Burial by Proxy?

One of the great losses of the Great War was the enigmatic Field Marshall Lord (Horatio Herbert) Kitchener whose face and pointing finger recruited thousands of men.  He was Secretary of State for War and a Cabinet Minister. 

In 1904 a young man had joined Lord Kitchener’s Staff. He was Oswald Arthur Gerald Fitzgerald from Eastbourne, (His parents lived at ‘Dunmore’, in  Carlisle Road.) In 1911 he travelled to Egypt with Kitchener who had been appointed Consul-General there. The following year an assassin tried to murder Kitchener but Fitzgerald shielded him and probably saved his life. The two men became good friends and Kitchener called him ‘Fitz’. 

At the outbreak of the Great War Kitchener became the Secretary of State for War and Fitzgerald was appointed his Personal Military Secretary and given the rank of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel.  The following year Fitzgerald became a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the New Year’s Honours List.

On 20th July 1915 Kitchener travelled to Seaford to inspect soldiers who were training on the nearby South Downs. Many of them were Irish (36th Ulster Division). Local schoolchildren were given permission to see the great man as he reviewed troops at St Peters School but as he mounted his horse the patriotic youngsters gave such a loud shrill cheer that his horse bolted and he was nearly dismounted. He told Major-General Powell that he was relieved to find a division ready for the front at a moment’s notice. He told the Irish politician Edward Carson, “Your Division of Ulstermen is the finest I have yet seen.”  It should be remembered that Kitchener himself was Irish. 

This visit to Seaford was recorded in the school magazine…

The air is full of intense, suppressed excitement. A number of Staff-Officers take their stand before the flag-staff and saluting base. The air resounds with the thud of horses hoofs as officers gallop round the field and orders are barked.

For a moment there is silence and then the sound of distant cheering is borne on the breeze. Another bugle rings out, and the air is full of the shouted commands of hundreds of officers.   The swords of the Staff, and of a squadron of cavalry near them flash as they come to the salute.  Away across the slope of the field, the sun glints on a rippling sea of steel as thousands of bayonets are ‘presented’ in honour of the great Field-Marshall’s arrival. 

As Lord Kitchener rides onto the field the Union Jack floats out above him and the massed bands burst forth in loud and triumphant welcome. He rides around to inspect some of the units, not a sound arises from the waiting host, rigid at attention, save for the pawing of a restless horse or the trample of those of the Staff as they accompany the Field-Marshall on his round. 

Staff Officers group themselves around Lord Kitchener at his saluting-base and then the marvel of the day begins. The troops start to march past in a never ending stream – first cavalry, then battalion after battalion of infantry with their A.S.C. Limber wagons and equipment at the rear. Again and again the commands “Eyes Right” ring out and again and again Lord Kitchener raises his hand to the salute in acknowledgement.  For fully an hour the stream of men continues to pass the saluting-base.  Nothing seems to escape Lord Kitchener as, laughing and chatting the with the Staff, he indicates with a gesture qualities or failings – till the Red Cross wagons and the rear-guard of the Division have passed and he rides off the field, accompanied by the Staff. Once more there is nothing but the wide stretch of green meadow-land, quiet and peaceful where just before one of England’s greatest soldiers has reviewed an Army.’

Less than a year after visiting Seaford, on Monday 5th June 1916, Lord Kitchener and his staff embarked onto HMS Hampshire which was moored off the Orkney Islands. 

They were due to sail to Russia where Kitchener was to negotiate with the Russians and as Oswald Fitzgerald spoke fluent Russian he naturally accompanied his friend and senior officer. A few days before they set sail, Fitzgerald visited some friends in the Orkney Islands and, struck by the beauty of the seascape, remarked that the rugged Scottish coast was “the type of place that a man could wish to die in”. His companion tried to correct him by saying “A place to live in rather!” but Fitzgerald replied by saying “No” noting the stately grandeur of the sea. Fate seemed to grant his wish.

At 7.50pm HMS Hampshire struck a newly laid German mine and sank within 15 minutes. Only 12 men survived from a crew of 655.  The bodies of most of the officers and men who were recovered were buried in a mass grave on Orkney. 

The body of Oswald Fitzgerald was recovered at Thurso two weeks later and was brought down to Eastbourne via London where he laid overnight. On arrival at Eastbourne Station his coffin was transferred to a gun-carriage which was pulled by six horses to All Saints Church where the funeral took place, officiated by the Bishop of Chichester. This was a huge event with large crowds lining the streets.  Marching at the head of the parade were the Bluecoats – men from the nearby Summerdown Convalescent Camp.  

The King and the governments of Italy, Russia and France were all represented. It took two carriages to convey wreaths from the church to the cemetery where they were laid on the grave. 300 men from the King’s Royal Rifles based at Seaford attended the cemetery to provide a firing party. Fitzgerald was buried next to his father who had died in 1912. A short piece of Pathe Newsreel showing the funeral can be viewed on line.  

A few days later a memorial service was held at St Mary’s parish church in Eastbourne for Lord Kitchener. 

Even in 1916 the relationship between Fitzgerald and Kitchener was subject of comment and speculation. In a speech in the House of Lords on 20th June, The Earl of Derby said “I hope your Lordships will excuse me if I refer to one particular friendship which stands out in Lord Kitchener’s life—the friendship of Colonel Fitzgerald, his Private Secretary. If ever a man gave up the whole of his life to the service of another, Colonel Fitzgerald was a man who gave it up to Lord Kitchener. If we may doubt or question, whether Lord Kitchener’s end was what he would have himself hoped for, there is one thing that is absolutely certain, and that is that Colonel Fitzgerald met the death he would have asked for, side by side with the man he had served so faithfully throughout his military career.”  

Indeed they may have had a closer relationship than just military colleagues. A friend observed, “Never was there a stronger or more loyal bond than that which these two man had for one another. They were inseparable and lived together openly”.

Had he not have died with Kitchener, Fitzgerald would have also benefited from the great mans will. He left Fitzgerald the sum of £200 and ‘all my lands and estates in Africa including plantations, buildings and crops and all articles movable and immovable’. The largest of these estates was over 5,000 acres. 

The Daily Mail and people such as Peter Tatchell and Jeremy Paxman have speculated on the sexuality of Kitchener and Fitzgerald frivolously citing that Kitchener had a pet poodle and a passion for fine China and flower arranging. Even Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Edward ‘Bosey’ Douglas (also buried in Sussex) had an opinion, suggesting that HMS Hampshire was carrying gold bars to bribe the Russians. Winston Churchill was furious and successfully sued Douglas for his wild conspiracy theory. 

Whatever the relationship between Kitchener and Fitzgerald, it should not detract from the fact that both men died in the service of their country. 

The very fact that Fitzgerald is buried in Eastbourne is controversial. At the time, the Imperial War Graves Commission decreed that dead servicemen and women should be buried ‘where they fell’ and would not be repatriated back to their home towns. Not for Fitzgerald a simple Commonwealth war-grave on the windswept coast of Scotland – his grave at Ocklynge cemetery in Eastbourne is decorated with an elegant gravestone which was originally designed by no less than Charles Rennie Macintosh, the famous Glaswegian architect. 

The body of Lord Kitchener was never recovered. He had a memorial service at St Pauls Cathedral but there was no coffin and no grave. I suspect that Fitzgerald’s massive funeral and grand gravestone at Ocklynge Cemetery in Eastbourne was something of an ‘internment-by-proxy’ for Kitchener himself. 

The Gravestone at Ocklynge Cemetery


Ben Franks 

Seaford Museum


National Newspaper Archives 



The Huntarian University, Glasgow


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