Lord Kitchener, the soldier not the calypso star, is on the new £2 coin to mark the start of five years commemorating the First World War. You’ll recognise the image: a well-moustachioed man pointing out at you with the exhortation “Britain needs YOU”.
I do not want to use coins with Kitchener on, so I’ll be donating any I get to the Royal British Legion which is a charity set up to support the people whose lives were ruined by Kitchener’s call to action. Other people I know plan to give them to the Peace Union.
Why am I complaining about the use of Kitchener?
When war was declared in 1914, Kitchener was made Secretary of State for War and tasked with recruiting a volunteer army. In August and September 1914, 750,000 men volunteered. Eventually, over 8 million people fought for Britain from across the Empire, and over 995,000 of them died, in the First World War. Only 53 English villages, out of over 10,000 parishes, didn’t lose young men. Every village in Wales or Scotland lost at least one person. Over 1,663,000 people were wounded: maimed, gassed, or traumatised so badly the new term “shell shock” was created for them.
The image of Kitchener, now on our coins, first appeared on a magazine cover at the start of September 1914, in the peak of that initial recruitment. Kitchener supported the formation of “pals” units, where all the recruits from a village, factory or social organisation, were kept together. This led to horrors such as the fate of the Accrington Pals. Around 700 men from the Accrington (or neighbouring parishes) went into action act the first day of the Somme. Within half an hour 235 were killed and 350 were wounded.
Kitchener’s recruitment drive, as symbolised by that iconic image, fed over a million people into the killing machines.
Except the coin, when it rattles into your change at the supermarket or at the pub, won’t be in context. It’ll just be an image, divorced of meaning. Unless you read up on him, he’ll just be winner of the best ‘tashe contest. Unless your family’s oral history includes not only the trauma people went through on the front but the consequences when they came home, he’s just a bloke in a hat. So you may not see how utterly inappropriate it is to put that image – the image that beckoned a million men to vile deaths – on a coin to commemorate the dead.
Kitchener isn’t just a kitschy image. The campaign he led was what Wilfred Own called “the old lie”:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Kitchener also continued the use of concentration camps during the Boer War. He led the Battle of Omdurman where 10,000 Sudanese were killed compared to 47 British. He was, at least, a realist in that he predicted a long war in 1914. But he is not someone we should be celebrating.
Why donate to charity?
Initially, I planned to refuse the coins. Then I thought about the practicalities of that. Aside from holding up queues by demanding only £1 coins in my change, what would I do if an automatic till gave me one? I like £2 coins, too, because they are reassuringly chunky. So how could I rid myself of any Kitchener ones I get without spending them?
As a teen, I knew someone who had served in the Falklands. I saw the impact of shell shock on him, and on his family. The Legion was there to support them, as they have been there to support so many others over the decades. So this, then, is my response: to donate every Kitchener coin I get to them so they can provide support for current veterans of current wars.