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Kitchener: A great man or a great poster?


When thousands of British infantrymen went over the top to engage German forces during the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916 the odds are that they were spurred on by the image of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the Secretary for War and Britain’s greatest soldier.

With his luxuriant moustache, pointing finger and firm gaze, Kitchener’s features were the centrepiece for a host of recruiting posters, many of which left an enduring impression on the young men who flocked into the army in 1914–15. Kitchener was not averse to being depicted as a leading figure if it served the army’s purpose, although he did insist on the addition of ‘God Save the King’.

Other powerful posters with emotional slogans were ‘Take up the Sword of Justice’ depicting the loss of the Lusitania, and ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’ with its uneasy mix of domesticity and belligerence. But none had the simple directness or brought home the propaganda message more clearly than the creation of Kitchener as a messianic recruiting sergeant.

With the exception of Winston Churchill in 1940, no other British war leader has excited so much public enthusiasm for the country’s call to arms and in the early part of the First World War Kitchener was hailed as the personification of the nation’s will to win. Later the prime minister’s wife, Margot Asquith, remarked unkindly that he might not be a great man but at least he was a great poster. It was a cheap jibe. Kitchener had died the month before the Somme – drowned when the ship taking him to Russia was sunk off Orkney – but the huge armies he had called into being were largely responsible for winning the war in 1918. He was the architect of that victory, a great soldier whose instantly recognisable features supplied the imagery for encouraging thousands of young men to don uniform and do their duty for King and Country.

By Trevor Royle

Read an exclusive extract from Trevor’s new book The Kitchener Enigma, below:

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