First published in the London Daily Express of 12 and 13 June, 1900 and the Dundee People’s Friend on 18 June the same year. the first of a group of four called “Stories of War” - the war in question being the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. Collected in the Sussex Edition, Volume 16, the Burwash Edition, Volume 14 and Land and Sea Tales; see the headnote to “Winning the Victoria Cross", the first prose item in this volume.
Three other stories which also appeared in the Daily Express and The People’s Friend are :
They are also collected in the Sussex Edition, Volume 30 and the Burwash Edition, Volume 23.
When first published this story was preceded by two stanzas beginning: 'Put forth to watch, unschooled, alone...', collected in Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse and The Works of Rudyard Kipling, (Wordsworth Poetry Library.)
During the South African War, a small British force is out on the high Karroo plateau, stalked by a commando of Boer sharp-shooters. The British aim to hold back the Boers. The commando, experienced guerrilla fighters and wise in the ways of the country, lays a trap, feigning a retreat and hiding a strong body of riflemen in the hills to ambush the British. The British send a scouting party out, led by a young Captain who sees the trap, and comes back to the main force along a circuitous route, avoiding the ambush. He remembers what a South African nurse, brought up in the Karroo, once said to him about the need always to avoid danger by coming home a different way. When his troop get back, he reports, but his Colonel, who has little experience of this kind of war, reprimands him and rejects his intelligence. Things don't look good for the British.
Other South African stories
For other stories with a South African background see “The Captive”, “A Sahib's War” “The Comprehension of Private Copper”, and “Mrs. Bathurst” (Traffics and Discoveries), and several of the Just So Stories.
For verse see “The Absent-Minded Beggar”, “Boots”, “Bridge-Guard in the Karroo”, “Dirge of Dead Sisters”, “Columns”, “General Joubert”, “Half-Ballade of Waterfval”, “The Hyænas”, “Lichtenberg”, “M.I.”, “The parting of the Columns” , “South Africa”, “Stellenbosch”, “Two Kopjes”, “The Voortrekker”, and “Wilful-Missing”.
See also Marghanita Laski, Chapter 10 and passim for Kipling in South Africa, and War’s Brighter Side by Julian Ralph (Pearson, 1901), for Kipling in Bloemfontein editing The Friend, a newspaper for the troops.
Harry Ricketts discusses this and the three uncollected items mentioned above, believing them to reflect Kipling’s attitude to the importance of flexibility and adaptation to modern conditions and the inability of some army men to realize this (p. 266).
See also Byron Farwell, The Great Boer War (Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1999), and
John H. Plumridge, Hospital Ships and Ambulance Trains (Seeley Service & Co., 1975.)