Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
Lord Kitchener (1917) is a long eulogy of Herbert (Lord) Kitchener, who held a number of positions in the British colonies, including field marshal (the highest-ranking general) and Secretary of State for War. He oversaw combat at the Battle of Omdurman (in Sudan), in the Second Boer War, and the Western Front during World War I. He died in 1916 when the HMS Hampshire struck a German mine on the way to negotiate with the Russian . Kitchener’s image was used in patriotic advertising and military recruitment posters for decades afterwards.
Kitchener is held in notoriety today for his cold and calculating methods among the Boers. His colonial escapades and Chesterton’s patriotism in today’s post-colonial intellectual climate make this one of his least popular books, although it is a somewhat interesting lens into a moment in time.
I am not sure why Chesterton wrote this eulogy. Lord Kitchener was the poster child of British imperialism, and Chesterton wrote bluntly that he was against imperialism (see, e.g,, How To Help Annexation, 1917). A few years earlier, in A Miscellany of Men (1912), he had even made light of Kitchener’s efforts in East Africa:
Here we have evident all the ultimate idiocy of the present Imperial position. Rhodes and Kitchener are to conquer Moslem bedouins and barbarians, in order to teach them to believe only in inevitable fate. We are to wreck provinces and pour blood like Niagara, all in order to teach a Turk to say “Kismet”; which he has said since his cradle. We are to deny Christian justice and destroy international equality, all in order to teach an Arab to believe he is “an agent of fate,” when he has never believed anything else. (“The Sultan”)
This book is not really what we would call “classic” Chesterton, so I don’t recommend it for devotional or leisurely reading, unless you are highly interested in World War I.
There are basically two interesting anecdotes in this booklet, which are short enough to include them in this review. The first involves Kitchener’s acculturation among the Arabs:
Well-known English journalist, Bennet Burleigh, wandering near Dongola, fell into conversation with an Arab who spoke excellent English, and who, with a hospitality highly improper in a Moslem, produced two bottles of claret for his entertainment. The name of this Arab was Kitchener; and the two bottles were all he had. (p. 6)
The other interesting story about Kitchener was a war tactic he used in the Battle of Omdurman. Knowing that supplies were hard to come by in the desert, Kitchener worked with a cunning engineer to create a new railway line for he express purpose of winning the war. The army built while fighting, and as a result of this clever tactic, they utterly overwhelmed Sudan’s Mahdist army.
The fact that Kitchener fought with rails as much as with guns rather fixed from this time forward the fashionable view of his character. He was talked of as if he were himself made of metal, with a head filled not only with calculations but with clockwork. (p. 10)
Some reviewers have regarded this book as a “short biography”; rather, it definitely excludes many aspects of Kitchener’s life, and eulogies are necessarily published with the purpose of making the public aware of the achievements, honor, and legacy of the deceased. As such, it may be suitable as an introduction to Kitchener’s life, but Christian writers would do well to be aware that he was not so universally regarded as a “hero.”
For instance, one of Kitchener’s failures, which would not receive mention so close to his death, is the use of concentration camps to control Boer families during the Second Boer War. This was a strategy he had inherited from a previous British commander, and it turned out to be far beyond the capacity of the British armies to control, leading to overpopulation, disease, and the death of 26,730 people (including more than 20,000 children).
Although Chesterton has many fantastic books, many of his writings during World War I were understandably patriotic, and these may be considered a weak point in his writing career.
Related Works: The Appetite of Tyranny, The Crimes of England.
“He was the embodiment of an enormous experience which has passed through Imperialism and reached patriotism. He had been the supreme figure of that strange and sprawling England which lies beyond England.” (p. 13)