Kipling and Field-Marshall Lord Roberts
by Rodney Atwood
To-day, across our fathers' graves,The words are Kipling's, the year is 1907, the fiftieth anniversary of the Sepoy Mutiny, and the instigator was Kipling's friend Field Marshal Lord Roberts. Roberts, a veteran of the Mutiny, hoped that a commemorative medal would be issued by the government to those still alive. There was trouble in the sub-continent in 1907 even before the anniversary, and in May the Government of India issued emergency measures in the Punjab, Eastern Bengal and Assam to put down unrest. As Roberts told his former A.D.C., now Viceroy of India Lord Minto, the King approved of a medal like that for Crimean War veterans, 'but Morley [Secretary of State for India] is a little nervous as to whether any reference to the Mutiny is advisable, considering the disloyal feeling in Bengal and other parts of India.' [National Army Museum, Roberts papers 7101-23-122, letterbook no. 10, R to Minto, 31 Jan 1907.] Morley was indeed nervous, there was to be no medal, and the veterans' dinner at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 December given by the proprietors of the Daily Telegraph, for which Kipling wrote the poem quoted, was for the old field marshal a consolation. Nonetheless, at Kensington the veterans made the most of it. Paraphrasing The Times report the next day:
The astonished years reveal
The remnant of that desperate host
That cleansed our East with steel.
Hail and farewell! We greet you here,
With tears that none will scorn—
Oh Keepers of the House of old,
Or ever we were born!
At the Albert memorial the commemoration began with a review by Lord Roberts, witnessed by a large gathering of the public. The band of the 1st Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, the old 32nd Foot, the defenders of Lucknow, played a selection of music.What memories came flooding back to the old men who stood there proudly? And Roberts? For he saw it all, from the first news of outbreak in the Punjab, the suppression of potential mutiny there, the hanging of the Subadar-Major of the 51st Bengal Native Infantry on the parade square at Peshawar, the blowing of forty other mutineers from the mouths of cannon, the siege of Delhi, the relief of Lucknow.
In the hall Roberts presided at a long table with many distinguished guests, Lord Curzon, General Sir Dighton Probyn, a Mutiny V.C. and A.D.C. to the King, Mr Rudyard Kipling, General Sir Hugh Gough, another Mutiny V.C. and commander of the cavalry brigade at Roberts's famed march to Kandahar.
The old soldiers were enthusiastically cheered as they took their places. All wore their medals conspicuously displayed. Many who were lame were tenderly helped by Guardsmen or their friends, but the majority were upright, well-preserved men who bore their years bravely. The last piece of music before the speeches was "The Campbells are Coming" by Piper Angus Gibson of the Black Watch, the only surviving piper of those who took part in the Mutiny. It was this Scottish tune which came to the ears of the defenders of Lucknow half a century before as Colin Campbell's relief force fought its way through the surrounding palaces and gardens guided by two Irishmen, Henry Kavanagh, one of very few civilians to win the Victoria Cross, and Roberts himself.
Curzon made the chief speech and finished to loud cheers with a toast to the surviving veterans among them 'the hero who was still their hero in 1907, endeared to the nation by half a century of service and sacrifice not one whit less glorious than that of his youth.' That hero a moment later was on his feet to reply, greeted by prolonged cheers. Modestly he pointed out that those present were mere boys at the time and they must all feel that this commemoration was an honour not paid to them but to the memory of those by whose skill and courage 'that great epoch' in our Indian history was brought to a successful close. Some, perhaps the greatest of them, died during the Mutiny, and Roberts specially remembered Sir Henry Lawrence the defender of Lucknow and John Nicholson the hero of Delhi. Of all the men he had ever served under none had impressed him as much as Nicholson.
The occasion closed impressively with the playing of "The Last Post", the singing of Kipling's "Recessional", the reciting of his commemorative poem, and finally "Auld Lang Syne".
'Wolseley be shot! Betune you an' me an' that butterfly net, he's a ramblin', incoherint sort av a divil, wid wan oi on the Quane an' the Coort, an' the other on his blessed silf—. . . Now Bobs is a sinsible little man. Wid Bobs an' a few three-year-olds, I'd swape any army av the earth into a towel, an' throw it away aftherwards. Faith, I'm not jokin'!'As a 'three-year-man' was one on a short-service enlistment, looked down on by hardened veterans like Mulvaney, this was an accolade indeed for Roberts.
'The present Commander-in-Chief in India is a fine soldier, who has earned the national gratitude by his public services . . . But among the penalties of Sir Frederick Roberts' exalted position is the control of a vast patronage, and this ... is not always so disposed as to disarm unfriendly criticism, and to secure for his bestowals that unfailing respect which is so desirable'.The poem is headed, 'Not to be sung at Snowdon theatre' a witty and obvious reference to Roberts's house where amateur theatricals were performed, Kipling sometimes taking part.
They really were most mercifulThe charge and the alternative nickname remained with Roberts throughout his career, to the War Office in 1901. He was after all building up the "Roberts ring" as a counter-weight to Wolseley's "Ashanti ring". An accurate view of Roberts, not unfavourable, but not rose-tinted, is in Kipling's controversial poem "One Viceroy Resigns" late in the same year imagining Dufferin giving advice to his successor about his council:
They praised his winning ways
His little feet that merrily
Trip on from baize to bays.
They glorified the new canteen.
They called him "Tommy's Pride",
But O they said his patronage
was sometimes misapplied...
Perpend, retreat, refrain, reform
O man of Kandahar,
For even pocket-Wellingtons
May carry things too far.
We cannot judge the influence.
The face alone we see.
And if the P——r is wrath,
Oh Lord what must you be.
We've heard it before, but we'll drink once more,
While the Army sniffs and sobs
For Bobs its pride, who has lately died,
And is now succeeded by Jobs.
[Poems of Rudyard Kipling Ed. Pinney, Cambridge 2013, vol iii p. 1901]
. . . Look to one—The third line is a reference to Roberts's renowned horsemanship, which Simla would have understood. 'Dreams ... we cannot buy' referred to his plans for extra forts, railways and troops on the North-west Frontier, plans which were frequently rejected or reduced on grounds of cost. 'Wants the Lords', hinting at his ambition, would also raise wry smiles among Indian Army men who had nicknamed the march to Kandahar 'the race for the peerage'. Roberts was known to hate cats, and at one moment at Kabul in 1879 there was nearly a moment of high farce as the British paraded impressively and Roberts prepared to read a proclamation. A cat appeared, and he went white as a sheet. Fortunately two of his staff shooed it away.
I work with him—the smallest of them all,
White-haired, red-faced, who sat the plunging horse
Out in the garden. He's your right-hand man,
And dreams of tilting Wolseley from the throne,
But while he dreams gives work we cannot buy;
He has his Reputation—wants the Lords
By way of Frontier Roads. Meantime, I think,
He values very much the hand that falls
Upon his shoulder at the Council table—
Hates cats and knows his business. . .
There's a little red-faced man,It is worth having "One Viceroy Resigns" in front of us when we consider another verse:
Which is Bobs,
Rides the tallest 'orse 'e can-
If it bucks or kicks or rears,
'E can sit for twenty years
With a smile round both 'is ears-
Can't yer, Bobs?
Oh, 'e's little but he's wise,This hit at Roberts's rival Wolseley was unfortunately untrue, but Kipling knew it and may have written ironically. If ever there was a media general who like Montgomery some fifty years later cultivated his image and the press, it was Roberts, who gave future Generals and Field Marshals their start by attaching them to his staff or military family and using their talents. Among these able young men was Ian Hamilton, later defeated at Gallipoli, who had literary aspirations, wrote some good books and some execrable poetry, sent Kipling's work to Andrew Lang and was a pall bearer at his funeral. An A.D.C., Neville Chamberlain, the inventor of snooker, no relation of the Prime Minister but nephew of the commander of the Moveable Column in the Indian Mutiny, did much of Roberts's writing for him. It was Chamberlain who adapted Lucia di Lammermoor for a staging at Roberts's home Snowdon at Simla, with a prologue written by Kipling, to raise money for Lady Roberts's "Homes in the Hills", convalescent homes doubling as bases for nurses.
'E's terror for 'is size,
Do yer, Bobs?
Dear Mr Kipling,This suggests the two men were not very close, although in 1894 Kipling had sat next to Roberts at a London dinner and proposed a toast to him. Kipling told his former editor at Lahore Stephen Wheeler, ' "Bobs" has sent me a copy of his Forty One Years in India, which I am amazed at the things he does not say. . .'. The hangings at Kabul are the obvious omission, and Kipling as a correspondent for the Civil & Military Gazette had an intimate knowledge of Afghan affairs and in March 1885 attended the Rawalpindi conference between the Amir Abdur Rahman and Dufferin.' To Roberts however he wrote, 'never did living leader of men have so many passionate worshippers among his rank and file.' He also recognized the extraordinary skill with which Roberts made it a platform for his views on imperial policy, the north-west frontier and British rule in India.
You who take and have made others take such a keen interest in our soldiers, and have brought India so near to the people of Great Britain by your jungle stories and vivid word pictures, may, perhaps, come to read the narrative of a soldier's life in India. At all events the book will serve to assure you that you are most kindly remembered by,
Yours very truly,
'Not till I read it in full . . . ,' said Kipling, 'did I understand the wonderful skill of it, from an artistic point of view. In its utter simplicity and directness it reads like the detached account of some interested by-stander who chanced to have been present at the world's history, and even I, who know, I think, every step of your career, was amazed by it. The papers have been so taken up with the matter of the book that, so far as I have seen, they had not in the least done justice to the perfection of technique . . .'This was praise indeed; and he told Roberts that the gift and the accompanying letters were 'a source of pride and gratification' to him. The poet was as proud as the General of Britain's rule in India.
The tumult and the shouting dies;Kipling's reminder of the fleeting nature of power and the need to answer the call to a higher law was meant to counter the worship of power to which the hoop-la of the Jubilee might lead. On "Recessional" 's message I quote George Orwell, whose view of the British Empire was almost diametrically opposed to that of Roberts and Kipling.
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!
"Lesser breeds without the Law" – This line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a matter of course that the 'lesser breeds' are 'natives', and a mental picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a coolie. In its context the sense of the line is almost the exact opposite of this. The phrase 'lesser breeds' refers almost certainly to the Germans, and espe- cially the pan-German writers, who are 'without the Law' in the sense of being lawless, not in the sense of being powerless. The whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a denunciation of power politics, British as well as German.Meanwhile war threatened in South Africa. Roberts wrote to his friend, the former Viceroy Lord Lansdowne, now secretary of state at the War Office, offering his services, even prepared to come down in rank. General Redvers Buller however was ear-marked for South African command. Meanwhile Freddie Roberts the field marshal's son failed his staff college exam. Father had to plead with the adjutant gen- eral Evelyn Wood, a Wolseleyite, to admit Freddie. In late Victorian England a famous name opened doors. Wood replied to Roberts on 11 October, 1899. 'I am happy to inform you that your son, Lieutenant the Hon. F. Roberts, has been selected by the Commander-in-Chief for a nomination for the Staff College. Lord Wolseley has desired me to add that it has given him much gratification to be able to meet your wishes.' Wolseley wrote two days later in reply to a Roberts thank-you, 'If your son was not to have a nomination for the S.C. who should have one? Besides he has a very good reputation of his own as a soldier.' He did indeed. Like his father he was mentioned several times in dispatches for service on the North-West Frontier.
'I found him on the train in a terrible state & I am afraid in pain. . . His pluck was extraordinary & he said Good bye warrior we'll meet again soon. I must say I thought he was dying at the time, it was terrible. I cld'nt take his hand but just caught hold of his elbow & I think he moved it as an acknowledgment as he cldn't speak at the moment.' The future field marshal Major William Birdwood was sure he would not live. 'I am very sorry: he is such a dear good fellow and so absolutely unspoilt, and loved by every one. . .'Buller's defeat at Colenso, the third of the infamous 'Black Week', was followed by defeatist telegrams and his supersession by Roberts. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, insisted that the forty-nine-year- old Kitchener accompany the sixty-seven-year-old Roberts as chief of staff.
Germany strikes when Germany's hour has struck. That is the time-honoured policy relentlessly pursued by Bismarck and Moltke in 1866 and 1870. It has been her policy decade by decade since that date. It is her policy at the present hour. It is an excellent policy. It is or should be the policy of every nation prepared to play a great part in history.The radical press attacked him, claiming that his real wish for a pre-emptive strike on Germany was unmasked. The Daily Mail replied, MFONT COLOR=BLUE>'Our politicians must give a clear lead. . . Not one of them but feels in his heart that Lord Roberts speaks the truth.' In that year even the reluctant Times came to his support, and by 1913 the case for compulsion seemed to be enjoying greater success than ever before, including most senior soldiers. However neither political party would support the campaign.
'Well,' said Puck to the children, 'what did you think of it? Weland gave the Sword! The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It's as natural as an oak growing.'Roberts to the House of Lords declared his sense of the past: 'We are links in a living chain pledged to transmit to posterity the glorious heritage we have received by those who have gone before us.' This shared vision led Roberts to side with the die-hards in the House of Lords crisis of 1910-1911, and his view of empire and his Irish background made him a figurehead for Ulster resistance to Home Rule. He, Kipling, and Edward Elgar among others supported the British Covenant. The ferocity of Kipling's language showed that he and Roberts could not believe what was happening: in the former's words, 'A province and a people of Great Britain are to be sold to their and our enemies.' Roberts wrote to the Prime Minister begging him not to use the army to shoot down fellow countrymen while defending those who never missed 'an opportunity of slandering and vilifying the army in the grossest manner'. In an agony of soul, sure that his beloved army would be torn apart, he went to the King to plead royal intervention; the King's efforts were in vain. In the summer of 1914 war appeared imminent: war in Ireland as both the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood began arming and Winston Churchill and Jack Seely, First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State for War respectively, made bellicose speeches promising what would happen if Ulster resisted. Into this came news of the Archduke's assassination and the European crisis. The day of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, Colonel Henry Wilson and his wife arrived for a weekend at Englemere, the Robertses' home at Ascot, Wilson saying the news was far more serious than expected. On 4 August Carrie Kipling at Bateman's wrote in her diary that she had a terrible cold. Rudyard added underneath, 'Incidentally, Armageddon begins: England declares war on Germany.' This brings us back to 1907. Kipling's Mutiny anniversary poem included a third verse:
One service more we dare to ask—The day had come with Germany's invasion of Belgium. We all know sadly what, for that generation, not shaming the day meant. Roberts's last favour to his friend, a commission for John Kipling in the Irish Guards, had fatal results. John was killed six weeks after his eighteenth birthday, on 27 September 1915 at the battle of Loos.
Pray for us, heroes, pray,
That when Fate lays on us our task
We do not shame the Day!
A profound shock of sorrow will be felt by the nation at the announcement of the death of Field Marshal Lord Roberts. . . One of the most famous and best beloved of British soldiers passes away in an hour of national trial, to prepare for which he had exerted himself with unsparing devotion.His family received numberless tributes. His younger daughter Edwina replied on her mother's behalf to an old friend:
You are so kind & I know you loved Father; there was no one like him and it is impossible to believe he is not there to tell all one's troubles & joys to. But he was so happy in France and his leaving was very perfect. No pain & so near the Army he loved.Kipling and Roberts: one a contradictory writer of genius, the other a soldier in the second rank of Britain's famous generals. Both small men who struggled to overcome handicaps, both world-famous symbols of empire. The Strand Magazine of December 1911 answered the question 'Who are the Ten Greatest Men Now Alive?' by placing Kipling second and Roberts seventh. Both had strong-willed wives with an important part in their careers, and loving daughters who guarded the flame after father's death and ordered the destruction of revealing private papers. Both men loved India – with the British of course firmly in control. Some of the descriptive pages of Forty-One Years parallel Kim, without its supreme mastery. In his astute wooing of the press, Roberts strikes a modern note. Kipling might once have had reservations about this. His unsung heroes were the men of the I.C.S., the engineers who built the great dams and bridges, and officers like Bobby Wick, hero of his short story "Only a Subaltern" who gives his life for his men, dying of cholera he contracted nursing them in an epidemic. Roberts going out to retrieve the situation in South Africa after his son's death was for Kipling and the empire a consummate example of sacrifice and service, and the old field marshal's dying in the field in 1914 was yet further proof.
He passed in the very battle-smoke
Of the war that he had descried.
Three hundred mile of cannon spoke
When the Master-Gunner died.