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The Death of Lord Kitchener page 2


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The whispering campaigns that had begun matured into wild and irresponsible allegations. It was known that Kitchener had his critics, if not his enemies, here at home - that not all of those associated with him in the conduct of the war were in accord either with his theories or his actions. There was much in the character of Kitchener that was dictatorial. He was resentful of interference, chary of advice, almost intolerant of criticism. He probably offended colleagues and made mistakes, as any other human being would have done if called upon to shoulder the burden of the War Secretaryship at such a time, and there were undoubtedly those who desired him out of office.

History has still to show, however, that there was any vestige of truth in the rumour that Kitchener had been deliberately sent not to Russia but to his death. That it gained both sympathy and circulation is true, but there is not a fragment of evidence to vindicate it. The almost childish allegation was that news of the great man's departure had been allowed to reach the enemy, with the result that the Hampshire was torpedoed by a German submarine, and Kitchener died a scapegoat hero. There was no question, said the gossips, of the cruiser having been mined, and, to make more certain of the disaster, the escort of destroyers had been withdrawn.

It was as pretty a scandal as the history of the Great War can show, born of the nervous tension of the times. To this must be added the fact that many had gradually come to realise the extent to which the truth was being hidden and distorted in all matters pertaining to the events and conduct of the war. It was understandable, therefore, that they should imagine that there was "something fishy" about the Hampshire disaster, and these suspicions were heightened by the knowledge that criticism of Kitchener - and, indeed, open attacks - had been increasing. Finally, they were reluctant to believe that Kitchener would ever have been allowed to perish while in the custody of the British Navy.

There was another amazing theory prevalent at the time. According to other poor deluded patriots Kitchener was not dead at all - that he had been captured from the sinking Hampshire by the crew of the submarine which had sunk her, and was being held a prisoner in Germany. This, they said, would account for the fact that no trace of his body had ever been discovered.

These, then, were the two equally wild schools of opinion among the whisperers. The one holding that Kitchener had been betrayed and was dead; the other that the enemy had succeeded in their plan to capture the British keyman, and that after the war was over he would make a dramatic reappearance in his native land. The folly and futility of both is apparent in the true light of the facts. Kitchener's end was tragic, and it was lamentable, but there was nothing treacherous about it. The very worst that can be said in honesty is that there may have been among those in authority some who felt secretly that the loss of the Hampshire had solved a difficult problem.

In the first place, Kitchener himself had been] anxious to reach Russia, where he hoped to bolster up the faltering resistance of Britain's eastern ally. Moreover, he went at the pressing personal invitation of the Tsar, so soon to be overthrown and murdered. Already the Imperial Throne was rocking badly. The Russian people were restive, angry, war-weary and flirting with savage and revolutionary plottings. Rasputin, the evil "monk," was up to every kind of sinister mischief. German money and propaganda were undermining even Court circles. The Services were increasingly corrupt. Kitchener's task was to see what could be done to strengthen the Eastern Front, where collapse would mean the release of German troops and guns to reinforce the enemy's power and position in the West. It was an errand of tremendous importance to the allies. Whether it would have succeeded, whether Kitchener could have delayed or stopped the Russian decay is a matter for speculation. No one else succeeded.

Secondly, in the heavy seas that were running at the time, no submarine could possibly have made a successful torpedo attack on the Hampshire, nor would have attempted it, even if they had known of its whereabouts. The Germans themselves are the first to admit that the Hampshire was sunk by one of their mines, and that, so far as they are concerned, the death of Kitchener was a matter not of strategy but of luck.

The British Grand Fleet was lying in Scapa Flow. The Germans would have been sadly lacking in enterprise and war sense if they had not taken the opportunity, when they could, of mining the surrounding waters. They were not. A certain number of mines were laid around Scapa by submarine, and it was against one of these that the ill-fated Hampshire struck. The name of the German officer responsible has been given officially as Lieutenant-Commander Beitzen. He had carried out the work a few days before the Battle of Jutland, and there is no evidence of any sort to prove that the enemy had been aware in advance of Kitchener's voyage, and certainly not of the course the Hampshire would take.

Again, the suggestion of a torpedo attack is completely refuted by Admiral von Scheer in these words: "One of our mine-layers, occupied in laying mines off the Orkney Islands, achieved an important success. The English armoured cruiser Hampshire (11,000 tons) struck one of these mines on June 5 and sank. With her perished Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener and all his staff."

Any such voyage as this undertaken by Kitchener was bound to have its perils. It was active service, and he took the risks of active service. Jutland, although not exactly a glorious victory, had proved that Britain was still dominant on the seas, but mines and submarines were still a menace not to be discountenanced. Those responsible for Lord Kitchener did, however, take satisfaction in the fact that the weather was hostile to U-boats. Thus Lieut.-Commander Beitzen's mine did what the whole German Fleet could not have done. It was unplanned, but it was devastating.

Many tributes were paid to Kitchener after he had gone. King George V. issued the following message to the Army: "Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener gave forty-five years of distinguished service to the State, and it is largely due to his administrative genius that the country has been able to create and place in the field the armies which are to-day upholding the traditional glories of our Empire. Lord Kitchener will be mourned by the Army as a great soldier who, under conditions of unexampled difficulty, rendered supreme and devoted service both to the Army and the State."

Press and Parliament and people, and the peoples of the British Commonwealth embalmed his memory with sincere and honest adulation. Even in foreign lands they praised his courage and loyalty and genius. One such country said of him: "A veritable symbol of Britain's varied power, the stoutest heart, the most untiring energy and the manliest will in England." And in the hour of disaster he died as he had lived - bravely, breast forward to adversity.

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