Kipling and the Great War


(by Rodney Atwood. Written with advice from Roger Ayers, Andrew Lycett, John Walker and Professor Stephen Badsey of the University of Wolverhampton. Not all RK’s First World War works are included.)


Often seen as an unofficial spokesman for the British Empire and as ‘the soldiers’ poet’ (Lord Derby), Rudyard Kipling fought the Great War with his pen, and with his voice as a public speaker. His writings about 1914-1918 are so diverse as to defy easy categorisation, and David Gilmour (p.264) suggests may total about 300,000 words. They include poems, journalism, propaganda and short stories. The sheer range of his work, even after the death of his son in 1915, is staggering. His words seek to stir the peoples of the free world to action, to hatred, to anger at official incompetence and to proud mourning at the loss of sons and fathers. He wrote with admiration of the Royal Navy, with compassion for soldiers on the Western Front and elsewhere, and with contempt for politicians and those he held responsible for military disasters. While never doubting the justice of the Allied cause – Britain began the war as a member of ‘the Entente’, but its members signed a treaty of alliance in September, 1914 pledging not to make a separate peace – he mourned the loss of children, one of them his own. He looked with despair across the Atlantic to the great English-speaking republic remaining neutral as the terrible struggle went on. Without doubt, he clear-sightedly contemplated a future without a British Empire, which he regarded as a civilising force in the world. Well before his death, he foresaw that German militarism would rise again and threaten Europe.

The view that Kipling wrote from safety, and therefore his work does not merit comparison with that of soldier poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, ignores the quality of much of his work as well as neglecting its influence. Rupert Brooke’s eyes were opened to Kipling’s quality when he read “Cities and Thrones and Powers” . David Jones, author of ‘In Parenthesis’, had absorbed Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies. Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, Charles Sorley, even Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg, were steeped in a ‘Kipling-conditioned world’. [Harry Rickets, “A Kipling-Conditioned World ?”, pp. 91-110 in Jan Montefiore, ed., In Time’s Eye: Essays on Rudyard Kipling: Manchester, 2016].

Kipling joined the war effort in other ways. He sent long letters to American correspondents clarifying Britain’s struggle against German militarism. He made speeches supporting Britain’s contribution to the war. [A Book of Words . and A Second Book of Words] He visited the wounded in hospitals around southern England. With others, he was active in organising a club for Canadian soldiers in London. While his wife and daughter knitted stockings for soldiers at the front, Kipling made scrapbooks to amuse the wounded in England. His home, Bateman’s, was developed as a working farm to help feed the country and was several times offered for use as a hospital, although the offers were never accepted. [Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4. p. 245]


It was Germany’s threat to neutral Belgium and then the barbarous invasion that convinced British public opinion, and both major political parties, of the need for intervention in the European crisis of summer, 1914. [H.H. Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley (Michael and Eleanor Brock, ed., Oxford, 1982), pp. 141-145.] Britain’s ultimatum to Belgium’s invaders expired at 11 o’clock (London time; midnight Berlin time) on 4 August, 1914 and Britain was at war. The Kiplings were on holiday in Rider Haggard’s house, Kessingland Grange near Lowestoft. This was a former coastguard station perched on a seaside cliff, where they saw ‘destroyers going up and coming down in twos and fours’. [Morton Cohen, ed., Rudyard Kipling to Rider Haggard: the Record of a Friendship (1965), p. 101; henceforth ‘Kipling-Haggard’].He was not giving a ‘Hun-bashing’ speech to a patriotic audience which included his son John, as depicted in the television version of David Haig’s 1997 play “My Boy Jack”. Rudyard’s wife Carrie, who had had a rotten day, wrote in her diary, ‘My cold possesses me.’ Rudyard added sardonically: ‘incidentally Armageddon begins’. [Birkenhead p.258] Huge armies in field-grey and spiked helmets swept through a country which had enjoyed peace for decades, and began shooting civilians and burning homes. The grim warnings of Kipling and his friend Field Marshal Earl Roberts came true, warnings on which radical newspapers had poured scorn. [Viscount Esher, Letters and Journals (London, 1934-1938), Vo. III, p.113]

Kipling’s dislike of Germany, the counterpart of his admiration for France, went back to the Kaiser’s message (‘the Kruger telegram’) congratulating Johannes Kruger, President of the Boer Transvaal (South African Republic), on the defeat of the Jameson Raid, and to Grand Admiral Tirpitz’s launching of a German navy, possibly even further to the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War.of 1870. [Andrew Lycett pp. 296/7] The Kaiser’s erratic Weltpolitik led to the Agadir Crisis, which pushed Britain and France, partners in the 1904 Entente Cordiale, closer together. British hostility to Germany both gave rise to and was fanned by a series of German invasion stories, of which Erskine Childers’s Riddle of the Sands is best known. Although the Royal Navy had a battle fleet of unsurpassed size — Germany had given up trying to match Britain’s naval shipbuilding in 1912 [David Stevenson,

1914-1918: the History of the First World War

(London, 2004, p.19.] – Britain alone of the Great Powers lacked a mass conscript army. Military shortcomings, exposed in South Africa against the Boers, led to the founding of the National Service League, advocating military service to provide national defence against a possible invasion.

Kipling had written in support of his friend, Lord Roberts, chairman of the League. His short story, “The Army of a Dream”, appeared in the Morning Post in 1904, depicting the citizen army of an England which had accepted military service as an integral part of national life. It reads like a recruiting pamphlet, and would find its fulfilment in the conscripts of 1916-1918. Compulsory military service at the time was unacceptable to both Unionists (Conservatives) and Liberals. Kipling’s writing had more success in the encouragement it gave to Robert Baden-Powell, who in 1907 held his first Boy Scouts camp and in 1908, with the issue of Scouting for Boys, began his Scout movement. Baden-Powell’s “Scouts Law” and “Kim’s Game”, drawn from the novel, owed much to Kipling. [Lycett pp. 396/7, and Tim Jeal, Baden Powell – New York, 1989]

In the weeks before 4 August, 1914, British attention had been on Ireland, which seemed on the brink of civil war, between supporters of Home Rule (an Irish Parliament) and opponents, mainly from Ulster in the North. Kipling, Edward Elgar, Lord Roberts, Lord Milner and others opposed the creation of an Irish Parliament, which would be controlled by the majority Catholics and would mean that largely Protestant Ulster would fall under the sway of those whom they considered enemies of the British empire. Kipling supported the Ulster Volunteer Force with a £30,000 donation. [Lycett p. 440] Possible civil war was averted by the outbreak of European war and by the support of Redmond’s Home Rule Party for the hostilities. Among Kitchener’s armies were an Ulster Division – the 36th, a southern Irish Division (the 16th) and the politically neutral 10th Division.

