Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman, September 1898
During a tense meeting on the Nile (dubbed the ‘Fashoda Incident’ by Britain’s press) Kitchener convinced the French commander to accept that the British-led Egyptian Army had reimposed its control over Sudan, while avoiding bloodshed. K allowed the French to save face by continuing to fly the tricolour over their post at Fashoda, beside the Egyptian flag, while diplomats in France and London contrived a graceful climb-down.
His victory made him a household name in Britain, a suitable idol for an epoch when science and industry marched relentlessly forward. ‘His precision is so inhumanly unerring,’ wrote G.W. Steevens of the Daily Mail, that ‘he is more like a machine than a man. You feel that he ought to be patented and shown with pride at the Paris International Exhibition. British Empire: Exhibit No. 1 hors concours, the Sudan Machine.’ But the reputation for efficiency had acquired, as its flipside, one for brutality. Shortly after capturing Omdurman, he ordered the Mahdi’s tomb destroyed and had his bones scattered. This act, deemed by many to have been one of ‘Oriental’ cruelty, even upset Queen Victoria
Early in 1899, Kitchener was made Governor General of Sudan, with a mission to rebuild the country and expunge all vestiges of the Mahdist state. Lord Cromer offered some words of advice that show pretty clearly what he considered to be the strengths and limitations of the ‘Sudan Machine’:
In the first place, pray encourage your subordinates to speak up and to tell you when they do not agree with you. They are all far too much inclined to be frightened of you. In the second place, the main thing in civil and political life is to get a sense of proportion into one’s head, and not to bother about insisting on every particular view as regards non-essentials . . . In the third place, pray keep me informed and consult me fully. A secretive system will not work so well in civil as in military matters.
Kitchener’s rule was short lived (he soon handed the reins to Wingate) but established a stable and reasonably enlightened period for Sudan. The British popular demand for progress was satisfied by banning slavery and allowing foreign businessmen into the country. He wisely prevented Christian missionaries from getting to work soon after the guns fell silent, made sure that the government built municipal mosques (banning private ones, where sedition might be preached) and invested enormous efforts in education.
The conquest of Sudan, while undertaken during the Great Power carve-up of Africa, represents a fascinating chapter in light of the current confrontation between the West and Arab militants. Sudan under the Mahdi and Khalifa was, after all, the first example of a militant Islamic theocracy in modern times. In certain respects the lessons learned then are clearly not applicable today: few opponents would ever be as rash as the Khalifa’s generals in throwing away the lives of so many devoted followers in a ‘stand-up fight’; Victorian public opinion was ready to accept Kitchener’s crushing use of force; and satellite TV was not there to inflame the passions of the worldwide Muslim ummah or community.
However, some features of Kitchener’s campaign are worth remembering now, and indeed give it a meaningful legacy. First, Britain was prepared to wait many years to strike against the Mahdists, during which time the clerics alienated their people with shocking abuses of power (Wingate claimed 8 million Sudanese perished in the fifteen years between Gordon’s arrival and Omdurman). Second, these years were used to make careful military preparations and to develop an extensive network of spies, ensuring plentiful intelligence once the 1896 campaign was launched. Third, those entrusted with leadership of the mission were men who had given a great part of their lives to understanding the Arabs and Islam. Fourth, the Anglo-Egyptian Army concentrated overwhelming force. Finally, the overall direction of the campaign was in the hands of diplomatic/political authority (Lord Cromer in Cairo) rather than orchestrated by the usual military chain of command.
So, in his forties, Kitchener had made a mark on history. But it was not his last, nor even his most significant legacy.
When the general’s train pulled in at Harrismith on 26 February 1902, his staff followed a well-rehearsed routine. The locomotive drivers let great clouds of steam escape as they cooled their engine. His bodyguard of Cameron Highlanders came clattering down the steps of their carriage, fanning out across the sidings into positions of all-round defence. Officers of K’s staff prowled the platform, telling anyone who might fancy a photograph of the great man that their film would be confiscated if they tried. Then the general emerged, a big figure swathed in khaki, exchanging terse greetings and a swift salute as he moved to his charger and mounted up.
