He graduated from the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1870, and the following year was gazetted to the Royal Engineers.
Kitchener was assigned to tours of duty in Palestine, Cyprus, and Egypt, coming home in 1885 only to be sent out the following year as governor general of the eastern Sudan. From 1892 to 1900 Kitchener was sirdar of the Egyptian army; in this capacity he defeated the Mahdi's army of 50,000 at Omdurman with half the force in September 1897. He proceeded thereafter to Fashoda in order to forestall the attempt by Major Marchand to claim the Sudan for France. Kitchener was rewarded by being appointed governor general of the Sudan and by being raised to the peerage as Baron Kitchener, of Khartoum. In December 1899, he joined Lord Roberts at Gibraltar as chief of staff, and for much of the Boer War served virtually as second in command. Kitchener's policy of gutting Boer farms, taking their grain and herds, and rounding their women and children up in concentration camps was severely criticized in many quarters; even so, in 1902 he received a viscountcy for his efforts. General Kitchener next served as commander in chief in India to 1909. The following year he returned to Egypt as field marshal, and in June 1914, received an earldom.
On August 3, 1914, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith literally had Kitchener snatched off a Channel boat and appointed him state secretary for war. Kitchener not only foresaw the German march through Belgium and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to get the British Expeditionary Force to deploy near Amiens, but also concluded that the war would last at least three years. Accordingly, he set out to create "New Armies" comprising a total of seventy divisions (as compared to the twenty available in August 1914); in the meantime, he counseled utmost support of the French command, personally traveling to Paris on September 1 to stiffen the resolve of Sir John French to reverse the retreat from Mons. The state secretary for war was bitterly attacked in May 1915 for the failure to supply units in France with high explosive shells, and he weathered the storm only by creating a special Ministry of Munitions in June of that year.
A greater crisis faced Kitchener in the eastern Mediterranean in 1915, however. As early as January 2 he had informed General French of his view that "the German lines in France may be looked upon as a fortress that cannot be carried by assault," and had asked the field commander "where anything effective can be accomplished"? The answer came instead that same day from Grand Duke Nikolai, commander of the Russian armies, who requested a British "demonstration" at the Dardanelles in order to relieve the pressure upon his forces in the Caucasus. Winston Churchill at the Admiralty endorsed with alacrity a British rush of the Straits and assured Kitchener that the Royal Navy could force the Straits; the army was to supply only occupation troops for Constantinople. On March 12 Sir Ian Hamilton was appointed commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force of about 80,000 men.
Although the naval attempt to force the Straits failed badly on March 18, British prestige, emotional commitment, and the hope of acquiring two new allies (Italy and Rumania) by a swift victory over Turkey carried the day: the army was to take the Gallipoli Peninsula alone. Sir Edward Grey, state secretary for foreign affairs, at the last moment botched negotiations that might have led Greece and Russia to join the assault at the Straits, but nothing daunted London's determination to rush the Dardanelles. On April 25 Sir lan Hamilton's forces stormed the beaches at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove, and by May 3 Kitchener assured the cabinet that there was "no doubt that we shall break through." However, the Turks held the Sari Bair heights, and even a later diversionary landing at Suvla Bay did not change the course of the campaign at Gallipoli. Kitchener in October sent a western front infantry general, Sir Charles C. Monro, to Gallipoli, but refused to accept this officer's recommendation that the evacuation of British forces commence at once. Instead, Kitchener departed for the Peninsula on November 4, returning by December 1 convinced that General Monro had been correct in his analysis of the situation; on December 7 the cabinet recommended evacuation. Kitchener, whose prestige was closely associated with the Dardanelles campaign, tendered his resignation, but Herbert Asquith refused the offer.
In the general political and military realignment following the debacle at the Straits, Kitchener appointed Sir Douglas Haig as General French's replacement as commander in chief in France, and brought Sir William Robertson home from France as chief of the Imperial General Staff. With his prestige at low ebb at home, Kitchener early in 1916 managed to extract from the tsar of Russia an invitation to visit that country and to get away from London. On June 5, four days after the battle of Jutland, Kitchener boarded the cruiser Hampshire at Scapa Flow bound for Archangel; the ship struck a mine off the Orkneys, taking Kitchener down with it. He received a splendid funeral service and a memorial chapter in St. Paul's Cathedral.
Kitchener's performance at the War Office has to be judged a failure. He proved unable to delegate authority, isolating himself by overwork, and refusing to seek counsel from either the chief of the Imperial General Staff or from the director of military operations. The few people he corresponded with were mainly still in India and Egypt; in fact, Kitchener had not resided in England since his boyhood. He was contemptuous of his political colleagues, a prima donna who sought to run the war as a personal undertaking. As a result, army head-quarters in France became virtually autonomous and it took Prime Minister David Lloyd George nearly two years to reassert civilian control over strategy. Some have even suggested that Kitchener's loss was not much regretted by anyone.