This article originally appeared in The Independent
Waiting on the platform of King’s Cross station on 4 June 1916 Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener – Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, suppressor of the Boers, governor of Egypt, slayer of the Sudanese rebels and Secretary of War – should have cut an impressive figure.
This was the hard-bitten soldier who had warned that the war would drag on for years and would be won by what he called the “the last million men”. His appointment as Secretary of War had led to the creation of the “New Army”, soon to be launched into action on the Somme. His face was well-known from those celebrated recruitment posters – yet he travelled openly, with just a small entourage of officers. Witnesses said that day he had seemed “abnormally agitated and anxious”.
The journey north to Thurso was the first part of an arduous journey whose final destination was Russia and a military conference with the flagging Tsarist regime. It has been suggested that the War Cabinet, frustrated by the stalemate on the Western Front and the shambles of Gallipoli, wanted him out of the way.
The latter disaster had prompted the King’s private secretary to describe Lord Kitchener’s position as “untenable”, and the Prime Minister was said to be close to accepting his resignation.
Instead, Kitchener was conveyed to Russia on the 11,000-ton fast cruiser, HMS Hampshire and protected by an escort of destroyers. Yet barely 24 hours after leaving London, Kitchener was missing, presumed drowned off the Orkney Islands.
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