Book Review from the March 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
Kitchener, Portrait of an Imperialist by Philip Magnus
“Your Country Needs You,” says the caption; and the Field-Marshal, with his heavily-braided cap and enormous moustache points and stares straight at You. This, the most famous of all recruiting-posters, has served to keep the memory of Lord Kitchener alive when other famous Generals and War-leaders have been long forgotten. The poster has become an object of amusement such expressions of patriotic sentiment being too crude and old-fashioned to serve the purposes of propaganda today. Nationalism and patriotism are still strong, but the propaganda necessary for their maintenance has become more sophisticated.
Kitchener was the idol of millions. The myth of his military prowess was carefully fostered by the Press, particularly the Tory Press. He was the embodiment of mistaken ideas and ideals about British Capitalism that became common among workers during the thirty years preceding 1914. and still have tremendous force today, though in different outward forms. For this reason Kitchener’s life and times are still of interest. He has attracted the attention of an able biographer in Philip Magnus, whose Kitchener, Portrait of an Imperialist, is an interesting and generally very readable account of one of Britain’s most influential leaders. Mr. Magnus does not attempt to glorify Kitchener—the gap between myth and actuality as presented in the book amounts almost to debunking. He does not write from any particular political viewpoint, though in an occasional purple passage he pays his respects to the Gun-boat politics and politicians of the 19th century. He puts Kitchener’s battles in their proper military perspective—and thereby robs his subject of much of the glory. The sources of information are excellent : the papers of the Salisbury family, who have been for long prominent in Tory politics, have been extensively drawn upon.
Kitchener was born in 1850, the son of a professional soldier who had the misfortune never to see active service; a mistake that Herbert Kitchener was to strenuously avoid. Being commissioned in the Engineers, he did not for long restrict himself to the dull tasks of surveying and land registration. He displayed considerable zeal and took good care to see that his efforts were brought to the notice of prominent politicians and military leaders at home. His energy and enthusiasm, together with his growing prestige among Tory politicians, led to quick promotion. He became the driving force behind the re-organisation of the Egyptian Army. He occupied increasingly important positions in Egypt, becoming Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Egypt was a British sphere of influence; in fact, if not in name, a British possession. Kitchener’s dreams of military glory were at last realised in 1898, when the British Government decided to reconquer the Sudan. The Mahdists were decisively beaten at Omdurman. Kitchener led an efficient well-armed force (there were Maxim-guns, artillery and gun-boats in the Anglo-Egyptian force) against poorly-armed poorly-trained Dervishes. The victory was certainly well-organised, even to the counting of the slain enemy. Kitchener showed his characteristic care for economy by cutting the medical services to the bone.
During the Boer War, first as second-in-command to Lord Roberts and later as Commander-in-Chief, Kitchener showed serious limitations that later, during the 1914-18 war, were to make him a nuisance to the British Government. In spite of his errors at the battle of Paardeberg his popularity in England increased. He had interesting techniques for dealing with recalcitrant populations; many of the inmates of his concentration camps in South Africa died because of insanitary conditions and lack of proper medical attention.
After the Boer war he went to India where, according to Magnus, he spent his time quarrelling with the Viceroy, Curzon, over the control of the Indian Army.
Kitchener meanwhile had become a man of wealth and property. He owned a large house and estate in Kent; he obtained considerable financial rewards for his services to the furthering of British Imperialism. He became joint owner with three of his friends of considerable land in Kenya. There was a law against non-residents holding land there, but the authorities obligingly modified the rules for Kitchener’s benefit.
The 1914-18 war provided Kitchener with his greatest opportunity to serve the British Ruling Class. He was appointed Secretary of State for War, with a seat in the Cabinet. In 1916 he was on his way to Russia to investigate the military situation there when the cruiser “Hampshire” in which he was travelling, struck a mine and sank. His death must have come as a relief to his fellow-members of the Cabinet; for by then he had outlived his practical usefulness and had remained in office only because of his tremendous popularity, which made him invaluable for recruiting new armies.
“Send a Gun-Boat”
Kitchener’s times can provide all the explanation that is needed of his popularity and influence. He was born into an age thirsting for Glory. A large section of the ruling-class saw the British Empire not merely as a string of outposts and a market for British goods, but as the possible basis of their own future prosperity; as sources of raw materials and unlimited land for development.