Captain Frank Maxwell, a cavalry officer in his early thirties who had won the Victoria Cross saving some horse artillery from the Boers two years before, was one of those who made up the small mounted party. Kitchener called him ‘the Brat’, but the young cavalier, who lived up to the gentlemanly ideal of sportsman, took it in good part. Maxwell had met his boss in South Africa just over one year earlier. Like many who had not been at Omdurman, the captain had been influenced by K’s public image, the purple prose of the popular press and talk of the ‘Sudan Machine’.
Although initially in awe of his general, Maxwell evolved ways of teasing Kitchener that almost no other officer dared. The general’s nickname suggested a fatherly love for him. Whether Kitchener, who never married, was homosexual, as some historians have suggested, is unclear. It is true that he was more or less engaged to the daughter of a general as a young man (she died before they could marry), but also that bar-room gossip held he had picked up the ‘taste for buggery’ apparently common in officers serving in Egypt in the 1880s. There is no conclusive evidence — only that he seems to have channelled a great deal of his aggression into his work, and he was a Christian as well as a Freemason who espoused a great belief in chastity.
Maxwell was charmed by the more human side of the man, telling his father, ‘K is not the purposely rough-mannered impolite person those who have never seen him suppose. He is awfully shy, and until he knows anyone his manners — except to ladies — are certainly not engaging.’
Maxwell, Kitchener and the others set spurs to their horses and rode away from the railway line, out into the great veld, languishing in the torpor of a southern summer, to watch the British Army at work. On they rode into the landscape with features framed in farmer’s Dutch — kraals, kopjes and kops — towards a great mountain called the Platberg. When they reached its flat top, more than 1,000 feet above the plain, they took a moment’s rest and then began to survey one of Kitchener’s grand designs. ‘We had the most glorious and extended view,’ Maxwell wrote home to his father: ‘the scene was a wonderful one.’ The general’s party looked to the north, watching British mounted infantry and footsloggers ‘crawling about like ants’, moving across country in the direction of a line of fortified outposts, blockhouses. They were scouring the veld, stripping away its cattle, wagons and people, while forcing any Boer rebels to flee towards the blockhouses, where the troops inside could open up with all manner of weapons.
Kitchener had arrived in South Africa early in 1900. Initially, he had played second fiddle to Field Marshal Lord Roberts, the two ‘heroes’ of the Victorian army having been sent out to steady the situation after the Boers had run rings around the British Army during 1899. Kitchener himself had mishandled his one set-piece battle (Paardeburg) in command of the new army, leading to high casualties.
The origins of this conflict lay in the struggle for control of two republics where farmers of Dutch descent formed the majority (Transvaal and the Orange Free State) and for the wealth (including gold) that could be found there. Roberts brought substantial reinforcements into the fight, drove off the Boer field armies besieging outlying British garrisons and eventually took Pretoria, the rebel capital.
In October 1900, writing to Queen Victoria, Kitchener rashly predicted, ‘The war is almost over.’ But attempts to negotiate an end to hostilities dragged on without result, not least because British politicians, feeling the need to justify the war to a public rankled by the army’s initial poor showing, tried to insist on punitive peace terms. Late in 1900, Roberts left and Kitchener was appointed Commander-in-Chief in a war that was rapidly evolving. The enemy field armies, with their excellent long-range artillery, were being scattered, and instead British outposts or supply trains found themselves under attack from flying columns of anything from a few dozen to 1,000 mounted Boer commandos. These guerrilla parties waged hit-and-run raids, acting with aggression and, usually, sound tactical judgement.
