(notes by Roger Ayers)

Publication History

First published in W.E. Henley’s weekly Scots Observer (later to become the National Observer) on 15 March 1890.

First collected in Departmental Ditties, Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses, United States Book Company, New York, 1890. Collected in B.R.B and O.V., 1892; I.V., 1919 and D.V. 1940; Sussex Edition, Vol 32, page 180; Burwash Edition, Vol 25. In the ORG it is numbered 421.

Verse Form

The poem has four eight-line narrative verses, each followed by a four-line stanza in the form of a toast to the bravery and local success of the Sudanese warriors that the British Army faced in operations against the forces of the Mahdi in 1884-85 in its attempt to relieve General Gordon and his Egyptian garrison in Khartoum.

Nothing in the poem relates to anything later than 1886, so it could well have been one of the twelve ‘soldier’s songs’ with the title Barrack-Room Ballads which Kipling offered to Thacker, Spink & Co. in 1889 before he left India. However, its final form as a serio-comic recitation may owe something to Kipling’s well-attested acquaintance with the music-hall in the first five months from his arrival in England in October 1889 and the poem’s publication in March 1890.

Critical reception

In 1893, Francis Adams wrote in Fortnightly of “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”: ‘no single ballad has had such a furore of success’. [Quoted in A Kipling Primer, F.L. Knowles, Brown & Co., Boston, 1899).

Richard Le Gallienne wrote of its initial reception:

…the news went round that Mr Kipling was contributing some quite fascinating ballads to the Scots Observer….and, long before the volume entitled Barrack-Room Ballads appeared, “Danny Deever”, “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” and “Mandalay” had become household words. There was a go and a catchiness about them that no English ballads had possessed since Macauley. When the volume appeared it was more widely read than any poetry published for some years. It was that rare thing in poetry, a genuinely popular success; and the success was significant of the achievement.’ [Rudyard Kipling, A Criticism, John Lane: The Bodley Head, London & New York, 1900].

However, not all comment was so favourable, Robert Buchanan stating at about the same time that:

‘in all the ballads, with scarcely an exception, the tone is one of absolute triviality, unredeemed by a touch of tenderness and pity. …the picture they represent is one of unmitigated barbarism’.[‘The Voice of “The Hooligan”’, Contemporary Review, New York, December 1899].

The mix of violence and fairly crude humour in this poem has continued to trouble some critics to this day.

Historical background

Britain’s involvement in the Sudan was a consequence of its support for the Khedive of Egypt following British action in crushing the revolt of Arabi Pasha in 1882 (see “The Jacket”). Despite Egypt still being nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, the Khedive’s rule was dependent on direct British support, given to ensure the security of the Suez Canal and the elimination of the Sudanese slave trade.

However, the British government under Prime Minister Gladstone sought to stay out of affairs in Egyptian-governed Sudan, where the administration was facing an uprising under the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, who declared a Jihad, or holy war, against the ‘Turks’, represented by the Egyptian government troops. The Mahdist forces from the Beja and the Baggara tribal groups had considerable success against Egyptian troops in 1882 and 1883 until, in early 1884, the British Government was forced to send two British brigades, with cavalry and artillery, to the support of the Egyptian army. In addition, General Charles George Gordon was seconded to the Egyptian forces. Sent by the Khedive to Khartoum, he ended up with the Egyptian garrison besieged by the Mahdists, then decided that he was unable to extricate his garrison and called for reinforcements.

Gordon’s refusal to leave his troops and his popularity in Britain forced Gladstone to step in with the ‘Gordon Relief Expedition’, a British force to relieve Khartoum. Command was given to Lord Wolseley, who moved this force south by gunboats up the twisting Nile, with a Desert Column taking a shorter but more difficult route over land. They encountered considerable difficulties in making the journey and met some stiff resistance, the advance elements arriving outside Khartoum on 28 January 1885, two days after the city had fallen to the Mahdi and Gordon had been killed.

The Gordon Relief Expedition withdrew from the immediate area of Khartoum and the Mahdi later withdrew to Omdurman. However, in the face of national (and Regal) indignation, the decision was taken by the Liberal Government to build up a British, Indian and Australian force based on Suakin in Eastern Sudan with a view to destroying the Mahdi and setting up an orderly government. This build-up was well underway by mid-March, 1885, but was opposed by Beja tribesmen under Osman Digna, who attacked British troops in the process of building a defensive compound at Tofrek on 22 March. Both sides suffered heavy casualties but the Beja losses caused the tribesmen to lose heart. However, the Liberal Government then had other concerns, so that was effectively the end of the Early Campaigns, which fizzled out in the sweltering Sudanese summer of 1885.

