In May 1916, preparations were made for Kitchener, in his capacity as Secretary of State for War and the then Minister for Munitions David Lloyd George to visit Russia on a diplomatic mission. Lloyd George was otherwise engaged with his new Ministry and so it was decided to send Kitchener alone.
Lord Kitchener sailed from Scrabster on the north coast of Scotland to Scapa Flow -a giant natural harbour off the Orkney Islands, on 5 June 1916 aboard HMS Oak before transferring to the armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire for his diplomatic mission to Russia. Shortly before 1930 hrs the same day, while en route to the Russian port of Arkhangelsk during a Force 9 gale, Hampshire struck a mine laid by the newly-launched German U-boat U-75 (commanded by Curt Beitzen) and sank west of the Orkney Islands. Kitchener, his staff, and 643 of the crew of 655 were drowned or died of exposure. His body was never found. The survivors who caught sight of him in those last moments testified to his outward calm and resolution.
Not everyone mourned Kitchener's loss. C. P. Scott, editor of the The Manchester Guardian, is said to have remarked that "as for the old man, he could not have done better than to have gone down, as he was a great impediment lately."
|Leaving the War Office three days before his death|
The fact that newly-appointed Minister of Munitions (and future prime minister) David Lloyd George was supposed to accompany Kitchener on the fatal journey, but cancelled at the very last moment, has been given significance by some. This fact, along with the alleged lethargy of the rescue efforts, has led some to claim that Kitchener was assassinated, or that his death would have been convenient for a British establishment that had come to see him as a figure from the past who was incompetent to wage modern war.
For example, in an effort to find a way to relieve pressure on the Western front, Lord Kitchener proposed an invasion of Alexandretta with Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), New Army, and Indian troops. Alexandretta was an area with a large Christian population and was the strategic centre of the Ottoman Empire's railway network — its capture would have cut the empire in two. Yet he was instead eventually persuaded to support Winston Churchill's disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915–1916. (Churchill's responsibility for the failure of this campaign is debated; for more information see David Fromkin's Peace to End All Peace) That failure, combined with the Shell Crisis of 1915, was to deal Kitchener's political reputation a heavy blow; Kitchener was popular with the public, so Asquith retained him in office in the new coalition government, but responsibility for munitions was moved to a new ministry headed by David Lloyd George. A week before his death, Kitchener confided to Lord Derby that he intended to press relentlessly for a peace of reconciliation with Germany, regardless of his position, when the war was over, as he feared that the politicians would make a bad peace.
After the war ended, a number of conspiracy theories emerged and were put forward, one by Lord Alfred Douglas, positing a connection between Kitchener's death, the recent naval Battle of Jutland, Winston Churchill and a Jewish conspiracy. (Churchill successfully sued Douglas for criminal libel and the latter spent six months in prison.) Another claimed that the Hampshire did not strike a mine at all, but was sunk by explosives secreted in the vessel by Irish Republicans.
In 1926, a hoaxer named Frank Power claimed Kitchener's body had been found by a Norwegian fisherman. Power brought a coffin back from Norway and prepared it for burial in St. Paul's. At this point, however, the authorities intervened and the coffin was opened in the presence of police and a distinguished pathologist. The box was found to contain only tar for weight. There was widespread public outrage at Power, but he was never prosecuted.
General Erich Ludendorff, Generalquartiermeister and joint head (with von Hindenburg) of Germany's war effort stated that Russian communist elements working against the Tsar had betrayed Kitchener's travel plans to Germany. He stated that Kitchener was killed "because of his ability" as it was feared he would help the Tsarist Russian Army to recover after its string of defeats in 1915-16.
Capt Duquesne, a Boer Army officer and later a spy in the Second Boer War, hated Kitchener because of his scorched earth policy in South Africa (ordering the destruction of the farms and the homes of civilians in order to prevent the still-fighting Boers from obtaining food and supplies) and he hated the British in general for abusing his family in the concentration camps. He was captured and sent to Lisbon as a prisoner of war, but he soon escaped and returned to South Africa via London as a Captain in the British Army. He attempted to kill Lord Kitchener in Cape Town, but was betrayed by the wife of one of his co-conspirators. Duquesne was sentenced to life in prison and sent to Bermuda, but he escaped to the United States and became a U.S. citizen, and he even served as a consultant on African big-game hunting to President Theodore Roosevelt and others. In World War I, Duquesne became a German spy and planted explosive devises on British ships in South America, sinking 22.
|FBI photo of Duquesne|
The role of Captain Fritz Joubert Duquesne in Kitchener's death has been hypothesised/documented in several books and movies:
Kitchener: The Man Behind the Legend (Cassell Military Paperbacks), the best latest comprehensive biography.
House On 92nd Street- Studio Classics [DVD], won screenwriter Charles G. Booth an Academy Award for the best original motion picture story in 1945.
Counterfeit Hero: Fritz Duquesne, Adventurer and Spy, by Art Ronnie. Naval Institute Press, 1995 ISBN 1-55750-733-3 Fräulein Doktor, a Dino DeLaurentis film, 1969.
The Man Who Would Kill Kitchener, by François Verster, a documentary film on the life of Fritz Joubert Duquesne that won six Stone awards, 1999.