Hugh Brogan, Professor of History at the University of Essex, is a long-standing member of the Kipling Society, and an authority on Kipling's life and works. This article was first delivered as an address to the Society on 11 February 1998, and reprinted in the Kipling Journal in June 1998. A revised version is to be found in "In Time's Eye", essays on Rudyard Kipling edited by Jan Montefiore (Manchester University Press 2014). The collection also includes an article by Harry Ricketts on "Kipling among the war poets".
Many, many years ago, when I was a young academic at Cambridge, I found myself sitting on a sofa having tea with E.M. Forster. It was the season between Bonfire Night and Christmas. He said that, according to his bedmaker, old people hated Remembrance Sunday: it brought back too many painful memories.Hope lies to mortals[A.E. Houseman]
I myself hated Remembrance Sunday, 1997. During the last Parliament I couldn't help noticing (like everyone else, I watch the television news) that every year in the week or so before 11 November, Tory M.P.s sprouted plastic poppies in their lapels (by the way, why are modern Poppy Day poppies so cheap and ugly?) as if they had contracted a rash. In 1997 they put the things on a full fortnight beforehand and so did members of the Government. There was no sign of the pacifist White Poppy movement, which made itself conspicuous a few years before; but Peter Tatchell led a homosexual group to place artificial pink poppies (arranged in a triangular wreath) on the Cenotaph a week before the official ceremonies. The British Legion repeated its plea that two minutes' silence should be observed by everyone on 11 November as well as on Remembrance Sunday; and commerce (my building society) and the Prime Minister hastened to endorse it.
Since only one war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – not World War II, the Korean War, the Falklands affair, or the Gulf War – this seemed to me to be an objectionable idea: it seemed to suggest that only the First World War mattered, or that it mattered uniquely. In a way that is quite true, but I do not think it is a point that should be made at the time when all our battle-dead are being commemorated.
The whole shabby farce culminated on Remembrance Sunday itself, when a dirty, tattered Union Jack was flown over Whitehall upside down. The Ministry of Defence gallantly blamed the Crown Property Services Agency.
Surely this concatenation of self-serving humbug, enacted at the expense of what used to be the most sacred ceremony of the British year, is proof that those old painful memories are losing their hold on the nation. We would not insist so vulgarly that we remember if we were not actually forgetting, or putting the sagas aside. This forgetting is, I think, a development both inevitable and healthy. But we will do ourselves no service, and the dead no honour, if, as a people, we continue to pretend that the poppies mean as much to us as ever. Did those sons and daughters die so that we could play the sanctimonious hypocrite in their name?
Of course not. Yet I can see few signs that the popular imagination is ready to consider and discuss the wars of the twentieth century – the two World Wars particularly – dispassionately, honestly and knowledgeably. In the course of preparing this paper I went to hear a lecture by Professor Brian Bond on the First World War (1) in which he told how, recently, he had heard a young woman remark during a television discussion that it was thanks to the public schools that Britain lost that war. Professor Bond wrote in to say that according to his information Britain had won. The BBC wrote back to say politely that he was entitled to his view.
Another anecdote: not long ago I had occasion to read a graduate thesis on women writers and the Great War. I was startled to find that the author, writing nearly eighty years after the Armistice, took it for granted that the absolute pacifists of 1914-18 were right. The war should never have been fought, and any writers, even women writers, who thought otherwise – who let their attitudes be tainted by patriotism or any other belligerent propensity – were simply written off as "militarists". It had not crossed the writer's mind that you could hate the war and the processes of waging war and yet believe that it must be fought and won. As Wagner once said of Mendelssohn, I seemed to see an abyss of superficiality opening before me.
Nor could I dismiss this piece of work as a mere token of one student's personal eccentricity. On the contrary, the writer was the typical victim of two generations of misrepresentation. It is hardly surprising that an age which finds in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (which ought to be called An Anti-War Requiem) its most representative piece of public music, should be unaware that it is possible, in all seriousness and decency, to take more than one view of the Great War. Nor is it surprising that the British generally, so far as I can judge, now hold two logically incompatible beliefs; first, that all war is pointless and avoidable, that all admirals, generals and air marshals are vicious incompetents, that all servicemen are passive victims, rather like sacrificial sheep; second, that the sheep were heroes who saved their country. And attempts are now being made to launch a third fallacy, or should I say to resurrect one. On 11 November 1997 the BBC saw fit to run a TV news item on German atrocities in Belgium in 1914. The wheel has indeed come full circle.
