First published as No. 6 in the Indian Railway Library as Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories in 1889 and collected in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories in 1895, and in numerous subsequent reprints of that collection. [See Martindell page 27.]
An untried British regiment is sent to the front in a border war, and finds itself faced by a fanatical band of Muslim fighters, powerful hairy men armed with long knives. The British are driven back and retreat in panic and confusion, but two young drummer boys, Jakin and Lew, are left stranded on the battlefield between the armies. Fortified by blind courage and canteen rum, they decide to shame their regiment into returning to the battle. They march up and down across the front to the strains of “The British Grenadiers”. The regiment turns back and advances on the enemy, this time successfully. The boys are killed, but the battle is won.
It is generally agreed that this story is founded on fact, and that the fight in the story is probably an amalgamation of the disastrous British defeat at Maiwand in July 1880, and the victory at Ahmed Khel on 19 April of the same year, during the 2nd Afghan War (1878-1890)
Lieutenant Colonel R.C. Ayers confirms that there is little doubt that Kipling used the 2nd Afghan War as the setting for “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”, and that Ahmed Khel was the model for the battle he depicts:
As three British/Indian battalions formed up for this battle, a strong force of Ghazis charged from the line of the Afghan regular battalions and initially drove back the 59th Foot who were very hard pressed and giving ground, before the flanking Gurkha and Sikh battalions came to their aid and the charge was repulsed. In the end, with cavalry and infantry support, the Afghan force was driven from the field. There are also echoes of the battle of Charasia from that war, where a battalion of Punjab Infantry, which had previously shown a distinct unwillingness to fight, was brigaded with Highlanders and Gurkhas and another Punjabi battalion to stiffen its resolve.
E. M. Hale’s painting “The Drums of the Fore and Aft” (above) in Leeds City Art Gallery shows a rather glorified image of: “The two little red dots … in the open, parallel to the enemy’s front”.
This sketch of Jakin (right) by the French artist H. Deluermoz in Les Tambours du ‘Fore and Aft’ (1929) goes to the other extreme. Although described in the story as ‘stunted’ he seems unlikely to have appeared quite as unkempt-looking as this.
Some critical comments
Philip Mason (page 80) believes that this story: “would have benefited greatly by compression, being marred by unnecessary excursion on the nature of military leadership and the education of the working-classes.”
His remarks are illuminating, showing the various levels of the story and how it is indeed marred by Kipling’s misplaced class- and race-consciousness. He suggests, though:
The bare outline of the story is novelettish, but the realism with which the boys’ character is drawn, and the rum in the water-bottle give it a new dimension and make it a sharp comment on Victorian sentimentality.
Marghanita Laski agrees. After noting that: “Kipling had a line in Anglo-Indian children of more or less insufferable sentimentality”, she encapsulates the story in a few pungent words (page 130):
“…two fourteen-year-old drummer-boys, stunted, foul-mouthed, sweepings of the London streets, who, not from native courage but because they were drunk, are able to rally a frightened, inexperienced regiment under fire; and die for it…This story takes too circuitous a way to its climax, but the end is worth the journey.
J I M Stewart (page 51) also examines the story carefully, finishing with the observation: “…as often in Kipling, what may at first seem very crude is in fact rather subtle.”
David Gilmour (page 43) examines the Army in India and Kipling’s interest in it, while Carrington‘s Introduction to his edition of Barrack-Room Ballads(1973)tells us:
Search English literature and you will find no adequate account of the British soldier… between Shakespeare’s Henry V and Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads. The British tradition was not favourable to soldiers; ever since Cromwell’s day, hostility to a standing army had been an underlying factor in British politics. (page 5)
Carrington makes much the same point in his biography of Kipling, (page 106).
See later in Carrington’s Introduction to Barrack-Room Ballads for Kipling’s use of dialect (page 14) and (page 19) a useful commentary on Kipling and the Army. [Charles Carrington served in the trenches throughout the 1914–18 War and as a Liaison Officer with the U.S. Air Force from 1939-1945, finishing the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel. See his Soldier from the Wars Returning (Hutchinson, 1965) for an interesting examination of the British Army from the reorganisation of 1881 and the War of 1914 (page 24) and also his A Subaltern’s War which he published in 1929 under the name of Charles Edmunds.]
See also War Stories and Poems, edited by Andrew Rutherford with an excellent Preface, Introduction, and Notes (Oxford World’s Classics 1990).
The stories of Mrs. Sherwood, a generation or so before Kipling, shed much light on the lives of the wives and families in the army of the East India Company, which seem to have been much the same as depicted in Kipling’s soldier stories. [M. Nancy Cutt, Mrs. Sherwood and her Books for Children, Oxford University Press 1974, page 16. Mary Martha Sherwood née Butt, 1775–1851 was the author of some four hundred books for children, articles, pamphlets etc. She went to the same school at Reading that Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra had attended.]
On holiday in Bermuda in 1894, six years after the publication of “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”, Kipling met members of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, and heard first-hand accounts of the disastrous battle of Maiwand; one wing of the regiment had been wiped out while the other made a fighting retreat. His poem “That Day” was published the following year.