Mobile Columns of the later War

(notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

One of the suite of sixteen ‘Service Songs’ which close The Five Nations.
It may have been written specifically for The Five Nations, but see the Background note to “M.I.”.

Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26. When it was collected for the Sussex Edition Kipling amended this subscript to (Mobile Columns of the South African War), also adding a note to explain ‘Pompoms’.


In 1900 the British found that it did not help them much to have taken Bloemfontein and Pretoria, the capitals respectively of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, for the Boers were not town-dwellers but people of the open veldt. Nevertheless, Lord Roberts returned to London at the end of 1900 believing that the war was almost won. Once Kitchener took over the command in 1901 he adopted new tactics, sending the troops out in mobile columns to sweep the landscape in search of the elusive Boer commando units. The weary repetition of those days is recreated by the poem.

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] trekkin’: trek in Afrikaans, strictly meaning ‘draw!’, was the traditional starting order to the oxen that drew the Boer wagons, and hence ‘travel’, usually a long distance and slowly. The ‘Great Trek’ in the 1830s and 40s was the journey of an estimated 12,000 Boer Voortrekkers (‘those who trek ahead’) to the future Natal, Orange Free State, and Transvaal regions to be free from British rule.

Detail Supply: the store set up at the war end of the lines of communication, where supplies for the mobile columns coming in from duty could be picked up.

A section: a section of an artillery battery made up of two guns and four ammunition wagons.

a pompom: these Maxim automatic guns, quick-firing one-pound shells, were used first by the Boers and then adopted by the British. The nickname, derived from the sound of its report, came to be adopted for regular use.

[Stanza 3] where do we lay?: troops did not choose but were assigned the ground on which they were to sleep.

[Stanza 4] the tin street: in South Africa at this time corrugated iron formed the roofs of most of the houses and even the walls of some.

[Stanza 5] the outspan: in every village, just as there was a church, there would be a space allotted for visitors who had travelled by wagon to unyoke their oxen. Such visitors would sleep in their wagons.

[Stanza 8] ‘Untin’ for shade: In the interests of increased mobility these troops did not carry tents. As there were few trees in the landscape, this often left them exposed to the blazing sun during halts. They would improvise rather stuffy tents using rifles and blankets.

[Stanza 9] Beatin’ a shirt: in order to get rid of lice. They would turn garments inside out to get at the seams where the lice had laid their eggs.

[Stanza 12] Mauser bird: In his book, Rudyard Kipling, Craftsman, 1937, Sir George MacMunn refers to ‘the Mauser bullet, and its ghost the Mauser bird, the lark whose note and flutter made you duck your head. .’

‘orse-guard: the men who have been set to herd the horses as they graze during the halt.

‘ook ‘im up:  harness up the horse to a gun or a wagon. [D.H.]

[Stanza 13] Alpha Centauri: a southern constellation and the closest stellar system to the Earth.

Something Orion: the stars which make up the constellation of Orion are distinguished by letters of the Greek alphabet, giving the names ‘alpha Orionis’, ‘beta Orionis ‘, and so on.

[Stanza 14] ant-bear: better known as the aardvark, a Dutch name meaning ‘earth-pig’.

[Stanza 16] White-eyed Kaffir: an image distressingly close to that of a Black and White minstrel. It is one of the few acknowledgments of black South Africans made by Kipling, though they took part in the war and suffered in the concentration camps. It has been estimated that the British armed at least, 15,000 black men, who served in the mobile columns while 25,000 were employed as blockhouse guards. Others worked on the railway and as scouts and wagon-drivers. Boer farmers who went off to fight left black servants and workers to keep up their farms: many of these workers and their families ended in segregated concentration camps, of which there were more than sixty. Conditions were worse in the camps for black people, rations were scantier and mortality in them was even higher: 14,154 deaths were recorded officially though the real total is probably much higher.
Kaffir is a disparaging term, from Arabic kafir meaning ‘non-Muslim’ or ‘unbeliever’. It simply meant ‘black native’, and was adopted to lump together various black inhabitants of Southern Africa, including the Xhosa, Zulu and Gwamba peoples.

[Stanza 19]  ‘airy and still:   Boer prisoners would have been bearded.

[Stanza 21] Stoep: from the Dutch, verandah of Boer farmhouse.

Kraal: Of Portuguese or Spanish origin, this word was used in South Africa both for an enclosure for livestock and for an African settlement. See note to “The Settler”, stanza 2.


©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved