First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L.Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent editions of the book. It was used to close chapter XI ‘The American Rebellion and the Great French War, 1760-1815; Reign of George III.’
As the rather cumbersome title of the chapter indicates, “The French Wars” was intended to summarise the close of an era. This it does by celebrating an event that was very close to Kipling’s heart – the ending of centuries of war between England and France. The awareness that in the forthcoming war with Germany, which Kipling constantly predicted, Britain would now be allied militarily with France, lies behind much of the thinking of the School History. Henry Ford contributed two related illustrations to the chapter, both on heroic themes. A coloured plate shows Wellington saluting the victory at Waterloo and a black-and-white drawing portrays the death of Nelson ten years earlier at Trafalgar.
The present title was used in A School History, and the subtitle was added for I.V., 1919. Harbord [ORG, Verse 1, 1969, No 989 (g)] gives “The Boats of Newhaven” as an alternative title. The poem was reprinted in D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 37. For the Sussex, the hyphen in ‘honey-combed’ (line 18) was removed, making it one word; and bloody-thirsty (line 24) was revised in the same way.
Although the chapter brought to a close by “The French Wars” deals entirely with large national matters, ranging from the loss of the American colonies through to the final defeat of France at Waterloo, Kipling’s poem, in sharp contrast to Ford’s illustrations, is deliberately unheroic. Kipling draws back from the Napoleonic wars recently described in the School History, and adopts instead the point of view of someone in 1911. By this simple technique he achieves a tone that is subdued and reflective, and, at the same time, one of quiet satisfaction at how things have turned out. There is no triumphalism and no direct evocation of spectacular or heroic events.
The narrator focuses his attention on the narrow stretch of water that separates England from France and the long struggles between the two countries to control it. It is the ships, developed and technically improved through the ages, that lie at the heart of the poem. Their ‘skeleton crews’ are not forgotten, but nor are they glorified. All of that is now over, sunk, like the ships and the men, beneath the waters of the English Channel.
This very daring technique – which in less skilful hands could easily have become cold or even callous – is brilliantly justified in the final stanza. Peace has arrived, but once again there is no flag-waving, no triumphalism. What we have is what we have all become, tired irritated travellers fighting our way through the modern Customs.
©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved