Lord Kitchener and the loss of the HMS Hampshire

Image- Kitchener Memorial,Birsay, Orkney Islands. Courtesy of the Kitchener Memorial Project

“No stone is set to mark his nation’s loss,
No stately tomb enshrines his noble breast,
Not e’en the tribute of a wooden cross
Can mark this hero’s rest.”

A school boy by the name of Eric Blair wrote these lines in memory of Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State of War, who drowned when the HMS Hampshire, conveying him and his entourage to Russia, struck a German mine on 5th June 1916 in the middle of a storm, near Marwick Head, Orkney Isles . Altogether there were 649 men drowned with only twelve survivors. ( Edit – The Kitchener Memorial Project have advised that they have in fact identified 737 men who died on board HMS Hampshire : hmshampshire.org/ )

The poem ‘Kitchener (1916)’ was published in The Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard, 21 July 1916. Eric Blair became better known as ‘George Orwell’. The first four lines above allude to the fact that Kitchener’s body was never found.

Kitchener’s loss was considered as a national tragedy. The young Duff Cooper’s diary entry for June 6 1916 stated All over London the flags are flying half-mast. He died at the top of his wave . ( The reference to ‘wave’ wasn’t intentionally ironic.) Tributes poured in from all over the Empire and from Allies. In the subsequent Lord Kitchener Memorial Book, Labour MP Arthur Henderson stated Lord Kitchener, perhaps more than any other man at the outbreak of war, was the personification of the spirit that dominated the British Empire. For a further ten years conspiracy theories flourished…..Kitchener was said to have faked his own death but was really embarking on a top secret mission. He was sighted abroad. Conversely Kitchener was held to have been assassinated ; the HMS Hampshire was deliberately sunk by the British political establishment, or by the Jews or by Irish Republicans . The armistice didn’t bring closure- Kitchener failed to emerge from hiding, but neither was his body found. A hundred years later Kitchener is best known as a poster image and for possibly being gay. Apart from General Haig there can’t be any other figure whose star has fallen due to the rise of the ‘Disenchantment’ view of the Great War.

Kitchener’s death was the leading event with regard to Great War at Sea Poetry. Happening less than a week after the Battle of Jutland when the authorities seemed to withholding information from the population added to the drama. . Sadly the loss of the other men on board the HMS Hampshire was over-shadowed. The Kitchener Memorial unveiled in 1926 only mentions Lord Kitchener himself.

In 1916 a whole anthology was published : ‘A Selection of the Best Poems In Memory of the Late Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, K.G. edited by Chas. Forshaw (1863- 1917 ) who was heralded as the founder of the Institute of British Poetry, based at 60 Peel Square, Bradford. Chas Forshaw had also edited ‘One Hundred of the Best Poems on the European War by Poets of the Empire in 1916, and ‘One Hundred of the Best Poems on the European War By Poetesses of the Empire. Before the Great War, Forshaw had edited anthologies in memory of Gladstone, Lord Salisbury Sir Henry Irvine, along with collections of masonic poetry and Yorkshire Ballads, and also a five volume history of Yorkshire.

None of the poems in the ‘Kitchener’ anthology are titled as such. Many, if not most consist of some quite heroic eulogies, such as the first verse of this offering by Alonzo J. Freeland on page 89,

“Sigh, sullen sea, along the sand-strews shoreway
Moan, ruthless ocean, o’er thy rock bound deep
A soldier spirit enters by thy doorway
That he may rest and lay him down to sleep” ”

Or by Pauline Bates ( Page 16)

“The waters curved and closed above his head,
The shimmering depths received him as their own
The clouds, across the sky by great winds blown,
Grim and unheeding passed; no bugles led
The Last Post o’er his grave, but in their stead
The wheeling gulls, all wild with terror grown
Shrilled out their wake and left the waters lone
Later, at home, we learned that he was dead. ”

What’s particularly intriguing about Kitchener memorial poetry is that it simply couldn’t be written now. After the rise of ‘Disenchantment’ poetry/war memoir/ history books, they’d be the assumption that whoever was writing was being ironic. But these were the poems that were being circulated in newspapers and magazines at the time. Certainly read a great deal more than the war poetry that we read today.

Lord Kitchener (1916)

“His travail no man knows,
‘Tis but the mighty issues that one sees;
And not the moulding hand from which it flows;
Our later Hercules!

Duty, in woe or weal,
Held his vast prowess in thrall beyond our ken;
Quenched in wild waters that blue eye of steel
That looked through time and men ”

The Highway of Hades War Verses : With some Prose John Hogben 1919.

UPDATE Was wondering how if I’ve over-estimated the importance of Kitchener’s death in the context of Great War at Sea Poetry. Was looking at Lord Esher’s ‘The Tragedy of Lord Kitchener’ (1921). The book ends with Kitchener’s loss at sea. The author does not end with contemporary poem but with the following lines from Lord Tennyson .

“And even then he turned: and more and more
The moony vapour rolling round the King,
Who seemed the phantom of a Giant in it,
Enwound him fold by fold, and made him gray
And grayer, till himself became a mist,
……moving ghostlike to his doom”

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