Bobs or “Our Bobs”

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication History

This poem was first published in the Pall Mall Gazette¸ in December 1893. It was first collected in the Bombay Edition (Macmillan, 1913) of The Seven Seas, but will not be found in earlier editions of that collection. It was subsequently collected in the successive editions of The Inclusive Verse, and The Definitive Edition, and most recently in Professor Pinney’s Collected Poems (Cambridge, 2013, Vol. II, p. 1340).


Field-Marshal Earl Roberts of Kandahar and Pretoria (1832-1914) was the pre-eminent General Officer in the British army between 1880 and 1910. He was, in fact, commissioned into the Honourable East India Company’s army, in the Bengal Artillery, but in 1861, the Bengal Artillery was absorbed into the British army, so from then on, he was on the British Army List, though until 1893, his service was all in India. As Julian Moore explains in his article on “Kipling and Lord Roberts” this was the second of three poems by Kipling about him.

Kipling admired him intensely, as did most of the British army – in particular, the Other Ranks, the common soldiers. From 1859 onwards, he was on the staff of the Quartermaster-General in India, and took part in the Abyssinia campaign (1868): he commanded troops in the Lushai campaign in Assam (1871). By 1875, he was a temporary Major-General. In 1878, he was given command of the Punjab frontier force, and in 1878, at the start of the Second Afghan War was given the command of a column of troops invading the Kurram valley. After the Treaty of Gandamak, a British mission was established in Kabul; and when the mission members were murdered there, Roberts was sent to avenge their deaths, and re-occupied the city.

In July 1880, after a British defeat at the battle of Maiwand, in the south of the country, Roberts took command of a column, and by forced marches covered the 313 miles to Kandahar in 23 days, and the next day defeated the Afghans. By 1885, he was Commander-in-Chief, India (that is, he commanded both the British army units in India and the Indian Army. He left the appointment in 1892, and had no immediate further appointment. That was how matters stood when Kipling wrote “Bobs” in 1893.

Notes on the Poem

[Title] “Bobs” the commonest diminutive for the given name ‘Robert’ is ‘Bob’. At some time down the years, some humorist has thought to use ‘Bobs’ as a diminutive for Roberts. The use of a diminutive is not inappropriate, since Roberts’ entry in the Dictionary of National Biography describes him as “small and wiry”, and remarks that he was smaller than his wife.

[sub-heading] “Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar: died in France 1914.” As he moved up the military hierarchy Roberts won many decorations. In May 1893, when the poem was written, he was still General Lord Roberts of Kandahar, with two ‘Gs’ after his name (‘GC’ standing for ‘Knight Grand Cross’), preceded by his Victoria Cross earned in January 1858 for valour at Khudaganj, during the Sepoy Rebellion. At that time he was, in fact, a GCB and GCIE, having advanced through CB to KCB, and CIE to KCIE. Later he became GCSI (‘Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Star of India’).

See Kipling’s poem “A Legend of the Foreign Office” which reveals the relative status of the Order of the Star of India (CSI and upwards) and the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE, etc.), keenly felt by ambitious soldiers and officials in those times.

One is reminded of the slightly risqué story of the signal sent by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham to Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville in 1940, on the occasion of the latter being awarded the KBE, to add to the KCB he already held “Fancy, twice a knight: and at your age too!” At the end of his life, Roberts was six times a knight, as well as a peer and member of the Order of Merit.

To be strictly accurate, when he died his correct title was Field Marshal Earl Roberts of Kandahar and Pretoria, but in the British peerage, it is customary to address Barons, Viscounts, and Earls as ‘Lord’ in everyday speech.

Verse 2

[Line 1] Bahadur:  from the Hindi, meaning ‘brave’, or ‘valiant.’  It was used as an unofficial honorific for a great man.

[Line 3] Kandahader: a Kiplingism, recognising the achievement of his march to Kandahar in Afghanistan, and the victory which immediately followed it.

[Line 5] ‘E’s the Dook of Aggy Chel: ‘Dook’ means ‘Duke’. Aggy Chel is the British soldier’s idea of Urdu for “Get forward”. Kipling provides this translation in a footnote. Sharad Keskar, himself an officer of the Indian Army, and a former Editor of the Kipling Journal tells us that it would more correctly be pronounced ‘Argay challo’, and that it was later used, in the meaning “after you”, to imply cowardice.

The British serviceman tends to have the exaggerated idea that he is a great linguist, and that he can ‘sling the bât’ (speak the lingo) like a native. We have little doubt that Edward III’s Welsh archers imagined that they could talk Gascon French on their way to Poitiers in 1360.

Verse 3

[Line 1] If a limber’s slipped a trace: A gun limber is the carriage containing the ammunition – it was drawn by four or six horses, which were attached by traces: the gun was hooked onto the limber behind.

6-pdr gun team of the Bengal Horse Artillery, 1845
(Drawn by Joan Wanklyn.
Property of the Royal Artillery Institution. Reproduced from Gunner by permission of the Editor.)

