In this monthly blog series, our collections team will write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. This month Bridget Clifford, Keeper of the Tower Armouries, examines the very different histories of two Lord Kitchener documents in the Royal Armouries’ collection, which form part of a new display at the Tower of London.
One hundred years after the original Kitchener memorial display was mounted in the White Tower at Tower of London, a new one ‘Britain’s Greatest Soldier’ will be on show there from the end of July 2017.
“K” in memoriam
A career soldier who had made his name in Africa and India, Kitchener was a popular choice as Secretary of State for War. Much was made of his “splendid physique, his manly bearing, his unaffected manner, his quick apprehension of difficulties and ready resourcefulness”; others were concerned at his lack of experience in European warfare.
The newspaper headlines of 7 June 1916 sent shock waves through Britain and her Empire. German mine sinks HMS Northampton off the coast of Scotland. Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War listed among the 600 missing. As the story unfolded over the next few days so did conspiracy theories. “K”, as he was affectionately known, had been travelling to Russia with a small party of trusted advisers for secret talks. Kitchener was last sighted on the quarter deck “walking quite coolly and collectedly talking to two of his officers”. Leading Seaman Charles Walter Rogerson, one of only twelve survivors, reported to the Admiralty Enquiry “Lord Kitchener went down with the ship” (The Times 15 June). Kitchener’s body was never recovered and he remains the highest ranking British soldier to die on active service in the First World War.
On the same day as the news of the tragedy broke, the satirical magazine Punch published a cartoon by its art editor FH Townsend highlighting Kitchener’s continuing failure to make due provision for the Volunteer Army he had so successfully raised.
The Times military correspondent wrote of Kitchener “He towered over all his contemporaries in individuality as he did in inches [at 6ft 2 in], and though often he stood alone, his personality was enough to carry him triumphantly through difficulties which would have ruined many a more brilliant man… He was in some ways a shy man, and he courted popularity neither with the public nor the Army”. While his detractors would have seen the cartoon as typifying his shortcomings, Kitchener retained widespread public support. In the words of the Australian Prime Minister “He was the man whose name and personality seemed to stand as the veritable embodiment of the British race in this the greatest crisis of its history”.
Suddenly the cartoon became inappropriate. As the nation mourned the loss of their hero, it quietly slunk into the shadows.
Meanwhile at the Tower of London, the Tower Armouries’ Curator Charles ffoulkes fresh from April’s triumphant opening of museum displays throughout the whole of the White Tower and publishing the catalogue of the collection began to gather material for a small tribute to Lord Kitchener. It would sit alongside the sword of Field Marshal Viscount Garnet Wolseley and revolver of Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC – popular military figures both recently deceased – together with a display of Allies’ swords just before the public route exited the White Tower.
Kitchener’s death provoked a great outpouring of public grief, skilfully harnessed by the authorities to fund the war effort. In May 1915 Kitchener had penned four copies of a letter “for the purpose of reproduction” to raise funds for the Red Cross. He is said to have quipped that if he had to write it again he would have conscription right away. The best was chosen and the other three destroyed.
The Times 14th June 1916 announced its sale by auction at the end of the month. It generated a marketing campaign worthy of any modern agency. The letter was placed on public display in the Gift House, 48, Pall Mall, and a daily record of bids received was posted in the window and published in The Times. The only stipulation was that the purchaser must not let it go outside the British Empire, and it was hoped it would eventually be given to one of the national museums.
The highest bidders gathered at the Gift House on the 30th June and as the clock struck 5.00pm Mr Thomas Fenwick Harrison secured “one of the most highly prized documents of the War” with a £6,000 bid. It was rumoured he had been prepared to pay up to £10,000.
A former Liverpudlian shipping owner, Mr Harrison had retired to Hitchin, Hertfordshire. A generous Red Cross benefactor, he had already provided motor ambulances for service at the Front. He proposed a country-wide tour of the letter starting in July at Hitchin. Thereafter, local authorities could bid for it, monies raised going to the Red Cross. At the same time facsimiles produced by Messrs Raphael Tuck and Sons would be sold costing from one shilling to the deluxe edition at ten shillings and sixpence. “It is thought that many people will like to have a copy as a souvenir or for sending overseas to friends who will never see the original. Buyers will also have the satisfaction of knowing they are helping the Red Cross funds” The Times advised. Not perhaps a modern sentiment, but no stranger than gifting a copy of Shakespeare’s works to each soldier disabled during the war in memory of Lord Kitchener as approved by George V later that year.
Unfortunately, Mr Harrison’s unexpected death on 29th December 1916 brought everything to an abrupt halt.
Back at the Tower, ffoulkes had accepted F.H. Townsend’s gift of the original cartoon on December 5th and put it in store. He had also contacted Mr Harrison regarding the future home of Kitchener’s letter. The Tower Diary 16th January 1917 notes “It is believed that Mr Harrison’s wish was found written on his blotting pad and that this was allowed by his executors”! By the 20th January the letter was on public display in the Record Room of the White Tower.
A century later, the cartoon and the letter are being displayed together for the first time. Accompanied by a portrait wooden head they will form ‘The Tower @ War – Britain’s Greatest Soldier’ 2017 exhibit. Sadly we don’t have any of Kitchener’s beloved Chinese porcelain or an example of the knitting stitch he is credited with inventing (thus revolutionising sock comfort) to accompany them. Nevertheless they provide a fascinating insight into the importance of historical timing.