Newspapermen and politicians agitated for Field Marshal Lord Kitchener’s appointment as Secretary of State for War, and public opinion greeted this step enthusiastically. Kitchener warned the cabinet that the war would last at least three years and that the nation with the last million men in the field would dictate the peace terms. Kipling had been unimpressed by Kitchener in Egypt, ‘a fatted pharaoh in spurs’ [Carrie Kipling’s Diary, 13 March, 1913], but he agreed about a war lasting at least three years. It would not end until Germany had suffered five million casualties. In the event, of course, Germany was beaten after four years and six million dead and wounded. Three days after the war began, Kipling predicted that the aggressors would make a ‘ghastly example’ of Belgian civilians. [Gilmour p. 250] Kitchener set about raising the huge armies that would bear his name. [The ‘Kitchener Armies’ were often called the ‘New Armies’.] Following the German burning of part of Louvain with its university library of mediaeval manuscripts, an action shocking to Allied and American opinion, Kipling’s poem “For All We Have and Are” appeared in The Times
on 2 September.

For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate
Stand up and take the war
The Hun is at the gate.

‘Hun’ was to become the chief term of abuse, but in Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ the Huns appear as an avenging army, which was how the Kaiser spoke of them when he had urged Count von Waldersee and German soldiers to exact fierce revenge against the rebellious Chinese ‘Boxers’ in 1900. Awareness of German atrocities, conveyed to England by terror-stricken refugees, and fear of imminent defeat as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fell back from Mons and Le Cateau, encouraged recruiting. Refugees’ stories were ‘like tales from Hell,’ Kipling told Theodore Roosevelt. [Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4 p. 255; also John Horne & Alan Kramer, German Atrocities 1914: a History of Denial (Yale University Press, 2001), passim. Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918 (London, 2015) p. 132 argues that they could have been much worse.] They became widespread in September, and men flocked to the colours.

In three months, Kitchener laid the foundation for thirty new divisions, ‘an achievement wholly without precedent in British history’. [Richard Holmes, Tommy: the British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918 (London, 2005), p. 139.] In the Dominions of the Empire many answered the call, although in South Africa, Smuts and Botha had to quell the De Wet uprising. These ‘New Armies’ would not be ready for months. Kitchener hoped to hold them back until 1917 when he assumed other belligerents would be exhausted and Britain would dictate peace terms, ensuring that a defeated militaristic Germany was not replaced by an autocratic Russia. [For Kitchener’s policies, George Cassar, Kitchener: Architect of Victory – London, 1977]

Kipling supported recruiting in his speeches, in September 1914, twice on one day, [Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4 p. 253] but he had aided Lord Roberts in his campaign for National Service, and favoured conscription as the better way of mobilising the nation. In June, 1915 he was to tell an audience in Southport that he was speaking on behalf of a system (voluntary service) in which he did not believe. ‘It seems to me unfair and unbusinesslike that after 10 months of war we should still be raising men by the same methods as we raise money at a charity bazaar.’ [Kipling-Haggard, p. 84; and Pinney (Ed.) A Second Book of Words: ‘In aid of recruiting’].

Among young men longing to enlist and serve King and Country was the Kiplings’ son, John. As Hugh Brogan states – to the Kipling society in 1998 – ‘He was an entirely typical specimen of the young men who rushed to arms in 1914 at their country’s call.’ On 10 August, 1914, he left Bateman’s for London, set on volunteering for a commission in Kitchener’s New Armies. He failed because of poor eyesight. A week later, his seventeenth birthday, he tried again, but once more failed. It seems he considered enlisting as private soldier. His father, however, approached Lord Roberts on 10 September. Roberts was regimental colonel of the Irish Guards, formed in April, 1900. Although at seventeen, John was by law too young to be commissioned, ‘Lord Roberts was an intimate friend of Rud’s [as a friend, Julia Depew, wrote] and John insisted so much that I believe Lord Roberts rather overlooked the calendar.’ [Kipling Journal, October, 1943.] Roberts contacted Kipling:

I write to say I will gladly nominate John for the Irish Guards if that Regiment will suit him. I ask because I am not sure whether you would like to have him [in] the guards. If you would rather not no doubt I could get him nominated for some other Regiment. Kindly let me know.

The offer was accepted gladly and two days later the commission arrived, back-dated to 16th August. [Toni and Valmai Holt p. 59.] See also Carrie Kipling’s diary, 10 & 17 Aug, and 2, 10, 11, 12 Sept, 1914.] John Kipling joined the Irish Guards Reserve (soon to be the 2nd Battalion) at Warley for training, and to await his eighteenth birthday.

The German invasion of France was held at the battle of the Marne. At the battle of First Ypres, a German bid for victory in the west was foiled by Belgian, French and British defenders. The stalemate of the Western Front trenches was established. The still vigorous eighty-two-year-old Lord Roberts travelled with his elder daughter Aileen to visit Indian troops in the BEF. He caught a chill which turned to pneumonia and died on 14 November. His death at a time when the war was increasing in breadth and now certain not to end by Christmas, as hopefully predicted, served as an inducement to recruiting. A poster of the small, red-faced, white-haired hero of empire complemented Kitchener’s imperious eye and pointing finger; its caption, ‘HE DID HIS DUTY. WILL YOU DO YOURS?’

Kipling felt the old Field Marshal’s death deeply. Carrie wrote to her mother that Rudyard had known Lord Roberts since he had been the same age as John was now. [Toni and Valmai Holt p. 70] He marked the passing with his poem ‘Lord Roberts’, praising Roberts’s far-sightedness in urging readiness for German aggression:

He passed in the very battle smoke
Of the war he had descried.
Three hundred mile of cannon spoke
When the master gunner died.

Already, for a British public used to imperial wars and light casualty lists, the losses of the BEF, which had mounted to 89,969 [Hew Strachan, The First World War: Volume I: To Arms (London, 2001), p.278], three times the General Staff’s estimate. French, British Strategy & War Aims, p. 246. were horrific, although much less than those of France, Germany and Russia. Sons of some of their friends were already among the dead. Kipling told of the test ahead in the final stanza of ‘For All We Have and Are’.

No easy hope or lies
Shall bring us to our goal
But iron sacrifice
Of body, will and soul.
There is but one task for all –
One life for each to give.
What stands if Freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?

The Kiplings would be among those called upon to make their sacrifice before the end of the next year.

