The Army of a Dream

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in the Morning Post on June 15, 16, 17 and 18, 1904, and collected in Traffics and Discoveries the same year, where it is preceded by the poem, “Song of the Old Guard”. The story was also published as a separate pamphlet in 1905. [The Morning Post was a conservative London daily newspaper established in 1772, and merged with the Daily Telegraph in 1937]

The story

This is Kipling’s response to the worst features of the old army he observed in the South African war, the ‘Old Guard’, formal, set in its ways, ill-trained, unfit, often incompetent, beset by snobbery and caste, pre-occupied by rank and ritual, slow to adapt to new challenges, unloved and ill understood by the general population, the graveyard of too many promising young men. It is also a call to action against dangers to come. Like “With the Night Mail” (Actions and Reactions), or “As Easy as A.B.C.” (A Diversity of Creatures), its narrative is based on a invented system of ideas, worked out in detail, with its own slang and ‘in-talk’. Like “The Parable of Boy Jones” (Land and Sea Tales) it urges training for a future war. It is, perhaps, more pamphlet than story, and has been given a hard time by the critics.

The narrator falls asleep in his club and dreams a dream of a Britain where military service for every able-bodied man is taken as a matter of course, where children as young as eight start to learn the rudiments of drill and tactics, and where there is a instinctive level of respect among all classes for the armed forces because everyone is involved in them. All the countries of the Empire are working together in the system. There is close co-operation between army and navy, and a high level of understanding between them. There is also little distinction between civilians and the military. Much of the training is – in a formal sense – voluntary, but unless one volunteers one cannot vote, nor will one be respected or held in affection. There is also a sophisticated system of financial incentives to maintain and exercise military skills.

It is an idealised picture of willing involvement in constructive activity, with little sense of militarism or authoritarianism. This is a citizen army, part of the fabric of the nation, with a high level of preparedness for war, and the potential for swift mobilisation, en état de partir (ready to leave), to deal with any threat that comes.

As the narrator awakes from his dream, he realises that the young men who had led him through his vision are all long dead in South Africa.

Soldiers and sailors

Kipling had made friends with men at all levels in both services, and was very aware of their differences and rivalries, despite the long and mainly successful history of inter-service co-operation since the 18th Century. [See Simon Foster, (Hit the Beach ! Arms and Armour Press, 1995) who examines amphibious warfare from Wolfe’s landing at Quebec in 1759 to the Falklands in 1982; also Michael Hickey, Gallipoli (John Murray, 1995).]

The writing of the story

Kipling was working on the story during a voyage to South Africa in December 1900 (Charles Carrington, p. 315). Like many of his stories, it seems to have been set aside for a while, but three years later (5 December 1903) it was nearing completion, since he wrote to H A Gwynne from Bateman’s:

… I am hard at work on ‘The Dream of Belligerontius’ and hope to get it ready in a few weeks. Of course it won’t be a serious scheme of Army Reform, but it will, I hope, contain several suggestions at which men can peck.

[Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters of Rudyard Kipling Vol. 3. As Pinney explains (p.144) the reference to ‘Belligerontius’ is a play on Cardinal Newman’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, set to music by Edward Elgar.]

There is a letter to Leslie Cope Cornford in the summer of 1904, from Bateman’s, where he says he is off to Portsmouth to stay with Admiral Sir John Fisher, the Commander-in-Chief at that station, and go down in a submarine. [John Arbuthnot Fisher (1841 1920) Baron Fisher of Kilverstone.] (See Andrew Lycett p. 369)

As far as we know, however, Kipling did not go to sea in a submarine until 1915 – see Alastair Wilson’s notes on Submarines in Sea Warfare See also Daniel Karlin in The Times Literary Supplement for 5 October 2007.

We have no information about what was discussed with Fisher apart from the Admiral’s offer to nominate John Kipling to a Naval Cadetship (Charles Carrington p. 417, KJ 205/13) and the Martello Tower correspondence (KJ 148/20 and 56/21). However, the passages on co-operation between the services in “The Army of a Dream” (published the previous month) bear a remarkable resemblance to Fisher’s observations in two of his books, Memories and Records, both published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1919. While writing the story Kipling must have already been aware of Fisher’s views. See KJ 157/22.

Some critical comments

Angus Wilson (p. 241) is critical of this story, regarding it as class-ridden and improbable propaganda, and, like the rest of the volume, a failure.
David Gilmour acknowledges Kipling’s technical virtuosity (p. 179) but regards this as boring political propaganda masquerading as a short story.

See Birkenhead, Chapter XV for an examination of what he believes to be Kipling’s view of the army and warfare generally and C A Bodelsen, pp. 119n and 120n.

There is excellent background material of great interest in ORG, Volume 4, p. 1912, but the story is, however, mainly self-explanatory and can be enjoyed without it. See also KJ 157/22 , Notes to the verse “Cruisers” and C A Bodelsen, p. 119.

See also Mary Hamer’s essay
“Kipling and Dreams”.

Kipling and Science Fiction

In the view of many modern writers of Science Fiction, Kipling was a  pioneer of the genre. Seed Fred :Lerner’s essay A Master of Our Art.

See also:

The Finest Story in the World
A Matter of Fact
The Ship that Found Herself
With the  Night Mail
Cold Iron
A Doctor of Medicine
The Knife and the Naked Chalk
As Easy as ABC
In the Same Boat
The Eye of Allah


[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2007 All rights reserved