Kitchener was the son of Lt. Col. Henry Horatio Kitchener who settled in Ballylongford, Co Kerry under a scheme to encourage the purchase of land after the recent Great Hunger. His father was an unpopular tenant-evicting landlord. The young Kitchener was commissioned into the Royal Engineers on 4 January 1871.
Kitchener saw active service in numerous British colonial conflicts: Africa, where he achieved fame as Lord Kitchener of Khartoum; the Boer War where he conducted an aggressive campaign herding many Boer civilians into concentration camps, and India. At the outset of World War I, he was appointed Secretary of State for War, where he organised the largest volunteer army that both Britain and the world had seen, and oversaw a significant expansion of materials production to fight Germany on the Western Front. His commanding image, appearing on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!”, remains recognised and parodied in popular culture.
In 1874, at age 24, Kitchener was assigned by the Palestine Exploration Fund to a mapping-survey of the Holy Land, replacing Charles Tyrwhitt-Drake, who had died of malaria. By then an officer in the Royal Engineers, Kitchener joined fellow officer Claude R. Conder, and between 1874 and 1877 they surveyed Palestine, returning to England only briefly in 1875 after an attack by locals at Safed, in the Galilee.
Conder and Kitchener’s expedition became known as the Survey of Western Palestine because it was largely confined to the area west of the Jordan River. The survey collected data on the topography and toponymy of the area, as well as local flora and fauna.
The results of the survey were published in an eight-volume series, with Kitchener’s contribution in the first three tomes (Conder and Kitchener 1881–1885). This survey has had a lasting effect on the Middle East for several reasons:
The ordnance survey serves as the basis for the grid system used in the modern maps of Israel and Palestine.
The collection of data compiled by Conder and Kitchener are still consulted by archaeologists and geographers working in the southern Levant.
The survey itself effectively delineated and defined the political borders of the southern Levant. For instance, the modern border between Israel and Lebanon is established at the point in the upper Galilee where Conder and Kitchener’s survey stopped.
In 1878 having completed the survey of Western Palestine, Kitchener was sent to Cyprus to undertake a survey of that newly acquired British protectorate. Then in 1879 he became vice-consul in Anatolia
Kitchener drowned on 5 June 1916 when HMS Hampshire sank west of the Orkney Islands, Scotland. He was making his way to Russia in order to attend negotiations when the ship struck a German mine. He was one of more than 600 killed on board the ship.