The Great War and Rudyard Kipling

(by Hugh Brogan)

[June 1998]

Hugh Brogan, Professor of History at the University of Essex, was a long-standing
member of the Kipling Society, and an authority on Kipling’s life and works. This article was first delivered as an address to the Society on 11 February 1998, and reprinted in the Kipling Journal in June 1998. A revised version is to be found in “In Time’s Eye”, essays on Rudyard Kipling edited by Jan Montefiore (Manchester University Press 2014). The collection also includes an article by Harry Ricketts on “Kipling among the war poets”.

Hope lies to mortals
And most believe her,
But man’s deceiver
Was never mine.

The thoughts of others
Were light and fleeting
Of lovers’ meeting
Or luck or fame.
Mine were of trouble,
And mine were steady,
So I was ready
When trouble came.

[A.E. Houseman]

Many, many years ago, when I was a young academic at Cambridge, I
found myself sitting on a sofa having tea with E.M. Forster. It was the
season between Bonfire Night and Christmas. He said that, according
to his bedmaker, old people hated Remembrance Sunday: it brought
back too many painful memories.

I myself hated Remembrance Sunday, 1997. During the last
Parliament I couldn’t help noticing (like everyone else, I watch the
television news) that every year in the week or so before 11 November,
Tory M.P.s sprouted plastic poppies in their lapels (by the way, why are
modern Poppy Day poppies so cheap and ugly?) as if they had
contracted a rash. In 1997 they put the things on a full fortnight
beforehand and so did members of the Government. There was no sign
of the pacifist White Poppy movement, which made itself conspicuous
a few years before; but Peter Tatchell led a homosexual group to place
artificial pink poppies (arranged in a triangular wreath) on the
Cenotaph a week before the official ceremonies. The British Legion
repeated its plea that two minutes’ silence should be observed by
everyone on 11 November as well as on Remembrance Sunday; and
commerce (my building society) and the Prime Minister hastened to
endorse it.

Since only one war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of
the eleventh month – not World War II, the Korean War, the Falklands
affair, or the Gulf War – this seemed to me to be an objectionable idea:
it seemed to suggest that only the First World War mattered, or that it
mattered uniquely. In a way that is quite true, but I do not think it is a
point that should be made at the time when all our battle-dead are being

The whole shabby farce culminated on Remembrance Sunday itself,
when a dirty, tattered Union Jack was flown over Whitehall upside
down. The Ministry of Defence gallantly blamed the Crown Property
Services Agency.

Surely this concatenation of self-serving humbug, enacted at the
expense of what used to be the most sacred ceremony of the British
year, is proof that those old painful memories are losing their hold on
the nation. We would not insist so vulgarly that we remember if we
were not actually forgetting, or putting the sagas aside. This forgetting
is, I think, a development both inevitable and healthy. But we will do
ourselves no service, and the dead no honour, if, as a people, we
continue to pretend that the poppies mean as much to us as ever. Did
those sons and daughters die so that we could play the sanctimonious
hypocrite in their name?

Of course not. Yet I can see few signs that the popular imagination is
ready to consider and discuss the wars of the twentieth century – the
two World Wars particularly – dispassionately, honestly and
knowledgeably. In the course of preparing this paper I went to hear a
lecture by Professor Brian Bond on the First World War (1) in which he
told how, recently, he had heard a young woman remark during a
television discussion that it was thanks to the public schools that
Britain lost that war. Professor Bond wrote in to say that according to
his information Britain had won. The BBC wrote back to say politely
that he was entitled to his view.

Another anecdote: not long ago I had occasion to read a graduate
thesis on women writers and the Great War. I was startled to find that
the author, writing nearly eighty years after the Armistice, took it for
granted that the absolute pacifists of 1914-18 were right. The war
should never have been fought, and any writers, even women writers,
who thought otherwise – who let their attitudes be tainted by patriotism
or any other belligerent propensity – were simply written off as
“militarists”. It had not crossed the writer’s mind that you could hate
the war and the processes of waging war and yet believe that it must be
fought and won. As Wagner once said of Mendelssohn, I seemed to see
an abyss of superficiality opening before me.

