Battle cruiser seems in distress between Marwick Head and the Brough of Birsay.’ Twenty minutes later the words ‘vessel down’ followed. [1] The cruiser was about a mile and a half from shore in tempestuous swells but clearly visible to the naval watching-post on land. Marwick Head is a jagged coastal fortress of cliffs and unwelcoming rocks. If there is such a place as the perfect ambush point for a ship such that the chances of survival are minimal, then it’s Marwick Head. The escort vessels, having failed to keep pace with the faster cruiser in such awful weather, had been ordered back to Scapa Flow. [2] There were witnesses. Joe Angus, a gunner in the Orkney Territorial Forces shore patrol [3] saw a great cloud of smoke and flame bursting up behind the bridge of the Hampshire, and it was he who set off the alarm. [4] Having been alerted, Corporal Drever, who manned the naval watching post, raced to the post office. [5] What followed beggars belief. If at the end of this blog you still consider what happened that evening as a mere catalogue of misunderstanding and error, then the official explanation will suffice. If not, you will be forced to conclude that dark forces were at work. Examine the time-scale:

5 June, 1916, 7.45 [GMT] pm [6]

An artist's impression of the sinking of HMS Hampshire in June 1916.

The Hampshire had been set on a course North, thirty degrees East. [7] It struck a mine which exploded just behind the bridge. [8] but did not sink immediately. In the ensuing mayhem only twelve out of around seven hundred men [9] survived both the floundering ship and the wrath of the angry North Sea gale. Of these, nine survivors specifically reported that a single explosion ripped the ship apart. William Bennet, officer on watch in the engine room, thought there were two or even three. They had to overcome the poisonous smoke and suffocating fumes to reach the deck. Estimates of the time between explosion and sinking, ranged from ten to twenty minutes. Confusion added to the howling wind and booming seas. Lifeboats could not be launched because the ship’s power had been lost. Boats cut free were dashed to pieces in the cold, debilitating waters. Men with lifebelts jumped in desperation. Only the Carley safety floats offered any chance of survival. [10]

5 June, 1916, 8.00 [GMT] pm onwards

Stoker Walter Farnden was one of an estimated forty men who clung to No. 3 raft with its cork-reinforced edges and rope handles. One by one they disappeared into the deep, frozen, exhausted unable to steer towards anyone still holding onto life amongst the debris. Stoker Farnden later described the torture he and his comrades endured: ‘An hour passed, two hours, and nearer and nearer to land the storm hurled us. Men were still dying in the agony of it all until there were but four of us alive.’ [11] Hundreds of men died in the wild seas because no-one was on hand to help. This human tragedy unfolded one and a half miles from the coast, witnessed and reported to the authorities at Scapa Flow within minutes, yet these poor men were left to die; abandoned outside the largest natural anchorage in the Empire. Why?

At the moment when possibly hundreds of men might have been rescued by a prompt response to the emergency call, the navy failed its own. Later a pathetic excuse was offered blaming the initial telegram for inaccurate detail. That ceased to have any relevance when the 8.20 message read ‘Vessel down.’ By 8.35 a third despairing message read: ‘Four funnel cruiser sunk 20 minutes ago. No assistance arrived yet. Send ships to pick up bodies.’ Men had been in the water for almost an hour, but still the Admiralty dithered.

Vice-Admiral Brock at the Longhope station on Orkney was informed of the 8.20 message that a vessel was down. Despite all that he knew, Brock did not immediately order out a rescue flotilla. Time was wasted confirming the telegrams from Birsay. Brock had been one of the guests at the special lunch hosted in Kitchener’s honour by Admiral Jellicoe that day. Brock knew of the late change to the Hampshire’s course. He knew about Kitchener’s mission to Russia. His failure to take immediate action remains incomprehensible. There was only one warship on that exclusive route. He must have known that the stricken ship was HMS Hampshire. [12] Of course he knew. His delay undoubtedly cost the lives of many dozens of potential survivors. Had Kitchener been in the water, he too would have been lost.

Rear Admiral Osmond Brock ended his career as Admiral of the Fleet. [13]

Survivors of HMS Hampshire, pictured by the Daily Mail

Orcadians who witnessed the tragedy could see that there were survivors amongst the bloated bodies but the seas were a natural bulwark between the desperate sailors and safety. Unless there were secret orders in place, what followed remains a tale of incompetence, panic and bewilderment on a scale that fails to make any sense. At every point the reader must remember that the sinking took place just one and a half miles from the Orkney coast – an area bristling with naval activity- the home of the Grand Fleet itself.

In Stromness, news of the cruiser’s loss was quickly relayed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute whose secretary G L Thomson immediately rushed to alert the naval authorities and launch the life boat. He was stunned when told not to even try to do so. He demanded to speak with the senior officer only to be told that it was ‘none of his bloody business’, and warned very clearly and very specifically that he would be charged with mutiny if he attempted to launch the life boat. Matters got so heated that he and his crew were threatened with being put into custody. [14] Lifeboats exist to assist those in peril on the seas. Their purpose is to save lives. Their history around the coasts of Britain is of great self-sacrifice and valour. That the navy should order the grounding of a lifeboat makes no sense. Had the Admiralty ordained that there should be no survivors?

In Birsay, the few locals who knew about the disaster wanted to help, but in some cases ‘were forcibly prevented [from trying to get to survivors] under dire threats’ and even ordered to stay away from the shore or they would be fired on. The local people were certain that had they been allowed to take immediate action, fifty more lives could have been saved. [15] Ponder that awful fact. Local people could not fathom the inaction, the secrecy and the lack of tangible assistance for those despairing souls on the water.

5 June, 1916, 9.45 [GMT] pm. to midnight.

It took over two hours for a tug and two trawlers to make their way out of Stromness, and then at four destroyers followed. Observers on the island of Birsay recalled that none of these reached the scene of the disaster before midnight. At around 1pm, one of the Carley rafts washed up on the rocks of a small creek half a mile north of Skaill Bay. It carried around 40 men when it left the stricken Hampshire, picked up another 30 from the chilling seas, but only 6 men had survived the debilitating exposure when it smashed into the rocky cliffs. Fifteen minutes later a second life raft reached the shore just north of the first with four living men amongst the 40 – 50 bodies. Can you imagine their physical and mental exhaustion? And none was yet safe. They faced the black cliffs with no-one in sight to offer assistance, throw down ropes or guide their hands as they climbed blindly upwards. One or two men reached a farm house, exhausted and barely alive.

6 June 1916, 10.30am [GMT]

Initially, the authorities were unaware of survivors, and the following official statement was issued to the press at 1.40 pm. on 6 June;

Aberdeen Evening Express reporting the official Admiralty statement about the Hampshire's fate.

‘The Secretary of the Admiralty has received the following telegram from the Admiral Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet [Jellicoe] at 10.30 am this morning:

I have to report with deep regret that HMS Hampshire (Capt. Robert J Savill, R.N.) with Lord Kitchener and staff on board was sunk last night about8 pm. to the west of the Orkneys, either by mine or torpedo. Four boats were seen by observer on shore to leave the ship. The wind was N.N.W. and heavy seas were running. Patrol boats and destroyers at once proceeded to the spot and a party was sent along the coast to search but only some bodies and a capsized boat have been found up to present. As the whole shore has been searched, I fear there is little hope of there being any survivors. No report has yet been received from the search party on shore. The Hampshire was on her way to Russia.’ [16]

The cover-up had begun. The Empire had been informed that ‘there is little hope of survivors’ and the instant histories, like War Illustrated bluntly stated that ‘Lord Kitchener … on board HMS Hampshire, had been drowned together with his staff and the whole complement of that cruiser.’ [17] The Times carried news from a special correspondent which inferred immediate assistance was sent. ‘vessels which were instantly summoned to make a search found no trace of the sunken warship, or even, for a time, of any floating bodies.’ [18] The first announcements were erroneous. Incredibly, there were survivors. However, no vessels had instantly been summoned. Rear Admiral Brock had seen to that. That was possibly the greatest lie of all.

The Aberdeen trawler Effort passed the spot where the Hampshire sank two hours after the disaster. In the option of the crew, the sea was a not so rough as to prevent small boats being launched, but nothing was seen of the wreck. By that time the weather had moderated. Strangely the report from Aberdeen added that ‘the only craft observed was a Dutch vessel, which was steaming very closely.’ [19] Where did that come from? This mystery ship has never been identified.

Royal Naval Cemetary at Lyness where the bodies recovered from the sinking of the Hampshire are buried.

Over the next days local Orcadians reported seeing two lorry loads of bodies arriving at Stromness Pier, barely covered, the lifeless crew piled high in open view, some almost naked as they were shunted down onto a waiting tug and taken for burial at Lyness. [20]

Take a second, please to review the main points. HMS Hampshire was sighted from land after an explosion had ripped her apart. Such was the violence of the explosion that her electrical system failed catastrophically and no mayday signal went out. However, a telegram was sent almost immediately from a watch point on the island of Birsay to alert the authorities at Scapa Flow. According to explanations announced by the Admiralty, vessels were immediately sent to the Hampshire’s assistance, but despite gallant efforts, there were no survivors. Later it was discovered that a dozen men survived the mountainous waves and freezing seas.

We now know that no ships were sent to find survivors until hours later. The log books from HMS Unity and HMS Victor, the two destroyers originally sent back from escorting the Hampshire show that they put to sea again at 9.10pm [21] and took an hour and a half to reach the area of wreckage . [22] Critically, and some might say, criminally, Vice Admiral Brock, who knew every detail of the Hampshire’s course, chose not to take immediate action to send assistance.

This was not, however, how these events were explained in the Admiralty’s official explanation.

