One of the suite of sixteen ‘Service Songs’ which close The Five Nations.
Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.
A poem which gives a voice to men who would have been seen as deserters, those who abandoned the fight and left the service without permission. This aspect of the war has been under-reported in the histories, apart from occasional mentions of British deserters in Boer sources. There is reason to believe that self-mutilations and suicides were also a problem on the British side, as they were to be in the war of 1914-1918.
Many of the ‘Service Songs’ are dedicated to exploring the way their experience of war on the veldt changed the soldiers’ way of thinking about the world and about their place in it. In electing to write about those who turned their back on that war, Kipling focuses not on fear, of which deserters were always accused, and on account of which they were shot, but on something different, the decision to leave a former life behind. Inviting recognition of states of mind that cannot easily be dismissed; it describes how an identity might be shed or lost while refraining from the language of accusation or blame. Few poems of Kipling’s display more clearly the range of his imaginative sympathy.
Notes on the text
(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling" 1914.)
[Title] It seems possible that Kipling coined the term ‘wilful-missing’ as an alternative to the flatly condemnatory ‘deserter’. When the poem was collected for the Sussex Edition he added the subscript ‘(Deserters of the South African War)’ plus a note on aasvogels (vultures).
[Stanza 3] aasvogel vulture.
[Stanza 4] Name, number, record these were carried on a parchment, officially known as his ‘photograph’, which was sewn into a pocket of each British soldier’s tunic for purposes of identification.