Historical Notes- Kitchener: monster or misunderstood?

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The Independent Culture
ONE HUNDRED years ago today the great battle of Omdurman avenged General Gordon, destroyed a tyrannical regime and gave the Sudan 60 years of peace and prosperity - the only long period of peace it has ever known. A comparatively small force of British, Egyptians and Sudanese "friendlies" had been brought up the Nile by Maj-Gen Sir Herbert Kitchener. Near the ruins of Khartoum, a huge mass of Sudanese Dervishes flung themselves at the Anglo-Egyptians and would have overwhelmed them had not Kitchener brought Maxim machine-guns which wrought terrible slaughter. The battle is remembered most for the Charge of the 21st Lancers.

Kitchener, now Lord Kitchener of Khartoum ("K of K"), then personally laid down the principles by which the Sudan was governed for the benefit of the people. He became the hero of the British nation and even more so in 1902 when he returned as victor of the South African War. His immense prestige gave him the power in 1914 to issue the famous call "Your Country Needs You" and to raise a New army of a million men. Kitchener's army was the key factor in our winning the First World War, a victory he did not live to see: he and his staff had been drowned when HMS Hampshire struck a mine in 1916.

In the past half-century this great man's reputation has been traduced. A false picture became accepted but now must be scrapped. The royal archives and many other fresh sources have disclosed unknown details of his extraordinary story and revealed his true character.

He was not brutal, nor had a defeated Dervish general lashed as he marched: that myth is demolished by a sketch in a letter written that very day. He looked rather cruel but only because of a war wound which also exaggerated a slight squint: he had poor eyesight which he tried hard to disguise.

Painfully shy and reserved, and loathing personal publicity, he was often misunderstood. He could be brusque and ungracious and ruthless with inefficiency or laziness. But underneath lay a warm heart, moved by a deep Christian faith which made him specially concerned for the poor.

He was very careful of his men's lives. He had an amazing gift for seeing ahead, incredible patience and thoroughness and a prodigious memory for facts and figures. On campaign he was rather too much inclined to do everything himself. He had plenty of humour when among friends and was so adored by his personal staff that some later commentators suspected wrongly that he was a covert homosexual.

Kitchener's record is marred by the high death roll among Boer women and children in the camps which were made necessary by the scorched-earth policy forced upon him. As commander-in-chief he must bear blame, just as Mountbatten bears blame for the far higher death roll at the partition of India, but the insanitary habits of the Boer women formed the primary cause of the epidemic. Rather than labelling Kitchener a monster the modern Afrikaner should honour him for the generous peace which ended the war, a peace of reconciliation and rebuilding which Kitchener forced through in the teeth of a British Cabinet which wanted unconditional surrender and a vindicative peace.

Years later, after he had saved Britain from defeat in the First World War and become the architect of victory, his great ambition was to be also the architect of peace, a peace of reconciliation. Instead, the vindicative Treaty of Versailles provoked the Second World War. Had Kitchener lived, the war of 1914-18 might indeed have been "the war to end all wars".

John Pollock is the author of `Kitchener: the road to Omdurman' (Constable, pounds 20)