history of the phrase ‘(Lord) Kitchener wants you’

The British-English phrase (Lord) Kitchener wants you was used during the First World War (28th July 1914 – 11th November 1918) as an appeal for people to enlist in the armed forces.

This phrase refers to:
– the Irish-born British army officer and colonial administrator Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916), who served as Secretary of State for War from 5th August 1914 until his death;
– an image showing Kitchener’s head and his raised arm pointing towards the viewer, designed by Alfred Leete (1882-1933); this image, which originally appeared as the front cover of London Opinion of 5th September 1914, was used as a poster in the recruitment campaign at the beginning of the First World War.

This is a reproduction of the poster, published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York City, USA) of 5th February 1915:

English Use Posters in Campaign for Recruits

'Kitchener Wants You' poster - The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York City) - 5 February 1915

This poster is typical of many used by the British War Office in its efforts to get recruits. “Britons, Kitchener Wants You,” says the Poster, the portrait of the man who is organizing Great Britain’s army being used instead of his name.

However, before this image of Kitchener was first published, Keble Howard had used a similar formulation in his column Motley Notes, published in The Sketch (London, England) of 2nd September 1914; among the Don’ts for men that he published to deal with the situation caused by the war, Keble Howard mentioned this one—“his” is in italics in the original text:

Don’t be ashamed to go on with your job. It is what you are best at. If Kitchener wants you for his job, he will send for you.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from this poem, published in The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire, England) of 23rd September 1914:


Lord Kitchener wants you,
So do not delay;
Roll up, Young England,
And join in the fray.

And when the war’s over,
And victory is won,
You’ll be proud to remember
Your duty you’ve done.
                              —E. H., Hull.

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the Salisbury Evening Post (Salisbury, North Carolina, USA) of 6th October 1914:

London is kept in darkness after nightfall, fearing the appearance over the city of German Zeppelin war balloons, and great searchlights sweep the skies on the lookout for these aircraft. Great cannons have been erected about the city, all pointing upward ready for a shot at war aircraft. At the gates to the entrance of Buckingham palace are other great cannon, all mounted to point skyward. Recruiting is very active in London and all young men are stopped and informed that “Lord Kitchener wants you.”

The phrase occurs in Old Nitch: A Story from the Pickle Works, Written Down and Punctuated, a short story published in Kitchener Chaps (London: John Lane, 1915), by Albert Neil Lyons (1880-1940). Sid Carpenter, a cripple who works at a jam and pickle factory at Aldgate, London, has been nicknamed Old Nitch as a result of his studying the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900). At the outbreak of the war, Old Nitch presents himself at the recruiting office, but is rejected without thanks. He proceeds back to the factory:

Now that day old Kitchener he’s put up them placards and bills of his’n. He’s put ’em out on all the shops and houses and he says: “Them saucy Germans they talks of comin’ here,” he says, “and all chaps under thirty, they better join my army and stop that talk,” he says; “for if they do not dam well join it, then I shall jolly well fetch ’em,” he says.

Old Nitch then acts as recruiting officer in his factory, despite being repeatedly beaten by fellow-workers for doing so:

Well, they gives Old Nitch another shove behind the ear, and Old Nitch, he gets carried back home to bed again. And Old Nitch, so soon as he’s reared back to health, and me* and young Jessie has turned our backs, he hops it back again to the Pickle Works—dot and carry once the whole hard way.
So then he gives it to them again, straight out of his mind. And he tells them straight, he do. He says:
There’s old Kitchener wants you,” he says, “for your King and your Country need you,” says he. “Them as goes now,” says he “will be bloomin’ British heroes. Them as don’t ’ll be fetched next month by a dirty copper. Go now and be a hero. Don’t wait till they bring a rope’s end.”

(* The story is told by one of the girls of the factory.)

Apparently, the phrase became popular in Germany, too. This cartoon by Thomas Theodor Heine (1867-1948) was published in the German satirical magazine Simplicissimus (München: Simplicissimus-Verlag G. m. b. H. & Co.) of 2nd February 1915—captioned “Lord Kitchener wants you!”, it depicts a British policeman catching a burglar red-handed:

'Lord Kitchener wants you' - Simplicissimus (München, Germany) - 2 February 1915


According to the New Zealand-born British lexicographer Eric Honeywood Partridge (1894-1979) in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (London: George Routledge, 1937), the phrase came to be ironically used in Army slang with reference to any unpleasant, difficult or dangerous task:

Kitchener wants you! A military c.p. [= catch-phrase] to a man selected for filthy, arduous or perilous work: 1915–16.

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