Each of the six horses has a rider, the two rear horses have a pole between them attached to the two-wheeled limber and the gun is hooked to the limber, muzzle facing to the rear. Two Indian horse-holders are seated either side of the gun between the wheels.

This particular expression of admiration (not to be taken literally – it was not a task for a senior officer to take the place of a battery horse) was appropriate, since Roberts had started his career in the artillery.

[Line 3] If a marker’s lost ‘is place: In the 1880s the army still manoeuvred in formed bodies, not merely on the barrack square, but also on the battlefield, though they were learning in campaigns against irregulars – like the Boers at Majuba (1884) – that there were circumstances where the line and column and square were no longer appropriate. So the position and duties of the appropriate marker – the man on whom the rest of the formation took their station – were most important.

[Line 4] Dress by Bobs: To ‘dress by’ or to ‘take one’s dressing on’ means line up on someone. ‘By the left, quick march’ means step off, taking your dressing by the left-hand marker (and not, as this editor thought when he first stepped onto a parade ground, that you stepped off with your left foot leading). In this case, the sense is ‘Follow the example of’.

[Line 5] ‘e’s eyes all up ‘is coat: the equivalent of ‘eyes at the back of his head’: the senior officer who somehow or other manages to know exactly what is going on, without appearing to notice anything. Not an expression that this editor has ever met elsewhere, and it may possibly be a Kipling invention. However, in undress uniform, without all his orders and sash, the buttons on the front of his coat may be likened to eyes.

[Line 6] an’ a bugle in ‘is throat: able to deliver orders in a stentorian bellow.

[Line 7] an’ you will not play the goat: act stupidly. To ‘play the goat’, or ‘the giddy goat’, or even the ‘giddy garden goat’ was a Victorian schoolboy’s phrase, the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary being in 1879, from a work published in Calcutta.

Verse 4

[Line 1] ‘E’s a little down on drink: He was strict towards drunkenness, as were virtually all senior officers. It was hardly surprising, when there was little amusement for the common soldiers, whether at home or in India, that they spent as much time as they did in the ‘wet’ canteen. Drunkenness was an endemic problem in both the army and the navy, though generally more controllable in the navy, where the sources of alcohol were more restricted.

[Line 2] Chaplain Bobs: The Church frowned on drunkenness, so the regimental chaplain was on the side of authority: though if he were a good chaplain, he endeavoured to persuade men that drinking to excess had long-term deleterious effects.

[Line 3] keeps us outer Clink: keeps us out of jail. ‘The Clink’ was a prison in London, dating back to the 12th century. It was burnt down in the Gordon riots of 1780. The word ‘clink’ has become common English usage for any prison.

[Line 8] Blue light ‘Bobs’: ‘blue-light’ was a Victorian expression used to denote someone in the temperance movement, working to discourage drinking.

Verse 5

This whole verse suggests that Roberts had received many wounds during his active career. According to his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, he was only wounded once, at the siege of Delhi, in 1857: however, he drove himself hard, and his health gave way in 1858, 1880, and later in South Africa, in 1900.

Verse 6

[Line 3] You can arst the shop next door: you can ask the shop . . . the equivalent of ‘you can write on the back of a postage stamp’ or ‘on your thumbnail’. In other words, Bobs knew everything there was to know about generalship.

[Line 7] An’ – ‘e-does-not-advertise: This is a not-so-gentle ‘dig’ at Sir Garnet Wolseley, Roberts’ contemporary and rival for senior Army appointments, who had a reputation as a great self-publicist. (Wolseley and his circle considered Roberts to be the same).
A small indication of the likelihood of Kipling being more correct is that Roberts does not have an entry in ‘Who’s Who’, whereas Wolseley does. The point is that you know that you have ‘arrived’, when the editors of ‘Who’s Who’: invite you to send in your details for publication in the next, and succeeding editions. Some entries are extremely detailed: others less so. And some people choose not to have an entry, keeping their personal details and achievements private. Roberts was one of the latter: Wolseley’s entry is one of the detailed ones.

Kipling himself saw Roberts as a great but simple soldier: the entry in the Dictionary of National Biography by the author Brian Robson [Roberts in India, Army Records Society 1993] is less fulsome:

The popular image of the little, simple, upright soldier, the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, owed more to Rudyard Kipling’s hero-worship (as in his poem “Bobs”) than to reality. His surviving papers reveal a more complex character—ambitious, manipulative, on occasions devious, and with a strong political awareness …

Roberts was perhaps the ablest field commander since Wellington—quick to grasp a situation, bold and decisive in his solutions, and calm and confident in the face of difficulties. But he was prone to underestimate his opponents and to take risks, particularly with logistics. His performance in South Africa at the age of sixty-seven suggests that he had the potential to be one of the great ommanders, but it was never tested in a European theatre. About his stature as a commander there will continue to be debate.


©Alastair Wilson 2013 All rights reserved