Nor could I dismiss this piece of work as a mere token of one
student’s personal eccentricity. On the contrary, the writer was the
typical victim of two generations of misrepresentation. It is hardly
surprising that an age which finds in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem
(which ought to be called An Anti-War Requiem) its most representative
piece of public music, should be unaware that it is possible, in all
seriousness and decency, to take more than one view of the Great War.
Nor is it surprising that the British generally, so far as I can judge, now
hold two logically incompatible beliefs; first, that all war is pointless
and avoidable, that all admirals, generals and air marshals are vicious
incompetents, that all servicemen are passive victims, rather like
sacrificial sheep; second, that the sheep were heroes who saved their
country. And attempts are now being made to launch a third fallacy, or
should I say to resurrect one. On 11 November 1997 the BBC saw fit
to run a TV news item on German atrocities in Belgium in 1914. The
wheel has indeed come full circle.

As a professional historian I passionately repudiate all this
inconsistent and irresponsible myth-mongering. Neither the pacifist
nor the nationalist view of the World Wars – of World War I in
particular – is an adequate interpretation; nor is a hellish blend of the
two; and there are some things that are too precious to be relinquished
to the self-serving posturing of demagogues, whether of the Left or the
Right. Furthermore, a nation which wallows in sentimental
falsification of its past is likely to misjudge and mishandle its present,
with Heaven knows what evil results. The time has come to cry halt,
as I am glad to report that a good many of my professional colleagues
are doing; (2) and we, as members of the Kipling Society, have a
particular obligation to raise our voices, for among the many burnt
offerings currently being set before the God of Slovenly Falsehoods is
the reputation of Rudyard Kipling. It grieves me to say that to judge
from the latest issue of the Kipling Journal we are failing somewhat in our duty.

The Journal in question (December 1997) contained eight pages of
comment on the recent (October 1997) play, “My Boy Jack”, by David Haig. The
comment was intelligent, good-humoured and well-informed, as was to
be expected; and the Holts, in particular, had some important
reservations; but except for one paragraph by the Editor (who had not
seen the play), all the contributors fell into the same trap which, in my
opinion, had swallowed up the dramatist. They all accept that the war
was pointless, and that the dead died uselessly. The play amounted to
an almost total falsification of the beliefs, views and principles of the
Kipling family where the Great War was concerned, and
simultaneously displayed a shocking ignorance, indeed I must say
prejudice, about the war itself.

The tragedy we were shown was not the tragedy which actually
befell the Kipling family; the interpretation of the war that was laid
before us was one which no one at the time would have endorsed,
except possibly Bertrand Russell and a handful of pacifists (16,500
conscientious objectors, as against 4.9 million who enlisted). To a
historian, the piece was a travesty of the past, and a confirmation, if one
was needed, that myth has displaced truth, and that too many of the
British have lost touch with their actual past. Ours is a generation
which has succumbed to sentimentality and to what, in my profession,
is sometimes called “presentism”: the inability to understand that the
past is different, and that what seems obvious to us, or to some of us,
would have seemed contemptible, even incomprehensible, to our
recent ancestors. So my business tonight must be to remind you all
of certain facts about the Great War, and to clarify Kipling’s response
to it.

Let me begin by saying a word about young John Kipling: it need not
be long, since George Webb (Editor of the Kipling Journal from 1980 to 1998) has already said all that is needful. John in life was not the sympathetic but probably neurotic weakling that David Haig makes him. He was an entirely typical specimen of the young men
who rushed to arms in 1914 at their country’s call. Over a million of
them had volunteered by Christmas. I would like to stress how
extraordinary this was: every other belligerent in 1914 relied on
conscription; only Britain disdained it. It is inconceivable that John
would have held back, and we know that he did not. He was not quite
seventeen when the war began, and his bad eyesight might have kept
him out of uniform, but he would not allow it to do so. Rejected on his
first application for a commission, he said he would volunteer to serve
as a private. But his father applied to Lord Roberts, who got John a
commission in his own regiment, The Irish Guards.(4)

John was immensely happy at this; what the action cost his father,
Rudyard never told anyone, except perhaps his wife, who was paying
too. Almost at once they realised that John’s commission was just a
deferred death warrant, for subalterns, some of whom they knew, were
already falling like ninepins. They only had love, pride and courage to
help them bear their loss, in prospect and in actuality. Their only
consolation was that John died like a man, for a cause in which he and
they believed. How much they would have agreed with George Webb,
that ‘it ill becomes anyone today to trivialise John’s determination to play his part’; (4) yet that is exactly what Haig (who might have thought
twice, given the name he bears) has done in his play, and what all do
who take a glib view of the First World War.

