Tuesday, March 25, 2014

K is for Kitchener (Horatio Herbert, First Earl Kitchener)

Knitting has long been a pastime for people looking for ways to support loved ones on the battlefield —not to mention Friends trying to complete a project and eyeing a few spare moments during Meeting for Worship for Business. It was perhaps inevitable that an efficiency-minded general might suggest an improvement in knitting. Thus Horatio Herbert Kitchener, one of the British military leaders during World War I, suggested grafting instead of sewing together the ends of pieces at the toes of socks because the soldiers under his command found their toes chafing from uncomfortable seams. The resulting procedure, called the Kitchener Stitch, is now used in a variety of knitting, including Fair Isle-style sweaters knitted in the round. My mother also finished the thumbs of her mittens using the Kitchener Stitch and wondered why more people did not try it.

If Kitchener had "stuck to his knitting" and not been a general, I might have fewer problems with the legacy of the man than I do. (In saying this, I wish to emphasize that I am no expert on modern history.) On the other hand, he might not have been known to history —whether through knitting or anything else— had he chosen a different career.

Lord Kitchener was associated with many of the military events during the Second Boer War and the first half of World War I, but there are two which immediately come to mind. Both would almost certainly result in war crimes charges if they were to occur now. The first entailed corralling some 128,000 Boer civilians and around 100,000 Black non-combatants into concentration camps during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The death toll among the Boers was around 28,000, and that among the Black internees perhaps around 20,000, although there are no exact figures for the latter group; however, a common modern assessment —and the most charitable— is that casualties for both cohorts were the result of incompetence and callousness and not malice of forethought. (For a range of views as to Kitchener's intent, see the summary of scholarship in the Wikipedia article on the Second Boer War.) In effect, Kitchener and his subordinates had a lot to do with the "invention"  of the twentieth-century concentration camp, although he had ample precedents, most notably similar camps set up by a Spanish general in Cuba in 1896 and an American general in the Philippines earlier in 1899 (see the BBC article linked here for more information). We may also compare the North American and Australian treatment of their Aboriginal peoples by herding them onto reservations, where many perished. (Nevertheless, as horrific as the Boer War camps were, they were not deliberately set up as "death camps" in the Nazi sense.)

The second event, Kitchener's decision to sentence sixteen "Absolutist" conscientious objectors to death so as to discourage others, was interrupted only by his own demise in July of 1916 as the result of a German mine during a sea voyage to meet with the Russian command.
Recruitment poster from 1914 showing Lord Kitchener. Photo deemed in public domain by Wikimedia Commons

Conscientious objection as we know it today was in its relative infancy during World War I. At least in Britain, military officers served on tribunals that assessed applications for conscientious objection, and the grounds for acceptance were vastly more limited than they were in the UK and North America during World War II.  Conditions were harsh for those whose claims were approved; these were limited to a subset of those whose consciences permitted non-combatant military service (as with the Friends Ambulance Unit) or alternative civilian service (e.g., in hospital or agricultural work). The "Richmond Sixteen" were a group of "absolute objectors" who felt that any work that freed someone else to contribute to the war effort, even indirectly, was against their conscience.  While all "Absolutists," who included a number of Quakers, were imprisoned during World War I, only the sixteen, who also included Quakers, received the death penalty. They were previously incarcerated in Richmond Castle but had already been shipped to France, where they were tortured and forced to watch the executions of deserters, when Kitchener himself died. Despite the consequences, all but one man, who eventually did agree to serve as a non-combatant, kept to their principles as Absolutists. By sheer good luck, a member of the group had managed to drop a postcard out of the train in London, and a second man had sent a coded message from France. Word reached Arthur Rowntree, a Quaker Member of Parliament from York. Rowntree in turn interceded with Prime Minister Asquith to have the men's sentences commuted to ten years' hard labour. By that time, the Absolutists had some public support.

