Kitchener and the Hampshire

Birsay-The Kitchener Memorial
Written by Julia Anya Guthrie

A new book on the sinking of HMS Hampshire a hundred years ago has been published. Julie Anya Guthrie welcomes it and reflects on the story of Lord Kitchener and the loss of the ship.

The hit TV series Downton Abbey opens in 1912 with a predicament for Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. He has no sons to inherit his earldom, and an “entail” prevents his daughters – the Ladies Mary, Edith and Sibil – from inheriting his lands.

Much of the series concerns the thorny issue of primogeniture. The writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes has said: “If you’re asking me if I find it ridiculous that, in 2011, a perfectly sentient adult woman has no rights of inheritance whatsoever when it comes to a hereditary title – I think it’s outrageous, actually.”

Fellowes is no stranger to the exclusion of women. He is married to Emma Kitchener, a great-grandniece and heir general of Herbert, 1st Earl Kitchener.

The 2011 Perth Agreement between Commonwealth Heads of State replaced male-preference primogeniture and ended the disqualification of those married to Roman Catholics. However, this agreement applied only to the Royal Family and was not extended to peerages. Therefore Emma Kitchener, like her fictional counterpart Lady Mary Crawley, could not become a countess in her own right.

Earl Kitchener of Khartoum has been described as “the most famous imperial title of the early 20th century”. The first Earl, Herbert Kitchener was born on 24 June 1850 near Listowel in County Kerry in Ireland.

Kitchener was educated at the Royal Military Academy, obtained a commission in the Royal Engineers, and in 1886 was appointed governor of Sudan. In 1892, he was appointed commander in chief of the Egyptian army, and in 1898, he crushed the forces of al-Mahdi in the Battle of Omdurman and avenged the death of General Gordon.

In 1900 Kitchener became commander of chief of the British forces in South Africa during the Boer war, ruthlessly facing up to the Boers’ guerrilla resistance by burning their farms and entering families in concentration camps. In 1902 Kitchener became commander in chief in India but quarrelled with the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, who resigned. Kitchener was not appointed Viceroy however, but was transferred to become proconsul of Egypt and the Sudan.

In 1914, upon the outbreak of World War I, Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War and was promoted to Field Marshal. Possibly the most iconic and enduring images of the war was the recruiting poster of Kitchen pointing with the text:

Your Country Needs YOU”.

But despite his popularity with the public, Kitchener was not a team player and was disliked by his cabinet colleagues who made him the scapegoat for the Shell Crisis of 1915. Kitchener died on 5 June 1916 when HMS Hampshire hit a mine near the Orkney islands, while on a secret mission to Russia. At that point in the war the trench warfare and stalemate convinced the Allies to that it was essential to force Germany to transfer forces from its Western to Eastern fronts, to relieve the pressure on the French who were besieged at Verdun.

In Birsay on the Orkney mainland a monument states:

This tower was raised by the people of Orkney in memory of Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum on that corner of his country which he had served so faithfully nearest to the place where he died on duty. He and his staff perished along with the officers and nearly all the men of HMS Hampshire on 5 June 1916.”

However, many forget that Lord Kitchener was not the only person who died in that tragedy and this is why HMS Hampshire: a Century of Myths and Mysteries Unravelled by James Irvine, Brian Budge, Jude Callister, Kevin Heath, Andrew Hollinrake, Issy Grieve, Keith Johnson, Neil Kermode, Michael Lowrey, Tom Muir, Emily Turton and Ben Wade is going to be such a valuable contribution to social history.

In fact, only 12 men survived when the Hampshire was sunk and no less than 737 men perished in terrible conditions. Orkney Heritage Society have restored the Kitchener Memorial and added an arc-shaped HMS Hampshire commemorative wall which is engraved with the names of all 737 victims of the Hampshire disaster.

The book “assembles hitherto unused contemporary evidence to explore the causes and circumstances of the loss of HMS Hampshire on 5 June 1916 and the associated myths and mysteries. It will include the new Roll of Honour, accounts of Hampshire, Lord Kitchener and the mission to Russia, the rescue efforts and associated rumours and outrage, the conspiracy theories, the minelaying and minesweeping operations, the loss of HM Drifter Laurel Crown, the Kitchener Memorial, the diving expeditions on the wreck, the artefacts, and the centenary events, and notes on the survivors and many of the men who lost their lives.”


It is a must-read for everyone who is interested in the history of the First World War and the conspiracy theories that Kitchener was assassinated by a German spy, that he was the victim of a plot by Churchill or even that he survived the sinking of the Hampshire and transformed himself into Joseph Stalin.

It is also a must-read for those who want to know more about all the 737 men who died in the Hampshire disaster and not just its most famous victim. In the famous words of Robert Laurence Binyon: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”

About the author

Julia Anya Guthrie

Julie Anya Guthrie is from a small hamlet on the west coast of Scotland. She has Scottish, French and Russian ancestry and is married to an Italian. After graduating from Edinburgh University, she worked in France and Switzerland before returning to her native Scotland. Her influences include William Wallace, Gaetano Donizetti and Rosa Luxemburg.