The British could feel some optimism at the start of 1915. The great German offensive in the West had been held, and Kitchener’s New Armies were training. Kipling had visited them and a series of articles which formed The New Army in Training had appeared in the Daily Telegraph in December 1914. A party of their officers from the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment were billeted for a time at Bateman’s [Carrie Kipling’s Diary, 23 & 26 Feb, 1915], while the Kiplings spent more time as the war continued in a first floor suite of rooms at Brown’s Hotel in London, looking out on Albemarle Street. There he could work and, together with his, wife receive visitors in a large sitting room. [Kipling-Haggard, p.95 n1.]

He put his writing entirely at the service of the war effort, becoming a journalist once again. Several propaganda bureaux were established – the best known at Wellington House in September, 1914 in answer to the Germans having set up their own. This was at the prompting of Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, who recommended erstwhile Liberal M.P. Charles Masterman to take charge. [Thanks to Stephen Badsey for this information.] The organisation sought to influence opinion in Britain and neutral countries. Masterman invited twenty-five well-known writers to Wellington House to a secret meeting to discuss how they could support Britain. [Lucy Masterman, C.F.C. Masterman: a Biography (London, 1930), pp. 272-308]. Kipling did not attend, but sent apologies. His wife’s diary records that he was taking John to London to apply for a commission.[Carrie Kipling Diary, 2 Sept, 1914].

On 18 October, however, the New York Times reported fifty-three signatures of prominent English men of letters supporting the statement that ‘Britain Could Not Have Refused to Join the War Without Dishonour’. [“Famous British Authors Defend England’s War”, New York Times, 18 October, 1914.] Kipling’s signature stood beside those of Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie, John Galsworthy and H.G.Wells, all of whom had attended the 2nd September meeting. This may well have been the first collective propaganda effort after the meeting.[I owe this point to Roger Ayers. See also David Richards, “Kipling and the Great War Propagandists”, in Jan Montefiore & Monica Turci, ‘ “Kipling and Europe”: Conference at the University of Bologna 2016’, The Kipling Journal no 369, July 2017, pp. 17-22, a summary of Kipling’s wartime propaganda].

Masterman admired Kipling’s work, although his progressive politics were diametrically opposed to the writer’s. The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, thought Kipling was too much of a militarist to be sent to the United States to influence American opinion. [Pinney, 4, pp. 123-124. Also, clarity provided by Professor Stephen Badsey.] Official propaganda was very ad hoc between 1914 and 1916, and others would ask Kipling to contribute.

With the army committed on the Western Front and elsewhere, the public may have wondered what the Royal Navy was doing; except for the headline-catching battles, Heligoland and Dogger Bank, its activities were shrouded in secrecy. The Admiralty asked Kipling to bring the navy’s work to public attention, with due care for security. He was to describe naval operations, particularly those of the smaller ships. While researching, he repeatedly visited Harwich, headquarters of HMS Maidstone, from which submarines patrolled the North Sea, and Dover, the base for destroyers and other speedy ships making up the Dover Patrol. [ Lycett p.457]. These articles, each prefaced by a poem, appeared in the Daily Telegraph from 20 November to 2nd December, 1915 and were re-published as a booklet, “The Fringes of the Fleet” .

With losses mounting, hatred for the ‘Hun’ increased. To the murder of 6400 Belgian and French civilians, the Germans added to their reputation as ‘baby-killers’ by the bombardment of Whitby and Hartlepool. This was followed by the use of poison gas at the Second Battle of Ypres. On the afternoon of 22 April, 1915, the German army released a cloud of chlorine gas, thus beginning the massive chemical warfare that set the First World War apart from other wars. [Stevenson, 1914-1918, p. 187.] When the U-20 sank the Lusitania (actually carrying small arms ammunition, but not known to the Germans), only 760 survived of 1900 passengers and crew. The loss caused an outcry on both sides of the Atlantic. Air raids by Zeppelins on civilian targets had begun in January, 1915, and in 1917 were carried out by the twin-engined Gotha bombers. On 13 June, 1917, eighteen Gothas bombed London and the south-east in the deadliest air attack of the war. Among the 162 dead and 400 wounded were scores of children from a school in Poplar, where a 50-kilogram bomb exploded in a classroom. [I. Castle, London 1917-18: the Bomber Blitz (Botley, 2010).]

Increasing war brutality was matched: the British and French copied the Germans in using poison gas and adopting the frightful Flammenwerfer. These flame-throwers were usually more dangerous to their users than intended victims, while gas, widely hated, caused only 3-4% of casualties. [Holmes, Tommy, p. 425.] Kipling had been intensely moved by stories of the suffering of Belgian refugees and by the conditions of soldiers in the trenches, and he was in no doubt that only a total and crushing defeat of Germany would make Europe and the world safe. He sought to stimulate hatred of the enemy and to prevent any doubts weakening the British war effort. (So single-minded was he that he extended his list of demons to include ‘pacifists, liberals, labour leaders, Irish nationalists and anyone else who might be imagined as in any way interfering with a determined prosecution of the war.’) [Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4, p.247]

His writing struck a sympathetic chord, although it is unlikely his more literate readers were among those who attacked, smashed and looted German-named shops in the East End following the sinking of the Lusitania and German air raids. [G.R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (Oxford, 2004), pp. 771-772.] In “The Beginnings” published to accompany the short story “Mary Postgate” in Kipling’s A Diversity of Creatures, he wrote,

It was not suddenly bred
It will not swiftly abate
Through the chill years ahead
When Time shall count from the date
When the English began to hate.

The short story was written in 1915, the poem in 1917. Despite the brutality of war, the evidence that the ‘peace-loving’ British were beginning to hate their enemies is mixed. Air raids against London certainly led to attacks on those suspected of being German, and on the Western Front there was some shooting of German prisoners. However, there are innumerable cases of Tommies’ kindness to wounded and captured Germans. [Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (London, 1998), pp. 357ff; Phillip Gibbs, Realities of War (London, 1920), p. 333; Holmes, Tommy, pp. 540ff.]

The hating was not only on one side. Particularly famous in 1914 was Ernst Lissauer’s poem ‘Hassgesang gegen England’ or ‘Hymn of Hate’(an initially unofficial work, semi-adopted by the German government).