[1] Jane E Storey. The Arcadian, New Light On Hampshire Tragedy.
[2] Philip Magnus, Kitchener, Portrait of an Imperialist. p. 373.
[3] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 374.
[4] Joe Angus, Stromness, ‘World War One’, Orkney Public Library, Kirkwall, interview for Sound Archive by Eric Marwick.
[5] Jane E Storey. The Arcadian, New Light On Hampshire Tragedy.
[6] The timings used are at Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) which is used throughout the world. British Summer Time (BST) , or delight saving time, is one hour in advance of that, viz GMT+1.
[7] Royle, Kitchener Enigma, p. 372.
[8] Evidence of Petty Officer Samuel Sweeney. All of the following statements were sent by telephone from O.C.W.P. at on 6 June 1916.
[9] The precise number may never be known, Royle puts it at 655 (p. 375). Orkney Heritage Society put the number at 737 to include men killed in the loss of the Laurel Crown.
[10] The Carley float was formed from a length of copper or steel tubing surrounded by a buoyant mass of cork. The American produced raft was rigid and could remain buoyant, floating equally well with either side uppermost. The floor of the raft was made from a wood or webbed grating. Commonly used on British warships in World War 1.
[11] The Great War- I Was There, Walter Farnden, part 15. pp. 604-7.
[12] Royle, Kitchener Enigma, p. 375.
[13] W. S. Chalmers, ‘Brock, Sir Osmond de Beauvoir (1869–1947)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
[14] Jane Storey;
[15] Ibid.
[16] The Times, 7 June 1916. p. 10.
[17] The War Illustrated, Volume 4, 17 June 1916, p. 410.
[18] The Times, 10 June, p. 8.
[19] The Times, 9 June 1916, p. 9.
[20] The Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness on the island of Hoy is the resting place for 445 Commonwealth naval personnel, 109 of whom died in the First World War.
[21] National Archives ADM 53/66480 and ADM 53/67364.
[22] Royle, Kitchener Enigma, p. 371.

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener 7: Death on the High Seas

Lord Kitchener transferring to Jellicoe's flagship HMS Iron Duke before attic sail on the Hampshire on 5 June 1916.At around 7.45pm on 5 June 2016, Field Marshal The Earl Kitchener was drowned just off the west coast of Orkney in Scotland. His death shocked ordinary men and women across the British Empire who could not fathom why he was at sea. Disbelief was followed by a short period of criticism and enquiry. Numerous theories of spurious conspiracy were spread by the press which muddied the waters successfully in the weeks immediately afterwards, but a greater horror soon followed at the Somme and Kitchener’s demise became but one calamity in a summer of tragedies.

We know that key members of the Secret Elite wanted rid of him. His views on a fair peace and his self-ordained aims for the end of the war were unacceptable. [1] But how to get rid of him? Having demonstrated in previous blogs that his mission to Russia was not particularly important, that he was not invited by the Czar as several historians have claimed [2] and that he had considered postponing the visit, we have to critically re-examine Kitchener’s death. Was it simply an act of good fortune for those who wanted him gone or were there more disturbing undercurrents? Consider the sequence of events.

Herbert Kitchener left for his visit to Russian in good spirits. Critics of his performance as Secretary of State for War had been quashed in a failed censure motion in parliament on 31 May [3] and on 1 June he met with over 200 MPs to give them the opportunity to hear his views on the war to date. He answered their questions openly and the parliamentarians responded with warm and prolonged applause. [4] That evening he had a farewell audience with King George V and went from Buckingham Palace to Downing Street for a lengthy one-to-one meeting with Prime Minister Asquith. With hindsight it had the feel of a farewell tour.

Pictorial representation of the Battle of Jutland

At that very moment, out in the North Sea, near Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, the only full-scale clash between the British Grand Fleet and the German Imperial Fleet was erupting. Both sides claimed victory, though the British suffered heavy losses including six cruisers and eight destroyers. [5] Almost immediately afterwards Admiral Sir John Jellicoe ordered an enquiry into the loss of so many cruisers [6] and as the fleet returned to Scapa Flow, bruised and damaged, the blame game began. While the loss of 6,097 men was a serious blow to Admiralty prestige, the German Fleet, which suffered 2,557 losses, [7] was afterwards more or less confined to port for the duration of the war. Both sides claimed victory, but Jellicoe’s reputation never recovered. He was already under great strain, both physically and mentally. [8]

And in the midst off this naval trauma, the most iconic soldier in the Empire arrived at Scapa Flow. Kitchener and his staff had travelled the 700 mile journey north to Scotland overnight by train on a special coach from King’s Cross station. Next day, Monday 5 June 1916, he arrived at the port of Scrabster near Thurso and made the rough two hour crossing to Orkney on the destroyer, HMS Oak. What is pertinent to all that transpired thereafter was that the Secretary of State for War was entirely in the hands of the Admiralty, and the Admiralty was in the hands of the Secret Elite’s Arthur Balfour. [9] It was Admiral Jellicoe who allocated the old coal-fired armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire to carry their precious passenger to Archangel in Russia even although she was reported to have sustained light damage in the Jutland battle. It was Jellicoe who issued the initial orders on 4 June to the Hampshire’s Captain, Herbert Savill, who had sailed the Orkney passages for over a year. Crucially, it was Jellicoe who changed these instructions at the last moment directing the cruiser up the western coasts of the Orkney islands, allegedly a safer more protected route. There was no protection from a cyclonic storm around Orkney save the stout safety of Scapa Flow harbour.

HMS Hampshire in force 9 Gale

The weather was foul. In fact it was about as bad as it could be in June. According to the local newspaper, the Orcadian, a force 9 gale, the wildest summer storm Orkney had experienced for years, raged over the island. Alexander McAdie, Professor of Meteorology at Harvard University later destroyed the claim that Jellicoe and his staff could not have anticipated the raging gale which circulated around Orkney that day. A clearly identified cyclone was passing from the Atlantic to the North Sea and was on the point of recurve before heading into the Artic regions. He stated that ‘the forecaster in London would have warned against starting under such conditions…the counsel of the weatherise would have been to wait and follow the depression rather than try to precede it.’ [10] Apologists for the Admiralty and Jellicoe blamed ‘bad judgement and complacency’. [11] In 1923, McAdie destroyed such a notion by claiming that ‘the lack of definite knowledge of the storm’s position seems inexcusable.’ [12]

We are talking here about the British Admiralty, with its centuries of experience in weather and seamanship. The Admiralty knew about the organisation of Kitchener’s visit because they were responsible for its detailed planning. Jellicoe was the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet. He knew Scapa Flow and its cyclonic storms and gales. He was in regular contact with London. Indeed Jellicoe telegraphed the Admiralty to seek permission to permit HMS Hampshire to remain at Archangel for the duration of Kitchener’s visit and received approval at 6.08 pm on 5 June, once the Hampshire was underway. [13] Surely, as Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet, Jellicoe could have made such a decision on his own. Why did London have to approve it? Undeniably communications were exchanged between the Orkneys and London that concerned the Hampshire before it was blown apart. It is therefore impossible to sustain an argument based on ‘confusion and poor communications’ between the Admiralty in London and Jellicoe in Scapa Flow. They knew and approved the detail of Kitchener’s last journey. There was no confusion.

Questions were soon raised about the choice of HMS Hampshire to carry Kitchener on the Artic route to Archangel. An angry Portsmouth vicar wrote to The Times on 9 June: ‘Is no explanation to be given to us why the most valuable life the nation possessed was risked in an old ship like HMS Hampshire, unattended by any escort?’ [14] This is a valid question. The Hampshire was a thirteen year old Devonshire armoured cruiser which might well have been scrapped had war not found use and purpose for virtually every ship on the high seas. Unlike her sister ship, the Carnarvon, which had been partially fitted to burn oil and coal, the Hampshire was solely coal-fired and consequently, with a bunkering capacity of 1,600 tons, sat low in the water. In February 1914, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty supplied a written Commons answer to a parliamentary enquiry which listed two hundred and fifty two vessels, ranging from Battleships to Torpedo Boat Destroyers which were oil fired, soon to be oil-fired or partially fitted for both power sources. HMS Hampshire was not included. [15] Yet the old coal-fired, four-funnelled cruiser was Jellicoe’s choice. She would hardly be inconspicuous when steaming at full speed.

The route of HMS Hampshire as specified by Admiral Jellicoe which directed the warship into the minefield.

Thus, HMS Hampshire slipped her moorings in the relative safety of Scapa Flow at 4.45pm on 5 June 1916 and headed west then north into the teeth of a storm. She was to be escorted by two destroyers, Unity and Victor, [16] neither of which had the capacity to cope in the vicious head-on gale. They joined the Hampshire at 5.45 pm and went through the motions of providing initial support for the cruiser. For thirty-five minutes Unity struggled against the odds to stay close, but even with Captain Savill’s speed reduced twice, it was a forlorn hope in the mountainous swell. She was ordered to return to Scapa at 6.20. Victor lasted a further ten minutes in the severe gale, then turned back. By 6.30 pm, the Hampshire was plunging a lonely slow furrow, her decks battened down save for the hatch to 14 mess, like a floating coffin with a single air-vent. Channelled down Jellicoe’s chosen route, past Hoy Sound, tossed and battered by the merciless storm, the given official account would have us accept that ‘unconnected co-incidences’ [17] drew the ill-fated ship into an unknown German mine-field, laid by U-75 just off Marwick Head. Only twelve men survived. Kitchener was not one of them.

That an ‘unknown’ German mine-field lay to the west coast of the Orkney Islands demands examination. Evidence now available demonstrates that vital messages about submarine activity on the precise route that Jellicoe had ordained the Hampshire must take, had arrived at the Naval Headquarters at Longhope on the Orkney island of South Wallis on the afternoon of 5 June. Apparently no-one paid attention. [18] The most prestigious passenger ever landed on Scapa Flow was already at the base and no-one had given instructions to update the commander-in-chief, Admiral Jellicoe, or his senior staff about submarine activity that day on the chosen route? This is unbelievable. Submarine activity in the proximity of Scapa Flow was always given high priority. Few places in the world were more conscious of the danger posed by a submarine. Given the vulnerability of the Grand Fleet after the Battle of Jutland, the disposition of U-Boats was of absolute importance. Failure to immediately alert the senior officers of the fleet to U-Boat dangers was a dereliction of duty which would have merited court martial. No-one was taken to task.

As we have previously shown [19] the Admiralty in London had gained possession of the three major codes used by the Imperial German Navy to transmit information to their ships and submarines before the war was even four months old. The decoders in Room 40 were able to decipher every naval wireless transmission and from these, plot German ship movements and build up detailed profiles on U-Boat commanders. [20] As the German preparations for what would be known as the Battle of Jutland took shape, three ocean-going submarine minelayers were sent to the sea lanes off the Firth of Forth, the Moray Firth and Orkney.

