Epitaphs of the War

(notes by Philip Holberton)



These Epitaphs were first published in The Years Between (1919); they are collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • Sussex Edition vol. 33 p. 438
  • Burwash Edition vol. 26


Kipling modelled his Epitaphs of the War on The Greek Anthology – a collection of short poems, some written as far back as the sixth century BC. The earliest ones are epitaphs – memorial inscriptions for tombs. The most famous is Simonides’ contemporary epitaph for the 300 Spartans who fought and died at Thermopylae against the Persian invasion in 480 BC:

Go tell the Spartans, you who read:
We took their orders and are dead.

Some are also epigrams, with a sting in the tail, like this one by the female poet Anyte about 300 BC:

Manes, when living, was a slave: dead now,
Great King Darius, he’s as great as thou.

Kipling’s “BATTERIES OUT OF AMMUNITION” is similarly both an epitaph and an epigram. Kipling would only have known The Greek Anthology in translation. Though he studied Latin at school he did very little Greek: in a letter to Reverend Aubrey Neville St. John Mildmay, 22 June 1935, he wrote:

About my Greek, Monday morning Greek Testament for two terms was about the extent of it. [Letters, (Ed. Thomas Pinney) Vol. 6].

See also Susan Treggiari’s article on “Kipling and the Classical World”; and see the Notes below on V.A.D. (MEDITERRANEAN) for a direct borrowing from a translation.

Some Critical Opinions

J M S Tompkins writes of the Epitaphs (p. 189):

In these cases Kipling commits his work to the strict control of an ancient model – the epitaphs of the Greek Anthology – and borrows composure from it.

The ‘Epitaphs’ are not at all like a Dance of Death, though they record various ways – some ironical – in which life may be extinguished in war. They are strictly functional and commemorative. They suggest in turn a line cut on a headstone, or pencilled in a pocket-book, or scratched by the dead man’s mates on a broken oar, upended in the sand.

The dead confirm their natures, (“The Rebel”, “The Obedient”, “The Refined Man”) or remember what they have left (“The Bridegroom”, “’Pelicans in the Wilderness”). They record with acceptance or bewilderment what has befallen them (“Ex-Clerk”, “The Sleepy Sentinel”). Their fellows set down some token remembrance of them, (“A Grave near Cairo”, “Hindu Sepoy in France”) and, from a greater distance, the parents recall the passing of their sons (“A Son”, “R.A.F. [aged 18]”).

It is when one starts to classify these tough shreds of verse that one sees how strong they are, and how much is strung on them. The tone and the verse vary; death is cited with defiance, with tenderness, and with stoical wit. The deaths commemorated are at once very near and seen in a long perspective of sacrifice.

Peter Keating also discusses the Epitaphs (p. 210):

The inscriptions that Kipling composed or selected for the Imperial War Graves Commission, and for governments and institutions throughout the world, should not be confused with his series of “Epitaphs”, first published in The Years Between, and then, slightly expanded and with the more familiar title “Epitaphs of the War”, in the Inclusive Edition of his poetry.

They are a work of the imagination, clearly related to the Commission inscriptions, but, as Kipling confirmed, with ‘neither personal nor geographical basis’:

All the epitaphs in my ‘Inclusive Verse’ to which you refer are altogether imaginary. They deal with forms of death which may very possibly have overtaken men and women in the course of the War, but have neither personal nor geographical basis.
[Letter from Rudyard Kipling to Col. C. H. Milburn, quoted in Milburn’s article on Kipling’s Epitaphs, Kipling Journal No. 39, September 1936:]

It was built into the very nature of Kipling’s public role as a poet that he should be an elegist and memorialist. The deaths of famous people he had known, such as Joubert, Rhodes, Chamberlain, and Theodore Roosevelt, were marked with elegies; as were those of less celebrated personal friends like Wolcott Balestier and Perceval Landon. His intuitive sense of history, and his emotional commitment to history as a living process, often gives an elegiac, or potentially elegiac, tone to his poetry. The close connections he had formed with the army in India and South Africa, and with the Royal Navy at the turn of the century, had long accustomed him to the fragility of life in the Armed Services he had observed as far back as 1886:

The crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride
shot like a rabbit in a ride!
[“Arithmetic on the Frontier”]

The “Epitaphs” are, therefore, in some important senses, a development of recurrent tendencies in Kipling’s poetry. Their newness lies in the tight control and compression that characterise them, and in the comprehensive portrait of the dead they finally offer.