Kitchener initially found himself bewildered by this type of warfare. Those who consider him stupid can cite as evidence a comment he made in a letter to a close friend’s sons, in which he protested, ‘The Boers are not like the Sudanese who stood up to a fair fight. They are always running away on their little ponies.’ How anyone could have seen Omdurman as a fair fight or the Boer tactics as anything other than canny under the circumstances almost defies imagination. Evidently, K was a paragon of Victorian values, admiring the ‘pluck’ of the Dervish and disdaining the ‘skulking’ inherent in guerrilla warfare. But, although his intellectual horizons were undoubtedly limited, he was not a fool and soon set about designing a solution to the problem of the Boer commandos that would be both innovative in conception and disturbing in execution. Kitchener the machine examined every aspect of the problem and determined to crack it.
The key to defeating the insurgency was to deny the commandos sanctuary. Since the Boer system involved farmers taking their turns at military duty before returning to their homes, Kitchener’s plans necessitated waging war on the entire society. Railways were the key to strategic movement, so a programme of building blockhouses to defend the lines started in January 1901. From these trunks, branches, similar chains of outposts, were extended along certain roads or rivers, criss-crossing the areas of Boer settlement. Manning these positions would soak up vast numbers of infantry, but Kitchener had no shortage of men, with more than 200,000 troops under his command. A large proportion of the army consisted of cavalry and mounted infantry, and as 1901 progressed brigade-sized columns of them were used increasingly in drives, acting as a hammer, to strike the Boers against the anvil of fortified lines. It was usually called the ‘blockhouse and drive’ strategy.
Kitchener’s flying columns did not just engage enemy combatants, though. They removed the commandos’ means of subsistence, and that often meant uprooting whole communities. Roberts had begun the burning down of farms in reprisal raids, but under his successor such tactics became systematised. These women, children and old folk, ‘internees’, were put in camps, and as the 1901 campaign progressed they became a source of increasing political difficulty for the government. The fact that the internees received fewer rations than those designated ‘refugees’ (usually English-speakers displaced by the conflict) rapidly led to accusations that food was being used as a weapon, and even that Kitchener wanted to wipe out the Boers.
A visit to South Africa early in 1901 by Emily Hobhouse, a churchman’s middle-aged daughter with a passion for human rights, triggered a series of Parliamentary debates. ‘The atmosphere was indescribable,’ she wrote after venturing inside the tents at Bloemfontein camp. ‘The ration . . . did not come up to the scale, it became a starvation rate.’ When she saw destitute Boer families huddled in cattle trucks on a railway siding during one of Kitchener’s drives, she wrote that she had witnessed ‘war in all its destructiveness, cruelty, stupidity and nakedness’.
These dispatches excited to action MPs who were already calling Kitchener’s laagers ‘concentration camps’. The term — picked up from Spanish usage in 1890s Cuba — has assumed a completely different meaning since the Nazi era, of course, but at the start of the century the government’s critics felt that the high death rates occurring through disease and malnutrition were a stain on national honour. ‘I think I shall have a hot time,’ the Secretary of War wrote to Kitchener in March 1901 after some turbulent scenes in Parliament. He asked the general to ‘tell me all that will help the defence’. Kitchener couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, a response that led quite a few in Whitehall to conclude that he was politically clueless.
In truth, the landscape of power in London had changed significantly during Kitchener’s long years of foreign service. Reforms in 1890 and 1895 had established firm political control over the army. The soldiers were still represented on a War Office Council, where they might advise their civilian masters, but under Lord Salisbury’s government this body was rarely called together. The hegemony of ministers had been strengthened further by steps to reduce the Crown to a purely ceremonial role. Many officers persisted in seeing themselves as servants of the sovereign rather than of ‘tradesmen who had become politicians’, but by the turn of the century the monarch did little more than sign their commissions.
As for Parliament itself, by 1898 just 41 out of 670 Members of the Commons were army officers (compared to the high tide of 79 of 558 MPs ninety years earlier). More importantly, in the context of Kitchener’s travails in South Africa, those military MPs had been comprehensively eclipsed by the 165 lawyers in the House of Commons. Increasingly, debates about Britain’s role in the world emphasised the country’s role as a beacon of human rights and fair play.
