One of the suite of ‘Service Songs’ which close The Five Nations. Possibly written specifically for The Five Nations but see Background note for “M.I.” Collected in I.V. 1919, and in D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition vol. 26.
In the early months of 1900 Lord Roberts led 60,000 men in a remarkable series of forced marches, starting from Cape Town. They took Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, 650 miles (1045 km) away, on March 13, reaching Johannesburg on 31 May and went on to take Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal, some 950 miles (1500 km) north-east of Capetown, on June 5.
As a writer who drove himself to the point of breakdown, Kipling identified closely with men under strain.
The image of marching feet first impressed itself on him as a nineteen-year-old in April 1885, when he was acting as special correspondent for the Civil and Military Gazette at Rawalpindi. A Durbar had been convened there to celebrate the meeting between the Viceroy and the Amir of Afghanistan. These boots were then an image of perfection. He wrote admiringly in his review of:
‘an infinity of booted feet coming down and taking up, with the exactness of a machine’.
[Civil and Military Gazette 6 April, 1885, collected in Thomas Pinney, Kipling’s India]
But he had thrown so much into fulfilling this, his first major assignment, that he was exhausted, so overstrung that he couldn’t sleep. On April 6 his diary notes:
‘I must shut up with a click before long. Too little sleep and too much seen.’
[Published in Thomas Pinney, Something of Myself and other Autobiographical Writings.]
Kipling already knew enough about his own propensity to depression and nervous collapse to be alarmed. On the following day, April 7, he found himself hallucinating those marchers whose mechanical perfection he had watched earlier:
‘Review and phantasms of hundreds and thousands of legs all moving together have stopped mysleep altogether.’
The fear of breakdown – ‘shutting up with a click’ – which accompanied that hallucination is revived here, in the such lines as:
‘Oh – my – God – keep me from goin’ lunatic!’
In A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling (1914) Durand claims that if the first four words in each line are read at the rate of two words to a second that will give the time at which a foot soldier used to march.
Notes on the Text
(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)
[Stanza 1] There’s no discharge in the war cf Ecclesiastes 8,8: ‘There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war.’
©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved