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The Death of Lord Kitchener


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Of all the disasters and tragedies of the Great War few spelt such sudden shock as the death of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, Secretary of State for War, builder of the immortal Kitchener's Army, a trusted and revered idol of the people in a world crisis that produced few leaders as strong, as capable and as inspired. Even in those dark days of 1916, when news of battle was a story of constant carnage, when death and destruction had become almost commonplace, the public were stunned to the point of incredulity by the announcement that this man of destiny, field-marshal and statesman, had met his end as decisively as any fighting man of the rank and file.

At a moment when they believed him to be active and safe in his office in Whitehall, he perished in the cruiser Hampshire off the desolate and storm-ridden coast of the Orkneys. Over 700 died with him. He was the only dominating world-figure of the Great War to be killed by the enemy, and by the irony of fate and the fortune of war the great soldier went to a sailor's grave.

Bound for Russia on a secret mission, Lord Kitchener left London on the afternoon of Sunday, June 4, 1916, from King's Cross. Included in his party were Sir Frederick Donaldson, General Ellershaw, his old friend Colonel Fitzgerald, officers, officials, servants and a detective. His last hours before duty called for the last time had been of exceptional tranquillity for one who lived and worked with such intensity, devoting his heart and energy and genius to his country's good. On the Saturday he journeyed down to his bachelor home, Broome Hall, where he spent the evening hours among the pictures and the china that he loved. Then, on the Sunday morning, rising early as was his custom, he walked with friends around his estate, little realising that never again would he see the broad, sweeping acres to which he had planned to retire when the fury of Armageddon had subsided.

When that tall, commanding figure stepped into the special train at King's Cross few who had not official sanction saw the last of the great soldier. Only a few days previously he had been severely criticised in the House of Commons for his methods at the War Office, methods with which all did not agree. Kitchener, being a peer and unable to appear in the Commons in person, let it be known that he would receive and answer his critics at the War Office. He did. Now he was never to be criticised or questioned again.

The train raced through a night of wind and rain towards Scotland - a gloomy prelude to the adventure. When Thurso was reached the weather was such as to leave no shadow of doubt that the passage to Archangel, the Russian port, would be a heavy one. Turbulent seas were running, but Kitchener, with typical nonchalance, at once boarded a destroyer for the short, preliminary trip to Scapa, where he boarded the flagship Iron Duke, to lunch with Admiral (later Lord) Jellicoe.

The vessel that was to convey the war leader to Russia was H.M.S. Hampshire, an armoured cruiser of 11,000 tons, launched in 1903, which could steam at 22 knots. Some argued, after the disaster, that Kitchener's precious life might have been entrusted to some more modern a craft. No particular reason appears to have been given for the selection of the Hampshire, but it may have been because of the fact that he made a previous voyage in the ship - on that occasion to Egypt.

"During the day," Jellicoe wrote of Kitchener's departure, "the weather at Scapa, which had been bad in the morning, gradually became worse, and by the afternoon it was blowing a gale from the north-eastward. It had been originally intended that the Hampshire should take the route which passed up the eastern side of the Orkneys, following the channel ordinarily searched by mine-sweeping vessels as a routine measure; but as the north-easterly gale was causing a heavy sea on that side, mine-sweeping was out of the question, and it was also obvious that the escorting destroyers could not face the sea at high speed. I discussed with my staff which route on the west, or lee, side would be the safest, and finally decided that the Hampshire should pass close inshore, and not take the alternative route, passing farther to the westward near the Sule Skerry Lighthouse."

Jellicoe decided on this route because, with a northeasterly wind, there would be less sea running, and the escort of destroyers would be better able to keep up with the Hampshire. He was also of the opinion that no enemy surface craft had been engaged in mine-layng on the route, because of the restricted darkness in these northern latitudes - scarcely more than two hours - and because it was constantly patrolled by Fleet auxiliaries.

Kitchener was wearing field-service khaki uniform when he went aboard the Hampshire. There were few formalities, and no unusual incident appeared to indicate that so historic a passenger had joined the ship's company. Jellicoe bade him farewell on the quarter deck. Then began the voyage that was to end so swiftly and disastrously. Although the Hampshire hugged the western shores of the islands for protection, she ploughed along at full speed, threshing her way with purpose through formidable seas. The escorting destroyers, however, were fighting a losing battle with the gale. Game as they were they could not make the pace. And finally, giving it up as a bad job, they returned to Scapa Flow.

It was between 7 and 8 p.m. that the Hampshire met her end. There was a sudden, convulsive explosion, the ship's lights went out below, the shuffle and clatter of feet on decks and companion ways merged with quick cries and commands, all against a background of surging storm, and there was all the stir and speed and action of disciplined sailors confronting an emergency.

Captain Herbert Savill, the ship's commander, was not long in realising that the Hampshire was doomed, and orders were given to prepare to abandon ship. Sailors raced from below to their stations. Many of them were half-naked, having jumped from their hammocks at the first sound of the explosion. Four boats were lowered, but were as quickly pounded to pieces by the ferocious seas. Circular rafts, very much like huge lifebuoys, were then lowered, laden with men who gripped them with the desperation of the last hope. Others, in a wild gamble with chance, cut the lashings of the pinnaces carried by the Hampshire, in the hope that they would be carried off as the ship sank. Instead as the vessel's stern rose high in the water, boats, deck fittings, guns and men were thrown together in a fatal confusion.

The Hampshire turned a complete somersault and went down by the head in less than fifteen minutes. A huge proportion of the crew vanished into the vortex. Those who attempted to swim ashore were battered and defeated by the violence of the gale. Even on the rafts life was precarious. More than once they turned turtle, and many died of exposure. A shipwreck in mid-ocean could not have provided a more terrible ordeal than this sudden disaster to the Hampshire so close to the land. Even to reach the shore was not necessarily to escape destruction. At the point where the rafts grounded the cliffs rose to a height of something like seventy feet. The rocks below were fierce and craggy. When the bruised, tired, sodden survivors dragged themselves from the waves they fought like fiends to win a hand-hold or a foot-hold. Later, when some seventy or eighty bodies were found lodged in the cliffs, it was discovered that a number of the men had lost all their finger and toe nails in that awful struggle for life.

How did Kitchener, veteran of wars and maker of armies, face this strange fate in the teeth of a gale at sea? There is evidence to show that he did not flinch, that he endured the suspense and threat of those last minutes aboard the Hampshire with that same fortitude with which he had so often in the past faced enemies more familiar and understandable to a soldier than shipwreck and the boiling surf.

At the time of the explosion he was either reading or talking quietly in the captain's cabin, and immediately after the shock had registered he proceeded calmly to the quarterdeck. And there he stayed, still in his field-service khaki, a brave and dignified figure, making no attempt to save himself. A man of solid and irrevocable decisions, a realist and a logician, he doubtless knew that his life was forfeit. For his courage and calm we have the word of Leading Seaman Charles Walter Rogerson, one of the few survivors: "Lord Kitchener went down with the ship," he said. "He did not leave her. The captain was calling to him to go to a boat, but owing to the noise of the wind and the sea being so loud he could not, apparently, hear him." He saw Kitchener coolly walking up and down the deck in conversation with two of his officers. They were not in the least perturbed.

"I got away on one of the rafts," continued Rogerson, "and we had a terrible five hours in the water. It was so rough that the sea beat down on us, and many men were killed by the buffeting they received. Many others died from the fearful cold. I was quite benumbed. An almost overwhelming desire to sleep came upon us, and to get over this we thumped each other on the back, for no man who went to sleep ever woke again. When men died it was just as though they were going to sleep. One man stood upright on a raft for five hours with dead lying all around him. Another man died in my arms. As we got near the shore the situation got worse. The wind was blowing towards the shore, and the fury of the sea dashed our raft against the rocks with tremendous force. Many were killed in this way, and one raft was overturned three times. I do not know quite how I got ashore. All the feeling had gone out of me."

