October 1918

(notes by Philip Holberton)

the poem
[December 3rd 2014]


First published in The Times. 24 October 1918 and on October 26th in the New York Times. Collected in:
  • The Years Between (1919)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol. 33 p. 452
  • Burwash Edition vol. 28
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney (p. 1152)

This poem is subtitled “October, 1918”. It was written when the Germans had clearly lost the War, but before the Armistice ended the fighting on 11 November 1918. Even at that late date, Kipling warns that the Allies must not 'have parley with the foe' (verse 1, line 7). They must not accept a negotiated peace, because Germany is 'Evil Incarnate' (verse 3, line 7) and must be held to answer for starting the war and for all the resulting horrors, enumerated in verse 4.

It is similar in theme (though very different in verse form) to"A Song at Cockcrow", written a year earlier to condemn the Pope for wanting a negotiated peace.

Some critical comments

Peter Keating (p.207) discusses the poem in some detail:
“Justice" was not written to mark the armistice, which was still three weeks off: it was a contribution to the day of the year, designated "Our Day", when the Joint War Committee of the Red Cross Society and the Order of St John made its annual world-wide appeal for funds to help the sick and wounded.

An editorial in The Times referred to Kipling's poem solely within this context, though the poem itself took a more conclusive, summarising approach to the war. In the following year, Kipling would use “Justice" as the concluding poem of The Years Between. In it, Kipling assumes that the war is all but over, Germany's "hour is past", "Evil Incarnate" has finally been restrained and must now "answer to mankind". But he is reluctant to welcome the final act that will "loose the word/ that bids new worlds to birth". Justice is more important than peace, justice for the sons who have died, and for those who will have to live with the peace terms. Before there can be a just peace, the Germans must "relearn the Law", and conditions in Germany must be such that never again can its "schools" or "priests" or "Kings" build "a people with the hearts of beasts". For Kipling, that point had not yet been reached: Germany, he believed, was essentially unchanged by the war.
Charles Carrington (p. 519) notes:
When the world news was at last favourable, Rudyard was slow in turning to optimism. As late as 13 October 1918 he and Landon ruefully agreed that they had 'no conviction of the prospect of peace', but rather some anxiety lest there should be a compromise without exemplary victory. This was the theme of the poem 'Justice', which was syndicated in 200 newspapers during October, a plea for the disarmament of Germany and the punishment of war criminals. It was with no exaltation that the Kiplings faced the end of the war.
Kipling first met Perceval Landon when they were war correspondents during the Boer War. They became such good friends that Kipling had a cottage built for him on the Bateman's estate.

Harry Ricketts (p. 339) comments that:
As the war itself at last moved towards an end, Kipling became tormented with the idea that Germany was not going to be made to pay in full, and forever, for being 'Evil Incarnate'. The phrase was from his October poem 'Justice', which might more accurately be called 'Retribution'. Rage and anger splattered through the lines as he shouted that Germany must be punished so that:
Our dead shall sleep
In honour, unbetrayed,
And we in faith and honour keep
That peace for which they paid.
What he meant, beneath the patriotic bluster, was so that he did not want to feel that John had died in vain.

Notes on the Text

Verse 2

the sword of Justice 'Justice' is often shown holding a sword – for instance the statue on the Old Bailey in London (above).

new worlds to birth Less that a month after the start of the War, on 1 September 1914, Kipling had seen that the prewar world had ceased to exist: 'Our world has passed away, In wantonness o'erthrown.' (“For All We Have and Are”).

Verse 3

A People and their King Germany and the Kaiser.

Verse 4

poisoned air the Germans were the first to use poison gas as a weapon

cold, commanded lust there were stories that German soldiers in Belgium perpetrated widespread rape, and that this was done under orders. Such rumours were never proved, but Kipling always believed the worst of “the Hun.”

every secret woe / The shuddering waters saw German submarines sank several passenger liners. The most notorious was the Lusitania in 1915, when 1,198 people drowned.

Verse 6

last 4 lines: If justice is done to the Germans, the sacrifice of our dead (including, of course, Kipling’s son John) will have been worthwhile.


© Philip Holberton 2014 All rights reserved