Birds of Prey March

(notes edited by John McGivering)

Publication

First published in the Pall Mall Gazette on May 30th, 1895, and in the Pall Mall Budget on June 6th, 1895. Listed in ORG as No. 637.

Collected in

  • The Seven Seas (1896)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 131
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 26
  • Wordsworth Edition Poems of Rudyard Kipling (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 425

The poem

Despite its jaunty style, this is a bleak and ominous poem, The soldiers march to the jetty, in the rain, and in full marching order, waiting to go aboard the troopship. They are on their way to a foreign posting and the storyteller predicts in a matter-of-fact way that they will all die abroad, their bodies will lie on the battlefield to be devoured by birds of prey, and “You’ll never see your soldiers any more” ! They are going to their deaths.

See also “The Burning of the ‘Sarah Sands'”, “Troopin'”, “Soldier, Soldier!, “The Hyaenas” (sic) and other Barrack-Room Ballards.

Notes on the Text

[Title]

Birds of Prey: several species of predatory birds (Eagles, Hawks, Kites, Buzzards, and Vultures, etc.) that live on rodents, other small animals, and the bodies of larger creatures including men killed or wounded in war.

I suggest that the Birds of Prey aren’t meant literally in this poem: they refer to the troop ships. In the final stanza, the “jackal an’ the kite” and “the eagle an’ the crow” probably are meant literally, but note that the jackal is not a bird of prey.

In any case, “we’ll never live to ‘ear the cannon roar” is puzzling, because it seems to assume the soldiers won’t die in battle. I feel Kipling may have something specific in mind that I’m missing. [D.H.]

[Verse 1]

trousies: trousers

Colour-casins: when not carried unfurled on parade the Colours are rolled up and covered in a waterproof sleeve. The Colours had traditionally been carried into battle, and recorded the battle honours of the regiment. See “The Mutiny of the Mavericks” (Life’s Handicap).

the faces of the women: Only a percentage of wives were permitted to accompany the regiment on a foreign posting; those left behind were left to their own devices plus whatever their husbands could remit to them.

[Verse 2]

The Large Birds of Prey: the vultures, eagles, and other raptors who will feast on the bodies on the battlefield.

[Verse 3]

Wheel: the marching party is turning a corner.

mark time: in this context lift the feet ‘on the spot’ while the men at the rear of the column catch up.

[Verse 4]

The Devil’s none so black as ’e is painted!: a familiar quotation from The Divine Comedy, the epic poem by Dante (1265-1321), telling of his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

The attribution to Dante seems to be apocryphal. See the discussion of early Italian instances of the phrase here, and some early English instances here. [D.H.]

Alt an’ ‘and ‘er out:  Halt and hand her out; sometimes a woman marched in the ranks with her man.

[Verse 5]

slingers: in this context bread dunked in tea.

‘tween-deck: between the decks: down below on one of the lower decks in a vessel.

[Verse 6]

married kit: The married families would have a lot of baggage and small children. See The Army of a Dream, Traffics and Discoveries‘, pp. .260/261 for embarkation at speed which may or may not be possible.

bloomin’ gangway: ‘blooming’ is a euphemism for a more profane swear word. The gangway, in this context, is the sloping ramp with handrails leading from the jetty to the deck, or a door in the ship’s side.

‘Orse Guards:  The Horse Guards were “responsible for protecting the Navy Office at Portsmouth”. This refers to an earlier period, but I would guess that there was a degree of continuity into the 19th century, that meant Horse Guards were on hand to manage the embarking of troops for India. That certainly seems to be what’s happening.[D.H.]

watchin’ tender o’er us: perhaps an echo of the hymn Softly and Tenderly by William Lamartine Thompson (1847-1909).

one cheer more: an echo of the Captain’s song in the opening of Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera HMS Pinafore. (1878)

jackal: an animal of genus Canis which includes the wolf and dog, a scavenger. A jackal named Tabaqui figures in the Mowgli stories in The Jungle Book.

kite: birds of prey of the family Accipitridae which includes the eagle.

crow: a remarkably intelligent bird of the Corvidae family, at one time eaten in parts of Europe during famine and by the unfortunate survivors of fatal diseases, imprisoned in a sandpit in “The Strange Ride of Morrobie Jukes” (Wee Willie Winkie).

[Verse 7]

‘eavy marchin’ order: Heavy marching order: full pack, greatcoat, etc. Everything a soldier owned was on his back or in his hand.

[J McG]

©John McGivering 2017 All rights reserved