An Irishman’s Diary on the death of Lord Kitchener, the personification of empire

 The famous first World War recruiting poster featuring Lord Kitchener.  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The famous first World War recruiting poster featuring Lord Kitchener. Hulton Archive/Getty Images


The death of Lord Kitchener 100 years ago this week shocked both friend and foe. Kitchener drowned when the HMS Hampshire hit a mine three kilometres from the coast of Orkney.

He was on his way to meet the wavering Tsar Nicholas II who wanted reassurance that his British ally would stay the course.

His death occurred on June 5th, 1916, less than a week after the Battle of Jutland in which 6,000 British sailors died. It would be fewer than four weeks before 20,000 British soldiers would be killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Every day the lengthening lists of the dead and wounded filled up the pages of the newspapers. The news was irredeemably bad.

The British and Irish people had come to expect the worse. How could they not? Yet many remembered Kitchener’s death as the lowest ebb of the entire war. Kitchener was the secretary of war, an old soldier elevated to the British cabinet by the exigencies of war, but he was much more than that.

For many of the millions of volunteers who answered his call to fight for king and country, Kitchener of Khartoum was the personification of empire and a symbol of defiance. Though the British cabinet was losing faith in him as the war dragged on without resolution, the British public had not.

“Now we’ve lost the war. Now we’ve lost the war,” a platoon sergeant was said to have exclaimed after news of Kitchener’s death began to spread through the frontlines. A man in Yorkshire took his own life at the news and a nurse serving at the front summed up the mood best. As long as Kitchener lived, Britain would prevail. Now he was gone. “How awful it is – a far worse blow than many German victories,” she wrote to a friend. “So long as he was with us we knew even if things were gloomy that his guiding hand was at the helm”.

Kitchener and his entourage left Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands on the afternoon of June 5th, 1916.

The Hampshire was supposed to turn east out of Scapa Flow and proceed immediately northwards toward the Arctic Circle. Conditions were dreadful. It was blowing a force nine gale from the northeast so the Hampshire took a westerly route to avail of the lee side of the Orkney Islands. This proved to be a catastrophic mistake. The area had not been swept for the mines left there by a German submarine.

At 7.45pm just as the horn sounded for supper, the Hampshire hit a mine. It blew a hole in the port side of the ship near the bow. One of the boilers blew up. The ship sank in 15 minutes. There were just 12 survivors. One noted Kitchener standing on deck in his great coat, imperturbable to the last and calmly expecting the end as chaos whirled about him. His body was never found.

Kitchener was not only the most famous British fatality of the war, but also the most famous of the 49,400 first World War dead listed in the Irish National War Memorial Records.

Kitchener was born in Ballylongford, Co Kerry, in 1850. The extent of his Irishness, though, has always been debated. His English father purchased an estate in Co Kerry after the Famine. Unlike the Duke of Wellington, whose family had been in Ireland for centuries, the Kitcheners had very shallow roots in the country.

Kitchener spent only two years living in Ireland, but was apt to cite his Irishness when it suited him, especially when it came to the recruitment effort which was sluggish in Ireland in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom.

In one testy exchange with Edward Carson, he told him that he would not stand for any lecture from him as he knew Ireland better than any man.

Two Irishmen in his entourage also drowned with him. British diplomat Hugh James O’Beirne was from Jamestown, Co Leitrim. His family had large estates in Leitrim and owned Jamestown Arch. O’Beirne was a Russian expert. He was just 30 when he was appointed counsellor at the British embassy in St Petersburg. At the outbreak of war, he was sent to Bulgaria to stop the Bulgarians siding with the Central Powers.

He was, according to one contemporary newspaper report, the “coming man in the British diplomatic services” and a “most astute, farseeing and reliable official”. He missed his original train connection in London for the Orkneys and proposed taking a different route to Russia, but a special train got him to his tragic rendezvous with fate.

Another Irishman to die was Kitchener’s personal protection officer, Det Sgt Matthew McLoughlin from Kilcommon, north Tipperary. The seventh of 14th children, McLoughlin joined the Metropolitan Police in 1900. The Met intends naming a room after McLoughlin in its new headquarters.

Twenty-eight Irish sailors also drowned on the HMS Hampshire. One of them was the ship’s surgeon, Dr Hugh Francis McNally from Belfast. He had been in the Irish Volunteers before the war and was immediately appointed lieutenant colonel in charge of the Belfast batallion.

When the split came at the start of the first World War, he answered John Redmond’s call and joined the National Volunteers. He was a magnificent organiser, and was responsible for the 1915 parade in Dublin, but, according to an obituary in the Irish News, he joined the Royal Navy on qualifying and gave his life “in the cause of humanity”.

McNally drowned with Kitchener along with 650 others on the HMS Hampshire.