Kurt Beitzen, commander of U-75The commander of U-75, Kurt Beitzen duly laid his mines in five groups of four across the sea-bed on the precise route which Jellicoe selected for the Hampshire. Back in Room 40 at the Admiralty, U-75’s course, and that of its two sister ships, had been detected and decoded. Take stock of this statement. When Kitchener’s journey was being planned and approved at the Admiralty they knew of the risks caused by submarine activity. So too did Jellicoe. Two intercepts from 31 May and 1 June placed the new ocean-going minelaying U-75 west of Orkney. On 3 June, U-75’s movements were transmitted to the Longhope station, and Admiralty records show that three messages logged on 5 June, all timed and dated from the Cape Wrath station, identified a submarine, U-75, at 2.40 pm, 5.15 pm and 7.15 pm. [21] Hampshire had put to sea at 4.45 pm, but was in radio contact with Longhope. Undeniably, Jellicoe had instructed HMS Hampshire to sail into a section known to have been occupied by a mine-laying U-Boat. [22]

These were not the errors of some raw recruit or the hapless mistakes of an inexperienced trainee. Each of these decisions was dictated by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander in chief of the Grand Fleet. It is claimed that Kitchener had been keen to press on with his journey despite the weather, and consequently the Hampshire’s departure was not delayed. [23] Really?

Admiral Jellicoe onboard in calmer waters.

Are we to believe that had Admiral Jellicoe not taken time to explain the debilitating effect of a force 9 storm, Kitchener would have over-ruled his advice? In fact, there was no such discussion. Jellicoe latter wrote that, in his opinion, ‘I did not consider the delay necessary as I should not have hesitated, if need had arisen, to take the Grand Fleet to sea on the same night and on the same route…’ [24]  Of course Kitchener wanted to get underway, but was sufficiently astute to understand the adage ‘more haste less speed’. He was a poor sailor. Claims that blame lay with Kitchener’s blind determination to sail through the cyclonic storm ring hollow. The same might be said of the choice of HMS Hampshire. Of all the options available to Jellicoe, the old armoured cruiser was the least-cost option. Her coal-burning boilers generated both power and steam and had she made Petrograd safely, how many submarine packs might have lain in wait for the return voyage.

In the weeks and months that followed, a great deal of heat was generated by allegations and conjecture about who, outside Britain, may or may not have known about Kitchener’s proposed visit to Russia as if that had bearing on the outcome. One factor, and one alone, did. Whoever knew about the U-75 and its minelaying activity around Orkney, knew that the passage to Marwick Head was a death-trap. Whoever instructed Captain Savill to take the route, must bear some responsibility. But did Jellicoe act alone? How far does the trail of complicity stretch? At the Admiralty there was one man in the inner circle of the Secret Elite whose authority over-rode all else. That was the First Lord, Arthur J Balfour.

But the mystery deepened when the Orcadians shared their shocking experience with the world, and ten years later, when the Admiralty Inquiry was eventually made public.

[1] Kitchener’s interference in munitions and his belief in a fair peace alarmed the Secret Elite leader, Lord Milner and his political allies, Leo Amery, Andrew Bonar Law, Sir Edward Carson and many others. Asquith and Lloyd George wanted rid of him quickly as did the press baron, Lord Northcliffe. These men represented the poisoned tip of an anti-Kitchener lobby which had no public support.
[2] Sir George Arthur, The Life of Lord Kitchener, pp. 349-50, is typical of the misleading notion that the Secretary of State for War was invited by the Czar to go to visit him in Russia.
[3] The Times 1 June 1916, p. 10.
[4] John Pollock, Kissinger, p. 475.
[5] The Times, 3 June 1916, p. 8.
[6] Nicholas A. Lambert, Our Bloody Ships or Our Bloody System? Jutland and the loss of the Battle Cruisers, 1916. Journal of Military History, vol. 62, no. 1, January 1998, p. 47.
[8] S.W. Roskill, The Dismissal of Admiral Jellicoe, Journal of Contemporary History, vol.1, no. 4 (October 1966) p. 69.
[9] Arthur Balfour was at that point First Lord of the Admiralty. His Secret Elite credentials placed him in the inner core of the secret society. See Carol Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, pp. 17-18 and 312.
[10] George H. Cassar, Kitchener, Architect of Victory, p. 476.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Alexander McAdie, ‘Fate and a Forecast’, Harvard Graduate Magazine, September 1923, p. 46.
[13] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 364.
[14] Rev C.H. Hamilton, The Times, Letters to the Editor, 9 June 1916, p. 9.
[15] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 18 February 1914 vol 58 cc961-3W
[16] Both vessels were listed in Churchill’s lists of 252 ships to be oil-fired.
[17] The Times, 10 August, 1926, p. 9.
[18] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 367.
[19] See blog: Lusitania 1: The Tale of the Secret Miracles, posted 28 April, 2015.
[20] Patrick Beesly, Room 40 British Naval Intelligence 1914-1918, pp. 21-33.
[21] National Archives ADM137/4105.
[22] Royale, Kitchener Enigma, pp. 369-70.
[24] George H Cassar, Kitchener, Architect of Victory, p.476. or Royle, Kitchener Enigma, p. 480.
[25] Viscount Jellicoe, The Grand Fleet (1914-1916): Its Creation, Development and Work p. 427.

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener 6: What’s To Be Done With A Serious Liability?

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.

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener 5: An Act Of Heresy

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.

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener 4: Immoveable Object Meets Unstoppable Force

Daily artillery barrages from both sides added to the waste and horror on the Western Front.According to official histories of the First World War there was a great shell crisis in Britain in 1915. [1] In truth, the phenomenon was universal. The French army became acutely aware of the problem caused by lack of munitions as early as 24 September 1914. By November, the German gunners around Ypres were instructed to cut their daily barrage and their commander, General Falkenhayn reckoned that there were only enough shells for four more days of German bombardment in Flanders. [2] Whatever the preparations for war in Europe, no-one had anticipated its rapid descent into a stalemate of entrenchment accompanied by wasteful daily artillery barrages whose only purpose appeared to be stultifying proof that the enemy was still there. Never in the history of warfare had so many resources been wasted on futile exchanges of explosives to such little effect, nor so much profit made by those who provided the ammunition.

There are two schools of thought governing Kitchener’s attitude to increasing the supply of munitions. The first is that he obstructed the verve and purpose shown by Lloyd George as Chancellor, to ramp up the purchase of much needed munitions. In truth, that was Lloyd George’s view, jaundiced by his antipathy towards the Secretary of State for War and bolstered by his selective use of information from the ghost-written History of the Ministry of Munitions. [3] The second is that Kitchener refused to be influenced by agencies outside the War Office because there was no crisis. His judgement was that his commanders in the field cried wolf too often and used the excuse of shell shortage to cover their own inadequacies. He was correct.

Aubers Ridge 1915. Briefing the Cameronians before the battle.

Before the ill-fated offensive at Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915, Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief in France, had assured the War Office that he had sufficient ammunition for the assault [4] and he had written a letter to Kitchener on 2 May stating; ‘the ammunition will be all right.’ [5] But Aubers was an unmitigated disaster for the British army. No ground was won and no tactical advantage gained. On that single day, 9 May 1915, 11,000 British casualties were sustained and it took three days to process the wounded through the Field Ambulances. [6] Can you even begin to imagine the horror and excruciating pain of the men sacrificed for a cause they did not comprehend? German losses were reported to be under 1,000. After the disaster Sir John French deflected attention from his own poor leadership by telling The Times correspondent, Charles Repington, whom he had personally invited to witness what he anticipated as ‘one of he greatest battles the world has ever seen’, [7] that it had failed because of a shortage of shells. [8] This wasn’t just disloyalty; it was a miserable lie.

Kitchener had enemies outwith his military subordinates. His behaviour and style angered vested interests inside the Secret Elite, particularly the financial – armaments sector which backed Lloyd George’s free-market, unrestricted approach to enhancing their profits. When the desperate need for armaments and munitions was fully realised in the first months of the war, and steps were being taken to utilise American industrial power, Kitchener and the War Office considered it an effrontery when the Treasury set up such facilities without his knowledge or approval.

Kitchener on way from War Office to address MPs in May 1916.The British Cabinet Committee meeting on 21 October 1914 agreed to contact the War Office agent in America with a request for 400,000 rifles and three days later sent their representative, Captain Smyth-Pigott to New York. They did not know that Lloyd George, whom the Secret Elite had determined would have ultimate control, had already acted independently. He had sent his most able Treasury expert, Basil Blackett, to America to evaluate the logjam that had built up in military procurement. First reports insisted that the War Office and the Admiralty had to start co-ordinating their purchasing strategies because suppliers were raising prices and playing one off against the other. [9] What did they expect? It was business in time of war. Profits were there to be made.

In November 1914, the Chancellor of the Exchequer contacted his acquaintance, Edward Charles Grenfell, senior partner of Morgan-Grenfell & Co., and director of the Bank of England, to discuss whether rifle production in the United States could be increased and engineering production switched to munitions manufacture. The line of contact started in the Treasury with Lloyd-George, through Edward Grenfell to J.P. Morgan & Co., the largest investment banking firm in America and back through the same channel to London. Morgan immediately promised to liaise with two firms, Remington and Winchester, ‘friends’ of his group, and an understanding was reached. [10] Delivery would however take eleven months, [11] though considerable quantities of rifles and munitions were carried regularly by the Lusitania. [12] Trusted Secret Elite agents had created a very pro-British accord which would benefit them all.

