The Battle of Assaye

(notes by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)


This was written as a prize poem in 1882, towards the end of Kipling’a last term at United Services College. It was first published in the United Services College Chronicle no. 28 on 2 July 1882. It was probably amended to include various words in Punjabi, while he was working in India. See
Andrew Rutherford (Ed.) p. 162.

It is collected in:

  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford, p. 162
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1172.

The poem

A rousing account of the Battle of Assaye, in Western India, one of the key battles which served to extend British power across the Indian sub-continent.

Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852) who later became the first Duke of Wellington, and the victor at Waterloo against Napoleon in 1815, commanded a British and sepoy army of some 13,500 men,

They moved against an Indian force about three times the size of their own at Assaye on 23 September1803, and defeated them

The main work is preceded by twelve lines of Introduction with a slight flavour of Virgil and references to Cincinnatus Hiner Miller (1841-1913), the colourful American poet who adopted the name ‘Joaquin’; also to the bombardment of Alexandria in July 1882, when the young Kipling was writing his poem.

The battle

The army of the princes of Scindia and Berar was drawn up between the Kaitna and Juah rivers – a position which their leaders thought would compel the British to attack across the Kaitna. Against fierce resistance and with growing casualties, Wellesley led his men on, captured the enemy guns and pushed the Scindian troops back.

The village of Assaye itself was a tough defensive position and, adding to Wellesley’s difficulties, another Mahratta cavalry attack had to be repelled by the British cavalry. After that the British turned their attention to the infantry and scattered several columns. Wellesley now launched a major assault and broke the Scindians, who found themselves with their backs to the Juah river. By early evening, the princes were in retreat and left behind some 6000 casualties.

The battle was General Wellesley’s first major victory and one he later described as his finest accomplishment on the battlefield.

See Wikipedia for further details. See also “Marklake Witches”, in Rewards and Fairies pp. 110/111.


In the Spring of 1877 Rudyard, then aged eleven, was taken away by his mother from the unhappy house in Southsea, where he had been fostered, for a joyous reunion. Then, as he recalled (Something of Myself, p. 22):

My Mother, on her return to India, confided my sister and me to the care of three dear ladies who lived off the far end of Kensington High Street over against Addison Road, in a house filled with books, peace, kindliness, patience and what to-day would be called ‘culture.’ But it was natural atmosphere.

One of the ladies wrote novels on her knee, by the fireside, sitting just outside the edge of conversation, beneath two clay pipes tied with black ribbon, which once Carlyle had smoked … there was choice in the walls of bookshelves of anything one liked from Firmilian to The Moonstone and The Woman in White and, somehow, all Wellington’s Indian Despatches, which fascinated me. These treasures were realised by me in the course of the next few years…

At USC, because of his poor eyesight he was no good at rugby or cricket, and the Head, Cormell Price, who was a friend of his father, gave him the freedom of his library:

He gave Beetle the run of his brown-bound, tobacco-scented library ; prohibiting nothing, recommending nothing. There Beetle found a fat armchair, a silver inkstand, and unlimited pens and paper. There were scores and scores of ancient dramatists ; there were Hakluyt, his voyages ; French translations of Muscovite authors called Pushkin and Lermontoff ; little tales of a heady and bewildering nature, interspersed with unusual songs—Peacock was that writer’s name ; there was Borrow’s Lavengro ; an odd theme, purporting to be a translation of something called a ‘ Rubaiyat,’ which the Head said was a poem not yet come to its own ; there were hundreds of volumes of verse—Crashaw ; Dryden ; Alexander Smith ; L.E.L. ; Lydia Sigourney ; Fletcher and a purple island ; Donne ; Marlowe’s Faust ; and—this made M’Turk (to whom Beetle conveyed it) sheer drunk for three days—Ossian ; The Earthly Paradise ; Atalanta in Calydon ; and Rossetti—to name only a few.

(Stalky & Co. pp. 217-8)

The young Kipling also wrote himself, experimenting with styles and language and themes, borrowing from many other writers, expressing his feelings about the world around him, finding his own voice, determined that he would become a published poet.

Then in the summer of 1882, in his last year at school, the Head gave him a challenging task:

There came a day when he told me that a fortnight after the close of the summer holidays of ’82, I would go to India to work on a paper in Lahore, where my parents lived, and would get one hundred silver rupees a month! At term-end he most unjustly devised a prize poem—subject ‘The Battle of Assaye ‘, which, there being no competitor, I won in what I conceived was the metre of my latest ‘infection’—Joaquin Miller. And when I took the prize-book, Trevelyan’s Competition Wallah, Crom Price said that if I went on I might be heard of again.
[Something of Myself p.37.]

Ann Weygandt writes (pp. 155/6)

Another American “infection” from which he suffered during his days at Westward Ho! was Joaquin Miller, who, like Whitman, was a hero in English literary circles during the seventies. He appears to have made no permanent impression upon Kipling, and the only concrete evidences … are the United Services College prize poem “The Battel of Assye,” and a parody in Echoes. The first has a prefatory bit in the author’s own words, in the manner of Miller, and gives its narrator a devotion to Wellesley that resembles the hero-worship of Walker chronicled in “With Walker in Nicaragua.”, “Himalayan” seems to have caught Miller’s cadences, but neither attempt possesses much distinction.


Notes on the Text

[line 26] Englishmen Rutherford’s footnote (p.164) reads:

a Scottish editor may be pardoned for drawing attention to the fact that Wellesley’s infantry consisted of two Highland regiments and several battalions of Madras Native Infantry.

[line 24]  jhil   Pool.

[line 42] Kaitua River  Wellesley’s left flank on the battlefield,

[line 43] Bokerdon a village near the battlefield.

[line 49] point-blank very short range, for the weapons of the period probably less than 250 yards (230 metres).

[line 52] ghats in this context mountains parallel to the East and West coasts of India.

[line 58] no quarter asked or grace allowed they would fight to the death.

[line 99 to the end] These lines echo the speech in Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, Act 4, scene 3

And gentlemen in England, now abed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here

©John Radcliffe and John McGivering 2017 All rights reserved