I first heard of the plight of the "Absolutists" when I was living in Cambridge, England, and Myrtle and Philip Radley, then retirees living in the city, invited some of the Young Friends to lunch. Philip Radley was an Absolutist objector who was sentenced to prison one month after Kitchener was killed, which perhaps spared him the same fate as the Richmond Sixteen. Philip nevertheless spent three years imprisoned under dire conditions. He was small of build and stature, and it was amazing for this reason alone that he did not suffer even worse consequences. He later became the principal of his old high school, the Quaker school Ackworth in Yorkshire, during World War II. (For a longer version of the account we heard, follow the link here to an extended interview in the 1970's with a scholar from the Imperial War Museum.)

Not surprisingly, the name "Kitchener" turned my stomach when I ended up moving some years later to the Ontario city named for him, although it was only when doing the research for this post that I connected Field Marshall Kitchener with the man who had personally ordered the execution of some of Philip Radley's fellow Absolutists. The City of Kitchener was originally called Berlin by the predominantly German population who settled there, but by the summer of 1916 the name was more than a liability. After the Field Marshal's death, "Kitchener" was chosen, out of a burst of patriotic fervor,  in a referendum for a new name for the city. Those opposed to a name change were in the minority and were in any case too intimidated to speak out.

The historical understanding of Lord Kitchener's career has changed dramatically over the course of nearly a century, and there have been intermittent calls within the city to change the name, either back to Berlin or to something else. The city is part of a region (i.e., county) with the same name as its neighbour city, Waterloo. (By "neighbour" I mean that they are so close that the house we owned in Kitchener was literally on the boundary between the two cities, in the middle of a row of similar houses on virtually identical lots; however, the number of the house next door in Waterloo was so different from ours that we soon gave up ordering pizza.) Kitchener is still the largest community in the area, so the twin cities are colloquially referred to as Kitchener-Waterloo (or simply K-W, which sounds like something on a bill from the power company) and not "Waterloo Region." There does not seem to be much appetite for a name change, in large part because the moniker now has a meaning that has grown beyond that of the man from which it originated. When people hear the word "Kitchener," they are much more likely to think of an excellent symphony orchestra, museums, a minor league ice hockey franchise, and faculties connected with several university campuses and a community college —not to mention the Canadian headquarters of the Mennonite Central Committee and its unstinting work for peace.

The Friends Meeting in the area is Kitchener Area Monthly Meeting, and for more than three decades it has owned a Meeting House in downtown Kitchener. The Meeting was named during the 1960's. While the people who chose the name of the Meeting have either passed away or long since left the area, anyone connected with the Meeting can make reassurances that the name was chosen for practical reasons that had nothing to do with Horatio Herbert Kitchener. The name "Kitchener" was the most obvious identifier for the location, and the word "Area" means that it includes the rest of Waterloo Region and the surrounding vicinity —and further attenuates any association with the man. At this point it would be complicated to change the name of the Meeting even if Friends wanted to, because of the legal paperwork involved with a registered charity.

If the subject of renaming either the city or the Meeting were to come up, I would probably not have a say in the matter. We no longer live in Kitchener, and in any case I am an American and thus do not vote in Canada. I am also a member of an American Meeting (in part because I am a founding member of that Monthly Meeting and vote by absentee ballot in a nearby town). Despite my connections with KAMM, as it is informally called, this is one occasion when I probably do not have a dog in the race (to use a rather un-Quakerly metaphor). That said, if there were a credible proposal for a more benign name for the City of Kitchener, I would be delighted at the possibility of "Kitchener" disappearing from the Meeting letterhead as well. The names "Waterloo" and "Berlin" would not cross my mind because of their own military associations, but people have already used the term "Grand River" to refer to the area hospitals and public transit, which provides at least one readily available alternative. Certainly a name change might do justice to all of humanity, not only to the memories of the Richmond Sixteen and the tens of thousands who perished as a result of Lord Kitchener's callousness in South Africa and elsewhere.
Friends Meeting House, Kitchener, Ontario. Photo by Kristin Lord ca. 1998  

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