But Kitchener would not have it. The War Office complained loudly about this civilian arrangement and Kitchener contacted J.P. Morgan directly, demanding that the order be cancelled. In his view, munition supply was War Office business and no-one else’s. Lloyd George was furious; Edward Grenfell, outraged. Kitchener had crossed swords with the Anglo-American establishment. The carefully-planned transatlantic accord would have been smothered by Kitchener’s intervention, but the Chancellor had powerful friends on both sides of the ocean. Grenfell complained bitterly that ‘the manner in which the War Office have dealt with the proposed rifles contract with Morgan, Grenfell and Co, will have a detrimental effect on public opinion in America.’ [13] It was always a good line to take. American public opinion mattered to the British government. That same day, Lloyd George smoothed Edward Grenfell’s ruffled feathers by stating that Kitchener’s communication to Morgan was based on a regrettable ‘misapprehension’ and asked for Morgan’s cooperation’. [14] Subsequent orders were placed with Morgan’s chosen men without War Office interference.

shell-wastage by 1916

In fact, though Kitchener had a good record of using civilian businessmen in procuring munitions, he did not move fast enough for Lloyd George. The two never acted in tandem. Kitchener set up a Armament’s Output Committee under George Booth, a director of the Bank of England, in April 1915, but at the same time Lloyd George brought together a Munitions of War Committee. Within a month, his persistence won the day. The Chancellor was determined to take control, although it was to be some time before all the relevant responsibilities were removed from the War Office. [15] Letters of complaint and detailed memoranda were sent to Asquith from Arthur Balfour [16], Winston Churchill, Edwin Montagu and others, berating Kitchener and his War Office staff for their ‘bigoted, prejudiced reluctance buy rifles or to increase the munitions of war’. [17]

Kitchener was defiant. Despite his obvious worth in correcting the public mind-set to the duration of the war and his dynamic appeal to volunteers for the rank and file in his new armies, his disdain for politicians and business devalued his standing in the eyes of the Secret Elite. Their agents in the press to begin an assault on Kitchener, and indeed on prime minister Herbert Asquith whose government they believed, had served its purpose. Consequently, Lord Northcliffe’s powerful newspaper empire unleashed an unwarranted attack on the Secretary of State for War. On 14 May, 1915, headlines in The Times screamed of the ‘Need for Shells and Lack of High Explosives’. The piece began with the blunt statement that ‘The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success [at Aubers].’ [18] The dam was burst. Northcliffe maintained the pressure on Kitchener through his Daily Mail which wrote of the folly of using shrapnel against the powerful German earthworks and wire entanglements, claiming that it was as effective as using a peashooter. [19]

Lord Kitchener's Tragic Blunder - Headline in the Daily Mail

On 21 May Northcliffe threw all caution to the wind and wrote the editorial for the Daily Mail, headlined, Lord Kitchener’s Fatal Blunder. He pulled no punches; ‘Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high explosive shells. The admitted fact is that Lord Kitchener ordered the wrong kind of shell – the same kind of shell which he used largely against the Boers in 1900. He persisted in sending shrapnel – a useless weapon in trench warfare. He was warned repeatedly that the kind of shell required was a violently explosive bomb which would dynamite its way through the German trenches and entanglements and enable our brave men to advance in safety. This kind of shell our poor soldiers have had has caused the death of thousands of them.’ [20] It was a salvo intended to destroy Kitchener’s reputation which exploded in Northcliffe’s face.

At the front, soldiers were ‘raised to a pitch of fury’ by the ‘perfectly monstrous’ attack on Kitchener. Major General Sir Henry Rawlinson lambasted the ‘diabolical plot’ to focus attention on high explosive shells stating that: ‘the true cause of our failures is that our tactics have been faulty, and that we have misconceived the strength and resisting power of the enemy. To turn round and say that the casualties have been due to the want of H.E. [high explosive] shells for the 18-pounders is a perversion of the truth’. [21] Instead of ruining Kitchener’s career, Northcliffe damaged his own public standing. The Services Clubs in Pall Mall barred The Times and Daily Mail from their doors. Subscriptions were cancelled; advertising slumped. Copies of the Daily Mail and The Times were burned on the floors of the London Stock Exchange, the Liverpool Provision Exchange, the Baltic Exchange in London and the Cardiff Coal and Shipping Exchange. There were ulterior motives for this public display of stockbroker indignation, [22] but it all added to Kitchener’s teflon-laced reputation

Kitchener may no longer have been an asset to the Secret Elite, but he was the public face of Britain’s fighting best. Asquith could not sack him for fear of the public back-lash and so tried to move him away from real decision-making. Kitchener was sent on a tour of inspection to Gallipoli and the Near East in the hope that he would stay there, but he did not. When he returned at the end of October 1915, the Secretary of State for War found Sir Archibald Murray had been appointed as the new Chief of Imperial Staff. His was a brief appointment for Sir William Robertson took his place in December with over all responsibility for strategy. He alone was to advise the government and issue orders to commanders in the field. Kitchener’s authority was more or less reduced to matters of manpower and recruitment.

Kitchener and Sir William Robertson

As he himself put it, he was ‘curtailed to feeding and clothing the army’. [23] The same men who had dragged Kitchener into the War Office in 1914 had effectively stripped him of his power but did not want his resignation. Each time he offered or threatened to resign, Asquith persuaded him that it was his duty to serve the King. [24] Essentially, Kitchener provided a buffer between the prime minister and his critics. Why did he not force the issue and resign, despite Asquith’s insistence that he stayed? Kitchener was a proud man, yet he stood stripped of meaningful power like a glorified quartermaster. He had a good working relationship with Douglas Haig who had been promoted to commander in chief in France and with Robertson to whom he confided ‘I think I shall be of real use when peace comes. I have little fear as to our final victory – but many fears as to making a good peace.’ [25]

So Kitchener had good reason not to resign. He saw purpose in his holding on to office; great purpose. He imagined that he would be permitted to step back onto the centre-stage of world politics to ‘make a good peace’. That could never be allowed to happen.

[1] The full story has already been recorded in our blog Munitions 6: Crisis? What Crisis?, 8 July 2015.
[2] Hew Strachan, The First World War, pp. 993-4.
[3] Peter Fraser, The British Shells Scandal of 1915, Canadian Journal of History, Vol. 18. no.1 1983, p. 85.
[4] Hugh Cecil and Peter H Liddle, Facing Armageddon, The First World War Experienced, p. 42.
[5] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 292.
[7] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 290.
[8] Cecil and Liddle, Facing Armageddon, p. 42.
[9] Kathleen Burk, War and the State, The Transformation of British Government 1914-18, p. 89.
[10] Kathleen Burk, Britain, America and the Sinews of War, p. 14.
[11] J.P. Morgan, New York, to E.C. Grenfell, 11 November 1914, PRO LG/C/1/1/32.
[12] See blog: Lusitania 8: The Anglo-American Collusion. posted 18 May 2015.
[13] Edward Grenfell to Mr Lloyd George, 13 November, 1914, PRO, LG/C/1/1/33.
[14] Lloyd George to Mr Grenfell, PRO LG/C/1/1/34.
[15] David Lloyd George, War Memoirs, pp 97-127.
[16] Arthur Balfour had previously been prime minister (1902-1905) and was identified by Carroll Quigley as a member of the inner core of the Secret Elite, the Society of the Elect.
[17] Lloyd George, Memoirs, p. 109.
[18] The Times,14 May 1915, p. 8.
[19] Reginald Pound and Geoffrey Harmsworth, Northcliffe, p. 477.
[20] Daily Mail, 21 May 1915. See also Daily Mail Historical Archives at
[21] John Pollock, Kitchener, pp. 443-4.
[22] The city editor of the Daily Mail, Charles Duguid, had become so concerned about the high cost of dealing shares on the London Stock Exchange, that he decided to launch the Daily Mail’s own cut-price share service. Demand was so heavy that Duguid had to establish a small bureau to handle the administrative burdens of running a do-it-yourself stock market. The  Stockbrokers did not burn Northcliffe’s papers out of patriotic loyalty to Kitchener. Theirs was an act of spiteful revenge. But it caught the popular mood. Sales of the Daily Mail on the morning of the attack on Kitchener topped 1,386,000 copies and overnight slumped to 238,000.
[23] A.J.P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945, p. 79.
[24] Pollock, Kitchener, p. 458.
[25] Sir George Arthur, Kitchener, Vol III, p. 299.

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener 3: A Difficult Man To Control

Ypres 1914. BEF soldiers resting before the Battle of Mons in front of the Cloth Hall.When Kitchener first stepped into the War Office, two hours before he had even been formally given the seal of office from King George V, he is reported to have said, ‘There is no army!’ [1] His exasperation was genuinely felt but somewhat misleading. The full strength of the British army was 700,000 men of whom 110,000 were serving in India or some other station in the Empire. The Expeditionary Force totalled around 120,000 men specifically trained for the war against Germany. Kitchener’s outburst had considerable merit for he grasped immediately that, in a fight to the death, Britain needed a real, fully trained and equipped army.

To the shock of those who thought that war could be waged with limited liability, Kitchener dismissed the lame belief that it would be over by Christmas. He immediately laid his plans for an army of seventy divisions, calculating that its maximum strength would be reached during the third year of the war, when the enemy began to suffer from a reduction in its manpower. [2] In other words, briefed as he had been by the men who ran the Committee of Imperial Defence, Kitchener embraced the need for a long war. It would take time to train and arm an army of millions, which was the only way by which Germany could be definitively beaten. Yet, even these calculations were based on a crude estimate of available manpower, not strategic requirements. [3] Asquith had ruled out compulsory military service, anathema to Liberal thinking, so Kitchener took matters into his own hands.

The first call to arms in 1914.

He decided to expand the regular army by raising a new component – wartime volunteers. Each man was required to sign up for new ‘general service’ terms of three years or the duration of the war (whichever the longer). ‘Your King and Country need you: a call to arms’ was published on 11 August 1914. [4] It explained the new terms of service and called for the first 100,000 men to enlist. This figure was achieved within two weeks. [5] Kitchener’s recruitment scheme in 1914 was a resounding success. Alfred Leete’s famous cover picture of him pointing his finger over the slogan ‘Your Country Needs You” was a masterpiece of propaganda. [6] The recruitment poster became iconic. Margot Asquith, the Prime Minister’s wife is widely quoted as claiming that ‘if Kitchener is not a great man, he is at least a great poster’. He was of course aided and abetted by the Secret Elite’s propaganda campaign supported by the Church of England and  justified by the intellectual brigades marshalled in Oxford University.

Kitchener considered himself untouchable, and he was, certainly in the first year of the war when his position as Commander-in-Chief and Cabinet Minister made him pre-eminent. Men in the trenches carried his words with them in a printed address in their Active Service Paybook, ‘Do your duty bravely. Fear God and Honour the King.’ [7] They revered him even when he issued dire warnings about the consequences of troops catching venereal disease, as he had to his troops in India. [8] He in turn, took orders from no-one under the King, allegedly putting the Prince of Wales in his place when he tried to sneak up to the front line. Angry that Kitchener had banned his being anywhere near danger, the Prince confronted the Commander in Chief . ‘I don’t care if I get killed. I’ve got four brothers.’ Kitchener, with his accustomed disdain, put the young Royal in his place by retorting: ‘I’m not in the slightest worried about you being killed, Sir; what we cannot afford is to have you taken prisoner.’ [9]

And herein lay Kitchener’s critical worth to the Secret Elite. It mattered not whether the tale of the Secretary for War and the Royal Prince was true or apocryphal. Such stories emphasised his popularity. He was the commander. Kitchener’s presence in the public eye made war popular. He looked the part. His military record read like a roll-call of imperial victories. The essence of heroism washed over him. In an age before public relations, Herbert Kitchener was the dream-ticket. Richard Haldane, whom Asquith would have preferred as Secretary for War, could never have aspired to such popularity even had he not been dubbed pro-German by the press. Unfortunately for him, the Northcliffe press was rabidly anti-German and to have such a man as the most senior war office politician made little sense to the public. This may explain why Haldane, an  experienced and  faithful agent of the Secret Elite was literally abandoned by them.   Would he have had the stomach for the complete destruction of an enemy race from whom he had genuine sympathies? Herbert Kitchener was their preferred choice. He would be the Secretary of State who could promote a long and successful war to crush Germany and keep it popular.

