The John McGivering Writing Prize 2023 – Results

Janet Montefiore  writes:  Competitors were invited to submit poems about war for this year’s John McGivering Writing Prize, with an accompanying competition for Younger Writers. 61 poems, and 6 from younger writers were submitted and judged by myself, Mary Hamer and Sarah LeFanu.

Connections to Kipling tended to be indirect – as elegies for the war dead, meditations on the destruction of young lives in the First World War and later wars, and on the plight of wounded or traumatised young soldiers: all subjects close to Kipling’s heart. The most successful poems were the most skilfully crafted (of the four winners, the three awarded First and Joint Second Prizes are sonnets, while the fourth poem is in skilfully handled tercets), and also the most concrete: sardine tins and a bit of skull, a dangerous battlefield overgrown with trees and bushes, decaying blotches on a house besieged by mud, a wheelchair-bound amputee, names of dead men that were left off a war memorial.

The winning entries printed below, the four Highly Commended entries, and the winning entries by younger writers, will all be published on the Kipling Society’s website.


First prize: Molly Underwood, ZONE ROUGE  A moving, very accomplished sonnet (Petrarchan, too!) about the dead and what we owe them, with an admirable mix of lyricism and intelligence. Not directly connected with Kipling, but its themes of memory, mourning, and the scarred landscape of France, all connect strongly with his life and thought.

Joint Second  prize: Lisette Abrahams,SARDINE TINS AT BEAUMONT HAMEL  A fine unrhymed sonnet, full of telling concrete details. Solace for soldiers in the trenches connects with both Kipling and his son John  (while the sardine tins recalled No. 5 Study in Stalky & Co.!).

Joint Second  prize  John Gallas  AFTER LOOS   Another accomplished sonnet, with strong and vivid images of a battered land and decaying house. Unusual angle, imagining RK’s opposite number as a bereaved German father and man of letters. One of the very few poems with an overt connection to Kipling, in its apt epigraph.

Third prize Michael Henry  THE YOUNG VETERAN  A moving anecdotal poem, with excellent detail. Told by an older man pushing an amputee’s wheelchair, it reminded us of Kipling’s care for wounded men in Cape Town hospitals during the South Africab Wa


Highly Commended:




Derek Sellen ) ATTRITION

Young People’s Competition

Joint First Prize Chloe Menton DEATH’S CURSEAlexandra Flaherty  THE TRAIN

                           Two well crafted poems, about grim experience.

Second Prize Marley van Wyke FADING BATTLE  Vividly imagines the death of a soldier.


First Prize

Molly Underwood


One hundred years, and still the place is red,
though it has changed. You’d never recognise
it now, I tell the dead; the dead reply:
the greenest part of France is full of lead.
The opened skin of some late riverbed
complains, though pines emerge on new front lines,
and figs grow fat amid the caddisflies
and fall, and dog-rose learns to bloom. The dead
have had no tomb but this: the formless grace
of overgrowth; the charter of the wood-
land roof; the woodland rain. The ancient ways
are still not safe—moss reigns, where homes once stood.
We were not its keeper, this old place,
but it was ours. It kept us while it could.

Joint Second Prize

Lisette Abrahams


The canning companies of Monterey called workers with whistles
To warehouses on Cannery Row. They arrived with the night catch,
Leaving only when the final fish was canned.  Case after case went
From the West Coast factories of America to the Western Front.

Cans were packed in parcels for men bored of biscuits and bully beef.
Chocolate, tobacco, and amongst such little luxuries, sardines.
In trenches, numb fingers fumbled with keys, rolling thin tin tops back
To find silver scales shimmering like California sunshine.

Tins of sardines, eaten in France, in war, in flooded oblong pits,
By bloodied men in mud. Soldiers with mess tins, squatting in squalor,
Hearing the pierce of whistles in their nightmares, calling them to fight,Tasting sardines, and dreaming of sun, salt waves and warm coastal winds.

They have lain in French fields for a hundred years, these tins and these men.
Today, we have unearthed them – the tins, and a small sliver of skull.

John Gallas


Ah! What avails the classic bent
And what the cultured word,
Against the undoctored incident
That actually occurred?

The tanks rolled out, the days turned cold. Ash
and snow surround what’s left of town. And we,
the quiet Brokers left to oversee
regeneration, sit and watch the splash
of endless rain against the windowpanes
of some dead Oberst’s villa. Tongues of mud
slip blindly at the doorways, shot with blood.
We sit on satin seats and smile. Blue stains
and blots of slime and poison creep among
his Goethes and his windup-gramophone,
his Kaspar Friedrich prints, each overgrown
with chloric scabs. The splintered walls are hung
with velvet. So without their sons old men
make civil plans for peace, and try again.

Third Prize

Michael Henry     


The slab of back halted me,
having trouble manoeuvring
his hospital issue wheelchair.

“If you could wheel me into the park.”
Tilting the top-heavy chair
was like digging into concrete.

The park was an open mike,
convolvulus trumpets played marching music,
privet moulted yellow lines beside the grass.

He wanted me to take him as far as the road.
I felt like Saint Christopher, labouring up the path.
The young man in the chair grew heavier.

I wanted to go on strike, to stop,
kept touching my vulnerable points,
tapping my heart, tapping my hernia.

“I trod on an IED,” he told me.
The red star-shaped bruise on his leg
hadn’t come from a tattoo shop.

“It’s got to be amputated. Afghanistan.”
I saw fields of opium-red poppies
and fathers wheeling their sons.

“Good-bye.” He held out his hand and tried
to stand up. He would have been taller than me.