Each of the epitaphs invokes one specific, individual response to death. A few of them are in the third person, but usually it is the dead who comment on their own deaths, their voices that speak directly to the reader. The immediacy of this technique, which could so easily have become over-emotional, is forcefully balanced by the brevity and compression of the poetic form Kipling employs. These dead have thought carefully about their deaths: they compose the inscriptions for their own gravestones. As this is war seen from the individual’s point of view, there are no acts of romanticised courage to record, no flag-waving patriotism that would make any sense. Instead, there is a strong emphasis placed on the casual, unexpected and unavoidable nature of death, as in “The Beginner”:

On the first hour of my first day
In the front trench I fell.
(Children in boxes at a play
Stand up to watch it well.)

The young soldier, newly arrived at the Front and eager to see what is going on, peers out of the trench and is shot by a sniper. In the aside, he himself compares the experience to being a child at the theatre, and standing up to see the action on the
stage. Everyone in this war must expect the same kind of violent end, as “Bombed in London” makes clear:

On land and sea I strove with anxious care
To escape conscription. It was in the air!

Even “The.Coward” is subject to no overt criticism. How could it be otherwise, when the lesson he learns for himself is so terrible and so personal?:

I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.

Appropriately for a total war, the epitaphs cover civilians as well as servicemen, grieving parents and dead sons, imperial and British troops, women as well as men, the brave and the feckless; and action on land, at sea, and in the air. The dead are guiltless. Individually, they accept their deaths, as, of course, it is impossible for them not to, but collectively, in “Common Form”, they pronounce judgement:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

These poems, in which the servicemen and women voice their own feelings and views, place Kipling much closer to the young combatant-poets of the War than is usually allowed, though a distance between them still remains. Kipling’s war poetry is founded on an intense, unavoidable consciousness of dual responsibility; on the one hand, guilt for causing the deaths of so many young people, and on the other, the imperative need to ensure that their deaths have not been pointless.

Jan Montefiore, in another interesting analysis of the Epitaphs (pp. 156-159), makes the point that Kipling’s use of archaisms in form and expression can make for fine poems, as in “A Drifter off Tarentum”:

Combining the hexameter and pentameter of classical elegiac
couplets with English rhyme, and evoking the sinuosities of Latin
syntax in the delayed verb ‘descended’ and the inversion of ‘many
he found’, this taut quatrain has the compressed energy of a classic
Latin epigram. The archaic language with its compound adjectives
‘wind-bitten and ‘eye-pecking’, and the ingenious allegory
whereby underwater mines laid by submarines become legendary
‘eggs of death spawned by invisible hulls’, assimilate the steam-
ships and exploding mines of modern industrialized warfare into
classical elegy, so that the dead men become at once ancient
warriors and modern heroes.

My Boy Jack? by Tonie and Valmai Holt is a biography of Kipling’s son John, missing, believed killed, on 27 September 1915 in the Battle of Loos. His body was never found, though a grave has since been linked with him.

In spite of Kipling’s disclaimer, quoted above, that the Epitaphs ‘have neither personal nor geographical basis’, the Holts find (p. 163):

so many echoes of John, direct and indirect, in them. For instance, “An Only Son”:

I have slain none except my Mother. She,
(Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.

shows Rudyard’s sympathy with Carrie, who had lost her most treasured possession in John. “The Beginner”:

On the first hour of my first day
In the front trench I fell.

reminds us that John was killed in his first action. More difficult to interpret, for no source for this incident can be found, is “A Son”:

My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.


Perhaps it was wishful thinking. Angus Wilson (p. 402) remarked that it is “grimly ironic” to place Rider Haggard’s discovery that John had last been seen “crying with pain from a mouth wound” against this epitaph. Notes on individual Epitaphs

Notes on the text



a ‘Have’ is a person possessing wealth or resources, contrasted with a ‘have-not’, who has little wealth.


