The Royal Mint has announced several coins to mark the Great War, one of which features Kitchener’s face with the words ‘Your Country Needs You’ – an image by Alfred Leete for London Opinion magazine. It’s sparked a row and a petition campaign for a coin featuring the executed First World War British nurse Edith Cavell. Kitchener is a hero for the organisational skills that underpinned the British empire in the Sudan, South Africa, Egypt, India and, of course, in defeating Germany. However, he is also a controversial figure, and not just for introducing concentration camps during the Boer War.
In 1968, Leeete’s Kitchener image was revived for the Back Britain campaign, which riled Daily Mail columnist Anne Scott-James:
To invoke Lord Kitchener – an arch imperialist, a foul personality, a man who quarrelled with politicians, viceroys, officers and men, and who had the Mahdi’s head made into an inkstand – is to revive the crassest attitudes of World War I … Let’s hope the Kitchener campaign will be laughed out of court, for the British have grown up since 1914 and remained wonderfully civilised through all the agonies of World War II.
Scott-James was one of Fleet Street’s most experienced journalists, having been woman’s editor on Picture Post during the war, editor of Harper’s Bazaar and a star columnist on the Sunday Express. She was married to Osbert Lancaster, who had designed the jacket for Philip Magnus’s 1958 biography, Kitchener: Portrait of an Imperialist. Her mention of the Mahdi’s head refers to the 1899 controversy over Kitchener having the body of Mohammed Ahmed, leader of the Sudan uprising, taken from its tomb and thrown into the Nile. The desecration was defended on the grounds that a cult might grow up around the grave and lead to another uprising. Magnus describes how the ‘great howl of rage’ in the press over the skull being taken caused Kitchener to write to Queen Victoria expressing his regret at any distress he had caused and saying: ‘I had thought of sending [the head] to the College of Surgeons where, I believe, such things are kept. It has now been buried in a Moslem cemetery.’
Cavell is the antithesis of Kitchener. She had run a training school for nurses in Belgium for seven years before the Germans invaded and she treated combatants of all nationalities. Her downfall was in helping allied wounded escape to Holland. While papers in Britain called for vengence after her execution, Cavell herself was reported as saying as she awaited her fate: ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.’ She was hailed as a heroine and martyr with statues just off London’s Trafalgar Square and in Norwich, near where she was born. The Cavell Nurses’ Trust that helps nurses in time of need was set up in her name in 1917.
The Royal Mint’s Kitchener coin commentary does not even mention Leete and it gets its facts wrong, stating: ‘This design was selected to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War because the poster [my emphasis] has come to be strongly associated with the outbreak of the war.’ But this image was produced by Alfred Leete as a London Opinion magazine cover. Only later did it become a poster (and never an official one with the ‘Your country’ wording). It’s a surprise that the Royal Mint is inaccurate on such a point and such errors damage its credibility when it says how carefully its committee has made it choice of subjects.