Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Warlord with a Heart of Gold

A review of Kitchener by John Pollock (London: Constable, 2001), a two-volume biography comprising The Road to Omdurman (previously published in 1998) and Savior of the Nation

General Viscount Herbert Kitchener of Khartoum (1850–1916) was the archetype of the stiff-upper-lipped Englishman. He became a hero of the people for establishing peace in the Sudan, for unifying the military in India, and for recruiting a million men during the First World War. But despite the famous recruiting poster of him pointing sternly to the viewer – Your country needs YOU! – he could never look anyone straight in the eye because he had a squint and could not see straight because his eyes worked separately (a handicap which he never admitted in public). The sternness of his expression was later increased by a wound to the jaw. Biographer Pollock does his best to portray Kitchener as a warlord with a heart of gold, and we often glimpse tears silently rolling down that impassive rockface. But what was locked up behind the severe exterior and the tinted spectacles and the famous moustache?

When invited to a banquet at Windsor Castle, Kitchener spoke not a word to the ladies, who concluded he was "either a woman-hater or a boor". Throughout his career, "the Chief" was surrounded by a devoted "family" of younger ADCs, and he was a lifetime friend of several confirmed bachelors like himself, such as Pandeli Ralli, a Greek trading magnate whose house in Belgrave Square was Kitchener’s base when he was on leave in London, and who commissioned the portrait of Kitchener of Khartoum that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Kitchener’s "family" or personal staff of half a dozen younger ADCs were intensely devoted to their Chief, and were given nicknames such as Conk, the Brat, Brookie, Marker, Handsome Hammy. Kitchener was furious when he learned that his ADC William (Birdie) Birdwood was married. His closest ADC was Fitz: Captain Oswald FitzGerald who joined him in 1904 and was his closest companion until they drowned together in 1916 in the sinking of HMS Hampshire. Pollock finds it offensive that General Richardson said that when Kitchener and Fitz were drowned together they had been "living openly" together for over three years (giving it only one meaning), but the fact remains that they did live together, that Fitz was Kitchener's closest companion, and that Fitz also never married.

Kitchener’s mother said of her little boy, "Herbert is so very reserved about his feelings, I am afraid he will suffer a great deal from repression." He was noted for his shyness throughout his childhood and later, and comtemporaries remarked that "he was not like other boys". As a young military officer he was never "one of the guys" and never went out together with groups of men, but always bonded with a single "inseparable companion", usually a slightly older man until his fifties. This was the pattern throughout his career. Pollock refuses to trace this to a sexual origin, and attempts to refute the inevitable rumours that Kitchener was homosexual. But his claim that such rumours arose long after Kitchener’s death is incorrect, for Kitchener was added to the list of famous homosexuals in Edward Stevenson’s The Intersexes in 1908 (a book not cited by Pollock). The gossip is superficially examined by Pollock, then dismissed as unsubstantiated – Pollock did the same in his earlier biography of Kitchener’s hero General "Chinese" Gordon. Pollock’s attitude resembles that of Queen Victoria, who is alleged to have said, "They say he dislikes women, but I can only say he was very nice to me."

Kitchener hated any "undressing of the soul", though there is much discussion of his religious practices and his support for various High Church rituals. He became a Brother in the Guild of the Holy Standard in 1876, a society founded three years earlier to encourage young men not to abandon their Church of England practices after enlisting, pledging themselves "to be sober, upright and chaste". "Victorian officers were discouraged from marriage before their late twenties", but many then married and advanced in their careers, whereas Kitchener never really contemplated such a step. In his twenties he admitted to his sister – to whom he jokingly talked about marrying – that in fact he was "unmarried and unlikely to be".

It seemed possible that he would marry a girl in 1884, but she died of typhoid fever less than a year after he met her. Her family felt there had been a romance, but we don’t know what Kitchener felt, for he destroyed all his personal correspondence. Kitchener required that his officers neither marry nor even get engaged for two years after he hired them, and he scorned those who visited brothels in the Sudan or who had native mistresses. His chastity was proverbial. He engaged in very mild flirtations at social gatherings but cooled off if any woman seemed to be fishing for a proposal. He was a good host, "but he kept ambitious mothers and their eligible daughters at a distance". When Kitchener was offered a peerage, he asked that the patent give remainder to his nephews, for he never intended to take on an "incumbrance", i.e. a wife, and Lord Salisbury confirmed to King Edward’s Private Secretary that Kitchener was indeed a "confirmed celibate".

Pollock’s main reference to homosexuality is as follows:

"Long after Kitchener’s death the myth arose that he was homosexual. A new generation found it hard to believe that any male could be fulfilled unless sexually active. Because Kitchener never married and was affectionate towards his young personal staff officers (who all except one married later), he was retrospectively labelled homosexual regardless of evidence to the contrary, including the absence of any substantive rumours in his lifetime, although in the Sudan ‘everything is known’, as Kitchener himself remarked." (p. 171)
This passage is footnoted with a reference to Appendix I, which seems to have been added after the publication of the first volume. In this passage we see how Pollock virtually defines homosexuality in terms of physical acts rather than by desire or a mindset. He does not countenance the concept of the chaste homosexual, though I would have thought that a Christian biographer would be aware that "non-practicing" homosexuals burdened with a duty to God were quite common, that celibacy and homosexuality are not incompatible, that Kitchener might just possibly have been sober, upright, chaste and gay. Pollock raises (and dismisses) the possibility that Kitchener's sexual development may have been "frozen or retarded" by the early death of his mother, but psychological analysis, whether Freudian or otherwise, is largely absent from this book. There is nevertheless no likelihood that he had a taste for boys. His love of flower arranging and interior decorating is rightly dismissed as insufficient proof that he was gay, but Pollock holds up a similarly risible theory that his platonic friendships with older married women in later life suggests that he was not gay!

Kitchener was a passionate collector of ceramics (he sent early pottery to what is now the Victoria & Albert Museum), which he acquired by the crate-load. Pollock acknowledges that Kitchener "had a fastidious eye for porcelain, furniture, carpets and flowers which critics long after would seize upon as evidence of a sexual bent which would have horrified Herbert." He spent much time rearranging his treasures of porcelain, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, Byzantine icons, together with loot from his campaigns, armour and curios, and gold and silver plate which he always requested when being granted the keys to various cities, and even designed display cabinets for them. He rebuilt palatial headquarters for himself at Simla in the Himalayan foothills, redesigned his residence in Cairo with Chippendale mirrors and brocade hanging and a new ballroom, and eventually bought and remodelled his country house Broome Court and designed its Italian gardens with Fitz. He jokingly said that when he retired he ought to set up as an interior decorator in New York. His greatest relaxation was visiting bazaars and antique shops or studying plans for gardens and designing interiors. It is not an exaggeration to say that this was the centre of his passions and pleasures, and practically the only times when he appeared fully human.


(A much shorter veresion of this review was originally published in London's Gay Times in June 2001. Copyright 2001, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.)

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