Recruits flocked to join Kitchener's army.

But he was a qualified risk. In September 1914, Alfred Milner wrote to an army friend ‘I hope your Chief stands it well. We all depend on him and it is the greatest mercy that he is at the head of things.’ [10] This was true. Kitchener had dismissed any likelihood of a short war, had plainly stated that total victory would take time and unqualified effort. Victory would come at a cost. He connected with the nation in his appeal to raise a new army and stood apart from the politicians who placed their faith in democracy. But he also had enemies who wrote and spoke privately behind his back; enemies in the General Staff and in the Cabinet. The struggle in which Kitchener found himself embroiled was to be as all-embracing as that on the Western Front, but at the onset of war, he was the Ace in the pack.

Kitchener never quite grasped the concept of collective responsibility inside a British Cabinet. According to the diaries of Charles Hobhouse the War Office had been informed that the decision to finally dispatch every division of the BEF to France had been delayed because of Cabinet reticence despite Kitchener’s insistence, whereas in truth he had been given immediate and unquestioned approval was soon as he asked for it. [11] He kept his Cabinet colleagues ignorant of the true extent of war losses, but his early achievements outshone criticism. Voluntary recruitment was a staggering success, though its methodology was often questionable. [12] The immoral pressure from ‘The White Feather Girls’ [13] and the assaults from the pulpits on those who did not join up, remain largely forgotten. By January 1915, The Times declared that Britain was a nation in arms thanks to Kitchener and his portrait. [14] though in the House of Lords, complaint was voiced that he was ‘very economical in his information’ relating to certain theatres of war. [15]

Spectacular recruitment figures continued to enhance his reputation. 175,000 men volunteered in the single week ending 5 September; by the end of that month 750,000 men had enlisted. From August 1914 until June 1915, the average number of recruits ran at 125,000 per month. Two and a half million souls pledged their loyalty to the King through voluntary recruitment before it had to be replaced with compulsory service in March 1916. And here-in lay another problem. The existing military machine could not cope with these numbers. There were insufficient barracks, rifles, qualified sergeants to train the recruits or uniforms to clothe them. Yet Kitchener’s exhortation that ‘Your Country Needs You’ reverberated from street corners and station platforms. He agreed to the proposition to form ‘Pals’ Battalions’ which embraced young men from their employment, shipyards and coal mines, schools and transport companies, sports clubs and close communities. The great adventure on which these lads embarked in 1914 reaped a bitter harvest on the killing fields of Loos and the Somme. They were the cannon-fodder, sacrificed in useless attacks on well prepared defences. [16]

Kitchener made a point of inspecting his new armies as they marched off to war.

Critically, Kitchener associated himself absolutely with his men. They were his armies. Indeed the War Office code for the various intakes of recruits was K1, K2 and so on. [17] He made a point of inspecting each new battalion before it embarked for war. He considered it his duty to see them in person. No matter the weather conditions, there he was bestowing an almost apostolic blessing on the passing ranks. His pride in them was clear. His loyalty to them was reciprocated. His prestige brought into being the greatest volunteer force ever raised any country and each new parade added to his momentous prestige. [18] Yet his judgement, viewed from afar, was not without prejudice.

Kitchener backed a decision which was to hasten the ultimate division and separation of Ireland. There, the two tribes in Ulster and the South had built their own private armies, the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers, both formed to defend their respective stance on Home Rule. Though they were equally anxious to be embodied in the British Army, the Secret Elite and, in this instance, Kitchener himself, favoured the Ulster battalions. He accepted the Ulstermen as a unit and rejected the Home Rulers, refusing to allow them to form a discrete division. [19] If you consider the immensity of this decision and its political importance you will realise that Kitchener had to have been influenced by the Secret Elite.

Desperate to impress the British establishment that Ireland would play her part loyally in defence of Belgium, and concerned that she would be dishonoured if the Nationalists did not support the war against Germany, John Redmond, the leader of the Home Rule Party went to meet Kitchener at the War Office on 6 August, 1914. [20] His reception was cold and friendless. [21] No-one took up Redmond’s generous offer that his Volunteers should defend the island’s coasts and the first of many opportunities to treat Ireland with a new found confidence and respect was rejected. [22] Much more was to follow. The preferential treatment which the Ulstermen had always enjoyed from the British State continued to manifest itself.

Redmond inspects volunteer force, but Kitchener would not allow them to form a Division.

Prime Minister Asquith promised a new approach when he addressed a great rally in Dublin on 25 September. He declared: ‘We all want to see an Irish Brigade or better still an Irish Army Corps…’ [23] Clearly he had not discussed this matter with Kitchener who would not countenance a distinctive Irish division with its own badge and colours, based on the Irish volunteers. An official request from Redmond that at least one of these battalions be trained in Ireland to encourage recruitment and pride, was summarily refused. [24] Kitchener believed, as did the cabal which had pushed for his appointment, [25] that if the Volunteers were trained, armed and kept together in coherent units, there would be civil war once the crusade against Germany was over, with no advantage to Ulster. It was not the will of the prime minister which prevailed. These same arguments were not applied to Carson’s Ulster Volunteers. They were treated with distinct preference and in consequence the Ulster Volunteers metamorphosed into the 36th (Ulster) Division with their own distinctive uniform and badges. Not since Cromwell’s ironsides had a military force been united by such political unity and religious fervour. [26] It was a decision which rebounded on the British state in the years following 1916.

Kitchener with General Joffre at the Front. He enjoyed better relationships with his allies than some of his own commanders

Kitchener treated his military allies in France with much more balanced consideration than he ever demonstrated in Cabinet. When the leading British ministers met with their French counterparts at the first inter-allied conference in Calais in 1915, Kitchener alone was fluent in French. He dominated proceedings. The British Cabinet had previously decided that there would be no fresh initiatives on the Western Front until 1916 and, anticipating objections, were surprised that the French agreed. What they did not know was that Kitchener had fixed a private arrangement behind their backs with Joffre, based on French support for the attack on Gallipoli, so when the autumn offensive was approved in military circles, the cabinet was not informed.

Lloyd George became increasingly frustrated by the conduct of the War Office and its manipulation of fact and figures. Even Kitchener’s reports to the Cabinet about the progress of the war did not present a clear picture about what was happening. Kitchener’s distrust of politicians was such that, as Lloyd George put it, ‘his main idea … was to tell the politicians as little possible of what was going on and get back top his desk at the War Office as quickly as he could decently escape.’ [27] And this was essentially Herbert Kitchener’s drawback. Despite his immense value in promoting recruitment, he would not be controlled. He frequently knew more than his field commanders and had a better grasp of strategy. His natural prejudices against Irish Home Rule was in accord with Secret Elite thinking but he would not brook overt political interference with the War Office. That was to be a problem.

[1] Sir George Arthur, Kitchener, Vol III, p. 7.
[2] Ibid., p. 8.
[3] A.J.P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945, p. 47, footnote 3.
[4] The Times, 11 August 1914, p. 2.
[5] Army Order 324, dated 21 August 1914, then specified that six new Divisions would be created from units formed of these volunteers, collectively called Kitchener’s Army or K1. Subsequent increases were labelled K2/K3 and so forth.
[6] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 264.
[7] The Times, 19 August, 1914, p. 6.
[8] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 217.
[9] Max Arthur, Forgotten Voices of the Great War, p. 142.
[10] Arthur, Kitchener, Vol III, p. 13.
[11] Edward Davis, Inside Asquith’s Cabinet, pp. 188-9.
[12] A.J.P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945, p. 48.
[14] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 264.
[15] The Times, 7 Jan, 1915, p. 9.
[16] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, pp. 168-9.
[18] Taylor, English History, 1914-1945, p. 49.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Peter Simkins, Kitchener’s Army: The Raising of the New Armies, 1914-1916, pp. 113-4.
[21] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 272.
[22] Freeman’s Journal, 2 September 1914.
[23] The Times, p.10, 26 September 1914.
[24] Hansard House of Commons Debate, 18 October 1916, vol. 86 cc581-696.
[25] A.M. Gollin, Proconsul in Politics, p. 240.
[26] Howard Green, Kitchener’s Army, Army Quarterly, April 1966, vol LXXXXII, no.1, p. 93.
[27] David Lloyd George, War Memoirs, p. 51.

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener 2: The Icon And His Critics

This was the image of Kitchener which stirred public confidence in a long war.The first problem which the Secret Elite and their agents faced in bringing Kitchener into the Cabinet in August 1914 was that he was a serving soldier, not a politician. He did not take orders; he gave them. His appointment lent credence to the view that with his presence inside the Cabinet, Kitchener guaranteed the Liberal government ‘an aura of professional military competence which earned [them] widespread public approval.’ [1] The people in the streets and factories were delighted at his appointment. However, if any insider assumed that he would embrace the collective responsibility of cabinet membership, they were to be sorely tested. [2]

The second problem stemmed from Kitchener’s comparative lack of association with the military hierarchy which had been groomed at Camberley. [3] His world had been centred on the Empire. He was more at home as proconsul in Egypt or Commander-in-Chief in South Africa during the later stages of the Boer War, and again in India, [4] than in the confines of the War Office and the Cabinet Office. While Kitchener was hailed throughout Britain as a decisive and iconic figure, he had a more limited impact on his own staff. [5] Despite all of the careful preplanning carried out by the Committee of Imperial Defence and so clearly explained to Churchill, Lloyd George, Grey, Haldane and Asquith in 1911 [6] by Henry Wilson (at that point a General), the newly formed War Council [7] began to reconsider options. To Wilson’s horror they started to quibble over the number of divisions from the British Expeditionary Force which should be sent to France. He had assumed that the whole force would be sent immediately on mobilisation. That was what had been secretly agreed with the French army. The implications of failing to do so appalled him and he complained bitterly to senior military commanders, and prominent individuals like Leo Amery and Lord Alfred Milner, [8] both of whom were inner circle members of the Secret Elite.

