Dirge of Dead Sisters

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

Apparently written specifically for The Five Nations. Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26. For the Sussex Edition Kipling added a subscript in explanation.‘For the nurses who died during the South African War’.


In the Spring of 1900 there was an epidemic of enteric (typhoid) fever, in Bloemfontein. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had volunteered in his capacity as a medical doctor, received his knighthood for his work in the hospitals there. He later claimed that you could smell Bloemfontein before you could see it. During this war twice as many British died of disease as fell to Boer action, largely because the British were inept in avoiding the risks posed by drinking contaminated water.

By June 1900 there were ninety-nine nurses serving with the army in South Africa, nine from the regular Army Nursing Service and fifty-seven from its reserve; while some were recruited locally the remainder travelled out from British colonies such as New Zealand. This was not enough: there were only 9 nurses for the 600 patients at the Wynberg hospital. Once he had relinquished the South African command and returned to England, Lord Roberts was instrumental in forming Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, so that in future there would be a supply of women who had been vetted and suitably trained on which to draw.

Kipling himself gave evidence to the South African Hospitals Commission on August 1 1900. He had visited a number of hospitals, distributing tobacco and other comforts raised by the sales of his poem “ The Absent-Minded Beggar”. He also took dictation from those who were too ill to write home for themselves. His account of travelling with the wounded on a hospital train was published under the title With Number Three, Surgical and Medical, 1900.

At a few points, the language of this poem sounds, to this ear at least, a touch sentimental, less honest, not quite in focus. (See ‘piteous noble laughter’, ‘the faces of the Sisters and the glory in their eyes’, ‘patient, wise, and mirthful’) This is the more surprising in view of the terse literalism of many other details. Kipling himself had endured the ‘Seven Hells’ of delirium during his dangerous illness of 1899 after which he declared that he owed his life to his wife and her nursing: the suppression or avoidance of difficult personal material associated with that period may account for the oddities of tone.

It remains rare for the work performed by nurses in time of war to receive such public commemoration.

There is a provisional list here of nurse casualties in the Boer War.


Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Title] Dirge:  lament. Written for the nurses who died while serving in the Anglo-Boer War.

[Stanza 1] iron teacups: standard military issue, like iron plates, which would not break and need replacing.

[Stanza 2] Let us now remember many honourable women: a rephrasing of Ecclesiasticus 44,1 ‘Let us now praise famous men’, a phrase also familiar from its repetition in the services of the Anglican church. Here a deliberate emphasis is made on doing the praising now, before memory of the women is lost.

[Stanza 3] culvert: pipe carrying water.

[Stanza 4] Powers of Darkness:in Christian usage, a phrase taken from the New Testament to denote the devil and his cohorts, see Luke 22,53, Colossians 1,13.

Seven Hells: in the Jain cosmos there are seven hells.

[Stanza 5] Maxim: see “Pharaoh and the Sergeant” note to stanza 1.

[Stanza 7] Blanket-hidden bodies, flagless: according to Conan Doyle coffins were out of the question, and the men were lowered in their brown blankets into shallow graves at the average rate of sixty a day. The military convention of the flag-draped coffin had to be abandoned.

Ringed and reeking town: surrounded and stinking, see note on Background above. Encampments of hospital tents were set up on the veldt at points outside the town.

[Stanza 9] Them that died at Uitvlugt: There was an epidemic of plague in Cape Town in 1901-2, when the hospital and isolation camps were situated at Uitflugt on the Cape Flats.

Her that fell at Simonstown: Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) a writer who combined formidable intelligence with charm and common sense, had been a personal friend of Kipling’s since the early 1890s. He described her as the bravest woman he ever knew. She had travelled alone in West Africa, living there among the cannibal Fans. Her books of travel had already made her famous when she volunteered to go to the Cape as a hospital nurse. There she died of a fever, contracted while nursing Boer prisoners who were kept at Simonstown, the naval base down the coast from Cape Town. By her own wish, she was buried at sea, her body being first transported on a gun-carriage to the torpedo boat which took it out to sea.


©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved