NOSTALGIA: The man who foiled Kitchener assassination plot

Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum ... immortalised in the recuitment poster
Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum ... immortalised in the recuitment poster

One hundred years ago to this month Eastbourne provided a focus for the nation to witness a full military funeral for one soldier and to mourn the hero they lost.

Though hardly remembered until this week, the wreck of HMS Hampshire was seen at the time as little short of a national disaster.

Lt Col Oswald FitzGerald's grave can be found in Ocklynge Cemetery

Lt Col Oswald FitzGerald's grave can be found in Ocklynge Cemetery

Hundreds of men perished, among them the best-known soldier in the English-speaking world, the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, who became the most senior officer from either side to be killed on active service during the Great War.

On June 10 1916, the town was the scene for the final resting place of Lt Col Oswald FitzGerald, the military secretary to Lord Kitchener. FitzGerald was one of more than 700 servicemen who perished when HMS Hampshire sunk off Marwick Head, Orkney, on June 5 with only 12 survivors. Kitchener and his entourage were on a secret diplomatic mission to Russia at the height of the war for a series of negotiations to persuade the Tsar to keep his country in the conflict, when it struck a mine laid by the German submarine U75.

FitzGerald’s body was subsequently recovered and returned to Eastbourne to be buried alongside his father, Sir Charles FitzGerald who died in 1912 leaving his daughter, Mrs May, the surviving relative in the town.

Oswald was a dear friend of Kitchener, his “constant and inseparable companion whom he appointed his aide-de-camp”. The body of Kitchener was not recovered and so the funeral ceremony in Eastbourne went on to provide an opportunity to also mourn the man who had literally become the “face” of the British war effort.

As Col FitzGerald was not nearly as famous as his superior, the Times of June 8 1916 gave more information on his relationship to Kitchener, reporting “Colonel FitzGerald saved the life of Lord Kitchener in Egypt in 1912 in circumstances which were fully recorded at the time. A plot to assassinate Lord Kitchener had been formed and Colonel FitzGerald having received information about it and having a photograph of the man who was to carry it out, was on the lookout for him, and detected him near the carriage in which Lord Kitchener was riding.

Colonel FitzGerald fixed the would-be assassin with his eye and at the same time covered Lord Kitchener so had the man fired, Colonel FitzGerald’s body would have received the bullet. Fortunately the man hesitated and was arrested.”

FitzGerald’s sister, Mrs May, was most likely advised by the War Office it would respect the family’s wishes for her brother to be buried alongside his father, but that a decision had been made to provide the man with a full military funeral. This would most likely to have been down to him being the closest thing to Kitchener’s body being laid to rest and thus provided some focus and closure for the British public in the light of such a tragedy.

Colonel FitzGerald’s coffin rested in St Matthew’s Church, Westminster, before being taken to Victoria Station for the journey to Eastbourne. The funeral started at 1.15pm on Saturday June 10 1916. The Times of Monday June 12 gives a description of the service, the coffin, containing the body of Oswald FitzGerald, arriving at Eastbourne Station and then transferred onto a gun-carriage drawn by six horses, and driven by officers from the Army Service Corps.

Passing along the seafront the procession was watched by crowds who lined the route to All Saints’ Church where the service began. Those accompanying the coffin to the grave formed up outside the church and the procession went on to Ocklynge Cemetery, where the coffin was interred and several volleys from in excess of a twenty-one gun salute fired over the grave.

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