June 5

This Day in History

World War I

Jun 5, 1916:

British War Minister Lord Kitchener drowns

In the icy waters of the North Sea on June 5, 1916, the British cruiser Hampshire strikes a German mine and sinks off the Orkney Islands; among the passengers and crew drowned is Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war.

Kitchener was a war hero who earned the lord distinction with his triumphant leadership of the British army in the Sudan in 1898. Serving as chief of staff during the Boer War (1899-1902), he drew criticism from such liberal politicians as David Lloyd George for his bold prosecution of the successful war effort, including the destruction of Boer farms and the internment of civilians in concentration camps. After serving in the colonial administrations of both India and Egypt, Kitchener was appointed secretary of war by Prime Minister H.H. Asquith upon the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914. Kitchener, the first member of the military to hold the post, was responsible for building up Britain's army to face Germany—a country that, after steadily building and improving its armed forces for the past 40 years, was by 1914 in possession of the European continent's most powerful land army. All the regular divisions of the British army went into action in the summer of 1914 and the campaign for volunteers—based around the slogan "Your King and Country Need You!—began in earnest in August of that year. New volunteers were rapidly enlisted and trained, many of them joining what were known as Pals battalions, or regiments of men from the same town or from similar professional backgrounds. Over the first two years of the war, over 3 million British men volunteered to serve in the so-called Kitchener's New Armies.

By the summer of 1916, however, Kitchener had become a controversial figure, especially in the wake of the Allied failure to gain a victory against the Turks in their ambitious land invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula the previous spring. After Gallipoli, Kitchener had forfeited a good deal of credibility as a military strategist, and many of his fellow ministers had long lost faith in his efficacy and nerve. The British public, on the other hand, still regarded him as the man who embodied the strength and resolve behind the government's war strategy.

In early June 1916, Kitchener left London aboard the cruiser Hampshire on a diplomatic mission to Russia, where he was to encourage that volatile ally to continue mounting a stiff resistance to their common enemy, Germany, on the Eastern Front of the war. On June 5, while traveling off the Orkney Islands, northwest of Scapa Flow in the North Sea, the Hampshire was sunk by a German mine, killing the war secretary and his colleagues.

Journalist Charles Repington wrote in his journal of Kitchener's drowning and its effect on the British population: We hoped against hope, but no doubt now remains. A great figure gone. The services which he rendered in the early days of the war cannot be forgotten. They transcend those of all the lesser men who were his colleagues, some few of whom envied his popularity. His old manner of working alone did not consort with the needs of this huge syndicalism, modern war. The thing was too big. He made many mistakes. He was not a good Cabinet man. His methods did not suit a democracy. But there he was, towering above the others in character as in inches, by far the most popular man in the country to the end, and a firm rock which stood out amidst the raging tempest.

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