First Class Petty Officer Wilfred Wesson, who was also among the survivors, gives a dramatically simple account of how he saw Kitchener towards the end. "While the watch below were standing by their hammocks ready to turn in, an explosion occurred. I was on the mess deck at the time. When the explosion occurred all the lights immediately went out and a terrible draught came rushing along the mess deck, blowing the men's caps off. While I was waiting with the others on the half-deck an officer came with Lord Kitchener from the captain's cabin. He called out, 'Make room for Lord Kitchener!' and the men opened out to let Lord Kitchener pass."

The official version of the disaster, following the limited investigation that followed, adds little to the story. "The Hampshire" it said, "was proceeding along the west coast of the Orkneys; a heavy gale was blowing, with the seas breaking over the ship, which necessitated her being battened down. Between 7.30 and 7.45 the vessel struck a mine and began at once to settle down by the bows, heeling over the starboard before she finally went down fifteen minutes after. Orders were given by the captain for all hands to go to their established stations for abandoning ship. Some of the hatches were opened, and the ship's company went quickly to their stations. Efforts were made without success to launch the boats, one of them being broken in half during the process and her occupants thrown into the water. As the men were moving up one of the hatchways to their stations Lord Kitchener, accompanied by a naval officer, appeared. The latter called out, ' Make way for Lord Kitchener,' and they both went up on to the quarter-deck. The captain called out to Lord Kitchener to come up to the forebridge, near where the captain's boat was hoisted; he was also heard calling for Lord Kitchener to get into the boat."

The first news to reach London was the following terse communique from Jellicoe: "I have to report with deep regret that H.M.S. Hampshire (Captain Herbert Savill, R.N.), with Lord Kitchener and his staff on board, was sunk last night about 8 p.m. to the west of the Orkneys, either by a mine or a torpedo. Four boats were seen by observers to leave the ship. The wind was N.N.E. and heavy seas were running. Patrol vessels 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 the present. As the whole shore has been searched from the seaward, I greatly fear that there is little hope of there being any survivors. No report has yet been received from the search-party on the shore."

Jellicoe, who had shaken hands with Kitchener and wished him God-speed only a few hours previously, who knew that the Navy had been the guardian of this precious life, must have been deeply affected by the tragedy, but his dispatch was completely devoid of emotion. No one knew better than he that this bare statement without colour, drama or eloquent regret, would alone suffice to impart the dread significance of the catastrophe. Nor had he much to add in the light of later developments. The "four boats" seen by the observers on the shore were obviously the ill-fated rafts, and in the end only a dozen men survived to tell fragmentary stories of the disaster.

In view of Kitchener's unique position, and the confidence reposed in him by the great masses of the people, with whom he was a popular and almost legendary figure, the tragedy might well have been a serious blow to the morale of the country. In those mid-war days a rigid censorship existed. Blue pencils at the Press Bureau scored out unpleasant history with facility. The Press was handcuffed to the Government. Parliament was gagged. Those in authority were undoubtedly nervous of the effect the news would produce on both the people and the fighting forces, but it was obviously useless to unduly postpone publication. The people were told.

Those whose memories, of 1916 are still unfaded know how acute was the shock to the country. Kitchener drowned - a field-marshal lost at sea! The idea seemed preposterous, a figment of melodrama as hard for intelligent people to believe as the silly rumour of Russian troops passing through England with the caked snow still on their boots. But incredulity as quickly turned to realisation and grief. Dark as were those war-time days, the gloom was intensified by the death of one whose courage and vision and purpose had become so firmly interlocked with the nation's life.

Yet somehow, in the eyes of millions, there was an absence of finality about this disaster to the great soldier and leader. They felt not so much a loss as a strange sense of frustration. The vision of this tall, handsome, dynamic man of action who had called the nation's manhood to the Colours, was engraven deeply on their imagination. His magnetic eyes and pointed finger still sprang from the hoardings. The strength of his personality and the vigour of his patriotism had cast a spell. In those days of death he had been so very much alive. There was no body to bury in the crypt of St. Paul's beside the nation's immortal warriors, no cavalcade of mourning to wind through the streets of the capital. There was nothing left but the "Last Post." And even when the trumpets sounded this to his memory and honour in the Cathedral, in the presence of the King he had served with such immaculate devotion, many still felt an uneasy surge of doubt and suspicion.

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