War History: Was Lord Kitchener a truly great man. Or just an extraordinarily good poster?
PUBLISHED: 12:57 02 September 2014 | UPDATED: 12:57 02 September 2014
Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, looks at the story behind one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century
Last week I wrote about the men of the 2nd Battalion of The Suffolk Regiment and their costly rearguard battle at Le Cateau. The casualty figures incurred by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) continued to mount right through August 1914. It was a real cause for concern among senior Army commanders and at the War Office in Whitehall. Thankfully, in the weeks before the Suffolks made their stand at Le Cateau, planning was already progressing to recruit, equip and train a New Model Army of British citizens.
In the summer of 1914, with war clouds gathering ominously over Europe, Britain was without a Minister for War. The previous incumbent had resigned his post over the Curragh affair (linked to Irish home rule) and associated political issues.
Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had presided over the War Office as well as shouldering the responsibilities of office in 10 Downing Street. On the outbreak of war, Asquith quickly realised that a military heavyweight was required to take on the running of the War Office.
By chance, one of Britain’s greatest imperial heroes, Horatio Herbert, Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, was home on leave from Egypt. (The soldier had Suffolk links through mother Frances Anne Chevallier and the Aspall estate, near Debenham. He spent much of his leave from the army there − and, when made an earl, chose the title Earl Kitchener of Khartoum and Baron of Aspall. Kitchener would have Aspall Cyder shipped to India for his men.)
Kitchener immediately accepted the surprise offer and issued a prophetic warning to his fellow Cabinet ministers. He claimed war with Germany would be a long and bloody one lasting at least three years. He shocked the meeting further by adding that the effort to defeat Germany would need huge new armies, requiring Britain’s manpower “to the last million”.
The politicians were stunned by the bluff soldier’s gloomy prediction, but the old imperial warrior was correct. Britain and her empire faced the huge might of the Imperial German Army. The Kaiser had mobilised a staggering 850,000 soldiers; a further 2.9 million reservists in turn were reinforcing them!
The BEF was tiny in comparison: just 150,000 regular, reservist and Territorial Force soldiers were in the process of crossing the English Channel to face the German juggernaut.
Earl Kitchener was a celebrity of his time and his appointment added kudos to the recruiting campaign, regarded by many as dull and lacking in intelligence. He was absolutely correct in his assessment of the scale of the challenge posed to the British Army. He took a direct and energetic role in supervising the 1914-15 recruitment campaign, launching it nationwide on August 11, 1914.
Kitchener’s name featured prominently in the newspapers and speeches, and even his distinctive face had a part to play in filling the ranks.
Many readers will be familiar with the Kitchener poster that summoned Britons to join the ranks of the military in 1914. Today it is thought of as the single image that inspired millions of men from Britain and the empire to fight for their country.
The truth is that the poster that will forever be associated with the citizen soldiers who followed the Regular Army to France was published only on a small scale. Initially, its distribution was restricted to the environs of London.
Even more surprising, the glaring image of Kitchener was not part of the Government’s official recruiting campaign. In fact, the original version of the image was not even a poster; it was featured on the front cover of London Opinion magazine.
It was the magazine’s resident cartoonist, Oliver Leete, who came up with the eye-catching image for the cover of the magazine released on September 5, 1914. Within weeks the design, with revised wording, had been printed as a local recruiting poster and was to be found on the streets of London. However, numbers were small and only a single original poster survives in the Imperial War Museum today.
The poster remains an enduring image of the First World War and it has been copied by numerous nations for similar purposes since. It is also frequently seen today in the world of commercial advertising.
One of the main reasons for its appeal and effectiveness is Leete’s use of what is known as the “differential rotation effect”. Because of this, Kitchener’s eyes and his foreshortened arm and hand appear to follow the viewer regardless of their orientation to the artwork.
Whether or not the original poster was as widespread as today’s urban myth would suggest, the man himself made a significant contribution. In September, 1914, 462,000 men had joined the Army. By Christmas, the total of what was being referred to as the Kitchener Army numbered over one million men. This was a staggering achievement. Later in 1916, War Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey would say this of Kitchener:
“He had conceived and brought into being… a national Army capable of holding its own against the armies of the greatest military power the world had ever seen.”
In 1915, Kitchener’s reputation took a few knocks as a result of the failure of the Gallipoli landings and the scandal surrounding the great artillery shell shortage that year. Uncomfortable in the cutthroat world of intrigue and gossip associated with politics, Kitchener became weary and gloomy. In June 1916 he was despatched to Russia on a diplomatic mission. Sailing from Scapa Flow on board the Royal Navy Cruiser HMS Hampshire, it was to be the old soldier’s last mission.
In force 9 gales just off the Orkneys, the Hampshire struck a mine and sank in mountainous seas. Kitchener and 600 other crew members were drowned; his body was never recovered. An interesting fact to keep in mind the next time somebody tells you that First World War generals were never in danger or killed in action.
Both Kitchener and the recruiting poster divide opinion to this day; perhaps the most well known quote on the two subjects is attributed to Margaret Asquith, the acid-tongued wife of the Prime Minister: “If Kitchener was not a great man, he was at least a great poster.”