The general was undoubtedly blinkered and his campaign against the Boers was brutal, but he was also one of the first senior officers to have to cope with a difficult humanitarian situation being exploited for campaigning purposes by an anti-war lobby at home. ‘The inmates are far better looked after in every way than they are in their homes,’ he insisted in a letter to a lady friend, ‘or than the British refugees are, for whom no one now seems to care. The doctors’ reports of the dirt and filth in which the Boer ladies from the wilds revel are very unpleasant reading.’
By mid-1901 there were some 65,000 inmates in the South African camps, and 25,000 Boer men who had been shipped to overseas internment. Kitchener was certainly waging war on Boer society as a whole, but the high mortality rate in the camps was an unintended by-product of this strategy. An up-and-coming Welsh Liberal MP, David Lloyd George, campaigned energetically on the issue, saying to the Commons during one of his flights of rhetoric, ‘We want to make loyal British subjects of these people. Is this the way to do it?’
This debate marked the emergence of a clearly defined cleavage between military men and a liberal intelligentsia at home; one that has only grown stronger with time. To the critics, operations such as those in South Africa were shameful and obviously counter-productive. To most military men, the ‘pro-Boer’ Liberals missed the point: Kitchener’s strategy was not meant to make ‘loyal British subjects’ of the enemy. It was meant to break their will to resist with arms. Diverting resentments into non-violent political avenues might do nothing to lessen their sense of grievance, but this was the outcome sought by men in khaki taking the narrow view.
For Kitchener, the more worrying issue as 1901 came to an end was that his drives were not yielding the ‘bag’ of Boers he had expected. Cornered commandos often managed to break through the blockhouse lines. Sometimes, even worse, they outfought the flying columns sent to hunt them, bagging prisoners of their own and driving off the frightened remnants. Kitchener examined these setbacks with his usual engineer’s calculation. If the blockhouse lines could be easily breached, then the intervals between the little fortifications would have to be halved or quartered by a major building programme. The space between them started at 2,500 yards, was reduced to 400 yards and then, in the most threatened sectors, to 200 yards. By the end of 1901 there were more than 8,000 blockhouses, manned by tens of thousands of troops. The number of mounted infantry was increased, with new orders given to try to improve their tactics so that they would not be surprised.
Some of the column commanders believed Kitchener himself was part of the problem, trying to centralise all power and sometimes failing to coordinate the movements of different columns properly. One of the best and brightest of them, an acting lieutenant colonel in the cavalry, the strapping Edmund Allenby, wrote home, ‘Lord K of K [Kitchener of Khartoum] tries to run the whole show from Pretoria — and fails. District commanders, with several columns under them, are the only people who could bring the show to a speedy finish.’ Kitchener did not devolve power; however, he did respond to the muttering by making increased efforts to travel away from his headquarters so that he could be present at the scene of major operations.
Early in February 1902, a great set-piece drive was launched against a Boer stronghold at Elandskop. Many on the staff were disappointed that just 285 commandos were killed or captured rather than the 2,000 they estimated to be within their net. But the operations continued relentlessly. On 26 February, Kitchener, Maxwell and the staff watched the sweep from Platberg. Heliograph parties, down on the veld with the column commanders, used mirrors to send Morse-type signals, flashes of light to keep the commander posted. ‘We hadn’t been on the berg ten minutes’, wrote Maxwell, ‘before from fifty miles away to our right came a twinkle, twinkle message, which spelt out by the signaller read: “400 Boers laid down their arms to me this morning”.’
That evening, Kitchener and his party returned to their train, where further reports coming down the telegraph wires could be collated in the carriage that was his mobile command centre. Sometimes he would puff on a cigar or take a whisky and soda before turning in. The routine started all over again at 4.30 a.m. ‘K is an extraordinary person,’ wrote Maxwell. ‘He sleeps and dreams and schemes all night, and in the morning, in pyjamas and dishevelled head, gets you to work . . . and in two hours plans are more or less complete, and orders more or less drafted.’ Dispatches would then be sent by messenger or telegraphed and a new drive ordered.
