(notes by Philip Holberton)


First published in Ballads and Barrack Room Ballads, New York, April 1892. ORG No. 550.

Collected in

  • Later editions of Barrack Room Ballads
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 32 p. 219
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 25
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1096

Peter Bellamy’s recording is here.


A ‘gentleman-ranker’ was an enlisted soldier, qualified through education or background to be an officer. He may have been a former officer reduced to the ranks as a punishment, or a gentleman who is serving as a common soldier to escape from disgrace in civil life or for some other personal reason. In the highly class-conscious times of late-Victorian England, he would have been readily recognised by his fellow soldiers as a ‘gentleman’.

“Who’s that?” I whispered, for the voice was new to me.
“Gentleman born,” said Mulvaney; “Corp’ril wan year, Sargint nex’. Red-hot on his C’mission, but drinks like a fish.”
The gentleman-ranker sighed in his sleep.

[“With the Main Guard” Soldiers Three p. 56 line 24]

The poem inspired “The Whiffenpoof Song” (see below) which borrowed its chorus. See Brian Mattinson’s summary of “The Musical Settings of Kipling’s Verse”, which lists a number of settings of the poem, including the parody “Gentlemen Songsters”


This is a poem about shame and dishonour, and wasted lives. Harbord in ORG (see below) rightly says ‘These verses were written as a poem of tragedy.’

Two of Kipling’s biographers mention this poem and both are dismissive.
Charles Carrington (p.211) refers to the poem as one of

… a new group of Indian Army ballads, ‘Gentlemen-Rankers’, ‘Shillin’ a Day’, ‘The Lost Legion’, ‘The Widow’s Party’. ‘Bobs’ and ‘Back to the Army again’, all slight and casual pieces, which neither got much notice nor brought in much money.

Lord Birkenhead (p 144) ) describes these same pieces as ‘some more ‘soldier verse’, much of it now vulgar and jarring on a sensitive ear’.

As far as “Gentlemen-Rankers” is concerned, though, that verdict surely only applies to the chorus. Ironically it is only the chorus that is widely known, and then only because it was taken as the refrain of a comic song (with slight changes – the Gentlemen Rankers of necessity became “Songsters”, “Damned” was sometimes toned down to “Doomed’ and “God” to “Lord.”)

The Whiffenpoof Song

“The Whiffenpoof Song” was popularised by Bing Crosby in 1947. (His version is still available online.) It had its origin many years earlier in 1910 when the University Quartet at Yale adopted it as their anthem, using it to close every performance.
The title of the song was taken from a story told on stage by comedian Joe Cawthorn. He described the Whiffenpoof as a fabulous creature that he had caught by boring a hole in the bed of a lake and putting cheese around the hole. The Whiffenpoof, tempted by the cheese, came up the hole and was caught. In a whimsical mood, the song was given this name as being a catchphrase of the time.

The chorus of “The Whiffenpoof Song” echoes Kipling’s poem: this is one version

We are poor little lambs
Who have lost our way.
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We are little black sheep
Who have gone astray.
Baa! Baa! Baa!

Gentlemen songsters off on a spree
Damned from here to eternity
God have mercy on such as we.
Baa! Baa! Baa!

See the article by R E Harbord, the General Editor of the ORG in KJ145, for March 1963. See also “The Whiffenpoofs of Yale”. See also “The Musical Settings of Kipling’s Verse”, by Brian Mattinson.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

machinely crammed: he has been to a ‘crammer’, a coaching establishment, to get him through the Army Entrance Exam. into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst for training as an officer. See The Moral Reformers in Stalky & Co., in which Sefton and Campbell, who have recently joined USC from a crammer, are referred to contemptuously as “crammer’s pups”.

a trooper:  the equivalent in the Cavalry of a private in the Infantry. He is no longer an officer.

The Empress:  in 1876 Queen Victoria became Empress of India

his own six horses:  he was rich and owned and rode or drove six horses.

he went the pace:  he led a ‘fast’ life.

went it blind:  didn’t stop to think. In Poker, if a player “goes it blind” he doubles his stake before looking at his cards.

the world was more than kin:  everyone was his friend.

tin: money

less than kind:  with the previous line, quoting Hamlet Act 1 Sc.2 ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind.’

[refrain]  from here to Eternity:  This gave the title to James Jones’s book, and its famous movie adaptation. [D.H.]

[Verse 2] The first six lines are deeply ironical

sweat through stables}  feed and groom his horse and remove the manure. When he was an officer, a trooper would have done this for him.

to empty kitchen slops:  humble work that no officer would have to do

to dance with blowzy housemaids:  he used to dance with elegant ladies. blowzy means ‘untidy’, ‘unkempt’.

cad:  an ill-bred person.

who says you waltz too well:  who insults you by reminding you of your lost status.

“Rider” to your troop:  with your experience (you used to ‘run your own six horses’) you are recognised as the best rider, called upon if there is any difficult or showy riding to be done.

Troop: the smallest formation of cavalry, usually about 60 men, corresponding to an infantry company.

a blasted worsted spur:  an embroidered badge on your uniform to show your status as “Rider”. In World War I it was the badge of a Riding Instructor.

Tommy:  nickname for a private soldier, short for Thomas Atkins.
Kipling’s “Prelude to Barrack-Room Ballads” is titled “To Thomas Atkins” with the refrain ‘And, Thomas, here’s my best respects to you!’.

and sometimes calls you “Sir”:  a recognition by the “Tommy” of the two-fold superior status of the speaker, as a gentleman and a potential officer. A trooper would address an officer as “Sir”, and, in those days of rigid class distinction, he would address someone he saw as a gentleman the same way.

[Verse 3]

the home we never write to:  they are too ashamed of their disgrace and have cut themselves off from their families.

the great guard-lantern gutters:  the flame of the oil-lantern wavers in the wind.

[Verse 4]

the Curse of Reuben: In Genesis 49,3-4 Jacob, on his deathbed, addresses his sons. To Reuben, his eldest he says ‘Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel’. In The Light that Failed (p. 152 line 9) Dick applies the phrase to Maisie: ‘She’s cursed with the curse of Reuben.’

an alien turf:  they are serving overseas and will die there.

none can tell Them where we died:  they are serving under assumed names and there is no way that their families can track them.


© Philip Holberton 2016 All rights reserved