I love a good conspiracy theory — they’re cheap, tawdry and always entertaining. But there’s something special about Lord Kitchener. He’s the gift that keeps on giving, the goose that lays golden eggs, the packet of Tim-Tams that never runs out. You’ve seen Lord Kitchener even if you don’t know who he is. Kitchener was the face of the famous “Lord Kitchener Wants YOU” recruitment poster from the First World War, which went on to inspire a dozen similar posters like Uncle Sam “I Want YOU For U.S. Army” and Smokey Bear “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires”. Something about the man’s planet-sized handlebar mustache is so visually arresting. He was a Field Marshall in the British Army, he fought in the Sudan and the Second Boer War, was implicated in the military execution of Breaker Morant and finally kicked the bucket on the 5th of June 1916 during World War I. His ship struck mines and sank. The body was never recovered. Cue X-Files music.
It only took six years for the conspiracies to flower like blooms of algae. It was in the year 1922 that Lord Kitchener spoke to us from beyond the grave. A medium calling themselves Ala Mana received a message from Lord Kitchener — a 487-page message, to be exact, which must have been a hell of a long night for Ala Mana. All this astral communication was just so that Kitchener could tell us:
When I lived upon the earth I tried to do my duty to express kindness and brotherly love. As I speak to the world again, from the plane of eternal life, I speak what is the truth.
May the doubters believe! May those who long to have visions, see! May those who hate, know love! May those who desire faith, possess it! May those who wish to overcome death, know eternal life!
In other words, magnificent bilge. But Ala Mana’s visions were only the first inklings of much stranger Kitchener myths to come.
Do you remember Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas? He was Oscar Wilde’s bit of hotsy-totsy, the one who put Wilde up to the court case that ruined him. Most people forget about Lord Alfred at this point because they were really only interested in Wilde, but it turns out he had a few other tricks up his sleeve. In 1923 he delivered a speech with the tantalizing title The Murder of Lord Kitchener and The Truth about the Battle of Jutland and the Jews. At this point I have to disclaim, nothing said by anyone called “Bosie” will ever reflect my own views. That said, Bosie is a terrifically entertaining madman.
As well as claiming that Winston Churchill deliberately manipulated the Battle of Jutland to make a buck on the stock market, Bosie accused “the Jews” of murdering Lord Kitchener. By all sane accounts, Lord Kitchener was sailing to Russia on board the Hampshire to discuss military strategy with Emperor Nicholas II1. But by the insane account of Bosie:
His object was to go to Russia and replace the corrupt Bolshevised Jews who were holding all the key positions by loyal men of British birth. If he had got to Russia and succeeded in his mission the Russian Revolution would have been nipped in the bud … Obviously if the Revolution was to come off according to Jewish plans, at all costs Kitchener and all with him must be got out of the way.2
Here’s how it all went down according to Bosie. The Hampshire’s escort of two destroyers was recalled. When the ship exploded at sea the authorities waited five hours to send a life-boat. The eleven survivors of the wreck were then spirited away to London, whence they disappeared off the face of the Earth. “Whether they were murdered or whether they were merely bribed or terrorised and deported, I do not know.”3 Bosie is clearly implying that the British authorities (perhaps extending to Churchill) were implicated in the plot. But the Hampshire didn’t sink by any ordinary German mines. Bosie goes on to say that the merest investigation will reveal “that a man of the name of Nathan, now dead, a Jew, was at the time the head of our Secret Service in Ireland, that a shore-gang put time-bombs on the ‘Hampshire’ under his directions.”4 His mention of “a Jew” elicited hisses from the audience.
It is some comfort to know that Winston Churchill sued Bosie for libel over this speech. Bosie promptly lost and received six months in the slammer5 from which, he claims, he never fully recovered.
I feel like Bosie missed a trick. He neglected to pick up on the missing piece of the puzzle — Lord Kitchener’s body. Of course there was no body, it sank with the ship, but where there’s no body there’s endless speculation. In 1926 a man named Frank Power made the extraordinary claim that he had found Lord Kitchener’s body. It was supposed to have been washed up on a Norwegian shore and buried anonymously in a cemetery there. Power found this cemetery full of the casualties of the Battle of Jutland and somehow noticed one body wearing the remains of a Field Marshal’s uniform. He had the body exhumed and shipped to London in a coffin, where it was greeted with enormous ballyhoo from the press. Then they opened the coffin.
Lord Kitchener’s coffin was empty. Power was outraged. People had already been calling him a cheap publicity hound. Now they called him a hoaxer too. Power produced evidence that the coffin had been tampered with and claimed somebody had clearly made off with the body. Eventually it was Power’s accomplice who gave the game away. A man with the amazing name Singleton Gates came forward as the inventor of the Kitchener coffin story, which he and Power played out on the public — to publicize a movie! They had a picture called How Kitchener Was Betrayed, which had received total condemnation from the Kitchener family when they got a preview screening in 1921. Gates desperately needed to boost the thing into the public imagination and so concocted a long-lost body6.
All this, of course, supposes that Kitchener really did die in 1916. More than one person swore Kitchener had survived his own demise and was living in secrecy. In 1916 the Americans were convinced that Kitchener was alive, well and directing the Allied war effort.
Is Kitchener’s hand at this moment secretly directing the tremendous simultaneous pressure being directed against the Teutonic alliance by the Russians in Poland and the Caucasus, and the French and British in France?
Rumours of the most sensational sort are running the length and breadth of England to the effect that Kitchener is alive!7
Kitchener’s own sister expressed this belief in 1917 and insisted that he would one day return8. Rumors of Kitchener’s continued existence kept popping up every now and then across the next decade but eventually faded with the public’s memory of the British war lord. The question remains then, does Lord Kitchener still walk the Earth? Have you seen an elderly gent, about 160 years of age, with a mustache that doubles as a turn indicator and triples as a can opener? If so, you may have spied none other than the living body of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum.
- “Alleged Exploiter of Film Tells How He Conceived the Story”. The Lewiston Evening Journal 19 August 1926, 1. Print.
- “An Absurd Story”. The Thames Star 24 August 1916, 8. Print.
- “Cruiser Hampshire Is Sent Down With War Lord on Board”. The Youngstown Vindicator 6 June 1916: 1. Print.
- Douglas, Lord Alfred. The Murder of Lord Kitchener and The Truth about the Battle of Jutland and the Jews. Galashiels: John McQueen & Son, 1923. Print.
- “Frank Power Asks For Inquest Over ‘Kitchener’s Body’”. The Montreal Gazette 16 August 1926, 21. Print.
- “Is Kitchener Really Dead? Sister Believes He Is Still Alive”. The Evening Independent 27 July 1917, 10. Print.
- “It’s No Hoax, Power Insists”. The Milwaukee Journal 18 August 1926, 6. Print.
- Mana, Ala. The Message: Lord Kitchener Lives. Los Angeles: Grafton Publishing Corporation, 1922. Print.
- “Mr. Churchill Vindicated”. The Age 15 December 1923, 17. Print.
- “War Chief Going to Russia”. The New York Times 7 June 1916. Print.