My concern tonight, however, is not with John, except incidentally,
but with Rudyard. I seem to see three, or possibly four phases in his
attitude to the war, but in the time available to me I can only glance at
the first of them: his interpretation of the issues which brought
Germany and Britain to war with each other, and his justification of
British belligerency.

Here again I have to register a protest about “My Boy Jack”. Quite
early in Act 1 Kipling, in 1913 or thereabouts, is made to give a
jingoistic speech in the course of his agitation to bring in conscription.
Nothing wrong about that in principle, but the speech was silly.
Kipling warns against Germany because, if it came to war and
Germany won, German methods of laying bricks would be imposed
on England. This and the other points made Kipling sound like the
dottiest sort of saloon-bar Euro-sceptic. No doubt this was intentional,
but to anyone knowledgeable about Kipling it was deeply offensive,
for whatever we may think of his politics, he wasn’t silly, nor was he
even unrepresentative.

Like many other Englishmen, he had been watching Germany with
increasing apprehension ever since the Kaiser started building his great
navy in 1897; and the perception that imperial Germany meant to
overthrow British pre-eminence if she could, by war if necessary, was
reinforced by a vague but strengthening sense that German civilisation
itself was growing sinister. Above all Kipling knew, as did everyone
else of his time, that Britain was dependent on freedom of the seas not
merely for the preservation of her empire, but for mere survival: a point
that was true of no other Great Power, and which the Kaiser and his
men would have been well-advised to consider before they began so
frivolously to threaten Britain’s lifeline:

“Then what can I do for you, all you Big Steamers,
Oh, what can I do for your comfort and good?”

“Send out your big warships to watch your big waters,
That no one may stop us from bringing you food.

“For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble,
The sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve,

They are brought to you daily by all us Big Steamers,
And if anyone hinders our coming you’ll starve!”
[“Big Steamers” (1911)]

Kipling was, it seems, obsessionally convinced that the Liberal
government was neglecting or botching Britain’s defences; in this he
was grossly unfair, and he was unrealistic, too, in brushing aside the
extreme political difficulties that would have frustrated any
government which tried to introduce conscription in peacetime; but his
support for Lord Roberts’s National Service League was neither foolish
nor unwise nor dishonourable – indeed, knowing how near the British
Expeditionary Force came to destruction in 1914 for lack of numbers,
we must surely wish that the League had succeeded – and if David
Haig had known what he was talking about he would not have
suggested otherwise.

The outbreak of war in 1914 seemed to confirm Kipling’s worst
forebodings. We, posterity, must strive for a larger view. The First
World War was such an appalling disaster that there can only be one
verdict on the European generation which brought it about: they failed
scandalously in an essential duty and must be blamed; but they must
also be pitied. For although it can hardly be denied any longer that it
was the wanton decisions of Austria-Hungary and Germany which
made the great tragedy inevitable, all of the other powers had made
contributory mistakes in the years before the war, and all were to suffer
horribly. So although it is still difficult for us, our task is not to take
sides, but to understand. Such a cool approach will better help us to
appraise Kipling than either retrospective jingoism, or retrospective

Given the world which had shaped them, and in which they had to
take decisions, it is no surprise that in 1914, after long hesitation, the
British Cabinet felt obliged to go to war. It was clear that German
power posed a long-term threat to the British Empire; Grey, Asquith,
Haldane, Churchill and Lloyd George believed that it was their duty to
defend that empire. A successful defence required that Britain have
friends, or rather allies; therefore when Germany attacked France
(which of all the main belligerents of 1914 seems to me to have least
to apologise for) Britain must support her associate (I doubt very much
that Britain would have gone to war only to aid Russia). It might have
been difficult to unite the country behind this proposition, but the
Schlieffen Plan spared the Cabinet from having to make the attempt.
The brutal invasion of Belgium made it a matter of honour to fight, and
showed what all Germany’s opponents or rivals might expect if they
did not resist her successfully.