As a professional historian I passionately repudiate all this inconsistent and irresponsible myth-mongering. Neither the pacifist nor the nationalist view of the World Wars – of World War I in particular – is an adequate interpretation; nor is a hellish blend of the two; and there are some things that are too precious to be relinquished to the self-serving posturing of demagogues, whether of the Left or the Right. Furthermore, a nation which wallows in sentimental falsification of its past is likely to misjudge and mishandle its present, with Heaven knows what evil results. The time has come to cry halt, as I am glad to report that a good many of my professional colleagues are doing; (2) and we, as members of the Kipling Society, have a particular obligation to raise our voices, for among the many burnt offerings currently being set before the God of Slovenly Falsehoods is the reputation of Rudyard Kipling. It grieves me to say that to judge from the latest issue of the Kipling Journal we are failing somewhat in our duty.
The Journal in question (December 1997) contained eight pages of comment on the recent (October 1997) play, "My Boy Jack", by David Haig. The comment was intelligent, good-humoured and well-informed, as was to be expected; and the Holts, in particular, had some important reservations; but except for one paragraph by the Editor (who had not seen the play), all the contributors fell into the same trap which, in my opinion, had swallowed up the dramatist. They all accept that the war was pointless, and that the dead died uselessly. The play amounted to an almost total falsification of the beliefs, views and principles of the Kipling family where the Great War was concerned, and simultaneously displayed a shocking ignorance, indeed I must say prejudice, about the war itself.
The tragedy we were shown was not the tragedy which actually befell the Kipling family; the interpretation of the war that was laid before us was one which no one at the time would have endorsed, except possibly Bertrand Russell and a handful of pacifists (16,500 conscientious objectors, as against 4.9 million who enlisted). To a historian, the piece was a travesty of the past, and a confirmation, if one was needed, that myth has displaced truth, and that too many of the British have lost touch with their actual past. Ours is a generation which has succumbed to sentimentality and to what, in my profession, is sometimes called "presentism": the inability to understand that the past is different, and that what seems obvious to us, or to some of us, would have seemed contemptible, even incomprehensible, to our recent ancestors. So my business tonight must be to remind you all of certain facts about the Great War, and to clarify Kipling's response to it.
Let me begin by saying a word about young John Kipling: it need not be long, since George Webb (Editor of the Kipling Journal from 1980 to 1998) has already said all that is needful. John in life was not the sympathetic but probably neurotic weakling that David Haig makes him. He was an entirely typical specimen of the young men who rushed to arms in 1914 at their country's call. Over a million of them had volunteered by Christmas. I would like to stress how extraordinary this was: every other belligerent in 1914 relied on conscription; only Britain disdained it. It is inconceivable that John would have held back, and we know that he did not. He was not quite seventeen when the war began, and his bad eyesight might have kept him out of uniform, but he would not allow it to do so. Rejected on his first application for a commission, he said he would volunteer to serve as a private. But his father applied to Lord Roberts, who got John a commission in his own regiment, The Irish Guards.(4)
John was immensely happy at this; what the action cost his father, Rudyard never told anyone, except perhaps his wife, who was paying too. Almost at once they realised that John's commission was just a deferred death warrant, for subalterns, some of whom they knew, were already falling like ninepins. They only had love, pride and courage to help them bear their loss, in prospect and in actuality. Their only consolation was that John died like a man, for a cause in which he and they believed. How much they would have agreed with George Webb, that 'it ill becomes anyone today to trivialise John's determination to play his part'; (4) yet that is exactly what Haig (who might have thought twice, given the name he bears) has done in his play, and what all do who take a glib view of the First World War.