If Kitchener required a quick lesson on how difficult rule by committee can be when strong-minded individuals feel the need to express contrary or optional views, this was a baptism of fire. The War Council could not decide where the BEF should be headquartered or how many division should be sent to France. Sir John French favoured switching headquarters to Antwerp rather than Maubeuge, as had been planned and agreed with the French army. Kitchener preferred Amiens, but wanted to have further intelligence from the French before settling the question. The meeting should have been held in Bedlam. Some War Council members thought that Liege was in Holland, not Belgium. In Henry Wilson’s view, they discussed strategy like idiots. It was, he rasped, ‘an historic meeting of men mostly entirely ignorant of their subject’. [9] And he included Kitchener in that wild generalisation.

Sir Henry Wilson

Every day of indecision was a day irrevocably lost to the advancing Germans. On 5 August a further War Council meeting took place at 10 Downing Street. [10] Kitchener had decided that two divisions from the BEF should be withheld to protect the east coast of Britain from German attack and Asquith approved the action. According to Henry Wilson, when the prime minister backed Kitchener in withholding two divisions, he was more concerned about internal disorder than invasion, fearing that ‘the domestic situation might be grave’. [11] He still had one eye on Ulster and knew that there was a sizeable opposition to war amongst some members of the Labour and Trades Union movement. Whatever the reason, Kitchener approved the sending of only four divisions [12], and eventually, after bitter argument on 12 August, agreed that the BEF Headquarters be established at Maubeuge. Later, historians claimed that Kitchener’s final decision was indeed fortunate. Had all six divisions been thrown at the German army in Belgium, losses would probably have been far worse and the whole British army destroyed. [13]

The personal relationship between Lord Kitchener and Brigadier-General Henry Wilson soured markedly when the Secretary of State for War discovered that Wilson had met with the French intermediary, General Huguet, informed him of current British thinking and allowed him to return to France without meeting Kitchener on 7 August. Wilson’s diary records a most acrimonious meeting at which he spoke his mind to Kitchener, insisting that he would not be bullied ‘especially when he [Kitchener] talks such nonsense as he did today.’ We have only his word on such insubordination. In Wilson’s eyes, Kitchener had ruined the carefully designed plans which had been agreed with the French army by diluting the BEF’s strength in France. [14] Consequently, relations between Wilson and Kitchener remained toxic for the first eight months of the war.

Wilson continually undermined Kitchener’s vulnerable position, isolated as he was in the War Office, criticising his ‘colossal ignorance and conceit.’ [15] The Imperial General Staff had decamped to France with Sir John French in overall command, Sir Archibald Murray as Chief of General Staff, Sir William Robertson as Quartermaster and Wilson himself, ‘reduced’, as he saw it, to Brigadier General of Operations. [16] After a personal protest, Wilson’s position was redefined as ‘Sub-Chief.’ [17] Such vainglorious emphasis on titles rather than substance revealed the near ubiquitous pettiness and conceit among the outdated, outmoded and, soon to be very evident, incompetent military hierarchy of the Roberts Academy. Kitchener was thus left isolated in London where a substantial power vacuum developed between the war planners (the General Staff in France) and the policy makers, essentially the Cabinet advised by Kitchener.

The retreat of the BEF from Mons in 1914 could have ended disastrously, but the fighting spirit of the men avoided a rout.

General Sir Henry Wilson had much deeper and more extensive roots within the Secret Elite than Kitchener could ever have appreciated and regularly sent private letters of complaint about the conduct of the war to his mentor and Secret Elite leader, Lord Alfred Milner. Within a week of crossing to France, Wilson condemned the ‘cowardly ignorance’ of his superiors in London – meaning Asquith and Kitchener. He blamed the retreat from Mons on the ‘initial blunder’ (that would be Kitchener’s blunder, approved by the prime minister) of depleting the BEF’s original strength by keeping two divisions in Britain. [18] Blaming others was a tactic repeatedly employed by Henry Wilson. Any military failure was always someone else’s fault.

Despite the criticism of disloyal colleagues, both in the military and the Cabinet, Kitchener had a far greater grasp of the prerequisites for warfare and the appropriate application of sound strategy than most around him. What did not help was his overbearing and dismissive manner. [19] He alone amongst the military hierarchy recognised that Britain had to be committed to a prolonged war.

Historians have glibly accepted the idea that Herbert Kitchener first began to consider the impact of war in Europe in the short days of August immediately before his appointment as Secretary of State for War. What nonsense. While in Japan on his world tour in 1909, Kitchener was joined by his old friend Henry Rawlinson who had served on his staff in Sudan and South Africa. He was informed of the secret arrangements for combined action between the British and French in the event of war with Germany. Kitchener did not like the arrangement because it meant being tacked-on to the French, which ‘might not suit’. [20] After a joint military and naval conference in Malta in 1912, he and Churchill ‘used to talk over Imperial Defence topics when from time to time we met.’ [21] Kitchener also discussed Germany’s likely strategy in Belgium with Winston Churchill on 28 July. [22] To suggest that he was ignorant of the imminence of war in August 1914 is completely at odds with the evidence.

Kitchener conversing with French Allies

While the German plans for defence, should they be attacked from east and west simultaneously, the Schleiffen Plan, was widely known throughout Europe, Schleiffen’s original designs had been refined over the previous decade. The advance of the whole first army through Belgium had not been envisaged by Wilson and his entourage. This concerned Kitchener. He correctly concluded that the German plan of attack was to sweep around Belgium north of the River Meuse – which was why he had deep reservations about placing the BEF headquarters at Maubeuge. For all the years of detailed preparations which Sir Henry Wilson had spent laboriously mapping and planning along the Belgian – French border, he had never considered that his small force would face the full might of Von Kluck’s 1st German army, nor spend the next three weeks in retreat, struggling to keep in touch with the disheartened French.

Indeed as a soldier experienced in several wars, Kitchener’s grasp of the immediate situation before him was far more circumspect than that of anyone at GHQ in France. [23] He was under no illusion that the Expeditionary Force was completely inadequate to the task of taking on the vast resources and overwhelming manpower of the German and Austrian forces. He saw that the small British force had little value as an independent unit and consequently it became an auxiliary wing of the retreating French army.

Sir John French

Kitchener’s fears proved justified. Sir John French, a commander whose enthusiasms plummeted between unbound optimism and deep despair, had to be commanded not to retire to Le Havre with the remnants of the BEF. Perturbed by his commander in the field’s intention to withdraw, Kitchener was immediately sent by a small coterie of the Cabinet, including Asquith, Winston Churchill and Lloyd George ‘to unravel the situation and if necessary, put the fear of God into them all.’ [24] With his mind already poisoned by the bitter Wilson, Sir John French took Kitchener’s presence as a personal insult. He was even more upset when Kitchener appeared in the uniform of Field Marshall. Jealous of Kitchener’s superior rank, political authority, linguistic skills (his fluency in French gave him an advantage in discussion with the French high command,) [25] Sir John French resented the Secretary of State for War with a vengeance.

All of which begs the question – why did the Secret Elite pursue his appointment as Secretary of State for War with such insistence? What did Kitchener possess which made him integral to the pursuit of a very long war?

[1] Hew Strachan, The First World War, Vol 1, p. 203.
[2] Keith Jeffery, Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, A Political Soldier, p. 132.
[3] Kitchener was an imperial soldier and proconsul. Several of his staff members during the Boer War served or commanded the Military Staff Training College at Camberley, but Herbert Kitchener was never one of Lord Robert’s entourage who dominated the upper echelons of the British army. He operated independently, and had his heart set on becoming the next Viceroy of India before war broke out. Thus he was an ‘outsider’ compared to the near masonic brotherhood which Roberts dominated inside his ‘Academy’. [ See Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the first World War, Chapter 15, p. 194 – 202.]
[4]  Strachan, The First World War, Vol. 1, p. 203.
[5] Jeffrey, Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, 132.
[6] Winston Churchill, World Crisis, pp. 38-9.
[7] For details see previous blog.
[8] A M Gollin, Proconsul in Politics p. 244.
[9] C E Callwell and Marshal Foch, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson VI: His Life And Diaries. p. 159.
[10] PRO CAB 22/1/1.
[11] Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock, H H Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 159.
[12] PRO CAB 22/1/2.
[13] John Terraine, Mons, p. 88.
[14]  Callwell and  Foch, Wilson Diaries:  p. 160.
[15] Jeffrey, Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, p. 133.
[16] Callwell and Foch, Wilson Diaries, p. 157.
[17] Jeffrey, Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, p. 132.
[18] Milner Papers held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, quoted in A M Gollin, Proconsul in Politics, p. 242.
[19] George H Cassar, The Tragedy of Sir John French, p. 252.
[20] George H Cassar, Kitchener, Architect of Victory, p. 160.
[21] Churchill, World Crisis, pp. 125-6.
[22] Ibid., p. 101.
[23] Callwell and Foch, Wilson Diaries, p. 161.
[24] Brock and Brock, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 213.
[25] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 310.

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener 1: The Man They Could Not Do Without

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.

John Buchan 4: A Troubled Legacy That Should Be Resolved

John Buchan poster. Note of these 4, Huntingtower was not a Hannay novel.Buchan’s fiction-writing about a world of spies and counter-intelligence was a reflection of his real-life experience, as was the South African background he gave to many of his heroes. It was based in fact laced with nostalgia and propaganda. There is no doubt that both directly and indirectly he was intent on winning the propaganda battle in the war against Germany, both at home and in America. He was after all Director of Information. Buchan had been approached by Charles Masterman, who was married to his wife’s cousin, to be part of the massive propaganda assault on Germany. It was a task he relished from his sick-bed in 1914 to his numerous post war publications. His world of fiction was sucked into the vortex of justification for Britain’s declaration of war and John Buchan’s eponymous creation, Richard Hannay, [1] became the ultimate hero of First World War espionage and counter-espionage. Hannay, as his invention, was the man Buchan wished he had been: a gentleman, the outdoor – type, at home in the Veldt and on the Scottish moors; honourable, an Empire loyalist and fighting soldier, who survived Loos, though wounded, and the hell that was the Somme. Richard Hannay was the boy’s own hero that Buchan never was. Oddly enough, though he never fired a rifle or fought in the trenches, Buchan ended the war with the rank of Colonel [2] while Hannay made it to Brigadier. [3]

Richard Hannay was, from the opening sentence of The Thirty-Nine Steps, ‘pretty well disgusted with life’ and had ‘got his pile’, as a mining engineer in South Africa. Looking for an adventure Hannay became engaged in a world of spies, of the looming danger of war in Europe and of German plots to destroy the British fleet. Buchan penned the ‘shocker’, as this short novel was them termed, while confined to bed in 1914. It was published in Blackwood’s Magazine in instalments between August and September 1915, and in book form in October. How many of us who read the gripping tale before we reached our teens realised that it was written as part of a propaganda campaign? And because of that, what influence did it have on our understanding of the causes of war? It is important to consider that question seriously. In 2014, The Thirty-Nine Steps was voted number thirty-two in the Guardian newspaper’s top one hundred novels written in the English language. [4] It is still read in innocence.