It is impossible to exaggerate the effect of the rape of Belgium on
English minds. As Lyn MacDonald has remarked, it gave the Allies a
Cause. (5) Even Bernard Shaw, who leaned over backwards to see both
sides of the question in his Common Sense (and reaped years of intense
unpopularity as a result), eventually denounced the Germans as
idolaters and pompous noodles for their failure to see the political
imbecility of their conduct. (6) H.G.Wells denounced “blood and iron”
and, I am sorry to say, “flagwagging Teutonic Kiplingism.” (7) The
reaction began even before the atrocities: the indefensible invasion was
atrocity enough. There was an explosion of verse, the first flames of a
fire that was to burn for more than four years and add a glory to English
literature. I suppose the most famous lines of 1914 are Rupert

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,

With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping…

Charles Carrington was to comment, “that indeed was how it seemed,”
though Brooke’s words “have sometimes since seemed so hard to
justify.” (8) Equally strange is John Masefield’s rather fine “August,
1914”, which embodies a myth, very powerful at the time (it apparently
inspired Edward Thomas to enlist), that Germany must be fought
because she threatened the life of the English countryside (I suppose it
was a consequence of the invasion scares which had been a feature of
the pre-war years).

How still this quiet cornfield is tonight!
By an intenser glow the evening falls,
Bringing, not darkness, but a deeper light;
Among the stooks a partridge covey calls.

The poem turns into a plea for Englishmen to go “as unknown
generations of dead men did”:

For some idea but dimly understood
Of an English city never built by hands
Which love of England prompted and made good. (9)

Squires, labourers and poets were to spring to arms to defend the
woods, meadows and very soil of England. It is perhaps philistine to
remark that General von Schlieffen never expressed any wish to
destroy English agricultural society: we might think better of him if he
had. In fact, so far as I know the Germans in the First World War never
planned to invade Britain, and would not have succeeded had they
tried. So in retrospect, for many reasons, much of the verse of 1914
seems misguided.

This does not apply to Kipling. The poem which he eventually
produced was not the spontaneous effusion of a non-political but gifted
man, wakened, as Brooke so accurately put it, from sleep. (Thomas
Hardy’s “Men Who March Away” was just such an effusion, and not
much better than doggerel.) Rather was Kipling the nation’s recognised
prophet. For no one’s words did the English-speaking world listen to so
eagerly as his. In preparing this paper I came across a charming
illustration of what he then meant to the people. A bandsman in the
Rifle Brigade, finding himself and his comrades mobbed by a cheering,
singing, flower-throwing crowd as they marched through Felixstowe,
and remembering how contemptuously they had been treated in
Colchester, their base in peacetime (they had been barred from many
pubs) “couldn’t help thinking of [Kipling’s] lines, It’s Tommy this and Tommy that, and Tommy get outside, but it’s ‘Thank you, Mr. Atkins, ‘
when the troopship’s on the tide.” (10) But Kipling was silent for the
whole of August. He was waiting, I guess, until he had something
precise to say. It was the conquest of Belgium which at length drove
him into utterance.

We need reminding of what that conquest entailed. On 4 August
1914, in breach of international law, her own treaty obligations,
common sense and common human decency, Germany sent her armies
across the frontier into Belgium and laid siege to Liège. The policy of
Schrecklichkeit, or frightfulness, was immediately activated. The
people of Belgium were to be terrorised into offering no resistance, for
the Schlieffen Plan did not permit of delays for any cause. Paris must
be entered not more than six weeks after German mobilisation. The
Germans persuaded themselves besides that any Belgian resistance,
apart from that offered, to their astonishment, by the Belgian army, was
illegal, and might be punished by the severest methods.