We will never forego our hate
We have but a single hate,
We love as one, we hate as one,
We have one foe and one alone,

It is possible that “The Beginnings” was Kipling’s reaction to Lissauer’s poem. [Harry Ricketts p. 67]

Between May and September 1915, three of Kipling’s stories showing compassion for those who hate were published. In “Mary Postgate” with its understanding of the psychology of suppressed spinsterhood, the sympathy is all for the eponymous character of the story, not for the dying and suffering German airman who has crashed. “Swept and Garnished” described Frau Ebermann’s visitation in her comfortable Berlin flat by the spectre of five Belgian children. Her orderly existence is threatened by ghosts of those whom her countrymen have murdered in Belgium. In “Sea Constables” , four naval officers meet for luncheon at a smart West End restaurant, watched by a millionaire and an actress, who are clearly Americans. Kipling’s anger that the United States had not joined the war was a theme of his writing. The four naval officers exchange accounts of dangerous activities they have been carrying out in terrible conditions, defending England’s shores, and in the pursuit and defeat of a neutral ship carrying oil for the enemy. The blockade-running American captain of the neutral is forced into an Irish port, where he dies of pneumonia. Kipling knew his naval details accurately, from journeys with the Harwich submarine flotilla in September 1915. He drew an unpleasant moral, although an understandable one in the wake of U-boat warfare and the belief that Americans were profiting from the war.

His visits to Dover Harwich and Immingham enabled him to contribute to the British propaganda effort. Kipling had also written to friends in the United States, asking them to prick the American conscience, urging the government to protest against German atrocities. [ Lycett p.450] In 1915 Masterman asked him to visit the Western Front. Kipling and his son John lunched together when John was on leave, but Rudyard was away when John left Bateman’s to join his battalion, entraining for war service. To his mother John called as he left, ‘Send my love to Dad-o.’ Carrie Kipling thought, ‘He looks very straight and smart and young…’ [Carrie Kipling Diaries, 15 Aug, 1915; Elliot Gilbert, ed., O Beloved Kids: Rudyard Kipling’s Letters to his Children (London, 2007), p.18]

On 12 August, Kipling’s French journey took him first to Paris, where he met the dynamic seventy-four-year-old ‘Tiger’, Georges Clemenceau, then a vehement critic of the French government. On the 15th he reached the Western Front. General Robert Nivelle, ‘a charming man of gentle manners’, took them up a huge tree with ‘a crow’s nest…with a map under a little roofed table, a telephone and a man or two…’

Then, looking through the leaves and the branches, I saw the whole countryside falling away for miles in a long yellow slope. (The Boches had used gas weeks ago and the grass had perished for two or three miles.) Twas like a stretch of lonely African veld…Regularly all along the line of the horizon, three miles away, the shells from our guns in the discreet park raised clouds of white smoke precisely like the spouts of water up a breakwater in a storm.

He was then taken to ‘a set of enormous limestone caves or quarries where troops were resting’. The poilus agreed with General Nivelle when he told his visitor that the French soldiers knew all the books of ‘le grand Rutyar’, ‘especially the Jungle Books’. [ Charles Carrington pp. 434/5] He was also admired for his 1913 poem “France’ : ‘France, beloved of every soul that loves its fellow-kind’.) On returning to Paris, he wrote to John, beginning his letter, ‘I hope you’ll never get nearer to the Boche than I did.’

The result of the visit was a book, France at War, first published in September, 1915 as a series of articles in the Daily Telegraph. [See also report in The Times, 4 Sept, 1915

Meanwhile, John would soon be in battle. Rider Haggard noted in March, 1915 that the Kipling parents did not look well, torn with anxiety ‘lest [John] should be sent to the front and killed, as has happened to nearly all the young men they knew’. Robert Graves reports soldiers describing the battle of Loos (25 September – 25 October) as ‘a bloody balls-up’. [Robert Graves, Good-bye to All That (Penguin, 1982; first published 1929), p. 127.] The official historian Sir James Edmonds emphasised external factors that plagued the BEF’s attack: the restrictions of coalition warfare, the lack of artillery ammunition, poorly trained officers and men, and the high quality of the German Army. Loos was the inevitable result of ‘using inexperienced and partly trained officers and men to do the work of soldiers, and do it with wholly insufficient material’. [Nick Lloyd, Loos 1915 (Stroud, 2006), p. 14 and passim.] The French commander, Joffre, had chosen the place of the British attack to support his major offensive in the Champagne. Kitchener, worried about French defeatism and possible impending Russian collapse, after the defeat of Gorlice-Tarnow with two million casualties, instructed Sir John French to assist Joffre. British generals, who saw a battlefield littered with slag heaps, miners’ cottages and pitheads, were reluctant. Steel winding gear rising 100 feet above larger pitheads could be used for artillery spotting. Defenders on Hill 70 and the Hohenzollern Redoubt looked down on the attackers. Their artillery and machine-guns dominated the ground. British deficiencies in guns and shells had to be made up by gas and courage.

The gas proved insufficient: when released early on 25 September, in places it blew back onto the attackers. Courage was nearly enough, with British soldiers gaining part of Hill 70 and the Hohenzollern Redoubt. But on the 26th, two Kitchener divisions, the 21st and 24th, put in to support the initial waves, were massacred by German machine-guns. The Guards Division including 2nd Battalion the Irish Guards, was brought forward to stem the rout. As they set off on the night of the 25th, John wrote in haste to his father.

Dear F-

Just a hurried line as we start off tonight. The front line trenches are nine miles off from here so it wont be a very long march.

This is THE great effort to break through & end the war.
The guns have been going deafeningly all day, without a single stop.
We have to push through at all costs so we won’t have much time in the trenches, which is great luck.
Funny to think one will be in the thick of it tomorrow.
You have no idea what enormous issues depend on the next few days.
This will be my last letter most likely for some time as we won’t get any time for writing this next week, but I will try & send Field post cards.

Well so long old dears.

Dear love


[Gilbert, O Beloved Kids, p. 218.]

The Division was ordered on 27 September to retake Hill 70. With inadequate artillery support, they met an horrific fire as they crossed the open ground. Senior officers on the spot decided further progress was impossible and they withdrew 100 yards below the hill’s crest. [The Times, 8/11/1915, p.8; “The Guards at Loos”] John’s battalion had advanced rapidly in four separate companies to the far edge of their objective, Chalk Pit Wood, north of Loos. John became detached from his men and was caught up in the second wave of the attack by the Scots Guards. He was last seen after the capture of the wood, trying to fasten a field dressing on his mouth which was badly shattered, crying with pain, although the witness of this did not tell his parents.

