The Kitchener memorial on the cliffs of Marwick head in Orkney, keeps watch over the grave of more than 600 men who lost their lives on 5 June 1916 when the battle cruiser HMS Hampshire struck a mine and sank in under 20 minutes.
On the 5th of June 1916 the battle cruiser HMS Hampshire left the safety of Scapa Flow and headed out into an unrelenting storm on what would be her final journey. Only days earlier the Hampshire had survived the greatest naval battle of the First World War, the Battle of Jutland, unscathed.
When she set off on her final mission, on board was a highly distinguished passenger, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener; the Secretary of State for War, a national hero and the commanding face of the nation’s recruitment posters.
Kitchener was on a diplomatic mission to meet with the Russian Tsar to persuade him to keep his country in the war, and to improve the coordination of the Western and Eastern Fronts. A further 655 crewmen and an additional 6 passengers – Kitchener’s staff – were also on board.
The Hampshire, skippered by Captain Savill, departed from Scapa Flow at 4.45pm. An hour later she met with two escorting destroyers, the Unity and Victory, who had gone on ahead to search the water for mines.
The destroyers struggled to keep pace as the storm reached gale force 9 and by 6.20pm Savill made the decision to order them back to base and continue without their protection. The Hampshire hugged the coast to seek protection from the violent gales.
At 7.30pm the cruiser was roughly one and a half miles from the shore between Marwick Head and the Brough of Birsay, where the coast consists of jagged rocks and towering cliffs.
Between 7.45pm and 8pm the Hampshire struck a mine laid by the German submarine U75, and sunk in under 20 minutes. Lord Kitchener, last seen standing on the bridge without a greatcoat, was never found.
Although 200 men managed to make their way onto life rafts and boats, the conditions were merciless – those that made it to the cliffs had no chance of reaching the top and died of exposure. Of the 661 on board only one officer and eleven men managed to get to shore.
On hearing the news in Scapa Flow, a ship was sent to search for survivors. At 4am, the officer-on-watch raised the alert that a ‘black object’ had been spotted in the water. Soon several tugs, trawlers and auxiliary craft were recovering bodies from the water in the search for Kitchener.
Although Kitchener was never found, his personal military secretary, Lieutenant-Colonel O. A. Fitzgerald, was pulled from the water by the crew of a destroyer during the night, confirming that Kitchener and his staff had in all likelihood perished amongst the rest of the crew.
One of the bodies recovered, that of a Surgeon Lieutenant, wore a wrist watch which was noted as having stopped at 11.10pm. A few days later the body of Lieutenant Humphrey Matthews was discovered among the rocks at Thurso. He too wore a gold wristlet watch which had stopped at two minutes to eight.
The Kitchener Memorial, now a listed building, was erected in 1926 by the people of Orkney to commemorate Lord Kitchener and the crew of HMS Hampshire. The memorial, a square tower with battered walls of coursed rubble, sits atop the cliffs keeping watch over the final resting place of the hundreds of men lost to the sea.
The wreck of HMS Hampshire lies on the seabed off Marwick Head and is a designated war grave. Permission from the Ministry of Defence is required to visit the site.
In October 2015 the Kitchener Memorial was one of Scotland’s war memorials granted funding from the Centenary Memorials Restoration Fund. The fund is run by the War Memorials Trust and funded by both the Scottish Government and Historic Environment Scotland.
The famous image of Lord Kitchener shown on recruitment posters during the war
Image copyright: © IWM (Art.IWM PST 2735)
The Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head
Image copyright: Crown Copyright HES
The Wreck of the Hampshire
Image copyright: © IWM (Art.IWM ART 5252)