So hostages were taken to secure good civilian behaviour, and when
that did not work, were shot: six at Warsage on the first day of the
invasion. Simultaneously the village of Battice was burned to the
ground, “as an example”. (11) On 5 August some Belgian priests were
shot out of hand on the pretext that they had been organising
sharpshooters. On 6 August Zeppelins bombed Liège, thus
inaugurating a standard twentieth-century practice, as Barbara
Tuchman points out. On 16 August Liège fell, after a defence which
excited the world’s admiration. On 19 August, at a place called
Aerschot, 150 civilians were killed. On 20 August Brussels was

That day and the next, massacres occurred at Andenne (211 shot),
Seille (50) and Tamines (384). The Germans indulged themselves in an
orgy of burning and looting. On 23 August Dinant was sacked, and 644
men, women and children were lined up and shot in the public square:
included was a baby three weeks old. The roads south and west were
by now choked with refugees. Namur fell to the Germans, and there
was another massacre at Visé: all those spared fled across the frontier
into Holland, except for 700 boys who, in another innovation with a
long future, were deported to help with the harvest in Germany. The
French fought heroically at the battle of Charleroi, but were
nevertheless forced to retreat. The Germans entered Louvain.

Two days later they began their sack of Louvain, which went on for
nearly a week and was soon the most notorious of their crimes. The
town was looted and burned, the inhabitants driven off or massacred,
and the great university library, one of the greatest treasures of its kind
in Europe, was utterly destroyed. All these incidents were faithfully
reported by American newspapermen, and quickly found their way into
the British press. The horrified condemnations of the neutral, perhaps
even of the Allied, press, seem to have startled the German high
command: the sack ended suddenly on Sunday, 30 August.

On Tuesday, 1 September, in The Times, Kipling spoke:

For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and take the war.
The Hun is at the gate!
Our world has passed away,
In wantonness o’erthrown.
There is nothing left to-day
But steel and fire and stone!
Though all we knew depart,
The old Commandments stand:-
“In courage keep your heart,
In strength lift up your hand.”

Once more we hear the word
That sickened earth of old:-
“No law except the Sword
Unsheathed and uncontrolled.”
Once more it knits mankind,
Once more the nations go
To meet and break and bind
A crazed and driven foe…

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” said Auden, and it is likely that by the time these verses appeared few readers of The Times needed Kipling to tell them what the war was about; but no doubt writing them helped
him to clarify his own understanding, (12) and reading them may now clarify ours. The issue was the same as that of Hitler’s war: alongside
Dinant and Louvain we remember Oradour and Lidice.

Schrecklichkeit shattered irreparably the faith and hopes which the
nineteenth century had bequeathed to the twentieth; we have paid
heavily for their loss ever since; nevertheless, the Germans had to be
resisted. The point is unaffected by the fact that rumour managed to
exaggerate even the truth. To do the Germans justice, they seem to have
refrained from rape and mere sadism: the stories about ravished
pregnant girls, and children with hands chopped off, seem to have
started among the tens of thousands of refugees who got away to
England, and to have been amplified by British civilians. These
exaggerations eventually had a tragic effect, for not only did they come
to blur the memories of what the invaders had actually done, their
exposure as fraudulent made people very reluctant to believe what they
heard twenty years later, when tales of new horrors began to come out
of Germany. Kipling swallowed too many of the tall tales. But it was
not false rumour which inspired him in August 1914.

The date of the poem has another, perhaps unplanned significance –
I say ‘perhaps’ because Kipling could throw off finished verse with
astonishing speed. On Sunday, 30 August, a special edition of The
carried the celebrated “Amiens dispatch”, which brought the first
news to an appalled country of the retreat from Mons, the heavy losses
of the BEF, and the prospect of total defeat which the Allied cause now
faced. It was to a public reeling from the news that Kipling spoke:

Comfort, content, delight,
The ages’ slow-bought gain,
They shrivelled in a night.
Only ourselves remain
To face the naked days
In silent fortitude,
Through perils and dismays
Renewed and re-renewed.
Though all we made depart,
The old Commandments stand:-
“In patience keep your heart,
In strength lift up your hand.”

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?

