By 1916, the year of his death, Lord Horatio Kitchener had for years been a venerated and legendary figure throughout the British Empire. The campaigns in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia had dimmed some of his luster, but his name remained a revered one. The official announcement of his death thus came as a deep shock; and even today, after more than a hundred years, the nebulous circumstances of his death continue to invite speculation as to whether some element of foul play was involved.
We will not review Kitchener’s military record here. That is something well within the capability of every reader to do on his own. What concerns us are the circumstances of his final, fateful voyage. We must first note that official censorship during both the first and second world wars was far more extensive than we generally appreciate today. In 1916, newspapers were the only way the average citizen could learn about world events. There was no radio, television, or internet. People could only take at face value what was reported in the press; but in wartime, the press could only print what it was told to print.
The nerves of Europe in June 1916 were deeply frayed. The carnage at Verdun was in full swing, and the Battle of Jutland had just been fought. Although both Germany and Britain claimed it as a victory, its mixed results seemed to mirror the deadlock on land in the western front. It was against this backdrop that Kitchener accepted the invitation of Czar Nicholas II of Russia to visit St. Petersburg for a formal conference. Clearly the czar wanted to coordinate his military policies with those of his western allies. But Kitchener did not want to leave London; he felt that his responsibility as Secretary of War precluded any extended visit to Russia. He probably also suspected that his prolonged absence from the cabinet would enable his political rivals to maneuver against him.
On June 2, 1916, Kitchener wired the chief of the military mission Russia, Sir John H. Williams, with a request that Williams ask the czar if he, Kitchener, could cancel his visit. But Nicholas would not let Kitchener off the hook; he repeated his strong desire to have a conference with the old soldier at the earliest possible time. So there was nothing for Kitchener to do but go; he had a strong sense of duty and he would do what was required in the circumstances. On June 4 he and his entourage left London. They first had to take a train through Scotland to Thurso, where the seas were boiling with turbulence. From there he departed on a destroyer, and met Admiral John Jellicoe at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.
Kitchener’s augmented party left Scapa Flow aboard the H.M.S. Hampshire, and immediately encountered rough seas. The winds and seas were so intense, in fact, that the ship and its escorts had difficulty making headway. At some point, the Hampshire’s escorts turned back to Scapa Flow, leaving it to continue alone to St. Petersburg. Around 7:30 p.m. that night, the Hampshire was shaken by a tremendous explosion. It was not clear then (and it remains unclear today) whether the ship had struck a mine, or had been torpedoed by a lurking U-boat. The general consensus is that the ship had hit a mine; and within fourteen minutes, the Hampshire sank beneath the waves, only a mile and a half offshore between the Brough of Birsay and Marwick Head. There were only twelve survivors; Kitchener, his delegation, and all the ship’s officers perished in the wreck. Admiral Jellicoe sent word of the disaster with the following communication:
I have to report with regret that H.M.S. Hampshire (Captain Herbert J. Savill, R.N.), with Lord Kitchener and his staff on board, was sunk last night about 8:00 p.m. to the west of the Orkneys, either by a mine or torpedo. Four boats were seen by observers to leave the ship. The wind was N.N.E. and heavy seas were running…only some bodies and a capsized boat have been found up to the present. As the whole shore has been searched from the seaward, I greatly fear that there is little hope of there being any survivors. No report has yet been received from the party on shore. H.M.S. Hampshire was on her way to Russia.
Contemporary accounts verify that at the time of the explosion, Kitchener was in his cabin. It is not clear if he tried to board one of the lifeboats; one of the survivors, a First Class Petty Officer Wilfred Wesson, implies that Kitchener did attempt board one of the lifeboats:
While I was waiting with the others on the half-deck, an officer came out with Lord Kitchener from the captain’s cabin. He called out, ‘Make room for Lord Kitchener,’ and the men opened out to let Lord Kitchener pass. He went on deck and I did not see any more of him.
But it was difficult to see what was happening on deck, because all of the ship’s lights had gone out after the explosion. Even if he had made it to one of the boats, his safety would not have been assured. On one lifeboat, forty-three dead bodies were later found; they had perished from exposure and hypothermia.
How did this disaster come to pass? Had the Hampshire struck a mine, as survivors believed, or had it been torpedoed? And how did mines come to be in the vicinity? It was not long before suspicions began to circulate in Britain that the old soldier had been the victim of an assassination plot, or some other sort of foul play. These rumors have never been entirely put to rest. One American writer, recuperating in England during the Second World War in 1943, remembered hearing locals assert their belief that Kitchener had been the victim of a German plot, similar to how the Americans ambushed and shot down Japanese admiral Yamamoto in the Pacific. Another school of thought held that Kitchener had been betrayed by his political enemies in the cabinet, who had deliberately sent him on a dangerous mission that might prove fatal.
As I see it, the most likely explanation is that Germans knew in advance of the Hampshire’s mission to Russia, as well as who was aboard, and targeted the vessel in advance by laying mines along her probable routes. It is not far-fetched at all to speculate that German spies in St. Petersburg or Moscow got wind of Kitchener’s voyage, and relayed this information to Berlin. We do know, in fact, that news of Kitchener’s death was announced in Copenhagen hours before this information was made public in England. The demoralizing news caused a great deal of public trauma in England. We also know German admiral Reinhard Scheer confirmed that one of his U-boats, U-75 commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Kurt Beitzen, had indeed laid mines in the area. Unfortunately, Scheer never offered an opinion on whether this mining was done in advance for the Battle of Jutland, or whether it was done specifically to target Kitchener.
What is known is that Jellicoe was deeply distraught, and for years wondered whether he could have done anything differently to prevent the tragedy. The Russian archives from the First World War might be able to shed light on the subject, but at present no one seems interested to explore the matter any further. And yet the questions remain. Was Kitchener betrayed and assassinated? Was the Hampshire ambushed on its way to St. Petersburg? Once it was clear the ship was doomed, had Kitchener tried to escape in one of the lifeboats? If not, why not? What were his last words to his fellow officers and men as he slipped beneath the waves? To these intractable questions, we will never know the answers.
Read more about fate and fortune in war in the new translation of Sallust: