it must be difficult to write biography at all if you are entirely out of sympathy with your subject. Hence Philip Magnus passes few judgments on Kitchener and is, to some extent his apologist. This, however, does not matter much. The real brute does not merely peep, but marches clangingly out of the pages. However much Philip Magnus explains away the South African concentration camps, jibes at Morley and the pro-Boers, tries to make of the Sudan campaign more than the efficient massacre it was (at the battle of Omdurman forty-eight Anglo-Egyptians to eleven thousand Dervishes), the great tin war-god emerges fully into the light as efficient, utterly unimaginative, a cruel, lonely bully, with an ego monstrously inflated by cheap victories against virtually mediaeval armies. When it came to confronting a foe that was any way equal in size or skill, he failed disastrously. The only time when he had to take a quick military decision before 1914 at the battle of Paadeburg he was thoroughly trounced. His completely autocratic conduct of the military direction of the First World War led to the bloody chaos of the Dardanelles. And it was with sighs of secret relief that his Cabinet colleagues heard that the North Sea had claimed him.
Kitchener’s career raises several interesting questions. And the first of these is whether there is not something in the whole code of military discipline and self-discipline that does not lead to dehumanisation. This is clearly not always the case—one recalls Cromwell or even Wellington. But a kind of amnesia of ordinary human fellow feeling does seem implicit in warfare itself—and this is as much true for revolutionary as for professional armies. In the case of colonial wars, this tendency is greatly enhanced. The ties with customary decencies of the homeland are severed. Someone like Kitchener is supreme autocrat, almost a kind of Caesar, a law unto himself. This partly explains why Kitchener was always so unwilling to return to England except as a conquering hero. In Egypt, South Africa and India he could in turn be Sultan, Dictator and almost Emperor (in fact it was Morley who kept him from the Viceroyship), whereas in Britain itself he had to face a radical press and scrutiny from a not entirely moribund Parliament. Thus despite the wave of public applause and official junketing, there was still Morley and fifty other MPs willing to stand up and oppose the money-grant bestowed on Kitchener on his return from the Sudan.
The other question of real interest is what motivates the driving ambition of a man like Kitchener. Although, of course, in so far as he had an ideology it was Imperialism in its most vulgar form (he said that
The whole of his conduct is indeed mediaeval or asiatic. And the obsession with the East (particularly Arabia and Turkey) is quite a feature both of British and French military castes at the end of the last century and the beginning of this. Perhaps in the end it is impossible to sustain a military caste without affording it an outlet to its latent barbarism, though this of course cannot be a full explanation of that characteristic sado-masochistic romantic involvement with the Middle-East. On the whole, it was the sadistic side that attracted Kitchener, as it was the masochistic that ensnared Gordon and T. E. Lawrence. Kitchener was the totally vulgarised counterpart of Gordon and Lawrence. He told his second-incommand at Khartoum “to loot like blazes”, because he needed gold and marble and that sort of thing. Hangings and floggings and forced labour were a characteristic of his campaign in and rule over the Sudan—a rule so harsh that shortly after his departure from the Sudan there was an army mutiny. When he captured the Emir Mahmoud who, with greatly inferior forces both in arms and numbers, had given Kitchener a hard time at the battle of Atbora, he had Mahmoud dragged behind him in procession with a hlater round his neck and chains on his feet, stumbling under whiplashes, while the war-god rode in front on a white horse.
This kind of brutalism manifested itself quite early on. As a subaltern stationed in Cyprus he had, in 1877, gone away to see the Turks fighting against the Bulgarians and Russians. Here he attached himself to the Turkish Army, under Valentine Baker Pasha, who had previously been dismissed from the British Army and given twelve months for indecently assaulting a girl on a train. “At Tatar Barzardjik he was mildly startled by the sight of Bulgarian corpses dangling from almost every lamp-post”. But he shared the Turk’s loathing for the Bulgarians, whom he described in an article in Blackwood’s as, physically and morally, “a most despicable race”. This sort of inhumanity indeed characterises his whole career and perhaps achieved its climax during the South African war in what Campbell-Bannerman called Kitchener’s “methods of Barbarism”—the concentration-camps. Magnus is at pains to minimise Kitchener’s responsibility for these. Kitchener, he tells us, never actually visited one (did Hitler?) It was the result of bad organisation and the insanitary nature of the Boer women that led to 20,000 deaths in a little over a year. Well, clearly, Kitchener’s concentration camps were not quite the same as Hitler’s. They were not extermination centres and there was probably little straight forward cruelty. Yet, in the end, was the motive for their existence so very different? Indifference is imaginative amnesia and this, as soon as it is given ideological content and form, slips easily into mass deportation, death-marches and the gaschambers. In the end it was the controls of British decency that prevented a fatal relapse into barbarism. There was a point beyond which Kitchener and his like could not go—without actually destroying the non-conformist conscience of Britain itself. But there is little indication that any of these moral controls were actually governing Kitchener’s calculations. In 1901, he actually proposed “that the whole of the Boer population of South Africa should be transported to the Dutch East Indies, Fiji and Madagascar”. The Boers he argued were not really a civilised race: “they are uncivilised Africander savages with a thin white veneer . . . the Boer woman . . . who slaps her great protruding belly at you, and shouts: ‘When all our men are gone, these little khakis will fight you’ is a type of the savage . . .” It is ironic to find Kitchener later lecturing Botha and other Boer generals on their treatment of the natives.