Highly Commended

1. Clare Bevan


I winced when I saw him, stepped back from his bed –
A wreck of a man,
He’d be better off dead –
Is that what I said ?

They bandaged the horror, disguised what they could;
Told me to comfort,
To care as I should.
But what was the good ?

I touched his rough hand, I muttered his name –
His words were of home,
Of a field bright with grain.
He put me to shame.

He pitied his parents, who feared what they find;
The friends who’d walk by –
(Though his dog wouldn’t mind)
So I learned to be blind.

The evening he worsened, I stayed by his side.
He spoke of a girl
Who had once been his bride.
I wept when he died.


I winced when I saw him – now I cannot forget
My weakness, my dread
And I’m tormented yet –
My regret. My regret.

2. Olga Dermott 


These could be the names of any schoolboys, with itchy jumpers
and scratched knees, a haze of idling by the village’s low stream,
playing in a long, late English summer, meadow-deep in sun.

Alfred, Edward

Their quaint territory stretched only as far as open fields, the call
of the kitchen door, before they were marched to unthought-of
regions of bone-deep fear, a story of walking towards machine guns.

Charles, William

At Thiepval, Tyne Cot, Lijssenthoek, I trace their names, smooth
as paper, and claim the place they belong. I try to carry them home,
so each faint mark of their lives becomes clear; the flung distance

Rupert, James

of one hundred years shrinks small, their too-few ringed years
bleeding out, blasted before their families could count them –
their histories traced now like rivers back to the source,

Sidney, Frank

to the freckled stream, to young boys with scratched knees
idling in the deep of summer, waiting for their mothers
to call them home through the quieting hush of a red-night sky of love.


In memory of all the soldiers from the village of Princethorpe, Warwickshire, who died in the Great War. In 2018, a local historian discovered that the war memorial was missing the names of eight young men who had been killed in World War One.

Link to Kipling: this poem was written after visiting the Commonwealth war graves in Northern Europe, an organisation that Kipling joined during World War One. He was responsible for the phrase “known unto God” for graves of unknown soldiers.

3.  Victoria Pickup


Console yourself, if you will, with the idea
that these boys, who qualified for manhood
with a number, and are extinguished as quick
as a snuffed-out flame—
that they will be forever young.

For there is no beauty or peaceful passing on
in these tents, and if you could see
the pain which contracts fingers into claws
and the cold sweat on waxen brows
by terrible gaslight

you would know how time speeds up,
life rushing at these boys and dragging them
to the end of life in an instant,
dirt and shadows making old men’s faces
worn with fear and the suffering
of a torn-up body not yet willing to go.

And yet, and yet—
their youth will reveal its sorry self
as they cry for their mothers
from blood-wet beds, their memory
effaceable as etched stone.

4. Derek Sellen

written with Rudyard Kipling and his son, John, in mind


A harsh sneeze, a glacial grind,
with upright ‘t’s like crucifixions
on a petty conqueror’s victory route.

Surrender or starve is its subtext,
freeze in my shade, be trampled
beneath the march of my consonants.

Its fricative hiss of venom
echoes the clash and din of war;
each dragon breath diminishes the air

in strangled cities. It scours on.
Attrition fights a battle to the end.
Whoever dies, attrition does not care.

In Donbas as in Loos, young soldiers
hunker down in trenches, under
missile or under shell. Attrition

blasts the hopes of mothers and sisters,
lays waste to sons,
Oleg or Heinrich or Jack,
and the fathers who sent them. It gnaws their hearts.

Young Writers

Joint First Prize

Chloe Menton 


One by one he watches them leave,
Too quick, too sudden,
Left to grieve.
The sadness etched upon the hearts of those who keDeath smiles,
As he watches them weep.

Death’s cunning curse _
Cast upon the life,
Innocent, what could be worse?
Pain and anguish start to seep.
Death smiles,
As he watches them weep.

The numbers dip, the angels peak,
Death above,
What does he seek?
The corpse’s memory tainted by grief so deep.
Death smiles
As he watches them weep.

The last goodbye,
Truly gone,
Trusting heaven’s  their ally.
The embers of love crumble into ruins in their sleep.
Death smiles,
As he watches them weep.

Death’s done his job.
All are dead,
None left to sob.
The remains of life lay torn and buried.
Death smiles,
His doubt emptied.

Alexandra Flaherty


 My knuckles turned white as a dove, I longed for my Daddy to stay,
I wept a waterfall of tears, when he stepped upon the train.
I couldn’t help but whimper, my emotions were too high,
I didn’t even get a proper chance to say goodbye.

The wind blew strong, my brother sobbed, Mother shook with pain,
The conductor yelled above the noise, “All aboard the train!”

I saw other families on the platform, holding on so tight.
Even toddlers seemed to know to grip on with all their might.
I hoped he might come home one day, I prayed he wouldn’t die,
Suddenly I felt the need to cry and cry and cry.

The wind blew strong, my brother sobbed, Mother shook with pain,
The conductor yelled above the noise, “All aboard the train!”

My Grandfather died in the first one, it was meant to be the last?
What will become of my Daddy, how long will fighting keep us apart?

I was only ten that day, now I’m close to 13
but my daddy is nowhere to be seen.

Second Prize

Marley van Wyke


The sound of shrilling screams,
The taste of salty mud drowning my tastebuds,
Dull sun beams bleach my eyes,
No longer may I see this cruel world,
I dream,
The flutter of light before my eyes.
Poppies will grow as death knocks at doors,
Knock knock knock,
Peace and death enter clutching hands,
Silence swallows my sense of sound.