On 2nd October, a telegram from the War Office told Rudyard and Carrie that their son was wounded and missing, and his name appeared under that heading among officer casualties published in The Time on 19 October (p.7). Although at first there was hope that he was a prisoner and still alive, by 12 November, Kipling wrote to his school friend Dunsterville (‘Stalky’), ‘all we can pick up from the men points to the fact that he is dead’. [Carrington p. 438] On 22 December he told Rider Haggard that ‘the boy made a good end in his first action, that he liked his men and was liked by them’. He then ‘expressed his opinion of the government and members thereof in words too strong to write down even in a private diary’ [Kipling-Haggard, p. 85. For details of John’s death, ibid pp 85-86 and Pinney, 4, p. 415.] Two years later the Kiplings finally learnt of John’s last moments and death from Sergeant Farrell of the Irish Guards, who had been with him. John’s loss at Loos coincided with Kipling beginning to suffer from the duodenal ulcer which gave him recurrent pain and eventually killed him. [Thomas Pinney in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]

That same month, unaware of the sad irony, The Times published a sixteen-page recruiting supplement, with Kipling’s poem, ‘For all We have and Are’ on the back. Although nearly two and a half million had answered Kitchener’s call, in early 1916 the British government would introduce conscription.

In December, Kipling opened a rifle range at Winchester College, dedicated to the memory of George Cecil of the Grenadier Guards, son of friends of the Kiplings, who died in 1914 ‘just before the long retreat from Mons came to an end – killed leading his platoon’. Speaking of “The War and the Schools”, Kipling urged his young listeners to prepare themselves for the task after the war ‘of reconstructing, not only England and the Empire, but the whole world – on a scale which outruns imagination.’

Christmas at Bateman’s was joyless, ‘John not being with us’.

[Carrie Kipling Diary, 25 Dec, 1915.]


Although Kipling was consumed with grief for the loss of his son, he knew that 1916 was a year of huge battles and horrific casualties: over 700,000 at Verdun, over one million on the Somme, two million on the Eastern Front. Jutland, the only clash of the British and German fleets during the war, was the bloodiest sea battle in Britain’s history. Even before the Somme began on 1 July, Kipling was writing a ‘St Peter story’ in April. Rider Haggard records on 22nd May a long conversation with Kipling on his son’s death, his religious beliefs and his own fame and current affairs. Haggard continued:

Also he read me a quaint story about Death and St Peter, written in modern language, almost in slang…the keynote of it is infinite mercy extending even to Judas.

[Kipling-Haggard, p. 101.]

The story was originally to be titled ‘The Death Department’, but when published in 1926 the title was “On the Gate”. Death and St Peter on the Gate of Heaven are worn out from trying to cope with the influx of war dead. They are confronted by the arrival of the soul of a soldier who denies the existence of God. St Peter turns to a seraph who has the form for expulsion from Heaven ‘on the charge of saying there is no God’. St Peter decides Private R.M. Buckland is suffering from shell-shock, orders him passed in at once and tells the Seraph to find someone to argue with him until St Luke is free. (The German equivalent was a cartoon in Simplicissimus published in 1917 showing Death sitting on a pile of dead soldiers, his head buried in his hands, saying ‘Stop’.)

Kipling’s further contribution to public awareness of the wartime deeds of his beloved Royal Navy was two series of articles, “Tales of “The Trade” about the work of submarines (in The Times, 21-28 June, 1916), and “Destroyers at Jutland” , which appeared in the Daily Telegraph 19-31 October. Both were published in Sea Warfare with the earlier “The Fringes of the Fleet”. “Destroyers at Jutland” deals mostly, but not entirely, with the confused night-fighting between British destroyers and the German High Seas Fleet. The stories are based on what Kipling was told by naval officers who visited him, together with the ships’ Official Reports of Proceedings which were delivered to him by the Chief Naval Censor. Initially, the Germans claimed to have won the battle, basing this on heavier British losses, glossing over their own and ignoring the fact that their fleet had fled before the superior guns of the Grand Fleet. Kipling shrewdly saw through this, aware that the German ships had taken enormous damage. He wrote to a distinguished French man of letters, Andre Chevrillon, on 22nd June:

It was a holy mess. What annoyed my friend [Lieutenant Commander H.I.N. Lyon of the destroyer Nonsuch] when he came back to port, thinking, as he said: “We’d rather done our little bit” was to be received in dead silence by the natives of a “beaten fleet”. It was that immortal First Despatch [the German account]. Some day I shall tell you about it….I haven’t met any of the big ship men but I am told they didn’t do so badly. Wilhelmshaven is full of unusable machinery and there is stuff at the bottom of the North Sea which will have to be fished up one of these days.[ Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4 p. 380]

As Alastair Wilson writes, Kipling’s assessment of Wilhelmshaven being ‘full of unusable machinery’ was not an unreasonable remark. Although the British suffered greater losses of ships, the damage inflicted on the Germans was more widespread. In his poem “The Verdicts”, Kipling recognised that Jellicoe had not ‘lost the war in an afternoon’ and future generations would judge aright the strategic victory:

Our children shall measure their worth,
We are content to be blind…
But we know that we walk on a new-born earth,
With the saviours of mankind.

Kipling’s articles about destroyers at Jutland opened with a poem, later entitled “My Boy Jack” , and subtitled ‘1914-18’. Unfortunately, due to David Haig’s play, many believe that the poem is a reference to John Kipling. [There may also be some confusion also from the title of Tonie & Valmai Holt’s My Boy Jack?]. John Walker points out that the Holts are well aware that ‘Jack’ refers, not to Kipling’s son, but to Jack Cornwell or ‘Jack Tar’, the British sailor. The poem was written to introduce a work about a sea-battle in which over 6,000 British seamen lost their lives. It commemorated those men and especially Boy Jack Cornwell whose posthumous Victoria Cross was awarded for staying at his post when the rest of his gun crew on H.M.S. Chester lay dead or wounded. It was an attempt to offer comfort to those mothers who had given brave sons to the war:

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide.

In December 1916, a new coalition government took power in Britain, pledged to a more vigorous waging of the war. Kipling would have been delighted that, although the Prime Minister was the ‘hated Lloyd George’, [see Carrington p. 440] .the cabinet was to include resolute men like Alfred, Lord Milner, determined to fight to the finish. Douglas Haig shared Kipling’s view of Milner: ‘the strongest member of the war cabinet as well as…the best informed’ [John Grigg, Lloyd George: War Leader (London, 2002), p. 169n.] . Kipling’s dislike of Lloyd George prevented him acknowledging the Minister of Munitions (who hugely increased war production), Kitchener’s successor as Secretary of State for War, and the Prime Minister who mobilised the country. In August, 1918 he grudgingly admitted he was ‘the best we have for the purpose’, but ‘at a time when a ‘Lincoln’ was needed, Britain was saddled with a liar who couldn’t ‘get out of his own immoral skin’.[Gilmour p. 259]

If 1916 had been a year of terrible battles, 1917 was one of earth-shaking change. Two revolutions in Russia would depose the Tsar’s government and bring the Bolsheviks to power. In early 1918, they took their country out of the war. In Russia’s place, the United States joined the Allies as an ‘associated’ power in April, 1917, following the German resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare and the Zimmerman telegram. [America declared war only on Germany rather than the other Central Powers, and it stayed outside the Pact of London (creating the alliance and pledging Britain, France and Russia not to make a separate peace] It intervened as an ‘associated’ power, jealous of its independence and reserving the right to conclude a separate peace.’ Stevenson, 1914-1918 p. 318.] The telegram was an attempt to draw Mexico into the war against the United States. It was decoded by the Admiralty’s Room 40 and handed to the Americans.