The two main tribal groups in active opposition to the Egyptian and British forces were the Baggara and the Beja. The Baggara, the dominant group, were a cattle-owning and slave-trading society from Kordofan and Darfur in western Sudan. Not all the Beja, dwelling in the Red sea coastal area of the east, were hostile, but the main opponents of the British forces were the Hadendowa, Amarer and Bisharin tribes of the Beja and it was their distinctive, shaggy, frizzed-out hairstyles which caused the British soldiers to give them the name of ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’.

This nickname, almost a pet name, was probably also a deliberate attempt to make a ferocious enemy seem less awesome, less terrible, since it was quickly found out that: ‘…without a doubt, these Arabs are the most fierce, brave, daring and unmerciful race of men in the world.’ [Sgt Danby, 18th Hussars, quoted in The Late Victorian Army, 1868-1902, Edward M. Spiers, Manchester U.P., 1992]. These are qualities which Kipling’s soldier acknowledges, but he has to make a joke of them as he makes the admission that they broke the British square.

The British Square

From the moment “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” was published, there was dispute over the admission in the poem that the Sudanese warriors ‘…broke the British square’; with arguments over which square or squares, if any, were broken and if so, were they actually British or Egyptian and were they really ‘broken’ or were the attackers somehow let in?

This was because, from its use in the Napoleonic Wars as an infantry means of defence against cavalry, and especially in the repulse of repeated attacks by French cavalry at Waterloo, both the British army and its public saw the square as an almost legendary symbol of its supremacy. That it might be broken was unthinkable.

However, the ‘square’ as employed in the Sudanese campaigns was very different from the Napoleonic form and was not a defence against cavalry. Although the 1877 ‘Field Exercises and Evolutions of Infantry’ still included the square in ‘Formations to Resist Cavalry’, it had effectively been discarded as unusable in the face of an enemy using breech-loading rifles. As Lieutenant-General Sir Garnet Wolseley had written in his Soldier’s Pocket Book, breech-loaders had:

‘…rendered obsolete the fighting tactics of Frederick the Great, which, improved by the Duke of Wellington to suit the arms of his day, are still alone to be found in our Field Exercise Book.’(1877).

.This was an opinion that he had to revise when, as General Lord Wolseley, he took command of the British force sent to the relief of General Gordon in 1884.

In fact, a new form of the square had been introduced by 1883 in an effort to avoid a repeat of the disastrous experience of the 1879 Zulu War [see note to line 16 of the text]. The new square was not simply infantry in static defence but a large, close-packed formation of some 1,000 to 1,500 men, capable of slow movement with ranks of infantry or cavalry forming the four sides and artillery, wheeled machine guns, transport carts, baggage animals and their handlers in the centre. Such a square could only survive where the enemy were without modern firearms. Apart from some 3000 Remington rifles captured from the Egyptian army, this applied to the Sudanese.

In the Sudan campaign of 1883–85, the square had proved successful but there were two occasions when such a square formation of British troops failed to maintain the all-round defence for which it was designed and, regardless of how the failure was caused, must be said to have been broken.

The first was at the battle of Tamai, 13 March 1884, when one of two British brigades, moving in separate squares with a cavalry and mounted infantry escort, was surprised by a mass attack of Mahdist troops launched from the cover of a ravine. In the confusion, one British battalion charged forward from the square, leaving a flanking unit unsupported and the square was penetrated and broken up into smaller groups of desperately fighting men. Heavy rifle fire from the other brigade square and the mounted escort came to the rescue and the surviving Mahdists were driven off. British casualties were over 100 dead and a similar number wounded. Mahdist dead on the field were estimated at over 1000.

The second occasion was at the wells at Abu Klea on 17 January 1885 when Mahdist forces tried to cut the supply lines of Wolseley’s Desert Column struggling to reach Gordon in Khartoum. The British force of some 1500 men formed a square round the large number of baggage camels and wounded that they were escorting, in order to break through and reach the wells. A mass Mahdist attack, some 5000 strong, was delivered against the left flank of the square but heavy Martini-Henry rifle fire drove it off. Despite the check, the Mahdists re-attacked the left rear corner of the square just as it was opened to let out a Gardner wheeled machine gun, which immediately jammed. The square was penetrated and fierce hand-to-hand fighting followed, but eventually the attack lost momentum amongst the milling camels and transport in the centre, giving time for the flanking units to face inwards and support their comrades. In the brief, desperate struggle of 15 minutes or so, the casualties to both sides were half as many again as at Tamai.

There are two contemporary descriptions which convey something of the ferocity of the Sudanese assaults. One is a very simple verse from a piece in Punch, 11 April 1885, two weeks after Tofrek, the battle it describes, when it seemed to the surprised British troops that the desert itself rose up against them:


The other is Kipling’s prose description in The Light that Failed, at the end of Chapter II (Uniform Edition, page 25).