The Education Acts of the 19th century had caused a big rise in literacy among workers. The 1890’s saw the rise of the popular press. All the conditions were there for myth-making; Imperialist aims, the Press, and a large mass of people leading drab lives who needed dreams to make their lives more palatable. England, according to the Imperialists, was to be the centre of a world-wide prosperous Empire, despotically, but benevolently administered, Kitchener grew up in this atmosphere of “showing the flag,” when an affront to a British Citizen could lead to the despatch of a gun-boat. He was not slow to find a place in the schemes of Tory politicians. Kitchener was their wonder-soldier; of impressive appearance, his very coldness and aloofness were an advantage in building up the myth of his invincibility. The cold, distant figure can be more easily endowed with wonderful, mysterious qualities than can the ordinary human being. He became the embodiment of Patriotism, the God-like soldier ordering with a benevolent iron hand how the fuzzle-wuzzies shall live and work. Kitchener played an important part in rousing workers' enthusiasm for Capitalism. The Jingoism of these days, crude as it is, is not dead even today, as the response to the Suez crisis showed.
Ironically. Kitchener achieved his greatest popularity and power just as the opportunities for his type of Empire-building were beginning to disappear. The days of the conquest of vast territories by small forces armed with rifle, Maxim-gun, and a few pieces of light artillery, were drawing to a close. The backward areas of the world had been cut up; Africa had been parcelled out among the European powers with Britain taking the lion’s share. New conquests could only be made at the expense of other Capitalist powers.
The outbreak of war in 1914 placed Kitchener in a situation that was completely foreign to his training and experience. The days of small-scale war in Europe were over. War became a messy, chaotic business where squares, columns, cavalry attacks and the type of technical preparation necessary to send gun-boats up the Nile were to be out of place. No one man could hope to take complete control of a battle, as Kitchener had done in the Sudan, for the battle-front was hundreds of miles long. The first world-war was a tremendous clash of large industrial powers; Kitchener as an organiser of this large-scale war was ineffectual; the organisation of millions of men and. mountains of munitions was beyond him. He was gradually stripped of his power, Lloyd George taking over in 1915 the organisiition of supplies by being appointed head of the newly-created Ministry of Munitions. Kitchener still had an important part to play, however, a part that kept him in office until' his death. He was to give the Jingoism of the British Workers its greatest expression. He led an appeal to patriotic sentiment that created an enormous army on a voluntary basis. This appeal was Kitchener’s last and greatest service to British Capitalism. “Jingo” was to become a dirty word, but much too late to be of any help to the workers. Such was the importance of this appeal that little outspoken criticism was voiced in public until after his death.
Kitchener’s poster provokes a smile today, but the humour evaporates quickly when the appalling results of supporting national Capitalist groups is considered. Millions died and millions more were disabled in a war fought over profits, markets and sources of raw materials. No working-class interests were at stake; far from the post-war period bringing "a world fit for heroes.” 1921 brought slump and unemployment, even to the victors. The boast of 1918, “this is a war to end wars” proved empty. Within a few years Europe was preparing for another great conflict.
Even Kitchener’s dream of Empire came to little. Forty years after his death Nasser had succeeded in throwing Britain out of Egypt and had nationalized the Suez canal. All the conniving of French. British and Israeli politicans could not put the glorious dream together again. Egypt and the Sudan have gone, with Egyptian and Sudanese politicians bidding for the support of the new Dollar-Rouble Imperialisms.
Capitalism needs myths to keep it alive. They are an important part of the ideology which provides the justifications for men’s actions. Mincing another human being with machine-gun fire is unthinkable to most people without the ennoblement of the Myth. Kitchener helped to provide a cloak of dignity for what calmly considered can only be called inhuman, murderous action.
The futility of the fighting on the western front, the advances measured in yards with casualties measured in thousands, were to discredit Jingoism. It was to be replaced in future conflicts by an appeal that was more subtle and which was accompanied by universal conscription, just to make sure.
The myth built around Kitchener was replaced by other myths with a rather different appeal, though none of them, not even Winston Churchill, had the power of the cold, sadistic Victor of Omdurman.
Capitalism elevated Kitchener, a harsh, inhuman man, to high rank, enormous fame and considerable fortune. He was to outlive his practical usefulness because of changes in methods of warfare to which he was incapable of adapting himself. He showed little real awareness of the enormous problems of organisation confronting the British Government in 1914.
The myth outlived Kitchener—it came to its end in the hideous, futile battles of the Somme and Passchendale—drowned in rivers of working-class blood.
F. R. Ivimey