My concern tonight, however, is not with John, except incidentally, but with Rudyard. I seem to see three, or possibly four phases in his attitude to the war, but in the time available to me I can only glance at the first of them: his interpretation of the issues which brought Germany and Britain to war with each other, and his justification of British belligerency.
Here again I have to register a protest about "My Boy Jack". Quite early in Act 1 Kipling, in 1913 or thereabouts, is made to give a jingoistic speech in the course of his agitation to bring in conscription. Nothing wrong about that in principle, but the speech was silly. Kipling warns against Germany because, if it came to war and Germany won, German methods of laying bricks would be imposed on England. This and the other points made Kipling sound like the dottiest sort of saloon-bar Euro-sceptic. No doubt this was intentional, but to anyone knowledgeable about Kipling it was deeply offensive, for whatever we may think of his politics, he wasn't silly, nor was he even unrepresentative.
Like many other Englishmen, he had been watching Germany with increasing apprehension ever since the Kaiser started building his great navy in 1897; and the perception that imperial Germany meant to overthrow British pre-eminence if she could, by war if necessary, was reinforced by a vague but strengthening sense that German civilisation itself was growing sinister. Above all Kipling knew, as did everyone else of his time, that Britain was dependent on freedom of the seas not merely for the preservation of her empire, but for mere survival: a point that was true of no other Great Power, and which the Kaiser and his men would have been well-advised to consider before they began so frivolously to threaten Britain's lifeline:
"Then what can I do for you, all you Big Steamers,Kipling was, it seems, obsessionally convinced that the Liberal government was neglecting or botching Britain's defences; in this he was grossly unfair, and he was unrealistic, too, in brushing aside the extreme political difficulties that would have frustrated any government which tried to introduce conscription in peacetime; but his support for Lord Roberts's National Service League was neither foolish nor unwise nor dishonourable – indeed, knowing how near the British Expeditionary Force came to destruction in 1914 for lack of numbers, we must surely wish that the League had succeeded – and if David Haig had known what he was talking about he would not have suggested otherwise.
The outbreak of war in 1914 seemed to confirm Kipling's worst forebodings. We, posterity, must strive for a larger view. The First World War was such an appalling disaster that there can only be one verdict on the European generation which brought it about: they failed scandalously in an essential duty and must be blamed; but they must also be pitied. For although it can hardly be denied any longer that it was the wanton decisions of Austria-Hungary and Germany which made the great tragedy inevitable, all of the other powers had made contributory mistakes in the years before the war, and all were to suffer horribly. So although it is still difficult for us, our task is not to take sides, but to understand. Such a cool approach will better help us to appraise Kipling than either retrospective jingoism, or retrospective pacifism.
Given the world which had shaped them, and in which they had to take decisions, it is no surprise that in 1914, after long hesitation, the British Cabinet felt obliged to go to war. It was clear that German power posed a long-term threat to the British Empire; Grey, Asquith, Haldane, Churchill and Lloyd George believed that it was their duty to defend that empire. A successful defence required that Britain have friends, or rather allies; therefore when Germany attacked France (which of all the main belligerents of 1914 seems to me to have least to apologise for) Britain must support her associate (I doubt very much that Britain would have gone to war only to aid Russia). It might have been difficult to unite the country behind this proposition, but the Schlieffen Plan spared the Cabinet from having to make the attempt. The brutal invasion of Belgium made it a matter of honour to fight, and showed what all Germany's opponents or rivals might expect if they did not resist her successfully.
It is impossible to exaggerate the effect of the rape of Belgium on English minds. As Lyn MacDonald has remarked, it gave the Allies a Cause. (5) Even Bernard Shaw, who leaned over backwards to see both sides of the question in his Common Sense (and reaped years of intense unpopularity as a result), eventually denounced the Germans as idolaters and pompous noodles for their failure to see the political imbecility of their conduct. (6) H.G.Wells denounced "blood and iron" and, I am sorry to say, "flagwagging Teutonic Kiplingism." (7) The reaction began even before the atrocities: the indefensible invasion was atrocity enough. There was an explosion of verse, the first flames of a fire that was to burn for more than four years and add a glory to English literature. I suppose the most famous lines of 1914 are Rupert Brooke's:
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,Charles Carrington was to comment, "that indeed was how it seemed," though Brooke's words "have sometimes since seemed so hard to justify." (8) Equally strange is John Masefield's rather fine "August, 1914", which embodies a myth, very powerful at the time (it apparently inspired Edward Thomas to enlist), that Germany must be fought because she threatened the life of the English countryside (I suppose it was a consequence of the invasion scares which had been a feature of the pre-war years).