From within the text of a boys-own adventure, Buchan gave his hero knowledge of the coming war and occasionally betrayed information that had been openly denied in Parliament. Hannay, ‘just happens’ to meet a French Staff Officer on a boat coming back from West Africa who assured him that despite ‘all the nonsense talked in Parliament, there was a real working knowledge between France and Britain, and that the two General Staffs met every now and then, and made plans for joint action in case of war’. [5] By 1915, Buchan could dismiss the lies to Parliament about secret alliances which had been repeated by both prime minister Asquith and foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey from 1906-1914, with implied approval and acknowledged good sense. It was a subtle and clever move which presumed that by 1915, the reader would appreciate the value of senior elected politicians’ hoodwinking parliament.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was written as an anti-German spy thriller

A second theme which began in The Thirty-Nine Steps was that the old Liberal political thinking was ‘the most appealing rot’. When Liberals dismissed the “German Menace” and saw it as a Tory invention to cheat the poor and restrain the great flood of social reform, Buchan’s hero shook his head sadly. With that glorious strain of upper-middle-class superiority, Hannay dismissed the appeal for peace and reform with the patronising aside that ‘you could see the niceness of the chap shining out behind the muck he had been spoon-fed.’ [6] Later, the same Liberal character is described as ‘as good a chap as ever breathed, but his idiot of an uncle has stuffed his head with maggots’. [7] The propagandist view was that the well-intentioned, but fundamentally flawed pacifist and anti-war movement, was for the weak-minded. It was all part of the high-powered justification of the war. Consequently, a century later the unsuspecting reader receives biased views on the causes of the war expressed as truth, though the facts have been roundly criticised in the light of historic evidence, and does not realise that she or he is one more victim of propaganda.

His Richard Hannay novels offer a unique insight into the minds of the Secret Elite and their friends as the war progressed. In Greenmantle, (published 1917) enclosed within the dust-jacket of what was taken as fiction, he revealed the Foreign Office fixation with the Ottomans, the vast array of spies and business links that fed information to London and expounded the trusted views of the British Establishment. Thus the complex machinations behind British policy towards Turkey at the start of the war, where two dreadnoughts, built in Britain for the Turkish navy were commandeered, and the German battlecruiser Goeben, and light battlecruiser, Breslau, were literally shepherded into the Bosphorus to protect Constantinople from the Russians, is presented as how Turkey ‘had left the rails’; [8] not as part of an analysis on why Turkey had allied itself to Germany. The Young Turk leader, Enver, is described as a ‘Polish adventurer’, and his colleagues as ‘a collection of Jews and gypsies’ who took control of a ‘proud race’ by dint of German money and Germany arms. Racial and religious prejudice is excused today as ‘how it was’ without a blush of apology.

Buchan's thriller involved the threat of a muslim jihad inspired by Germany.

The over-riding theme was that a Jehad was in the offing and the wicked Germans were orchestrating evil. ‘Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other’. [9] Sadly Buchan would find many of his countrymen nodding in agreement at such stereotyping a century later. And what would be endangered was the British Empire; India, in particular. Readers were assured that ‘Germany’s like a scorpion: her sting’s in her tail and that tail stretches way down into Asia’. [10] In Mr Standfast, (published 1919) the real enemy is a German super-spy who is trying to influence the world toward a peace settlement which will end the war before Germany is crushed. But Buchan used the novel to attack anyone and everyone who stood against the war or argued for an end to the conflict. One older man was described as being ‘the sort who, if he had been under fifty, would have crawled on his belly to his tribunal to get exempted’. [11] When asked to play the role of a pacifist, Hannay ‘looked forward to it with naked shame’. Criticism of generals like Buchan’s friend from Oxford, Field Marshall Douglas Haig, was ‘idiotic’ and the critic was dismissed was an ‘honest crank’ who had somehow ‘lost his self respect.’ [12] This was the world of the ‘half-baked, the people whom this war hasn’t touched or has touched in the wrong way’. [13] And we read it as truth.

Like Milner, Buchan had an intrinsic faith in the soundness of the British working man whom he considered decent, loyal and sensible. He  made no detailed reference to the expendable nature of troops sacrificed by his employers at Loos or the Somme. The carnage and true horror of war was softened into warm words and platitudes which brooked no criticism of the military elite. This fondness for the stout hearted Tommy found expression both in his novels and in his historical works where he repeatedly stated that the war was won by the rank and file. [14] While he had no time for the philosophy of pacifism, and especially for the notion that the war should be brought to a peaceful end, Buchan expressed sympathy for certain individual pacifists who died in the fighting.

The cover from a more recent edition of Hannay novels presents the propaganda images well.

In Mr Standfast, the misguided Fabian, Launcelot Wake, finds redemption, [15] in Buchan’s eyes, by serving at the front as a non-combatant conscientious objector whose ‘only weapons … were his brains’. [16] Wake never fired a shot, but was invaluable in carrying vital messages between endangered wings of an assault. Even so, most of Buchan’s fictional heroes came from the ranks of privilege; from Eton, Oxford and the London clubs from where his lasting friendships emanated.

Was any other figure so magnificently placed to be a true and loyal servant of the Secret Elite? He literally chose who and what to include in his histories thus guaranteeing that the powers behind the decision-makers in government remained unnamed.

Professor Carroll Quigley explicitly placed John Buchan in the outer circle of Society of the Elect, the group whom we have expanded into the Secret Elite. [17] Like every other major contributor to the legacy of Rhodes and Milner, John Buchan received his due reward. As we demonstrated in our previous blog, after a relatively undistinguished political career as a Tory MP in the post-war period, Buchan was elevated to the peerage and appointed by a grateful monarch to be the Governor General of Canada in 1935. His qualification for the highly prestigious post as the King’s representative in the great Dominion was his service to the Empire’s cause. He was the right sort. He belonged to the secret cabal that held absolute power in the foreign office and the colonial office. His was a safe pair of hands.

But what of his propaganda? His prodigious histories of the war [18] are now largely ignored, and the suggestion that the concentration camps in South Africa were turned into health resorts, [19] conveniently forgotten. This has always been the establishment’s way of burying the truth; ignore it, even when it is a despicable lie. But his novels? They are still reprinted regularly in the twenty-first century, still promoted as adventure stories for, though not exclusively for, the younger reader. Richard Hannay in particular is the star of at least three films and an exceptionally funny stage play. At no point do the publishers or producers give warning that the content originated in war-time propaganda. But the notion that Germany caused the war, that ‘right-minded’ British and overseas soldiers fought for ‘civilisation’, that those who sought peace were somehow disloyal and weak-minded, pervades the novels, as secure in its rigid certainty as the Highland moors over which Buchan’s hero trod.

It’s time to come clean. This work is grounded in propaganda.  A century on, should our children not be made aware of the primary purpose of these novels?

[1] The Complete Richard Hannay Stories published as a Wordsworth Classic, is a compilation of all five Hannay adventures. The Thirty-Nine Steps, (1915) Greenmantle, (1916) Mr Standfast, (1919) The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (1936). The first three are riddled with war-time propaganda and written with this in mind.
[2] Kate MacDonald, Reassessing John Buchan, chapter by Hew Strachan, John Buchan and the First World War, p. 79.
[3] Ibid., p. 84.
[4] Robert McCrum, The Guardian, 7 July 2014.
[5] John Buchan, The Complete Richard Hannay Stories, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Wordsworth Classics, p. 38.
[6] Ibid., p. 43.
[7] Ibid., p. 71.
[8] Buchan, The Complete Richard Hannay Stories, Wordsworth Classics, Greenmantle, p.104.
[9] Ibid., p. 105.
[10] Ibid., p. 205.
[11]  Buchan, The Complete Richard Hannay Stories, Wordsworth Classics, Mr Standfast, p. 308.
[12] Ibid., p. 317.
[13] Ibid., p. 319.
[14] MacDonald, Reassessing John Buchan, chapter by Hew Strachan, John Buchan and the First World War, p. 84.
[15] MacDonald, Reassessing John Buchan, chapter by Nathan Waddell, Buchan and the Pacifists, p. 99.
[16] Buchan, The Complete Richard Hannay Stories, Wordsworth Classics, Mr Standfast, p.550.
[17] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 313.
[18] John Buchan wrote A History of the War published by Thomas Nelson from 1914-1918, A History of the Great War in four volumes, published in 1923, The Battle of Jutland, published in 1916, The Battle of the Somme, published in 1917, Britain’s war by land, published in 1915, Days to Remember,: The British Empire in the Great War, in conjunction with Henry Newbolt and published in 1922.
[19] John Buchan, Memory Hold The Door, p. 108.

John Buchan 3: Lies and Propaganda

John Buchan had known many of the prominent generals who held key commands during the First World War since his days in South Africa; Kitchener in particular. The Secretary of State for War had been ushered into post in August 1914, but was neither a team player nor a man to bow to the will of politicians. Many influential powerbrokers including Lord Northcliffe at The Times wanted him removed from office. Kitchener died onboard HMS Hampshire, an outdated pre-war battleship which had been selected to carry him on a mission to Russia in June 1916. Buchan noted that by 1916, how uncomfortable the minister for war was around politicians, and added ‘his friends were beginning to dread that a great career might close to an anti-climax, until in that June night when the Orkney seas put an end to such forebodings.’ [1]

The last picture of Lord Kitchener taken before he embarked for Russia on HMS Hampshire.