See the comment by the Holts above..


prove:  come to value by experience



The God: The definite article gives the phrase a Hellenic feel, since a definite article is regularly put behind “God” in both pagan and Christian Greek (θεός  / ho theos). Kipling’s smattering of New Testament Greek would have been enough for him to know this.[D.H.]



Sir Charles Wheeler, in his autobiography High Relief, describes the unveiling of the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle in 1927:

Everyone present was eager to see the poet, and became entranced – we all did – by the words of Rudyard who, though not on the Speech List, was called to his feet and spoke without notes briefly and movingly about the bravery of Indian soldiers fighting on European soil. His earnest words silenced the restless feet and impatient murmurings so that you could hear the proverbial pin drop till he sat down to tumultuous applause. (Quoted in Tonie and Valmai Holt p. 173)

Charles Wheeler was the sculptor the Kiplings chose to make the bronze plaque to John’s memory in Burwash Church.


See the comment by Peter Keating quoted above..

In World War I, the executions of 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers took place for crimes such as desertion and cowardice. Their names were not put on war memorials after the war. Many of their nearest relatives were told that they had died in France but were never told how or why.

A new law passed in 2006 as part of the Armed Forces Act pardoned men in the British and Commonwealth armies who were executed in World War One. The law removes the stain of dishonour on war records with regard to executions. Defence Secretary Des Browne said:

I believe it is better to acknowledge that injustices were clearly done in some cases – even if we cannot say which – and to acknowledge that all these men were victims of war. I hope that pardoning these men will finally remove the stigma with which their families have lived for years. See this web-site.


This is another of Kipling’s many tributes to mother-love – see his poem “Mother o’ Mine”,
and this passage from “The Knife and the Naked Chalk’ (Rewards and Fairies, p. 138 line 11):

When my spirit came back I heard her whisper in my ear, ‘ Whether you live or die, or are made different, I am your Mother’. I was very glad. She was glad too. Neither of us wished to lose the other. There is only the one Mother for the one son.


Col. C. H. Milburn writes on ‘Kipling’s Epitaphs’ in KJ 39 for September 1936:

On April 3rd, 1924, the citizens of Saulte St. Marie, Ontario, Canada, wrote to Mr. Kipling stating that they were erecting a Monument to the 350 men of their town who died in the Great War; also saying:

We would deeply appreciate it, if you would write for us a verse or thought to go on the face of the Monument, or indicate something which you would think suitable. If you feel you could comply with our request it would be greatly appreciated by the fathers and mothers of our absent boys.

To this, Mr. Kipling replied on May 8th:

I send you a tentative inscription for the Memorial to which you refer. It is difficult to do these things at a distance, so if it does not express what you want, please say so.

To the Glory of God, the honour of the Armies of the Dominion, and in proud memory of our dead who fell in the Great War, 1914-1918 and whose names are here recorded, this monument was erected by the people of Saulte St. Marie.

From little towns in a far land, we came
To save our honour, and a world aflame;
By little towns in a far land, we sleep
And trust those things we won, to you to keep.

Sincerely yours, R K


The last line of the Epitaph is echoed in the last verse of “The King’s Pilgrimage” (1922). Col. Milburn’s article continues:

Now, my last Epitaph collected, is one specially written, but which was not used, and it is interesting from more than one point of view. In a letter from Mr. Kipling during the correspondence I had with him in November last, (1935) he stated:

There is a further epitaph which I wrote for a Canadian Memorial that I cannot at present place. It runs:

We giving all, gained all. Neither lament us nor praise;
Only, in all things recall It is fear, not death, that slays.

I was able to tell him that he had written it for a War Memorial at Sudbury, Ontario; but unfortunately, it only arrived after the plaque, on which it was intended to be placed, had been cast. Therefore it was not used.


well knowing I could not endure: The speaker feared that if he had to serve for long in the trenches he would be shown up as a coward. Early death was a favour.

Thy line is at end: no-one is left alive to continue his family name.

I have saved its name: he did not live long enough to disgrace it by cowardice.


See the comment by Peter Keating quoted above.


with childish things now put away: See 1 Corinthians 13.11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”. [D.H.]



