JIM REES looks at the career of Lord Kitchener and argues that he is one ‘Irishman’ we should be slow to claim as one of our own!
One of our less attractive traits is the urge to lay claim to anyone and everyone who has made a name for himself or herself. It doesn’t really matter if that person’s life is marked by fame or infamy – if there is a drop of Irish blood in those celebrated veins, or if chance saw him or her born on the island of Ireland, the green carpet is rolled out.
Neither does it concern us if that person has absolutely no feeling of Irishness in them – their opinion doesn’t count – like it or lump it, they are ‘Irish’.
The Duke of Wellington summed up his attitude to being branded ‘Irish’ just because he was born in Meath by the rather pithy ‘Being born in a stable does not make one a horse.’ A man of similar sentiment was Horatio Herbert Kitchener.
Kitchener was born in Ballylongford in North Kerry on 24 June, 1850. His father was a retired British army colonel who had only recently bought land there under a scheme to encourage ex-army officers to become land holders in Ireland.
Ireland was obviously not a hit with the Kitcheners, for when the third child, Horatio, was still young they moved to Switzerland where the boy received his early education.
And that was the extent of their Irish ties.
They then moved to England where Horatio completed his education at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in London. War was to be the love of his life.
His first taste of combat occurred when he was aged twenty, taking part with a French field ambulance unit for a few weeks in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The following January he joined the British army’s Royal Engineers.
Over the next decade or so, he learned his craft and rose through the ranks. By the mid-1880s, then in his mid-30s, he had established a reputation as a strategist and was sent to Sudan to rescue General Charles Gordon and his troops at Khartoum.
This was at the peak of British power, a period when the sun never set on the Empire and any effort of native people to claim the right to self-rule was quickly quashed. The Sudanese, however, proved their ability to take control and the British were hemmed in at Khartoum.
Kitchener’s plan to rescue Gordon was a disaster. Despite this, he was appointed Governor General of eastern Sudan, which was still in British hands.
In 1892, he was further promoted as Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian army (yes, they laid claim to Egypt as well), and four years later Kitchener invaded neighbouring Sudan to teach the natives a lesson. This time, he was more successful and was awarded the title of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum for inflicting a darned good thrashing on the upstarts!
He was now a British hero, ranked alongside such luminaries as Wellington and Nelson. When the Boers challenged British rule in South Africa, Kitchener was appointed second-in-command to General Roberts, but in effect he was in full control.
It was in this war that he was guilty of the introduction of concentration camps – a war crime most people associate with Nazi Germany forty years later. Non-combatant men, women and children were herded into unsanitary camps.
Admittedly, there were no gas chambers or other means of mass murder there, but they were horrific nonetheless.