[August 2oth 2017]
First published in the Pall Mall Gazette April 25th 1895, and the Pall Mall Budget on May 2nd. Listed in ORG as No. 633A.
The poem describes the horrors of soldiers on the battlefield in defeat: the fear, the confusion, the knives of the enemy, the screams of terror, the despair of the officers, the disgrace that followed. Like many of these Barrack-room Ballads it is written from the viewpoint of a private in the ranks.
At Maiwand, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, on 27 July 1880, the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment fought a terrible battle on the dusty plains of Afghanistan. It effectively wiped out a wing of the regiment. British and Indian forces suffered 969 soldiers killed and 177 wounded. Between 2,050 and 2,750 Afghan Pashtun warriors were killed, and probably about 1,500 wounded.
As Charles Carrington recounts (p. 214) in 1894, on holiday in Bermuda, Kipling chanced to meet a sergeant in the Royal Berkshire Regiment who carried him off to the sergeant's mess. He heard at first hand of the battle, fourteen years before, and soon after wrote this grim piece. .
Some critical comments
This poem was written in Vermont, some five years after Kipling had left India, as Angus Wilson notes:
The Vermont years ... produced some fine verses, especially the continuation of the army poems in the second group of Barrack Room Ballads.Charles Carrington is in no doubt as to the quality of the ballads of this period:
No author, in any literature, has composed in verse or prose, so full and varied, and so relentlessly realistic, a view of the soldier's life, with its alternations of boredom and terror, its deadening routine, its characteristic vices and corruptions, its rare glories and irrational fascination...
See also Maiwand: The Last Stand of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment, by Richard J. Stacpoole-Ryding, 2008
ŠJohn Radcliffe and John McGivering 2017 All rights reserved