How still this quiet cornfield is tonight!The poem turns into a plea for Englishmen to go "as unknown generations of dead men did":
For some idea but dimly understoodSquires, labourers and poets were to spring to arms to defend the woods, meadows and very soil of England. It is perhaps philistine to remark that General von Schlieffen never expressed any wish to destroy English agricultural society: we might think better of him if he had. In fact, so far as I know the Germans in the First World War never planned to invade Britain, and would not have succeeded had they tried. So in retrospect, for many reasons, much of the verse of 1914 seems misguided.
This does not apply to Kipling. The poem which he eventually produced was not the spontaneous effusion of a non-political but gifted man, wakened, as Brooke so accurately put it, from sleep. (Thomas Hardy's "Men Who March Away" was just such an effusion, and not much better than doggerel.) Rather was Kipling the nation's recognised prophet. For no one's words did the English-speaking world listen to so eagerly as his. In preparing this paper I came across a charming illustration of what he then meant to the people. A bandsman in the Rifle Brigade, finding himself and his comrades mobbed by a cheering, singing, flower-throwing crowd as they marched through Felixstowe, and remembering how contemptuously they had been treated in Colchester, their base in peacetime (they had been barred from many pubs) "couldn't help thinking of [Kipling's] lines, It's Tommy this and Tommy that, and Tommy get outside, but it's 'Thank you, Mr. Atkins, ' when the troopship's on the tide." (10) But Kipling was silent for the whole of August. He was waiting, I guess, until he had something precise to say. It was the conquest of Belgium which at length drove him into utterance.
We need reminding of what that conquest entailed. On 4 August 1914, in breach of international law, her own treaty obligations, common sense and common human decency, Germany sent her armies across the frontier into Belgium and laid siege to Liège. The policy of Schrecklichkeit, or frightfulness, was immediately activated. The people of Belgium were to be terrorised into offering no resistance, for the Schlieffen Plan did not permit of delays for any cause. Paris must be entered not more than six weeks after German mobilisation. The Germans persuaded themselves besides that any Belgian resistance, apart from that offered, to their astonishment, by the Belgian army, was illegal, and might be punished by the severest methods.
So hostages were taken to secure good civilian behaviour, and when that did not work, were shot: six at Warsage on the first day of the invasion. Simultaneously the village of Battice was burned to the ground, "as an example". (11) On 5 August some Belgian priests were shot out of hand on the pretext that they had been organising sharpshooters. On 6 August Zeppelins bombed Liège, thus inaugurating a standard twentieth-century practice, as Barbara Tuchman points out. On 16 August Liège fell, after a defence which excited the world's admiration. On 19 August, at a place called Aerschot, 150 civilians were killed. On 20 August Brussels was occupied.
That day and the next, massacres occurred at Andenne (211 shot), Seille (50) and Tamines (384). The Germans indulged themselves in an orgy of burning and looting. On 23 August Dinant was sacked, and 644 men, women and children were lined up and shot in the public square: included was a baby three weeks old. The roads south and west were by now choked with refugees. Namur fell to the Germans, and there was another massacre at Visé: all those spared fled across the frontier into Holland, except for 700 boys who, in another innovation with a long future, were deported to help with the harvest in Germany. The French fought heroically at the battle of Charleroi, but were nevertheless forced to retreat. The Germans entered Louvain.
Two days later they began their sack of Louvain, which went on for nearly a week and was soon the most notorious of their crimes. The town was looted and burned, the inhabitants driven off or massacred, and the great university library, one of the greatest treasures of its kind in Europe, was utterly destroyed. All these incidents were faithfully reported by American newspapermen, and quickly found their way into the British press. The horrified condemnations of the neutral, perhaps even of the Allied, press, seem to have startled the German high command: the sack ended suddenly on Sunday, 30 August.