What an odd choice of words. Why the need for a metaphor? It wasn’t the Orkney seas that killed Kitchener; it was either a submarine or a mine or sabotage. But the Secretary of State for War was no more, to the relief of a great many men of power. Kitchener had served his purpose. Buchan wrote that ‘in a sense his work was finished, for more than any other man he had the credit of building up that vast British force which was destined to be the determining factor in the war.’ [2] That sentiment ended with what sounded like an epitaph: ‘His death was a fitting conclusion to the drama of his life’. [3] Such ready acceptance, such calm unemotional, carefully crafted words ring hollow. Kitchener had become more than an irritation to the same men who had, in 1914, urged him into power at the War Office.

They feared that he was losing his commitment. Kitchener, however, remained untouchably popular. He retained the complete confidence of the British public and the soldier in the trenches. The propaganda machine managed Kitchener’s death with sublime professionalism, framing his loss like the passing of an elderly sage whose days simply ran out. No beating of breasts or wailing and lamenting. When propaganda makes so great an effort to bury the dead quickly and quietly, the suspicion must remain that something more sinister lurks in the shadows. We will examine this further in future blogs.

Although Buchan’s autobiography is empty of meaningful reference to his intelligence or foreign office work, other sources help fill in some of the blanks. Clearly the official censor cleansed his memoirs as rigorously as he did Lloyd George’s and Sir Edward Grey’s. What we know for certain is that John Buchan moved in and out of all the centres of power; his own department, Downing Street, The Admiralty, the War Office, and even on occasion, Buckingham Palace. [4] He knew exactly what was happening. He had access to all of the first hand reports and evidence of spectacular failures. He was literally the insider’s insider. And herein lies the problem. He knew the truth and covered it up. John Buchan was the author, the historian, the propagandist, the intelligence officer, the Milner acolyte and the Secret Elite go-to man. It would be ridiculous to believe that he did not know what he was doing; that he confused his writing of history with his writing of novels about the war. He earned his money by peddling lies.

Mandel House (left) with President Woodrow Wilson (right)

Buchan met every foreigner of note who visited London during the crucial 1916-18 period. He knew that the Secret Elite’s inner-circle was operating and influencing events behind the scenes. He hinted of his privileged access to the real decision-makers, stating: ‘ I saw something of the veiled prophets who are behind the scenes in a crisis – Colonel House [5] and Lord Esher, [6] and especially Northcliffe’. [7] His conclusions were startling:

‘I saw at close quarters the intricate mechanisms which directed the War at home, one of the strangest mixtures of amateur and professional, talent and charlatanry, the patriot and the arriviste, which history has known, and behind it the dynamic figure of the Prime Minister, generating heat and somehow turning it into power.’ [8]

Tantalisingly he left it there. Or the censor did.

Furthermore there is an additional problem. John Buchan wrote his memoirs as if he was the observer of people and events, and not personally involved. The director of information did not meet and greet international visitors from America, the Dominions and indeed Russia, without judging their usefulness and their susceptibility to British influence or forwarding reports and making value judgements on how best they could be manipulated. In his reminiscences, Buchan is able to vaguely remember a dinner in the Spring of 1916 with guests such as the Secret Elite’s Arthur Balfour and representatives from the Russian Duma including Professor Pavel Milyukov, the Russian Foreign Minister in the provisional government of 1917. It was he who promised that ‘Russia would continue the crusade for annihilation of German militarism…. to prevent all possibility of war in the future.’ He failed. [9] His other Russian dinner guest was Alexander Protopopov, [10] the Minister of the Interior from 1916-17, whose friendship with Rasputin earned him imprisonment and a Bolshevik bullet. Not a word about their discussions, or indeed their subsequent fate. He had plenty of time to reflect on these events because his autobiography was not published until 1940. [11] Like many within the Secret Elite, Buchan had tales to tell that were buried with him.

Lloyd George (right) both as minister for war and prime minister, became much more 'hands on' and interventionist that his political predecessors.

One politician who was not impressed by John Buchan was David Lloyd George, who as prime minister, found himself hemmed in by Secret Elite personnel. Lloyd George took great exception to an account in Buchan’s  A History of the Great War which depicted a meeting between the prime minister and the French Commander-in-chief, General Nivelle in 1916. Buchan claimed that the prime minister ‘heard of Nivelle’s plan – limitless objectives, the end of trench fighting, victory within two days – and naturally fell in love with it.’ [12] Even in describing Buchan’s account, Lloyd George felt he had to rewrite it, accusing him of ‘lapsing into his fictional mood, giving a fanciful picture of my meeting with General Nivelle at the Gare Du Nord’ where, having heard of the Frenchman’s plans for the forthcoming offensive in 1917, ‘I instantly caught fire.’ [13] In fact John Buchan neither identified the Paris station nor used such florid language, but facts did not stop the Welshman putting Buchan in his place:

‘when a brilliant novelist assumes the unaccustomed role of a historian it is inevitable that he should now and again forget that he is no longer writing fiction, but that he is engaged on a literary enterprise where the narration is limited in its scope by the rigid bounds of fact. Had he taken the trouble to read the documents which were in the possession of the War Office, and therefore available to him, he would have known … that the Nivelle plan had been revealed to me by 25 December … that at the Rome Conference I had expressed my doubt about an offensive in France … and at the Paris station I had refused to discuss the plan … in the absence of Sir Douglas Haig. Three fundamental inaccuracies in a single sentence are not a bad achievement even for a writer who has won fame by inventing his facts. The real explanation is that Mr Buchan found it so much less troublesome to repeat War Office gossip than to read War Office documents.’ [14]

Neville Offensive 1917 also called the Battle of Arras, failed to achieve its aims.

Fact or fiction? Lloyd George’s own Memoirs fall into the same confusion at times. Truth to tell, Lloyd George had backed the wrong plan. The Nivelle Offensive failed miserably and the shattered French army was consequently riven by mutiny later that summer. [15] Clearly he had his own  personal axe to grind for he considered Buchan to be little more than Haig’s mouthpiece. [16] His unqualified attack on John Buchan’s professionalism and integrity was exceptional by any standards. The difference between the two as writers of ‘history’ was that Buchan was not attempting to glorify himself. He was attempting to protect his friends and acquaintances. If it was as Lloyd George claimed, ‘War Office gossip’, it  suited John Buchan and the Secret Elite to paint the prime minister  as the villain.

Simply put, Lloyd George didn’t much care for John Buchan and snubbed him at the end of the war by omitting his name from the honour’s list. Not that that in itself caused Buchan any disquiet. He had friends in high places who would deal with such matters in due course.

Propaganda was the work for which John Buchan should be remembered, not his novels and histories. A week after the Armistice in 1918, one of his departing colleagues summed up the importance of their labours: ‘Public opinion was undoubtedly influenced, we have proof upon proof of that. And public opinion just meant everything to the Allied cause. [17] A euphemism of course, for lying about those  who were sacrificed and to those who, having survived these terrible years, had to pay the cost of war.

After the war, Buchan was swiftly ensconced at Elsfield Manor some four miles from Oxford, and appointed to a minor post as Curator of the University Chest by Lord Curzon, Chancellor of Oxford University. From this vantage point, he was in a position to recognise and groom future Oxford luminaries who would be welcomed into the society of the elite. In 1927, Buchan accepted the Conservative nomination for a seat in Parliament representing the Scottish Universities, and the Church of Scotland appointed him to the the position of  High Commissioner in 1933 and 1934. Pleasant though this was, the post had no political importance, though as the King’s representative, Buchan was treated in royal style, living at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, holding garden parties and being addressed as ‘Your Grace’. [18] He clearly enjoyed this role, and took pride in being the first son of a Free Church minister to become High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland.

What made John Buchan’s next elevation to great office so remarkable was its unprecedented nature. No-one in the history of the British Empire had been raised from ordinary member of parliament and former High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland to Governor-General of the Dominion of Canada. Yet, astoundingly, this commoner, the first of his kind, was appointed by King George V to one of the truly significant imperial  positions in the British Empire. This was not the usual order of promotion. It was stellar and owed nothing to Buchan’s prowess as a writer.

The prime minister of Canada, W L Mackenzie-King, a man who greatly admired Alfred Milner, [19] advised the King on this pinnacle of Crown appointments, and John Buchan one of the Secret Elite’s most valued members joined the nobility as Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of the Militia and Naval and Air Forces of Canada. Honours dripped on his head in honied reward. In quick succession Buchan was made a Knight Grand Cross of St Michael and St George, Privy Counsellor, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Honorary Fellow of Oxford University and awarded nine honorary degrees from Oxford, Canada, America and his native Scotland. Eat your heart out, David Lloyd George.

These honours had nothing to do with writing novels. John Buchan had proved his worth to the Secret Elite with his loyalty to their aims, had won their trust and gratitude, and was placed at the heart of the Empire because of this. The propagandist was well paid. He still is.

[1] John Buchan, Memory Hold the Door, p. 173.
[2] John Buchan, Episodes of the Great War, pp. 246-7.
[3] Ibid., p. 247.
[4] Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan and his world, p. 65.
[5] Colonel Edward Mandell House was one of the most important powers behind the scenes in President Woodrow Wilson’s government. Mandel House was his appointed advisor on just about everything. Linked to the J.P. Morgan organisation in New York, House was an Anglophile American. He regularly visited London and was close to Sir Edward Grey, Arthur Balfour and the senior ranks of the Secret Elite.
[6] Lord Esher was a founder member of the secret cabal organised by Cecil Rhodes in 1891. He remained at the heart of the Secret Elite all of his life. As close advisor to the monarchy, including Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, he held a unique status. His permanent appointments included membership of the Committee of Imperial Defence.
[7] Buchan, Memory Hold the Door, p. 169.
[8] Ibid., p. 170.
[9] New York Times, 20 April, 1917.
[10] Buchan, Memory Hold the Door, p. 171.
[11] Memory Hold The Door was first published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1940. It might better have been entitled: selective-memory, hold the door.
[12] John Buchan, A History of the Great War, vol III, p. 436.
[13] David Lloyd George, War Memoirs, vol.1 pp. 886-7.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Kate MacDonald, Reassessing John Buchan chapter by Hew Strachan, John Buchan and The First World War: Fact Into Fiction, p. 77.
[16] Ibid. p. 83.
[17] Smith, John Buchan and his world, p. 68.
[18] Ibid., p.87.
[19] A.M. Gollin, Proconsul in Politics, p. 145.