This was the prophet of “Recessional” speaking again; there are clear
verbal echoes of the earlier poem in the new, and they are printed side
by side in the Definitive Edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse. George
Webb objects to Kipling’s use (here and elsewhere) of the word ‘Hun’,
even though it was the Kaiser himself who, with characteristic folly,
first used it of German troops; but apart from that, I think we can all
agree that these were astonishingly apt words for that hour, moving
even today, and even today showing not only why so many in 1914
believed in the justice of the Allied cause, but that it actually was just.

Its message need not be summarised: Kipling is his own interpreter.
“Who dies if England live?”

Answer: hundreds of thousands of young men, among them the
prophet’s only son; but he never swerved from what he saw as the cruel
truth. The ‘sickening word’ must be silenced again. This was the issue.
In “The Outlaws”, a poem of the same year, he elaborated his view of
the Huns:

They traded with the careless earth,
And good return it gave:
They plotted by their neighbour’s hearth
The means to make him slave.
When all was ready to their hand
They loosed their hidden sword,
And utterly laid waste a land
Their oath was pledged to guard.
Coldly they went about to raise
To life and make more dread
Abominations of old days,
That men believed were dead…

He never swerved from this attitude. He came perhaps nearest to what
he thought was the root of the evil in that really unworthy poem, “A
, when he picked up a tale that the Kaiser was dying of
throat cancer, like his father before him. It begins:

“This is the State above the Law.
The State exists for the State alone…”

And in October, 1918, as the Allies and Germany began to negotiate for
an armistice, he published an urgent poem, “Justice”, in which he urged
the absolute necessity of punishing the enemy before concluding peace
with him:

A People and their King
Through ancient sin grown strong,
Because they feared no reckoning
Would set no bound to wrong;

But now their hour is past,
And we who bore it find
Evil Incarnate held at last
To answer to mankind.

For agony and spoil
Of nations beat to dust.
For poisoned air and tortured soil
And cold, commanded lust,

And every secret woe
The shuddering waters saw –
Willed and fulfilled by high and low –
Let them relearn the Law:

…That neither schools nor priests
Nor Kings may build again
A people with the heart of beasts
Made wise concerning men.

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

But he did not by any means let the British off the hook. Everyone
knows his “Epitaph of the War: Common Form”:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

This is, perhaps, too gnomic: at best it is a half-truth, blaming the
Liberals’ alleged unpreparedness, as if that were a sufficient
explanation of the slaughter (13); at worst, it has misled many as to his
attitude to the war itself. I prefer a verse from “Natural Theology”:

Money spent on an Army or Fleet
Is homicidal lunacy…
My son has been killed in the Mons retreat.
Why is the Lord afflicting me?

Why are murder, pillage and arson
And rape allowed by the Deity?
I will write to the Times, deriding our parson,
Because my God has afflicted me.

We had a kettle: we let it leak:
Our not repairing it made it worse.
We haven’t had any tea for a week…
The bottom is out of the Universe!

…As was the sowing so the reaping
Is now and ever more shall be.
Thou art delivered to thine own keeping.
Only Thyself hath afflicted thee!

In “The Covenant” he rebuked the nation for the pride and folly which brought on the war (though it seems that he was also, yet again,
blaming the Liberals particularly):

We thought we ranked above the chance of ill.
Others might fall, not we, for we were wise –
Merchants in freedom. So, of our free-will
We let our servants drug our strength with lies.
The pleasure and the poison had its way
On us as on the meanest, till we learned
That he who lies will steal, who steals will slay.
Neither God’s judgment nor man’s heart was turned…

But he was impressed and pleased by the response of this decadent
nation to the challenge; he had no doubt where the real blame lay, and
he saw a stark contrast between the combatants:

“Immemorially trained to refer all thought and deed to certain standards of right and wrong
which, [the English] held, lay equally on all men, they had to deal with
an enemy for whom right and wrong do not exist except as the State
decides.” (14)

From first to last, you observe, the picture is utterly consistent; and I
may add that until his death in 1936 Kipling never ceased to warn
against the danger of a revival of German aggression, and to urge the
importance of keeping faith with the dead.

