Kipling and the British Army in India

(by Charles Carrington written for the ORG)

We are obliged to Mr. Harbord for his article in the Kipling Journal, June, 1959, especially for elucidating two problems: he lists and dates the Mulvaney Stories and he produces an ingenious sketch for a life-history of “Mulvaney”. This is a great help, and the next step is to look at the problem from the other side. What did Kipling know about the Army in 1888, the crucial year when the typical stories were written, and what were his sources of information ?

Not a scrap of direct or indirect evidence has come to light leading us to suppose that his association with the ‘Three Musketeers’ for a long period was actual, like his association with `M’Turk’ and ‘Stalky’ at Westward Ho! It is indeed extremely unlikely. The first `Mulvaney’ story (“The Three Musketeers”, March, 1887) was written shortly before he left Lahore and it presents the three as comparative strangers to him. The stories are located in or near Lahore and are told of a regiment stationed at the great Lahore cantonment of Mian Mir. There is a detachment at `Fort Amara’ which sometimes seems to be the historic citadel of Lahore (as in “With the Main Guard”) and sometimes a remote place somewhere else (“His Private Honour”). If Kipling had really been on friendly terms with the three for several years they must have served in the East Lancashires, who were at Mian Mir from 1880 to 1885; if he met them for the first time in 1887 they must have been in the Northumberland Fusiliers, the `Tyneside Tail-Twisters’, who succeeded the East Lancashires at Mian Mir; but the Northumberland Fusiliers were not at the battle of Ahmed Khel which the ‘Three Musketeers’ refer to more than once.

My belief is that `Mulvaney’ and `Ortheris’ were composite characters, perhaps owing something to Sergeant Kearney and Sergeant-Major Schofield at Westward Ho! `Learoyd’ is a much less firmly realised character. A later story (Krishna Mulvaney, 1889) declares that the three had served together in Afghanistan, in Burma, and on the Northwest Frontier, presumably in the Black Mountain Campaign of 1888, but no British line regiment served in all three of these campaigns. “On Greenhow Hill” may be intended as a scene from the Black Mountain, which Kipling himself never visited: and as for Burma, which he knew only as a globe-trotting visitor by steamer in 1889, it is only at “The Taking of Lung-tung-pen”, April 1887, that the “Three Musketeers” are recorded. Now that episode is clearly derived from a news item which Kipling had inserted in the Civil and Military Gazette for 1st January, 1887, describing the occupation of a Burmese village by a bugler and five soldiers of the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment who had swum a river naked to reach it. All his information about fighting in Burma is at second-hand and doesn’t amount to much. “The Ballad of Boh Da Thone” (1888) and “The Taking of `Boh Na Ghee’ in “A Conference of the Powers” (1891) read rather like two versions of the same incident. What was it, and who was Crook O’Neil’? He might be a real and identifiable person. Sir George MacMunn would have known the answer to that question. And this brings us to the regiment called the `Black Tyrone’. There is a strong presumption in favour of their being the 18th Royal Irish, because we know that Kipling knew that regiment. When he was at Simla a detachment of the Royal Irish was at Jutogh, the local cantonment.

As for the `Ould Regiment’, we must look at Gladstone’s two reorganisations of the Army in 1871 and 1881. The first abolished the old long-service soldiers and the second introduced the county regiments with two linked battalions, one at home and one abroad. The Mulvaney stories reiterate the contempt of the old long-service men for the new short-service men, and the reference to `old’ and `new’ regiments expresses emotions as strong as any today (in the 1960s) when regiments again are being amalgamated. The mythical or real `Mulvaney’ first served in the 18th Royal Irish (the `Black Tyrone’), then transferred to the 59th (the `Ould Regiment’), in which he served at Ahmed Khel in the Second Afghan War. `Ortheris’ joined the 59th as a short-service recruit and wat knocked into shape by `Mulvaney’. I can’t place Learoyd. After the Afghan War the regiments were reorganised: the old 30th and the old 59th were amalgamated to form the East Lancashire Regiment, of which a battalion was stationed at Mian Mir from 1880 to 1885.

Other regiments that Kipling knew well were the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers (“Only a Subaltern” and “The Big Drunk Draf'”), but their history will not fit any part of the `Mulvaney’ story, and the 31st East Surreys which he met at Allahabad in 1888. They cannot be the regiment we are looking for because several stories had appeared before Kipling met them. Perhaps they provided some cockney local colour for the `Ortheris’ of the later stories. I shall allude presently to the Royal Berkshires, whom he met in Bermuda in 1894.