This soldier did not like to stand alongside his comrades to urinate in the common privy (‘the office’). Out in the open, he was picked off by an enemy sniper. Jan Montefiore points out that ‘the last line ‘I have paid my price to live with myself on the terms that I willed’, is quoted approvingly by D J Enright, in one of his late Commonplace BooksInterplay I think. It is also quoted admiringly in a memoir by William Plomer, not the sort of writer you would expect to quote Kipling.’ [J.M.]



Water-Carrier: In the blazing sunlight of India water was a necessity, and the bhisti, the native water-carrier, who went into action with the soldiers, was a lifeline. See Kipling’s much earlier poem “Gunga Din”.

M.E.F.:  Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force. A large contingent of Indian troops served in Mesopotamia, which was one of the worst Allied disasters of the War. See Kipling’s bitter poem of that name.

Prometheus: brought down fire In Greek myth. He stole fire for men from the Gods, and they punished him by chaining him to a mountain-top where an eagle tore at his liver. They punished this water-carrier with death.


See the comment by Peter Keating quoted above..

We tend to think of air raids and “the Blitz” as a feature of World War II. In fact, German Zeppelins (airships) carried out more than 50 raids in the First World War, killing 557 people and causing damage estimated at £1.5 million. Later in the War, German aeroplanes also bombed London.


Sleeping on sentry duty was another military crime punishable by death. See above.


This is a biting example of an epitaph which is also an epigram. If the workers had kept on making shells, instead of taking a holiday, the speakers might not have been killed.

a Shift is a group who work together in a workshop or factory.


Andrew Lycett (p, 639) describes this as “The nearest to self-recrimination in which he [Kipling] indulged”.
Tonie and Valmai Holt discuss this Epitaph (p. 163):

The accepted meaning of ‘fathers’ is in the general, Establishment/
Government sense of the mismanagement of the conduct of the war. If Kipling did indeed feel that he had, at the least, been economical with the truth about the seriousness of John’s myopia, and thus eventually was responsible for his death, this could be a public admission of guilt.

There is no doubt that, even if Rudyard had not used his influence to get John a commission at the outbreak of the war, the boy, determined for his own sake and for his father’s sake to get himself into the war, would have done so unaided.

Daniel Hadqas adds:  defined in OED as a ‘customary or established form of words.   So Kipling means, bitingly, that this is the one epitaph that could be used for every war grave. [D.H.]



This epitaph goes with the previous one. Now one of the “fathers” admits he lied.

I could not dig: an echo of Luke 16, 3, where the unjust steward says ‘I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.’

What tale shall serve me ?: Even now he is looking for a way to lie himself out of trouble


flung:   “fling” is here used intransitively. The usage seems to be obsolete now: the latest instance in OED is from 1894.  [D.H.]

gin and share: See Isaiah 8.14: “And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem”.  “He” is God, who is setting the gin and snare: just the reproach Kipling’s rebel makes to God.[D.H.]


No fire descended: Kipling alludes to the competition at 1 Kings 18 between Elijah and the priests of Baal to call down fire from heaven. [D.H.]


See the comment on this by Jan Montefiore quoted above.

a Drifter is a type of fishing-boat mainly for catching herring.

Tarentum: now Taranto, a port and naval base between the heel and toe of Italy, founded as a Greek colony in 706 BC. I

from the wind-bitten North: the east coast of Scotland, where the largest herring fleet was based

Searching for eggs of death: working as a minesweeper. See Kipling’s poem “Minesweepers”.

spawned: laid by a fish – Kipling uses the perfect word for the context

invisible hulls: mines can be laid by submarines

the fishery ended In flame: the minesweeper itself struck a mine.

known to the eye-pecking gulls: the gulls have learnt that, after an explosion, food comes to the surface – dead fish, and in this instance dead sailors


for which thing an hundred died: This recalls Kipling’s 1888 poem “The Grave of the Hundred Head”, in which a subaltern is shot from ambush and his regiment slaughter 100 Burmans in revenge – “The price of a white man slain.”

heathen:   used here as a development of how “heathen” and “gentile” are used in ‘Recessional’, and as “gentile” is used in “Our Lady of the Snows”.  The same applies for VAD (Mediterranean) below. [D.H.]