On Tuesday, 1 September, in The Times, Kipling spoke:
For all we have and are,"Poetry makes nothing happen," said Auden, and it is likely that by the time these verses appeared few readers of The Times needed Kipling to tell them what the war was about; but no doubt writing them helped him to clarify his own understanding, (12) and reading them may now clarify ours. The issue was the same as that of Hitler's war: alongside Dinant and Louvain we remember Oradour and Lidice.
Schrecklichkeit shattered irreparably the faith and hopes which the nineteenth century had bequeathed to the twentieth; we have paid heavily for their loss ever since; nevertheless, the Germans had to be resisted. The point is unaffected by the fact that rumour managed to exaggerate even the truth. To do the Germans justice, they seem to have refrained from rape and mere sadism: the stories about ravished pregnant girls, and children with hands chopped off, seem to have started among the tens of thousands of refugees who got away to England, and to have been amplified by British civilians. These exaggerations eventually had a tragic effect, for not only did they come to blur the memories of what the invaders had actually done, their exposure as fraudulent made people very reluctant to believe what they heard twenty years later, when tales of new horrors began to come out of Germany. Kipling swallowed too many of the tall tales. But it was not false rumour which inspired him in August 1914.
The date of the poem has another, perhaps unplanned significance – I say 'perhaps' because Kipling could throw off finished verse with astonishing speed. On Sunday, 30 August, a special edition of The Times carried the celebrated "Amiens dispatch", which brought the first news to an appalled country of the retreat from Mons, the heavy losses of the BEF, and the prospect of total defeat which the Allied cause now faced. It was to a public reeling from the news that Kipling spoke:
Comfort, content, delight,This was the prophet of "Recessional" speaking again; there are clear verbal echoes of the earlier poem in the new, and they are printed side by side in the Definitive Edition of Rudyard Kipling's Verse. George Webb objects to Kipling's use (here and elsewhere) of the word 'Hun', even though it was the Kaiser himself who, with characteristic folly, first used it of German troops; but apart from that, I think we can all agree that these were astonishingly apt words for that hour, moving even today, and even today showing not only why so many in 1914 believed in the justice of the Allied cause, but that it actually was just.
Its message need not be summarised: Kipling is his own interpreter. "Who dies if England live?"
Answer: hundreds of thousands of young men, among them the prophet's only son; but he never swerved from what he saw as the cruel truth. The 'sickening word' must be silenced again. This was the issue. In "The Outlaws", a poem of the same year, he elaborated his view of the Huns:
They traded with the careless earth,He never swerved from this attitude. He came perhaps nearest to what he thought was the root of the evil in that really unworthy poem, "A Death-Bed", when he picked up a tale that the Kaiser was dying of throat cancer, like his father before him. It begins:
"This is the State above the Law.And in October, 1918, as the Allies and Germany began to negotiate for an armistice, he published an urgent poem, "Justice", in which he urged the absolute necessity of punishing the enemy before concluding peace with him:
A People and their KingBut he did not by any means let the British off the hook. Everyone knows his "Epitaph of the War: Common Form":
If any question why we died,This is, perhaps, too gnomic: at best it is a half-truth, blaming the Liberals' alleged unpreparedness, as if that were a sufficient explanation of the slaughter (13); at worst, it has misled many as to his attitude to the war itself. I prefer a verse from "Natural Theology":
Money spent on an Army or FleetIn "The Covenant" he rebuked the nation for the pride and folly which brought on the war (though it seems that he was also, yet again, blaming the Liberals particularly):
We thought we ranked above the chance of ill.But he was impressed and pleased by the response of this decadent nation to the challenge; he had no doubt where the real blame lay, and he saw a stark contrast between the combatants:
"Immemorially trained to refer all thought and deed to certain standards of right and wrong which, [the English] held, lay equally on all men, they had to deal with an enemy for whom right and wrong do not exist except as the State decides." (14)From first to last, you observe, the picture is utterly consistent; and I may add that until his death in 1936 Kipling never ceased to warn against the danger of a revival of German aggression, and to urge the importance of keeping faith with the dead.
