[Lines 1 and 2] …’Orse or Foot, nor any of the Guns I knew: based on the expression ‘horse, foot and guns’, meaning the three fighting arms of 18th and 19th-century armies and hence ‘the whole army’.
[Line 5] … knock out your pipes …: knock the burning tobacco from your pipes.
[Line 6] … finish up your swipes …: ‘Swipes’, always plural, was a common colloquial expression for thin, washy or inferior beer. It was still in Cassel’s Dictionary in 1962. These expressions in lines 5 and 6 clearly indicate that the call from the dead man comes as the men are smoking and drinking in the canteen, a reminder that death is always with us.
[Line 9] ’Is mare …: most likely to have been either a cavalry charger or a riding horse of the Royal Horse Artillery.
[Line 13] … bombardier: at that time, a rank in the artillery equivalent to a lance-corporal (one stripe). From 1920 onwards it became the equivalent of corporal (two stripes) and the ‘one stripe’ rank became lance-bombardier.
[Line 14] … before her month is through …: the minimum period of mourning considered acceptable after the death of a close friend.
[Line 15] An’ the banns are up in church …: the formal announcement in church of a forthcoming marriage, necessary before a Church of England wedding.
[Line 18] … a round or two …: as in boxing, indicating that this was a formal settlement of a dispute, probably held within a circle of soldiers, maybe even with one acting as referee.
[Line 19] … strook …: struck.
[Line 21-24] Verse 7 of The Voice that Breathes over Eden seems particularly apposite here: [D.H.]
O spread Thy pure wing o’er them,
Let no ill power find place,
When onward to Thine altar
Their hallowed path they trace.
[Line 23] … I’d give my pay and stripe …: This stripe would have been a ‘good conduct’ chevron worn inverted on the lower left sleeve. Award of the stripe followed two years without an entry on the regimental conduct sheet and was accompanied by a penny a day rise in pay, equivalent to 8.5%.
[Line 27] … ’ark to the fifes a’crawlin’ …: The fife is a small, flute-like pipe, but higher pitched, which can sometimes sound a bit shrill. Fife-and-drum military music was introduced to the British Army in the early 18th century, but towards the end of the 19th century, bugles were preferred to fifes. However, it still figures in military music, particularly in the U.S.A.
[Line 32] … limber …: When towed by a team of horses, the gun was hooked to a limber, a two-wheeled ammunition cart to which the team was harnessed.
[Line 33] For it’s “three rounds blank” …: The actual orders were:
“Volleys – with blank cartridge, Load”. “Present”, “Fire”.
The army was equipped with the Lee-Metford magazine rifle at the time Kipling wrote the poem, so the second and third volleys could be fired without coming down to reload.
[Line 34] … “Thirteen Rank” …: written for effect as an introductory order to the single rank of thirteen men of the firing party, although in fact their orders would have been prefaced “Firing Party”, followed by the order, such as “Quick March”. Kipling may have introduced this to make a point about thirteen being an unlucky number.
[Line 35] … passin’ the love o’ women …: See Comments, last paragraph.