Notes on the Text

[Title] ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’: See Introductory notes.

[Subtitle] Soudan: the English 19th C spelling of Sudan.

Early Campaigns: First added to the original sub-title of ‘Soudan Expeditionary Force’ in the 1932 Inclusive Verse in order to differentiate between the first Expeditionary Force against the Mahdist Jihad, 1882-85 and the later second Expeditionary Force employed in the Reconquest of the Soudan, 1886-89.

[Line 3] The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese: the opponents of the British Army in three wars shortly before or during the early Sudan campaigns.

  • The 2nd Afghan War 1878-80 against Afghan and Pathan tribesmen on India’s northwest frontier, ‘Paythan’ being Kipling’s rendering of the name as spoken by the British soldier, whether Cockney or Irish.
  • The Zulu War 1878-79 against the Zulu nation under Cetawayo in southern Africa.
  • The Third Burmese War 1885-86, which resulted in the annexation of Burma in 1886 but dragged on in guerrilla warfare until 1892.

[Line 5] We never got a ha’porth’s change of ‘im: ‘We never got a halfpennyworth of change from him’; that is, we had to pay the full price for everything.

[Line 6] He squatted in the scrub and ‘ocked our horses: a description of one of the tactics adopted by the Mahdist forces when charged by cavalry in the predominantly scrub-covered desert of Eastern Sudan. The tribesmen would take cover or pretend to be dead in the scrub as the cavalry charged through and then, as the cavalry returned on blown horses, reappear and hamstring the horses to bring them down before attacking their riders. However, although this tactic resulted in heavy casualties to two regiments of British cavalry at the Second Battle of El Teb, on 29 February 1884, it was less successful in subsequent battles. (See A Good Dusting, Henry Keown-Boyd, Leo Cooper, London, 1986)

Kipling’s use, or possibly invention, of the word ‘hocked’ for hamstringing probably owes more to the requirements of the metre than to it being a word used by soldiers, since the vulnerable hamstring is behind the stifle (equivalent to the knee) and the hock is the joint below the knee.

[Line 7] …Suakim: Suakin (sic) was the principal port in Eastern Sudan on the Red Sea coast. It was the Headquarters and port of entry between 1883 and 1885 for troops from Egypt, England, India and, ultimately, Australia.

[Line 8] …played the cat and banjo with our forces: The term ‘cat and banjo’ has puzzled two of the three major commentators on the Barrack Room Ballads. Whilst Charles Carrington ignored it, Ralph Durand thought that it was:

“The sort of phrase that a ‘Tommy’ who happens to be a wag coins on the spur of the moment. It is possibly suggested by ‘Cat and Fiddle’, which is sometimes met with in England as a public house sign.”

John Whitehead thought that the phrase meant ‘played havoc’ and:

“seems to be an amalgam of ‘played cat and mouse’ and the words of the nursery rhyme: Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle.”

However, Kipling later used this phrase when he wrote in a letter to James Conland dated 8-24 November 1896 after returning to England from the USA: “This damp climate..,has played the cat and Banjo with all my teeth…” (The Letters of Rudyard Kipling Vol 2, Ed. Thomas Pinney, Macmillan, London, 1990) This supports the view that it meant ‘played havoc with’, or ‘played the very devil with’ but, since Kipling used it twice at least, some 5 or 6 years apart, it also makes it more likely that it was a phrase with some currency in his life; either as a family saying or as something actually picked up from soldier slang. If the latter, then it is most likely to have been a reference to the then recently abolished (1881) punishment of flogging, the cat being the lash and the soldier tied spreadeagled on a gun-wheel being the banjo.

[Line 10] You’re a poor benighted heathen……: The expression ‘poor benighted heathen’ was coined by Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), who was Britain’s best-known preacher of the mid-Victorian age. In his heyday in the 1860s he regularly preached to congregations of several thousands in halls and at the Baptist Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. His sermons and theological commentaries were widely published and very popular. The expression appears in the sermon ‘The Inexhaustible Barrel’, given 18 December 1859 on the theme of Divine Love, when he referred to the ‘widow of Sarepta, a city of Sidon,’(both 1 Kings 17:9. and Luke 4:26.) as: “not one of [God’s] own favoured race of Israel, but a poor benighted heathen…”

[Lines 10 and 11] ..a first-class fighting man; We gives you your certificate…: British soldiers’ training in education and specialist military skills, such as signalling or marksmanship, was split into levels, or classes, with certificates awarded at each level, so a qualified first-class fighting man should have a certificate.

[Line 12] …a romp with you…: childish physical play. This is the first instance in the poem of the jocular approach, or ‘comic voice’, in parts of the poem that some critics have found condescending or inappropriate.

[Line 13] …among the Khyber ‘ills: the mountainous theatre of operations in the 2nd Afghan War, 1878 – 80.

