Thursday, 16 January 2014


Perhaps rather than Field Marshal Kitchener a better choice for a commemorative coin would have been the nurse Edith Cavell, who was working as a nurse working in Brussels when the city was occupied by the forces of Imperial Germany in 1914. She remained in Brussels treating the wounded and helping the sick and worked with others to help more than 200 allied soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium.

Edith Cavell
She was arrested and sentenced by an Imperial German military court to death (with 33 others) and shot by a firing squad on October 15th 1915. This act, despite international appeals for clemency (including from neutral powers), along with other brutal atrocities committed by Imperial German forces in Belgium did much to sway world opinion to the Allied side.

While a very recognisable public figure, Kitchener, had in the eyes of some, blotted his copy book after the battle of Omdurman by looting the tomb of the Mahdi (Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah) and removing his skull for a desk ornament (until persuaded by others to return it). Not exactly astute behaviour for a powerful figure in an Empire had a significant number of Muslim subjects living within it. 

He gets the blame in some circles for inventing concentration camps which were used to detain much of the Afrikaner and Black civilian population in the brutal guerrilla war stages of the second Boer war. Neglect, incompetence, indifference, mismanagement and poor sanitation rather than any planned catastrophe resulted in significant numbers of deaths amongst the interned white and black population. While often accused of inventing concentration camps, the reality is that while Kitchener made use of then, their inventors may have been the Dutch (in the then Dutch East indies) and the Americans In the Philippines) in their respective brutal colonial wars. 

An iconic image?
By 1914, Kitchener, depending on which sources you look at was in the eyes of the Westminster elite, on his way out. When war broke out, he was on leave and was drafted into the cabinet, as Secretary of War (he drew no parliamentary salary) by Asquith. He was out of his depth and ever loyal to Asquith he became easy prey for the politically astute and ambitious Lloyd George.

Kitchener clashed with Lloyd George over the raising of a Welsh division and over the initial refusal of the army to provide non conformist chaplains (to minster to Welsh soldiers spiritual needs) – he eventually lost on both counts. After Gallipoli, his days in office were increasingly difficult (and probably numbered) until he was drowned on his way to Russia when HMS Hampshire was sunk in June 1916.

Edith Cavell’s, last words were: "I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone".  She did not want to be remembered as a martyr or a heroine but simply as "a nurse who tried to do her duty". In the year in which we start to commemorate the First World War, the likes of Edith Cavell should perhaps be honoured by a commemorative coin, rather than Kitchener.

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