If Gladstone was the epitome of the Victorian age, then Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the first earl of that ilk, was the quintessence of the British empire. He made his reputation in three great campaigns: against the successors of the Mahdi in the Sudan; against the Boers in the South African war; and in India as commander- in-chief battling against the viceroy, Lord Curzon. He did good work as consul-general in Egypt in 1911 and, if his tenure as secretary of war in the first two years of the First World War is more controversial, at least he emerges with more credit than his fellow field marshals French, Haig and Robertson, the butchers of the Western Front. Yet by no means has Kitchener always had a good press. In this committed biography, John Pollock puts the case for the defence. If he sometimes goes too far in this regard, we should not forget the solid scholarship and fluent narrative that are attractive aspects of this volume.
As a soldier, Kitchener was a circumspect plodder, rather than an inspirational captain. In the campaign against the Khalifa in 1896-98 - which ended with the massacre by Maxim gun, known to history as the Battle of Omdurman - he cleverly built 230 miles of railway across the Nubian desert to bypass the vast curve of the Nile between Wadi Halfa and Abu Hamed, cutting out three cataracts and reducing the distance to Khartoum by hundreds of miles. He built up his forces, supplies, material and logistical infrastructure to the point where victory over the Khalifa was a foregone conclusion, unless he was spectacularly incompetent; in this respect, the "great" victory at Omdurman is like that at El Alamein 44 years later, where the cautious Montgomery had such a superiority in all important areas over Rommel that he could hardly lose. Pollock's account of the Sudanese campaign is good, but one-dimensional: there is nothing about the meaning and significance of the Mahdi (1885-98), and the Khalifa and the der-vishes feature as "noises off", or appear like the Indians in an old-fashioned western.
In Pollock's treatment of the South African war, we clearly see one of his faults, which is always to give Kitchener the benefit of the doubt. He became notorious for the first concentration camps (from which the Nazis learnt a great deal) and his scorched-earth policy, but Pollock says that his hero inherited these from the previous commander, Lord Roberts. This is not good enough. You can hardly say that Lyndon Johnson was not to blame for Vietnam because he inherited Kennedy's mess. In both cases, the supposedly blameless protagonists (LBJ and Kitchener) could have changed the policy. Even if we put brackets round Kitchener's dishonourable conduct in the well-known "Breaker" Morant case, which so disgusted the Australians, the truth is that, in South Africa, he did not really have a clue how to deal with the Boer guerrillas, and was rescued from his quandary by those Afrikaners (principally Louis Botha and Jan Smuts) who made a deal with the British and swung most of their people round in favour of peace.
On the other hand, Pollock enlists one's sympathy for Kitchener in his struggle with Curzon, the contemptible snob and self-styled genius who was actually a ruthless master of lies and spin. Curzon accused Kitchener of wanting military autocracy in India, but this was a classic case of "projection", because all the ambitions of personal rule in India were Curzon's - he would have been happy as an oriental emperor, and politicians in London were irritated as much by his quasi-imperial airs and graces as by his "effortless superiority". In 1915-16, Kitchener fought a long battle with Field Marshal French, chief of the imperial general staff, where to some extent the roles were reversed. It says something for Kitchener's political skills that he won both contests.
The real problem with this book is Pollock's astonishing naivety about human nature and psychology. Kitchener never married and was not known to have had a sexual relationship with a woman. Yet Pollock insists he was heterosexual, and dredges up an implausible "romance" with a 17-year-old girl (who later died of TB) as the cause of his "confirmed celibacy". We are told he was thereafter "married" to the army, and that he sublimated all his libido in "service". Pollock will not even allow that Kitchener was a repressed homosexual or sexually neuter. Every single circumstantial detail is against Pollock, every index of probability, every consideration of common sense. Pollock clings to the consolation that there is no "documentary evidence" of Kitchener's homosexuality, as if somewhere there might exist a diary in which he writes: "All right, it's a fair cop. I'm queer."
Pollock, an Anglican ex-clergyman, allows his Christianity and other foibles to stray into his work of scholarship. He makes the bizarre suggestion that Curzon and Kitchener could have composed their differences by praying together; spends an entire page writing (irrelevantly) about army padres; suggests that, if Kitchener had not been lost at sea in 1916, he might have prevented the Second World War; and insinuates that the IRA must be time travellers, because he has them plotting fiendishly in 1916 when, in fact, they did not exist until 1919. I don't care if a biographer is a Christian, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist or sun-worshipper, but all such partis pris should be kept out of a book such as this.
Frank McLynn's Villa and Zapata: a biography of the Mexican revolution is published by Jonathan Cape (£20)