What are we to make of all this? I think we should start by making
certain concessions to Kipling’s critics. All witnesses agree that Britain
became hysterical with hatred of the Germans when the First World
War broke out, and Kipling (whose genius had a hysterical side) caught
the infection, as these poems show, and as is also shown by such stories
as ‘”Swept and Garnished'” and “Mary Postgate” (15) (not to mention the
poem, “The Beginnings”, which accompanies “Mary Postgate”). He
believed the worst allegations about German atrocities in Belgium; he
demonised the Kaiser relentlessly; he picked up the half-baked notion
that German ‘frightfulness’ could be attributed to Heinrich von
Treitschke, although Treitschke (admittedly, not a sympathetic figure)
seems only to have purveyed notions common to all European
countries, with a German colouring: “The moment that the state
proclaims, ‘Your state and the existence of your state are now at stake’,
selfishness disappears and party hatred is silenced…” (16)

Kipling’s knowledge and understanding of Germany were so
superficial that he did not perceive that the problem was not that its
government was so strong, but that it was so badly organised that it
could not control its generals or qualify their blinkered military outlook
by political common sense. Thus on 1 August, 1914, at the very last
hour, the Kaiser, visited by a sudden flash of wisdom, told Moltke that
there was no need to go to war in the West; they should abandon the
Schlieffen Plan and fight Russia alone. Moltke, shattered by the idea,
absolutely refused to adopt it, although apparently he recognised, only
six months later, that the assault on Belgium and France had been a
mistake. (17)

The curse of Germany was militarism, the militarism of Prussia as it
had developed since 1870; most of the country’s mistakes and all of its
crimes during the First World War can be laid at its door, and it was
those crimes which created the atmosphere and attitude which made
later, even greater, crimes possible. The evidence that militarism was
the enemy was available to Kipling from the moment that Belgium was
violated; but, obsessed with the Kaiser, he failed to understand it.
Wilhelm II was not a competent ruler, but he was not the genius of pure
evil that Kipling made him out to be. That description only applies to a
later German ruler, the follower of Ludendorff.

On the other hand, Kipling did understand very well the case for
British belligerence. So far as Britain and the British Empire were
concerned, Germany was simply not to be trusted, and Britain could
not in prudence stand by while her only ally, France, was destroyed;
besides, invasion and occupation by Germany was no joke, and in the
name of human solidarity it would have been shameful to grant the
Prussians a free hand. These points were well understood in England in
August and September, 1914, and on the whole they continued to be
valid throughout the war. Siegfried Sassoon apparently believed that
peace could have been made in 1917. If so, it would have been peace
on Germany’s terms, and we know, both from the work of Fritz Fischer
and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, just how cruel those terms would have
been. They would also have weighed most heavily on Britain’s allies.
Peace in 1917 was not, as it happened, at all likely; Kipling would not
have been alone in thinking that it could not have been honourable. Yet
nobody, reading The Irish Guards, can doubt that he knew exactly what
was the price of war.

The aspect of Kipling discussed in this paper is not that which has
guaranteed his hold on posterity. There is much more to be said of his
writings on the war: his reportage, his verse, his stories; even an
examination of such relatively minor work as Sea Warfare reveals a
human warmth (not to mention a certain charm, and delicacy of
observation) which sets it, as literature, above most of the verse I have
quoted today. And there is much still for us to discover about that other
work. For example, that amazing passage in “Mary Postgate” where the
dead boy’s possessions are listed as she burns them may perhaps be
read as Kipling’s prophylactic against grief; or a rehearsal, for it was
written six months before he lost his own boy. And his account of the
battle of Loos, in the second volume of The Irish Guards, though as
carefully restrained in tone as all the rest of that remarkable work, does
contain some of the few critical comments on the high command, its
tactics and strategy, that he ever allowed himself. It cannot be a
coincidence that it was at Loos that John Kipling died.

But this paper has had another concern: to rescue Kipling’s
reputation from ignorant libel, and to contribute, in however small a
way, to a better understanding of that great historical tragedy which
was not only his, not only his country’s, but the world’s – and which
we still, after all this time, instinctively call the Great War.

Hugh Brogan

©Hugh Brogan 1998 All rights reserved