Deep waters

David Laws demolishes a conspiracy theory about the death of Lord Kitchener and does it very classily indeed

Guy Walters

One picks up a book written by a former leading Liberal Democrat about a conspiracy theory with a certain amount of wariness. Many will have hoped to have forgotten The Strange Death of David Kelly, written by Norman Baker in 2007, in which the Lib Dem MP for Lewes asserted that the former weapons inspector had not committed suicide in 2003, but was more likely to have been murdered. If you needed more proof of where Baker’s book belongs, then a glance at the “Customers who viewed this item also viewed” box on Amazon reveals a roster of conspiratorial loopiness, including Where Did The Towers Go?; The Murder of Princess Diana; BBC: Brainwashing Britain. I need not go on.

It therefore comes as a huge relief that Who Killed Kitchener? by the former Lib Dem cabinet minister David Laws is far removed from the nutty outpourings of his erstwhile colleague. Laws does the very opposite to Baker, he demolishes a conspiracy theory and does it very classily indeed. This is doubly annoying as not only would it be more fun to have another bonkers Lib Dem out in the wild, but also because Laws’s evident research skills and elegant writing style outmatch many who actually produce such books for a living. Laws is the executive chairman of a think-tank, so books like this are presumably a hobby. Baker, incidentally, has recently resigned from a nine-month stint running a bus company in the Brighton and Hove area.

The conspiracy in question is the death of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, he of the magnificent moustache and famous First World War recruiting poster. On the late afternoon of June 5, 1916, Kitchener and his retinue set sail from the Orkneys on the cruiser the Hampshire on a secret and delicate mission to Russia, where he not only hoped to convince the Russians to stay in the war, but also to raise the delicate issue of how the Russians were going to pay for all the materiel that the British were producing for them.

In less than four hours of sailing in a force nine gale, the Hampshire and 737 of its crew and passengers, including Kitchener, were no more. Just a dozen men survived the treacherous seas, having barely managed to negotiate their way to the treacherous rocky shoreline on unwieldy life-rafts. For the next few days and weeks, corpses would continue to wash up, but of that of this literally great man, who stood at a then-mighty six feet two inches, the victor of Omdurman and the Boer War, the holder of six knighthoods and a member of the Order of Merit, there would never be any sign.

Unsurprisingly, the country was shocked. How exactly had this 65-year-old national hero, this pinnacle of martial celebrity, this gruff and somewhat enigmatic figure, met his end? For the Admiralty and the Royal Navy, the answer was brutally simple—the Hampshire had hit a German mine, perhaps two, and had gone to the depths of the North Sea.

Just as with the death of the Princess Diana—and to a lesser extent that of David Kelly—there were many members of the public who refused to believe that so important a figure had met his doom in such a relatively prosaic and straightforward fashion. There are those who will never accept that normal forms of death—and in such a war, deaths through sinking were almost quotidian—can be suffered by abnormally large personalities.

Clearly, there had to be something more to it—some sort of plot, some sort of conspiracy. Had a bomb been planted on board by Irish nationalists? Or perhaps Russian communists were to blame? Conspiracy theorists—the predecessors to Norman Baker and his ilk—quickly seized on minor discrepancies in the official records and statements to bolster their fevered cases, one of which even pointed an angrily shaking finger at the government itself.

Laws is excellent at dismissing all the bunkum, much of which was promoted by circulation-hungry editors, and in particular by an odious hoaxer called Frank Power, who even brought a coffin into Waterloo station claiming it contained the remains of Kitchener that had been washed up in Norway. Instead, as is so often the case, Laws reveals that this is an incident which can be explained by cock-up rather than conspiracy. He lists at least five blunders that cost Kitchener and so many others their lives—including routing the Hampshire into waters that were only assumed to be clear of mines—and shows that a desire to cover up these errors is the true scandal of Kitchener’s death, and not some shadowy plot.

Laws writes with compassion and humanity, not only for his subject, but also for the hundreds of crewmen who died alongside him. A niggle is that a lot of the book is more an account of Kitchener’s life than that of the sinking, and a more detailed dismissal of the conspiracy theories might have suited some. However, with writing as engaging and informative as this, what might normally be dismissed as padding can be forgiven, and this book could easily be treated as an excellent “starter biography” for those who may want to know more about the man behind that magnificent moustache.

Who Killed Kitchener? The Life and Death of Britain’s Most Famous War Minister
By David Laws
Biteback, 320pp, £20

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