Feet of Clay

On 31 May 2020, I was meant to give a talk to the East Rand Military History Society in Benoni, South Africa. As a result of travel restrictions, I was unable to be with them in person so recorded a shortened version of my talk which is below – video and transcript.

Hindsight is, as we know, a great friend, and looking back, Kitchener’s time in South Africa was a major turning point. It was effectively his complete entry into the British Army. Yes, he was an officer in Her/His Majesty’s Armed forces, but before he arrived in South Africa, he hadn’t been fully integrated into the service. He had been in the peripheral forces, mapping Palestine (as it was known in the 1870s) and Cyprus, and then in the Egyptian Army – a force seen as subordinate to the British Army. Expectations were high and, as could only be anticipated, Kitchener failed to meet them. Feet of Clay gives some idea of why this was.

Reflecting on this chapter in my biography on Kitchener, new questions have come to mind – some needing further research in terms of their impact on WW1 in Africa – but it is also striking how easy it is to accept the judgments of the past and how we potentially misinterpret the reasons people do things.

We’ve all got feet of clay – what makes the difference is the quality of the clay and how it’s treated.

Recorded talk Kitchener – Feet of Clay 31-5-2020

transcript Kitchener – Feet of Clay 31-5-2020


Beards, moustaches and the army

Did you know that from October 1916 it was no longer compulsory for men to have a moustache in the British army?

We all know the famous picture of Kitchener and his moustache and as this marketing website identified, he wasn’t the only one at the time to sport such a look. I’d recently discovered this myself going through photos in the Desborough collection in Hertford. So I thought it worth a little investigation and see others have done the same.

This obscure little forum gives some interesting developments regarding the moustache and beards, while Major Pillinger provides a more coherent history and some more general info at TodayIfoundout. The art of manliness shares shaving traditions from around the world, and Wikipedia gives an insight into the different country military requirements today. All rather fascinating.

Why the army changed the rule in 1916, the Wellcome Library provides an answer.

So this got me thinking … did Kitchener shave off his moustache when he disguised himself as an Arab in the early 1880s? A painting from 1922 by Sheridan Jones suggests not, but I’m not sure if he’s got K tanned enough. Although this image from V&A by Richard Caton Woodville is in black and white, it seems more realistic. Back in 1883, the Egyptian Army officers sported moustaches – not surprising given they were under British Army regulations, but if you scroll all the way down, you’ll see some drawings of local forces sporting moustaches not much different to their British counterparts. Again, not too surprising considering the British and in particular Kitchener was responsible for training the force. In 1899, Soudanese soldiers look clean shaven with moustached officers.

And in World War 1 Africa? A scroll through online images of the King’s African Rifles suggests the majority were clean shaven. The Zanzibar forces who served in WW1 are also clean shaven – I’m not sure about the tank being WW1 but nevermind, this is the first website/page I’ve come across focusing purely on the island’s war contribution. Similarly, Wavell’s Arabs. Local cultural and religious traditions would no doubt have taken precedence over military regulations with beards being a sign of maturity – I’m not sure British army regulations distinguished between colonial forces in 1914 (must check some time). Paging through The Unknown Fallen supports my assumption of beards being culturally and religiously determined. Today there is a guide on religion and belief in the army – 12 religious groups being recognised.

Reading today’s regulations, with exceptions for religious and health reasons or even at the officer’s discretion, one wonders why they are not generally allowed if the person wants to grow one?