Kipling greeted the United States’ entry to the war with verse, “The Choice”, published simultaneously in the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times on 19 April, 1917:

In the Gates of Death rejoice!
We see and hold the good –
Bear witness, Earth, we have made our choice
With Freedom’s brotherhood.

His claim for the Allies to be ‘Freedom’s Brotherhood’ was better sustained when a democratic America rather than an autocratic Russia was among Imperial Germany’s enemies. Kipling’s friend, Haggard, was exultant, writing to him in February, 1918, ‘[The Americans’] appearance on the field will win the war – and the Germans know it, or at any rate their leaders do.’ [Kipling-Haggard, p.98] Kipling agreed, but later said the United States had entered the war two years, four months and seven days too late. [ Lycett p.511]

On 1 May Kipling and his friend Percival Landon departed for Italy, at the invitation of the British ambassador, Rennell Rodd. After a visit to the Vatican, he travelled north to the forward Italian army base on the Venetian plains at Udine. Andrew Lycett writes, ‘Already impressed by the Italians’ skill at road-building, he was astounded, as he climbed into the mountains, to see how they had constructed observation posts and tunnels out of sheer rock. [Lycett p. 469] To his daughter Elsie, he wrote:

An inconceivable trip at the height of 4000 feet…over roads like the creations of giants, and all the while, above us – 3000 feet above us on the eternal snows one saw the trenches of the Italians….’ ‘It’s a war of giants among mountains.

[Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4 p. 463; also see pp. 445-464 for his letters].

His five despatches for the Daily Telegraph and New York Times published in June later appeared in Italian as a booklet and in English as
The War in the Mountains
. Kipling could not know that in October-November the Germans and Austrians would inflict an enormous defeat on the Italians at Caporetto, advancing sixty miles and taking 265,000 prisoners.

This year also saw the formal establishment of the Imperial War Graves Commission, on 21 May, with Edward, Prince of Wales, serving with the Grenadier Guards, as President. The Earl of Derby, Milner’s predecessor as Secretary of State for War, was chairman, and Fabian Ware, whose work in recording the burial of the dead was the foundation of the Commission’s work, was vice-chairman. In September, Ware came down to Bateman’s to invite Rudyard to become one of the Commissioners. ‘You must have R.K., the soldiers’ poet,’ said Lord Derby, who had been with Kipling in South Africa as Lord Roberts’s press censor. [ Birkenhead p. 277] For the rest of his life, Kipling worked diligently for the Commission, a posthumous tribute to his son John.

In July 1917, the Commission of Enquiry’s report on Kut-el-Amarna was published, followed on the 11th by Kipling’s poem “Mesopotamia” in the London Morning Post and the New York Times. The subject of both report and poem is the bungling in the Mesopotamia (Iraq) Campaign that led to General Townshend’s surrender at Kut on 29th April 1916. Townshend was promised humane treatment for his troops, but Turkish cruelty meant that many other ranks died. Kipling knew of the mistakes that left Townshend’s force surrounded by the enemy, short of food and medicine, from his school friend, Major-General J.C. Rimington (‘Pot’ Mullins, Captain of Games at USC, see “Regulus” in A Diversity of Creatures p. 253).

Kipling mourned the dead

They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave

and attacked the incompetent generals ‘who left them thriftily to die in their own dung’ and those politicians involved in unrealistic planning of the campaign.

The British learnt from some mistakes. By July 1917, those responsible had been removed from command and the methodical General Sir Stanley Maude had reorganised his forces and defeated the Turks. Maude’s troops advanced along the Mesopotamian waterways, supported by 446 tugs and steam launches, 774 barges and 414 motorboats, in contrast to the six steamers and eight tugs available to Townshend. [for Maude’s campaign, Andrew Syk, ed., The Military Papers of Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Maude, 1914-1917 (Army Records Society, Stroud, 2012)].

Modern readers comment approvingly on Kipling’s critical verse. For his contemporary admirers, it was his writing which inspired men to deeds of courage and character that stood out, particularly the poem “If ~” published in Rewards and Fairies in 1910. Commodore (later Admiral of the Fleet Sir) Roger Keyes shaved every morning with ‘If ~’ propped by his mirror. Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson and his chief of staff Archie Montgomery presented officers who completed the battalion commanders’ course at 4th Army training school with a copy of ‘If~’. Even Woodrow Wilson, whom Kipling and Theodore Roosevelt despised equally, derived constant inspiration from ‘If~’ and tried to use its phrases in his speeches. [ Gilmour p. 253n.] Keyes and Montgomery (by then Field-Marshal Montgomery-Massingberd) were to be pallbearers at Kipling’s funeral.

In May and June, 1917, articles by Kipling appeared in the American Saturday Evening Post, later published in book form as The Eyes of Asia by Doubleday in the United States. Three appeared in the Morning Post. They read as letters home from Indian soldiers serving in Europe in 1915 and 1916. Their letters, like those of others, were censored to prevent classified information being given away. Colonel Sir James Dunlop- Smith, formerly ADC to the Viceroy Lord Minto, had supplied Kipling with copies. Kipling had seen Indian soldiers in Britain, in training with Kitchener’s New Armies and in the hospital established for them at the Brighton Pavilion. He explained to Smith that he found the censored extracts from the soldiers’ letters, that emphasised the prosperity of England and France, together with their focus on education, to be most remarkable:

What they mean by “education” is, I think, capacity to use and profit by the material of the civilization they have seen—such as churches, ploughs, washing tubs and so on.

