Kitchener-Waterloo

Is it possible Lord Kitchener killed himself?

There are many conspiracy theories about the death of Lord Kitchener, the British general after whom the city of Kitchener was re-named during the First World War. Now, a Toronto man suggests Lord Kitchener may have died differently from what the history books teach.

Toronto man suggests new theory 100 years after British war minister's death

Lord Kitchener, left, is seen aboard the HMS Iron Duke on June 5, 1916, the day before his ill-fated voyage on the HMS Hampshire. (National Army Museum archives)

Lord Kitchener died on June 5, 1916 when the British warship HMS Hampshire, bound for Russia, sank when it hit a mine.

Or did he?

A Toronto octogenarian named John Rutherford has another theory how the man dubbed one of Britain's greatest generals died. He was also the man after whom the City of Kitchener was named during the First World War when local sentiments decided the original name of Berlin was no longer appropriate.

"My theory is that he was in trouble … and he shot himself in his office, possibly on June the 4th before he was supposed to be going on a trip to Russia," Rutherford told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition

When the vessel Kitchener was scheduled to be on sank the next day, "the government used this as an excuse to make Kitchener look like a hero rather than a failure."

First World War recruitment posters including the Alfred Leete's Lord Kitchener's "Wants You" original recruiting poster from 1914. (Matt Cardy/Getty)

Conspiracy theories

There have been many commonly-debated conspiracy theories about Kitchener's death in the second year of the war, and Rutherford admits his story is one that is not mentioned in conversations about the military hero's death.

But he said the story comes from a reliable source.

As a boy, Rutherford came to Canada as a "war guest" and was billeted with Col. John Everett Lyle Streight in Toronto. One day after returning from school, Rutherford said he told Streight he had learned the official history of Lord Kitchener's death.

But Streight told the boy his history books were wrong, Rutherford said.

Streight had been captured and held as a prisoner of war in Germany during the First World War, and when he was released in the spring of 1918, he reported to the war office in London, England.

"[Streight] was sort of a minor hero, so they were giving him the red carpet. A retired general showed him through the war office and when he came to one room, he opened the door and he said, 'Here is where Kitchener committed suicide, shot himself,'" Rutherford said.

'Absolutely possible'

"When I heard this story, I was surprised because why would they tell Col. Streight … and why would he tell me," Rutherford mused. "How could he possibly have come up with a story so suddenly, without it having some foundation, so that's more core foundation for believing this story might be true."

Rutherford began to do more research on Kitchener – research that he has completed over a lifetime.

He cannot find any evidence Kitchener committed suicide. But he also cannot find any evidence Kitchener did not commit suicide.

A poster printed after Lord Kitchener's death. (National Army Museum, London)

"The war was going very badly at the time. If you look at the records, the British were losing thousands of troops, it was due to shortage of ammunition, the conditions in the trenches were absolutely impossible and three days before Kitchener committed suicide, England had lost the Battle of Jutland," he said.

Kitchener couldn't handle the loss or the criticism being thrown his way, Rutherford said.

"It was a very grave loss. Now, what would it have meant to the troops [at] the front if, under those conditions, they heard their commander-in-chief had committed suicide?"

A concocted story of Kitchener going down with a ship he was scheduled to be sailing on would rally the troops and increase efforts on the home front.

"It is absolutely possible," Rutherford said.

Death like Elvis, Diana

"The short answer is no," University of Waterloo history professor Dan Gorman said when asked if it is possible Kitchener shot himself in his office in the war office.

"Many, many people saw him in the 24-hour interval [prior to getting on the HMS Hampshire] to suggest that's unlikely."

But, Gorman said, there were several conspiracy theories that Kitchener didn't actually die, but rather that he was living in Scotland or Russia.

Kind of like Elvis?

"Another parallel is Lady Diana, when she died in 1999," he agreed. "[There are] a lot of conspiracy theories that she had died in some other way, and that was the case with Kitchener."

'Appalling theory'

Barry Gough, a professor emeritus at Wilfrid Laurier University, calls the idea that Kitchener would have shot himself "an appalling theory."

"There is no evidence that K of K [Kitchener of Khartoum] committed suicide," Gough said in an email to CBC.

Gough, who also wrote the book From Classroom to Battlefield: Victoria High School and the First World War, said "the evidence is clear" that Kitchener went down with the ship and "Kitchener was not the only one drowned."

Other theories

Stephen Heathorn has previously heard Rutherford's theory, He's researched many others for his book, Haig and Kitchener in Twentieth-Century Britain: Remembrance, Representation and Appropriation.

"I pointed out that there are lots of conspiracy theories and none of them have held much water," Heathorn said of his conversation with Rutherford a couple of years ago.

Heathorn, who is a history professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., said the circumstances surrounding Kitchener's death have encouraged the creative minds of conspiracy theorists.

"It was such a shock that the minister of war, which is what Kitchener was at the time, went down with a ship in the middle of the war. Why wasn't he better protected?" Heathorn said.

Other theories during the war and into the 1920s were that Kitchener had been betrayed by someone in the government or that he wasn't dead at all – it was all a ruse.

The Royal Mint created a £2 coin using the image from the Lord Kitchener's recruitment poster. (Royal Mint)

These rumours and speculation even prompted major inquiries into Kitchener's death, but what came from that was a conclusion that suggested mistakes in planning and security for the sea voyage had been made by naval authorities who tried to cover their tracks after the fact.

One story from the late 1920s involved a journalist and filmmaker named Frank Power, who claimed to have found Kitchener's body in Norway. He brought a coffin back to England, but Heathorn said, he didn't anticipate authorities would actually want to see the body inside.

When they opened it up and found nothing, Power claimed authorities must have absconded with the body in order to keep the official ruse intact.

Something fishy

On June 5, 1916, more than 600 sailors died on the ship with Kitchener. There were only 12 survivors.

That's what the history books say, and no one has provided proof to the contrary, Heathorn said.

But that doesn't mean there's not more to the story.

"I'm open to the possibility, but the balance of probabilities are just so against it," Heathorn said of Rutherford's theory.

"There's lots of people out there who think there's something fishy about the way he died." 

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