On 31 May 1902 the Boer leaders, ground down by months of British pressure, signed a ceasefire agreement. ‘For six months Lord Kitchener fought the politicians who wanted to make a vindictive peace, an “unconditional surrender” peace as they called it,’ Kitchener’s chief of staff would recall later, but ‘he beat them and made his own peace; a generous soldierly peace.’ K’s ‘generosity’ consisted of making good much of the damage he had done to the rural economy: giving grants for rebuilding farms and restocking them with animals. Given that the tactics had provoked intense Parliamentary controversy in the first place, it is hardly surprising that partisans of Kitchener and his critics should still be arguing about how the Boers were beaten and how much credit or opprobrium should go to the British general.
For me, the opinions of a young subaltern in the 43rd Light Infantry, John Fuller, hold particular weight. He served for months among jumpy sentries on a blockhouse line and later as an intelligence officer on drives through the veld. He later matured into one of the British Army’s all too rare great thinkers (his books being published under the name J.F.C. Fuller). He reacted to the end of the war with this insight:
For nearly a year the Boer cause had been slowly strangled; now it was choking. The blockhouse line had not so much segregated the Boers as split them up. It was impossible for large forces to move about the country without carts and wagons to supply them . . . Though small parties could cross blockhouse lines, large parties could not . . . The blockhouse was in fact a means of striking at our enemy’s stomach, and it was far more than the tactical barrier we supposed it to be.
Fuller’s acknowledgement of the higher intelligence shaping British operations was qualified, however. He called his memoir, published in 1937, The Last of the Gentlemen’s Wars. By and large, he believed, it had been a chivalrous affair in which Tommy Atkins and his Boer opponent had evolved ‘rules of the game’ and casualties had been slight, certainly when compared to those suffered during the First World War. ‘What exasperated [the Boers] most was the burning of their farms and the removal of their women and children to concentration camps,’ wrote Fuller, adding: ‘and it exasperated me also.’ As a British officer, he was unhappy to be associated with cruelty towards women. The lesson he drew is an enduring one: ‘Do not let us forget that chivalry in war is as important as killing, because on the cleanness with which a war is fought will depend the cleanness of the peace which must one day follow it.’
Britain’s campaign in South Africa formed a model for later counter-insurgencies. It is another Kitchener legacy that fifty years later British generals in Malaya removed the civilian population from contested areas and that the Americans did the same when creating hundreds of ‘strategic hamlets’ in Vietnam. As for ‘blockhouse and drive’ it was called quadrillage by the French in Algeria and has been practised in other conflicts, too.
By the early 1900s, Kitchener’s reputation could be summed up succinctly and crudely as: ruthless bastard. His critics might have spat out the words and shaken their heads in sorrow at the suffering of South African farming folk, or what one sarcastically called a ‘glorious slaughter of 20,000 Arabs’ in Sudan. Admirers, over a gin on the veranda at Simla or puffing a cigar at Whites, might have used the same phrase with a knowing smile to describe a fellow who had what it took to wage war in the industrial age. It therefore should not come as a surprise that when war loomed over Europe in August 1914 so many Britons felt that Kitchener was the right man for high office.
Kitchener was shown in to see the Prime Minister just after 7 p.m. on 4 August 1914. Downing Street has many fine clocks, and it would be hard to imagine a moment of British history when swinging pendulums or a moving minute hand underlined more pointedly the sense of foreboding. German troops had marched into Belgium, on their way to attack France. The British government of Herbert Asquith had given an ultimatum to stop their advance and respect Belgium’s neutrality. As Kitchener, sixty-four years old and greying but still an imposing figure, came in and took his seat, there were just a few hours remaining for Berlin to respond.
Time was pressing on K, too. He had been laden with almost every decoration the British state could furnish. Having served as Commander-in-Chief in India, earning the rank of field marshal, there were very few posts in which he could now be employed. After lobbying unsuccessfully for the Viceroy’s job in India, it had been tentatively decided to send him to Cairo, in order to ‘run’ the Mediterranean and North Africa. Asquith, however, had stopped him travelling out. With war imminent there was a general view that Kitchener was needed at the centre of the action, not in some distant sideshow.