[Line 14] The Boers knocked us silty at a mile: a reference to the First South African War, not previously mentioned, in which the Boer farmers of the Transvaal successfully held Laing’s Nek and then inflicted a signal defeat on a British force on Majuba Hill in February 1881. These successes were largely due to the fieldcraft, fire and movement and marksmanship of the Boer riflemen in action, but not necessarily at long range, as Kipling implies. The Boers of that war were mostly armed with the British Westley-Richards single-shot game rifle, inferior in range and rate of fire to the army’s Martini-Henry, its major infantry weapon from 1871 to 1888.

[Line 15] The Burman gave us Irriwaddy chills:  In the campaign leading to the annexation of Burma on 1 January 1886, the Burmese army avoided pitched battles and casualties were low. However, the losses from disease were high and the ‘Irriwaddy chills’ would have been from malaria, dysentery and, ultimately, cholera.

[Line 16] An’ a Zulu impi dished us up in style: In the opening days of the Zulu War in January, 1879, three British columns with some 16,000 British troops and native levies advanced into Zululand from Natal. The central column pitched camp in an open plain without bothering to throw up entrenchments or erect defences. While the commander and part of the column were away, the camp was attacked by some 20,000 Zulus on 22 January and the defenders were annihilated, losing some 1400 killed. The Zulus fought in well-disciplined and controlled units, or impis, each of several hundred men.

[Line 18] Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller: like a soft drink compared with the ‘strong liquor’ that the Mahdists forced them to swallow.. ‘Pop’ was fizzy lemonade or non-alcoholic ginger beer .

[Line 20] …knocked us ‘oller.: knocked us hollow… beat us thoroughly.

[Line 22] …’an the missis an’ the kid:  and the wife (Mrs) and the child. Another jocular addition.

[Line 23] We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair: ‘To slosh’ is to hit, the usual meaning being to strike a blow with the fist or some sort of improvised weapon. Here it refers to the firepower of the Martini-Henry rifle, hence being ‘hardly fair’ to tribesmen without firearms or at best with a few captured weapons. It is interesting to note that the Oxford Dictionary of Slang gives 1890 as the first documented use of ‘slosh’ in the sense of ‘to hit’, so it might well be referring to this use by Kipling.

[Line 24]  …you broke the square: This is probably the greatest admission of admiration that a British soldier could make with respect to an opponent, in an age when the invincibility of the British infantry square in the Napoleonic Wars, and particularly its success against the French cavalry at Waterloo, was enshrined in the British public’s view of the Army.

See also lines 36 and 48, and ‘The British Square’ in the introductory comment.

[Lines 28 – 31] In usin’ of ‘is long two ‘anded swords: These lines depict the weapons and the tactics of the mix of tribes in the Mahdist forces with admirable economy. The long-handled, straight-bladed sword, based on late medieval Crusader swords, was an almost universal weapon amongst all the tribes, as was the broad-bladed spear, although slender-tipped spears were also used. Shield shapes varied much more widely and most, like the Hadendowa, actually used small round hide-and-wood shields.

Concealment in the almost universal scrub and the broken ground was made much use of, as was a final, close-quarter rush in strength into the opposing forces, sometimes launched directly from concealment.

[Line 36] For if you ‘ave lost more than us, …:  Mahdist casualty figures were very hard to determine accurately but battlefield dead from a number of engagements show that their reckless bravery in the face of firearms could result in anything from ten to twenty times the number of dead compared with British or Egyptian troops. Figures for the wounded are even harder to calculate. One aspect that was apparent to British troops from early on was that the Mahdists took no prisoners – in a fight, it was win or die for the British, which itself contributed to the high number of Mahdists killed.

[Lines 37 – 40] ‘E rushes at the smoke …:  another accurate resumé of some Mahdist tactics.

[Lines 41 – 42]

‘ ‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,’

A return to the ‘comic voice’ with lines that can grate when considered against the serious implications of the subject matter. However, they do reflect the way in which people can behave when acknowledging that someone has got the better of them but then disguise their embarrassment or true feelings by making a joke of the matter or otherwise treating it lightly. This can be particularly true of soldiers, trained to think that they and their unit are superior to all other fighting men and Kipling was quite justified in including this very human behaviour in the poem. Its inclusion also makes it more likely that he was reflecting some soldier’s first-hand account, rather than only working from newspaper reports or official despatches.

[Lines 47 and 48]  …with your ‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air: …with your hayrick head of hair. Kipling’s soldier elevates this physical characteristic of the ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ to a mark of distinction in this final toast to a gallant foe – and then relapses into the ‘comic voice’ with ‘You big black boundin’ beggar’ before admitting for the last time that he ‘broke a British square’.

©Roger Ayers 2005 All rights reserved