Kitchener wants you
Between 1870 and 1900, Alexander Bassano ran one of the most successful London photographic studios. Bassano enjoyed a fashionable status in the London High Society; the Prince of Wales popularized Bassano’s name and many distinguished names visited Bassano’s Regent Street studio, people ranging from Queen Victoria and Lillie Langtry to Cecil Rhodes and the Zulu King Cetewayo. His pictures were frequently sold as celebrity photographs or reproduced by the illustrated press. Bassano’s most famous photograph is undoubtedly the portrait of Lord Horatio Kitchener used for the iconic World War One poster “Your Country Needs You.”
When Britain declared war in 1914, the name Kitchener was on every lip. The Conservatives in the Parliament called for him; the big newspapers demanded him, and Winston Churchill recommended his appointment to the Cabinet. The venerated position which Kitchener held in the eyes of officialdom and the public was demonstrated in that he became the first member of the military to hold the post of Secretary of War, and that large crowds gathered to watch him enter and leave the War Office each day. There was the feeling that Kitchener could not fail. (No soldier had served in a major office of state since the Duke of Wellington and served in a Cabinet since General George Monk, who was awared with high office in 1660 for the Restoration).
After all, Field Marshal Herbert Horatio Kitchener was avenger of Gordon, reconqueror of the Sudan, hero of Fashoda, protector of the Northwest frontier, Commander-in-Chief in South Africa and Earl Kitchener of Khartoum. His photo hung on many walls throughout the Empire. For all this immense reputation, Kitchener was a warrior of the 19th century; all his previous campaigns were imperial in nature and involved only relatively small forces. Although he nonetheless excelled at his initial task of recruiting a large army to fight Germany, warfare on an unprecedented industrial scale truly disturbed him. Unsuccessful in government, he was despatched to Russia; the pretext was to assess the Eastern Front, but the Cabinet was merely wishing to avoid the political embarrassment of a resignation. Lord Kitchener was on the armoured cruiser Hampshire, sailing from Scapa Flow for Archangel, when on the evening of 5th June 1916, she hit a mine in the North Sea and quickly sank, taking with her virtually everybody on board.
In A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin offered this assessment: “If he had died in 1914 he would have been remembered as the greatest British general since Wellington. Had he died in 1915 he would have been remembered as the prophet who foretold the nature and duration of the First World War and as the organiser of Britain’s mass army. But in 1916 he had become the aging veteran of a bygone era who could not cope with the demands placed on him in changing times.”
Kitchener myth, however, had survived him. At far-away outposts of empire, Kitchener waged the very first media wars; he was a larger-than-life character only by the virtue of writers, journalists and photographers that followed and deified him. Tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, with bushy eyebrows, bristling mustache, cold blue eyes set widely apart, and an intimidating glower, Kitchener was not only a living legend but also a symbol. Kitchener might have been a lone, insecure figure who relied on a small group of aides, but he appeared strong and determined in appearance, and in the end, it was all that mattered. His moustache, too, outlived Kitchener; under its watchful presence on recruiting posters, over 2,000,000 men volunteered in the first two years of the war; very soon, numerous imposing characters, paternal or otherwise, would be glowering out of many posters, with an accusatory finger to beckon the viewer towards whatever incomprehensible causes there may be.