What are we to make of all this? I think we should start by making certain concessions to Kipling's critics. All witnesses agree that Britain became hysterical with hatred of the Germans when the First World War broke out, and Kipling (whose genius had a hysterical side) caught the infection, as these poems show, and as is also shown by such stories as '"Swept and Garnished'" and "Mary Postgate" (15) (not to mention the poem, "The Beginnings", which accompanies "Mary Postgate"). He believed the worst allegations about German atrocities in Belgium; he demonised the Kaiser relentlessly; he picked up the half-baked notion that German 'frightfulness' could be attributed to Heinrich von Treitschke, although Treitschke (admittedly, not a sympathetic figure) seems only to have purveyed notions common to all European countries, with a German colouring: "The moment that the state proclaims, 'Your state and the existence of your state are now at stake', selfishness disappears and party hatred is silenced..." (16)
Kipling's knowledge and understanding of Germany were so superficial that he did not perceive that the problem was not that its government was so strong, but that it was so badly organised that it could not control its generals or qualify their blinkered military outlook by political common sense. Thus on 1 August, 1914, at the very last hour, the Kaiser, visited by a sudden flash of wisdom, told Moltke that there was no need to go to war in the West; they should abandon the Schlieffen Plan and fight Russia alone. Moltke, shattered by the idea, absolutely refused to adopt it, although apparently he recognised, only six months later, that the assault on Belgium and France had been a mistake. (17)
The curse of Germany was militarism, the militarism of Prussia as it had developed since 1870; most of the country's mistakes and all of its crimes during the First World War can be laid at its door, and it was those crimes which created the atmosphere and attitude which made later, even greater, crimes possible. The evidence that militarism was the enemy was available to Kipling from the moment that Belgium was violated; but, obsessed with the Kaiser, he failed to understand it. Wilhelm II was not a competent ruler, but he was not the genius of pure evil that Kipling made him out to be. That description only applies to a later German ruler, the follower of Ludendorff.
On the other hand, Kipling did understand very well the case for British belligerence. So far as Britain and the British Empire were concerned, Germany was simply not to be trusted, and Britain could not in prudence stand by while her only ally, France, was destroyed; besides, invasion and occupation by Germany was no joke, and in the name of human solidarity it would have been shameful to grant the Prussians a free hand. These points were well understood in England in August and September, 1914, and on the whole they continued to be valid throughout the war. Siegfried Sassoon apparently believed that peace could have been made in 1917. If so, it would have been peace on Germany's terms, and we know, both from the work of Fritz Fischer and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, just how cruel those terms would have been. They would also have weighed most heavily on Britain's allies. Peace in 1917 was not, as it happened, at all likely; Kipling would not have been alone in thinking that it could not have been honourable. Yet nobody, reading The Irish Guards, can doubt that he knew exactly what was the price of war.
The aspect of Kipling discussed in this paper is not that which has guaranteed his hold on posterity. There is much more to be said of his writings on the war: his reportage, his verse, his stories; even an examination of such relatively minor work as Sea Warfare reveals a human warmth (not to mention a certain charm, and delicacy of observation) which sets it, as literature, above most of the verse I have quoted today. And there is much still for us to discover about that other work. For example, that amazing passage in "Mary Postgate" where the dead boy's possessions are listed as she burns them may perhaps be read as Kipling's prophylactic against grief; or a rehearsal, for it was written six months before he lost his own boy. And his account of the battle of Loos, in the second volume of The Irish Guards, though as carefully restrained in tone as all the rest of that remarkable work, does contain some of the few critical comments on the high command, its tactics and strategy, that he ever allowed himself. It cannot be a coincidence that it was at Loos that John Kipling died.
But this paper has had another concern: to rescue Kipling's reputation from ignorant libel, and to contribute, in however small a way, to a better understanding of that great historical tragedy which was not only his, not only his country's, but the world's – and which we still, after all this time, instinctively call the Great War.
©Hugh Brogan 1998 All rights reserved