When we turn to battles it may first be noted that the Army stories and ballads deal mostly with other incidents of military life. The frontier was quiet during the seven years Kipling spent in India, and he never saw troops under fire until the action of Karee Siding in South Africa, 28th March, 1900. Curiously, when the moment came:

`And now the ugly bullets come pecking through the dust,
And no one wants to face them but every beggar must…’

it was the `Ould Regiment’, the East Lancashires, with whom he advanced.

In India he had paid one visit to the mouth of the Khyber Pass in March 1885, and no more. It is even doubtful whether he attended the Grand Manoeuvres at Rawal Pindi in 1887 which are described in “The Courting of Dinah Shadd”. But when he arrived in India in 1882 all the talk was of the recent Afghan War and the consequent reorganisation of the Army. Two episodes of the Afghan War are accurately described in his work: the disaster to the 10th Hussars, on 31st March, 1879, when an officer and forty-six troopers were drowned while attemping to cross the Kabul River in high flood (“Ford of Kabul River”) : and the return of the northern column to Peshawar at the conclusion of the war, August, 1880 (“Love o’ Women”). The column included the Carabiniers, the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, and the 59th (afterwards East Lancashire).

His two explicit battle pieces are to be found in”The Drums of the Fore and Aft”, which is a coherent intelligible account of a minor operation in war, and in “With the Main Guard”, where ‘Mulvaney’, talking for effect, produces a story of anecdotes giving a powerful flavour of the nightmare quality of a battlefield but no impression at all of the tactical situation. The fight at ‘Silver’s Theatre’ is fantastically unreal as military history. The battle in “The Drums of the Fore and Aft” is composed of several elements. The story of the two drummer boys who saved the army is boldly lifted from an episode in Clive’s wars of the eighteenth century and it may be noted that the original boy-heroes were Indian, not British (see Orme’s Military Transactions, 1763, Vol. III, p. 486). But the regiment that flinched under fire, not having been in action for thirty years, and that then made a good recovery was the 59th, the `Ould Regiment’ (see Kipling Journal, June, 1959, p. 17), which behaved in that way at Ahmed Khel, 19th April, 1880. Otherwise, the action rather resembles the smart little affair of the Chardeh Valley, 11th December, 1879, which Roberts changed from defeat to victory by committing the 9th Lancers to a hazardous mounted charge. Kipling had a friend in the 9th Lancers, `Dick’ Cunliffe, who is mentioned by name in “Soldiers of the Queen”. He was a Westward Ho! boy who enlisted in the ranks, won a commission, and finished as a general in the First World War.

Now what are we to make of the fight at Silver’s Theatre, which was like no battle recorded in history? The most shocking event of the Second Afghan War was the defeat of a British column at Maiwand near Kandahar, 27th July, 1880.

`The papers hid it – handsome – but we know the army knows.’

A sortie of British troops from Kandahar encountered a strong force of Afghan regulars and irregulars with artillery superior to their own. Two companies of Indian infantry were broken by charges of Ghazis (religious fanatics) and were thrown back upon another Indian regiment which in turn was driven back upon the only British battalion, the 66th Royal Berkshires. Then occurred an event which is’ exceedingly rare in modern war: close hand-to-hand fighting with whole companies jammed so tightly together that men could not use their weapons. This is the melee that Kipling tried to describe as the fight at Silver’s Theatre. It is described in Hanna’s History of the Second Afghan War, and nothing like it occurred anywhere else. At Maiwand, the mass of British and Indian troops broke and scattered. The Royal Berkshires were disposed in two wings, of which one fought to the last round and the last man, a procedure more often recommended than adopted in warfare. The other wing of the regiment made a scrambling retreat to Kandahar, not very well pleased with themselves. “With the Main Guard” contains some reminiscences of Maiwand as Kipling picked them up in India in 1887, perhaps from his colleague Hensman, who had reported the campaign for the Pioneer.

Seven years later he dined is the Sergeants’ Mess of the Royal Berkshires in Bermuda and almost at once wrote the ballad, “That Day”, which shows the obverse of the medal.

“The Drums of the Fore and Aft” is by no means the only story for which he drew on earlier history. “Gunga Din” is an episode of the Mutiny; “The Ballad of East and West” of the Guides at Peshawar in the 1850’s; “Snarleyow” of the Sikh Wars. On the other hand, “Slaves of the Lamp” Part II was suggested by conversations with Sir G. Robertson, the Defender of Chitral.


©Charles Carrington 1959 All rights reserved