Kipling’s ‘letters’ were partly to combat the ‘Bolshevism’ of some of the 14,000 Indians living in the United States, many of them thinking of plotting the overthrow of British rule. [See the exaggerated account in the Observer of 4 November, 2017 commenting on the research of Dr Gajendra Singh of Exeter University.] The Germans and the Turks hoped to raise a Muslim revolt against the British in India, with singular lack of success. [For a wider context, Francis Robinson, “The British Empire and the Muslim World”, in Judith M. Brown & Wm Roger Louis, ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire: the Twentieth Century -1999]

Nineteen-seventeen was a year of Allied failure: Russia was defeated, there were mutinies in the French Army, and failure for the British at Third Ypres and Cambrai, the latter doubly disappointing because the initial assault by 378 tanks had been spectacularly successful. Nothing seemed to be working (it was possible to miss the Royal Navy’s success in countering the U-boats by the use of convoy and air patrols, and the coming of America’s enormous strength, as yet only beginning to mobilise). A negotiated peace in late 1917 would have been a victory for Germany, which would have taken territory in both east and west, as outlined in Ludendorff’s Kreuznach Programme. [Stephenson, 1914-1918, pp. 344-345.] The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918 showed the British what peace with Germany meant: although paying no reparations, Russia was stripped of a third of its population, much of its heavy industry and coal production and its best agricultural land, having to evacuate the Baltic states, Finland, Poland and Ukraine. Resistance in the Reichstag to annexations collapsed. [pp. [Stephenson pp. 394-395.]

One bright light in the gloom was General Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem on 9 December, after victory in the Battle of Gaza. In contrast to the Kaiser’s arrival on horseback in 1898, Allenby – in respect for the Holy City – dismounted to enter on foot.

Kipling’s poem, “The Holy War” published at Christmas, 1917, can be seen against this background. He had long admired John Bunyan, whose Holy War succeeded Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan describes an assault on the town of Mansoul by the forces of Diabolus led by Apollyon, while secret agents within the town, the Lords of Looseness, are working to suborn the allegiance of the population away from their true ruler. Kipling identified Mansoul with Britain and its people, and equated Diabolus and Apollyon with Germany and the Kaiser. As Julian Moore writes: ‘War propaganda in the British press had already labelled the German administration as agents of the devil,’ and to the Prussian officer’s spiked helmet British cartoonists added the tail and wings of Satan. Some levels of Kipling’s meaning may not have been clear to his readers, but his verse probably was:

All enemy divisions,
Recruits of every class,
And highly-screened positions
For flame or poison-gas;
The craft that we call modern,
The crimes that we call new,
John Bunyan had ‘em typed and filed
In sixteen eighty-two.


If 1917 changed the world, 1918 saw equally earth-shaking events: Germany’s final bid for victory, its failure, and the advance of the victorious Allies spearheaded by Haig’s British Expeditionary Force, which included many units from the Empire, fighting splendidly on the Western Front. Yet the victory came unexpectedly, with German armies still occupying vast tracts of the former Russian Empire and the British cabinet preparing for a 1919 campaign.

Kipling’s output comprised a mixture of ‘the emotional, cerebral and propagandist’, much of it in his 1919 collection The Years Between . [Lycett p.471] In “‘The Children” (published December, 1917), Kipling spoke for bereaved families in lamenting the losses which he thought could have been prevented had the Liberal Government prepared properly for war in the years before 1914:

That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven –
By the heart-shaking jests of Decay where it lolled on the wires
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes – to be cindered by fires –
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater. For this we shall take expiation.
But who shall return us our children ?

“The Hyaenas” was an attack on newspapermen and politicians. “How he hates politicians” wrote Rider Haggard after one of their regular war-time meetings, ‘Worse than I do even…’ [Quoted by Peter Keating, Kipling the Poet – Secker and Warburg, London, 1994 p. 233]

After the burial-parties leave
And the baffled kites have fled,
The wise hyaenas come out at eve
To take account of our dead.
How they died and why they died
Troubles them not a whit….

“The Song of the Lathes” modelled on Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’, is about women’s work n in armaments production. Sir Roderick Jones of the Ministry of Information wrote to Kipling on 10 January 1918 asking if he would ‘do for the Munitions and the Army what you have so finely done for the Fleet.’ [ Lycett p. 479] The verses are the words of a woman munitions worker whose husband has been killed in Flanders. To his American publisher, Kipling wrote:

The employment on an immense scale and for a long time of female labour in the munitions factories of Great Britain evolved, among other things, a type of grim, resolute and enthusiastic woman, most of whom owed a debt of blood to the Hun, who worked with a sustained energy that was almost terrifying.

[Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4 p. 543]

British arms production was remarkable, and in most areas surpassed Germany’s. Kipling’s poem was well timed. On 21 March, General Ludendorff launched the first of a series of ‘war-winning’ offensives against the British, who were driven back forty miles, but halted the Germans, who lay exposed in several large salients, their morale depressed by failure, the influenza epidemic and the knowledge that the Americans were arriving in thousands. It was not primarily the Americans, however, but the British Army, backed by industrial production, that won some of the greatest battles in this history. In the crisis caused by losses in the German offensive, Winston Churchill ‘s Munitions Ministry quickly replaced artillery and machine guns from existing stocks and made good aircraft losses with ‘astonishing rapidity’ according to the Official History. In the BEF’s victorious autumn advance, British shell expenditure reached extraordinary levels. For the week ending 29 September, when the Hindenburg Line was breached in a magnificent operation, the BEF fired 83,140 tons (3,383,700 rounds). German defences wilted under this bombardment, and the 46th North Midland Division overcame the difficult obstacle of the St Quentin Canal, using 3000 lifebelts from cross-Channel ferries and seizing a bridge. [R.E. Priestley,

Breaking the Hindenburg Line: the Story of the 46th (North Midland Division

(London, 1919).] Guns, gas, tanks and aircraft production peaked in 1918 [David Stevenson, With our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (London, 2011), pp. 379-380], and the shortages which had bedevilled the BEF at Loos were replaced by an abundance of weaponry.

Kipling had foreseen how this victory might come about in November 1915 when British military fortunes were at a low ebb. To Dunsterville he had written:

We’re pounding on in our perfectly insane English fashion. The boys at the front are cheery enough (we’ve got rather a lot of artillery) and the Hun is being killed daily. It’s the old story. All the victories were on Napoleon’s side all through and yet he didn’t somehow get further than St Helena.

[Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4 p. 345]

That artillery pounding and the waging of a war of ‘attrition’ was the path to victory is the theme of several leading military historians. [William Philpott, Attrition: Fighting the First World War (London, 2014) ; Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, Command on the Western Front (London, 1992); Nick Lloyd, Passchendaele: a New History (London, 2017); J.P. Harris, Douglas Haig and the First World War– Cambridge, 2008]. .In October and November, the Central Powers fell like ninepins. The war’s end, like its beginning, started in the Balkans. The Allied offensive in Macedonia launched on 15 September led to a ceasefire with Bulgaria on the 29th. On 30th October the Turks, beaten in Palestine and Mesopotamia, signed an armistice, on a British battleship at Mudros. The Ottoman Empire vanished into history. By the time an armistice was agreed in the Italian theatre of war, on 3 November, the Empire of Austria-Hungary had also ceased to exist. At the start of November, Kipling wrote to Dunsterville:

We here in England are sitting stupefied, like children at a cinema, among the wrecks of Empires. It has all come down in one gigantic landslide – Bulgaria, Turkey, and Austria and – Lord knows what else to follow.

[Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4 pp.514/516]

To follow would be Germany, but even as the enemy negotiated for an armistice, a U-boat torpedoed the British liner, Leinster on 12 October, with the loss of 450 lives including 135 women and children. [Stevenson, 1914-1918, p. 473. ‘Justice’ was published on 24 October.] Kipling urged in “Justice” that there should be no compromise with ‘Evil Incarnate’: Germany must be punished for starting the war and for its horrors. This was in order that:

Whereby our dead shall sleep
In honour, unbetrayed,
And we in faith and honour keep
That peace for which they paid.

The Germans accepted Foch’s harsh terms on 11 November. The High Seas Fleet had mutinied and Germany was in turmoil. [Stevenson, Backs to the Wall pp. 509ff.] [p. 432.] In London, crowds singing, dancing and rejoicing filled Trafalgar Square and the Mall. Rudyard and Carrie could not rejoice. They fled from Brown’s Hotel to Bateman’s. ‘I bolted home from town and had my dark night alone,’ Kipling wrote to a friend. A few days later, Haggard thought both Kiplings looked better, but acknowledged that ‘John’s death has hit him hard’. [Kipling-Haggard, pp. 105 & 107. Also, Carrie Kipling Diary, 13 Nov, 1918.]


The Allies had won, but the post-war world was full of uncertainty. The British Empire grew to its greatest extent, but its possessors faced ‘the crisis of Empire’. [Keith Jeffery, The British Army and the Crisis of Empire 1918-1922 – Manchester, 1984]. There was the new threat of Bolshevism. Ireland was in civil war. In India and the Middle East there was opposition to British rule. George Orwell puts this pungently if rather unpleasantly in his famous essay: ‘‘Somehow history had not gone according to plan. After the greatest victory she had ever known, Britain was a lesser world power than before, and Kipling was quite acute enough to see this.’ (This contradicts Orwell’s statement immediately before, that Kipling never learnt anything after the Boer War.) While British public hatred of Germany faded quickly, Kipling’s did not.

Yet these years saw some of Kipling’s most moving writing, among his best short stories, a number reflecting loss and bereavement. He never doubted that the sacrifice demanded to defeat German aggression had been worthwhile. If need be, it would have to be repeated. Meanwhile, Germany must be punished for her treachery and her misdeeds. To Kipling, the peace settlement was a betrayal, which failed to ensure that German militarism would never rise again. His pessimistic realism told him that it would, especially as the German High Command was assiduous in passing off their defeat as ‘a stab in the back’. The German government enjoyed the support of John Maynard Keynes in their claim that reparations were harsh and excessive. [Ferguson, The Pity of War pp. 399ff.] The disarmament clauses of Versailles and the occupation of the Rhineland should have made it impossible for Germany to fight another war, but the victors did not stick together. [Stephenson, 1914-1918, p. 529ff.] The United States turned its back on the League of Nations and Europe, and withdrew into isolation. Britain and France disagreed. The French, desperate to prevent a third German invasion, wanted strong measures. Lloyd George feared that a Germany treated too harshly would be an easy victim for Bolshevism.

Kipling’s poem “Gethsemane”, comparing the sacrifice of the British soldier facing German gas on the Western Front to that of Christ before crucifixion, was not published until after the war, and places him in the first rank of war poets. [Gilmour pp. 265-266] Post-war writings, of course, follow various themes. “The Janeites” portrays common interest and comradeship saving men from the worst psychological effects of war, as well as suggesting that Jane Austen’s books could serve as a counter to trauma. [The Daily Telegraph, 7 July 2013, quoting Oxford academic Dr Paula Byrne: ‘Jane Austen was prescribed to shell shock victims in the First World War as an antidote to mental troubles. They were read in the trenches. Byrne, Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – London, 2014]. In “A Madonna of the Trenches” a young soldier is granted a supernatural vision in the trenches, the reunion of his dead aunt with his Sergeant, who then commits suicide to join her in the after-life. “The Gardener” tells of the visit of a bereaved mother to the grave of her illegitimate son, and ends with a scene echoing Mary Magdalene’s vision of the risen Christ.

Kipling’s two volume History of the Irish Guards in the Great War, published in 1923, and republished in 1997. was an act of remembrance for his son, although John’s loss was recounted in an extraordinarily low-key manner. Many regard it as Kipling’s ‘forgotten masterpiece’ and ‘the best regimental history to come out of the war’. John Buchan wrote, ‘It seems likely to endure as the fullest document of the war life of a British regiment completed by a man of genius.’ [Although earlier, this is quoted in the Irish Times, 27 Feb, 2018. Roger Ayers points out widespread praise of the history.]

As a public figure on the Imperial War Graves Commission, Kipling was in demand. His speech dedicating the war memorial at the Sussex village of Etchingham showed he was under no illusion as to what the men of the BEF had endured:

No words can give any idea of the life they lived during the war—the horrors of dirt, darkness, discomfort, the strain on body and soul, the weariness and the despair of it all repeated and repeated summer after summer, winter after winter in the stale front line.

Yet, grieving inwardly for his son, he was proud of his people and their victory.

There never was a war in which such devices of terror and slaughter were employed; and there never was a war in which the mass of our people stood so triumphantly and so unbrokenly against all those unforeseen terrors, by land, sea and air.

[A Second Book of Words “At Etchingham Church on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the War memorial, 28 April, 1920”.]

He became a friend of King George V, for whom he wrote speeches which the King gave at the opening of war cemeteries. In May, 1922 he accompanied King George V to the new war cemeteries to commemorate the graves. As well as writing a poem, “The King’s Pilgrimage”, he drafted a speech, which the King gave at the end of the journey.

Kipling’s greatest fear, that the soldiers’ victory, their ‘cheerful sacrifice’, would be betrayed by the politicians, unfortunately came true. Post-war conditions did not favour peace. David Reynolds writes:

‘The collapse of the Romanov, Hapsburg and Hohenzollern Empires spawned a tribe of fractious nation states whose instability and enmities were at the root of another European conflict.’ The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression brought widespread unemployment, fear of Communism and a new government to power in Germany, committed to reverse the defeat of 1914-1918 and Versailles.

The failure of ‘appeasement’ at the Munich Conference of September, 1938, over two years after Kipling’s death, and Hitler’s seizure of Prague in March, 1939, told the British public and their leaders that another war was imminent.


©Rodney Atwood 2018 All rights reserved