It’s fair to say that, during World War I, Herbert Kitchener’s face was just about the most famous in the country. His commanding image, appearing on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!”, remains recognised and parodied in popular culture to this day. Before the First World War, Kitchener won fame for the imperial campaigns, most particularly in the Sudan and South Africa, which made him a national hero. This made his unexpected and bizarre death in the middle of the war a demoralising shock. The official story is that Kitchener was killed in 1916 when the warship taking him to negotiations in Russia was sunk by a German mine of the coast of Scotland. But some suspected that this was a cover-up – a convenient explanation put out to appease a puzzled public who were in need of some sort of closure. Locals spoke of mysterious events that took place on the night of Kitchener’s apparent death. A variety of rumours, speculation and conspiracy theories have since then refused to be dismissed entirely. A further investigation was requested by many who remained unconvinced by the official version of events. This was impossible at the time due to the ongoing war effort but, in all the years since, the call for the case to be re-opened has never quite gone away. The question of what actually happened to Lord Kitchener has still to be answered definitively.
Lord Kitchener sailed from Scrabster to Scapa Flow on 5 June 1916 aboard HMS Oak before transferring to the armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire for his diplomatic mission to Russia. Later the same day, while en route to the Russian port of Arkhangelsk during a Force 9 gale, Kitchener’s ship was said to have struck a mine laid by the newly launched German U-boat U-75 and sank west of the Orkney Islands. Kitchener, his staff, and 643 of the crew of 655 were drowned or died of exposure. His body was never found. The survivors who caught sight of him in those last moments testified to his outward calm and resolution. Locals in Orkney, however, tell a different and quite disturbing story. They say that, when they were woken that night by the terrible sounds of a wrecked ship and drowning men, they did their utmost to help. However, their efforts were hindered – by whom, it is not entirely clear. What is beyond dispute is that, during his controversial life, Kitchener made no shortage of enemies. Consequently, when news of his death spread, among the heartfelt obituaries and widespread outpourings of genuine grief, there were more than a few who had cause to be happy that Kitchener was gone.
Kitchener was a soldier and imperialist to the core – one of the main reasons why the British Empire was feared at its height. But he was never an easy man to get on with. His term as Commander-in-Chief (1902–09) of the Army in India saw him quarrel with the Viceroy Lord Curzon, who eventually resigned. Kitchener’s campaign in Khartoum in particular was marked by a brutal efficiency which earned him the moniker ‘The Machine of the Sudan’. It was said even among his own soldiers that Kitchener was a man without a soul. It was under his command that British forces imprisoned Boer civilians in concentration camps during the Boer War. Shortly before Kitchener’s death during the First World War, he was blamed for the shortage of shells in the spring of 1915 and stripped of his control over munitions and strategy. It is perhaps unsurprising, in light of all this, that after his death there were no shortage of candidates willing to step forward to take responsibility for ending his life.
Foremost among these was Frederick Joubert Duquesne, a Boer soldier and spy, who claimed that he had assassinated Kitchener after an earlier attempt to kill him in Cape Town failed. Duquesne’s story was that he posed as the Russian Duke Boris Zakrevsky in 1916 and joined Kitchener in Scotland. While on board HMS Hampshire with Kitchener, Duquesne supposedly signalled a German submarine that then sank the cruiser, and was rescued by the submarine, later being awarded the Iron Cross for his efforts. This far-fetched story is almost universally derided as wish-fulfillment by an attention-seeker. Another popular theory – that the Hampshire did not strike a mine at all, but was sunk by explosives secreted in the vessel by Irish Republicans – has similarly been discredited because there is not a shred of evidence to support it (although it is admittedly equally hard to disprove, for the same reason). The German General Erich Ludendorff stated that Russian communist elements working against the Tsar had betrayed Kitchener’s travel plans to Germany. He stated that Kitchener was killed “because of his ability”, as it was feared he would help the Tsarist Russian Army to recover and for this reason had to be disposed of at all costs.
The never-ending conspiracy theories and attempts to find a definitive explanation for Kitchener’s death have also had the unexpected side-effect of rehabilitating his reputation to some extent. Some historians now praise his strategic vision in World War I, especially his laying the groundwork for the expansion of munitions production and his central role in the raising of the British army in 1914 and 1915, providing a force capable of meeting Britain’s continental commitment. There are even some who have suggested that Kitchener did not die at all when the Hampshire went down. There are two main theories (both, unfortunately, as crack-brained as the other). One points to Kitchener’s membership of the Freemasons and suggests that his powerful friends in this organization, becoming aware of his many enemies, staged the entire incident for his benefit, so that he could escape them for good. The second theory (which is sometimes regarded as an extension of the first) points to the strange facial familiarity between Josef Stalin and Lord Kitchener. It is suggested that, when he escaped the wreck of the Hampshire (with or without the assistance of the Freemasons), Kitchener took on a new identity as the Russian communist leader. Bizarre as this theory may be, there is no denying that there is an uncanny resemblance between the pair…