An Allied force was sent to Salonica in northern Greece in 1915 to support Serbia. There was very little active fighting until a final push in September 1918 but malaria was rife and deadly. Hospital admissions in 1917 alone were 63,396 out of a strength of about 100,000 men.


An echo, not of the Greek Anthology, but of Richard Lovelace’s poem “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars”:

Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.

This more ancient bride: Death

Was constant at my side/ Before I saw thy face: the speaker has been out in the trenches, and constantly at risk of death, before he met his bride, presumably on his last leave.

Our marriage, often set – By miracle delayed: he was likely to be killed at any time and it is a miracle he lived so long

Life shall cure,/ Almost, of Memory: his bride, living on, may almost forget him.

And leave us to endure/ Its immortality: Memory lasts forever in the grave.


Ah, would swift ships had never been, for then we ne’er had found: In a letter to Reverend Aubrey Neville St. John Mildmay, 22 June 1935, Kipling wrote:

I’ve done epitaphs of sorts, for the war in my book of verse – some of which are naked cribs from the Greek anthologies. [Letters, (Ed. Thomas Pinney) Vol. 6].

This Epitaph is just such a “naked crib” [direct copy]. John Symonds’ book Studies of the Greek Poets (1902) has a translation of an epitaph by Callimachus (310 – 240 BC):

Would that swift ships had never been, for so
We ne’er had wept for Sopolis.

V.A.D.s: Voluntary Aid Detachment. Auxiliary Nurses, (‘men she nursed through pain’, line 3) serving for the duration of the War. See for instance Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.

certain keels for whose return the heathen look in vain: she has been avenged by the sinking of a number of enemy (‘heathen’) ships





More from Col. C. H. Milburn’s article on ‘Kipling’s Epitaphs’ in KJ 39 for September 1936:

In St. Peter’s Chapel of the Collegiate Church at Stratford-on- Avon, there is a grey marble tablet, specially designed by Sir George Frampton, called ” The Actors’ Memorial,” and there is on it, the following Epitaph:

We counterfeited once for your disport
Men’s joy and sorrow; but our day has passed.
We pray you pardon all where we fell short
Seeing we were your servants to this last.

This Chapel was set apart by the erection of an oak screen and a Reredos, to the memory of the people of Stratford-on-Avon, who were killed in the War; and the Actors’ Memorial in it, is opposite that to the 61st (South Midland) Division.

Daniel Hadas notes that this imitates the fourth wall-breaking speeches at the end of some classical plays, e.g. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: [D.H.]

And as I am an honest Puck,And if I am an honest Puck
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long,
Else the Puck a liar call,
So, good night unto you all
Give me your hands if we be friends
And Robin shall restore amends.



Again Col. C. H. Milburn’s article on ‘Kipling’s Epitaphs’:

On November 10th, 1928, Major-General Sir Fabian Ware, Permanent Vice-Chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission, unveiled a panel in the Hall of the Institute of Journalists, 2-4, Tudor Street, London, E.C.4. as a memorial to journalists of the British Empire who fell in the Great War. The bronze panel is let into the oak mantelpiece of the Hall, and inset in this is a wooden cross, from the grave of an unknown soldier. The usual method of disposing of these crosses, when they are replaced by headstones, is to burn them and scatter the ashes upon the graves. Exceptions to this rule are few, but the Imperial War Graves Commission considered the Institute’s application for a cross could be entertained, subject to the general suitability of the design for the memorial. Mr. Rudyard Kipling was asked for a short phrase for inscription in the panel, which was only revealed at the unveiling ceremony – and nothing more appropriate could have been given than this Epitaph:



Kipling was a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission from soon after its formation in 1917 up until his death. Fabian Ware personally invited him to become a Commissioner. Tonie and Valmai Holt (p. 143) detail the progress of their collaboration and friendship.

Kipling and Other Epitaphs

Apart from the many inscriptions for the great memorials which he composed, you may like to know that there is to this day a certain type of memorial headstone for which he made the general inscription and which is known as a “Kipling Memorial”. It commemorates men who were originally buried in a known cemetery but whose graves were later lost. At the foot of this stone are carved the words:


[letter from W. Chambers, Director-General Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 14 July1960, quoted Tonie and Valmai Holt p.142]

See also:



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