The Horse Marines

(notes edited by Alastair Wilson)


This story first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine for October 1910, with three illustrations and a headpiece by “Crombi”. The Carrington extracts from Carrie Kipling’s diaries have an entry for 29 May 1910 which suggests that the story was being worked on at that date.

It was collected in:

  • A Diversity of Creatures in 1917 (having the earliest publication date of the tales included in that collection)
  • Scribner’s Edition , Volume XXVI, page 351
  • Sussex Edition , Volume IX, page 301.
  • Burwash Edition , Volume IX, accompanied by the verses The Legend of Mirth

This is the sixth and, apart from the one-act play, The Harbour Watch, the last of the Pyecroft stories. The events are clearly supposed to have taken place in 1910, though the notion of Jules, the French petty officer, may have been suggested by stories of a highly successful visit of the French fleet to Portsmouth some years earlier, shortly after the signing of the Entente Cordiale.

It will be noted that in the six years since the earlier Pyecroft stories, the chauffeur, Leggat, has acquired a second “t” and so appears as Leggatt: Mr. Moorshed, on the other hand, has dropped an “o”.

Though Pyecroft must surely have been due for pension by 1910, he shows few signs of flagging, but his diction has not improved. In particular, he has a new habit of inserting a superfluous ‘r’ into a number of words, e.g., Trarnspires, Clarss and so on. We shall not remark further on this.

The Story

The story revolves round a (fictitious – but based on solid fact) parliamentary report in a newspaper that the Army is using rocking horses to teach its recruits to ride.

Leggatt, the chauffeur, meets Kipling at Southampton Docks, with Kipling’s car sporting four of the most expensive tyres available. Questioned as to their provenance, Leggatt explains that Mr. Pyecroft is the best person to explain, and that he is in Portsmouth. At Pyecroft’s uncle’s greengrocer’s shop in Portsmouth, Pyecroft tells how he and Jules, who have been on a ‘run-ashore’ in London, happened to meet Leggatt who was about to bring the car to Southampton. They cadge a lift, persuading him that Portsmouth isn’t much out of the way to Southampton. Near Portsmouth they encounter a patrol of Boy Scouts, on exercises, and Mr. Mo(o)rshed who is their umpire. Morshed decides to commandeer the car for nefarious purposes of his own.

Morshed wishes to ‘pull the leg’ of his uncle, a Brigadier-General (Army), who is on Whitsun manoeuvres with his brigade somewhere in the Downs. They replace the body of Kipling’s car with uncle’s delivery cart, and embark one rocking horse and a large quantity of fireworks, and set off into the Downs. They find the Red and Blue armies, and decide that they have an opportunity to pull the whole army’s collective leg – not merely that of Morshed’s uncle.
They set up the rocking horse on a ridge between the opposing armies, and using the fireworks they have brought, illuminate the rocking horse so that it can be seen by both armies. Each thinks the rocking horse has been set up to ‘take the mickey’ out of them by the other. The result is a pitched battle on the summit of the downs, using a heap of mangold-wurzels.


The Preface, purporting to be a quotation from a daily paper, refers to a question asked in the House of Commons in London by Lord Ronaldshay (1876-1961), who, as eldest son of the Marquess of Zetland, was known by his father’s subsidiary title of Earl of Ronaldshay, but was not debarred from being a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons during his father’s lifetime.

The Right Honourable Richard Burton Haldane (1856-1928) was Secretary of State for War (1905-12) (the political head of the Army, whether there was a war on or not) and Lord Chancellor 1912-15 and in 1924. He became Viscount Haldane in 1911. His chief interests were philosophy, education and the law, but he is now remembered for having carried out a great re-organisation of the British Army, notably increasing its ability to face a major war. He organised an Expeditionary Force of six Regular divisions, converted the Militia into a Special Reserve to feed them with manpower, and combined the Volunteers and the Yeomanry into the Territorial Army, forming a second line and a nucleus for further expansion in war. He also created the Imperial General Staff and the Officers’ Training Corps.

An unconsidered remark by a friend, that “Germany was his spiritual home”, referring only to his philosophy, was ignorantly or maliciously represented as a personal admission of sympathy with Germany’s political ambitions; public suspicion led to his being omitted from the Coalition Government of 1915. The King awarded him the Order of Merit, but an even more striking testimony was provided by Field Marshal Lord Haig who, immediately after leading the Victory Parade in 1919, called on Haldane to give him a copy of his Despatches inscribed to “the greatest Secretary of State for War England has ever had”.
The actual questions and answers in the House of Commons (which Pyecroft would no doubt have classed as “plaisanterees”) were recorded in the official pages of Hansard under the date 18th April 1910 – ten days later than that given by Kipling – as follows:


EARL OF RONALDSHAY asked the Secretary of State for War if rocking horses are to be supplied to all Cavalry regiments for the purpose of teaching recruits to ride; and does he propose to extend the advantage to the Territorial Force with a view to increasing their efficiency?

THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (Mr. Haldane): The Noble Lord is doubtless alluding to certain dummy horses on rockers which have been tested with very satisfactory results. The question of the supply of such dummy horses is now under consideration.

EARL OF RONALDSHAY : Is it the intention to make good the deficiency of real horses by these wretched mechanical beasts?

MR. HALDANE: I am told that various hon. Members opposite practise with profit on these dummy horses.

This exchange probably induced guffaws among Naval Officers in the Naval and Military Club, and retired Admirals no doubt chaffed their retired General neighbours after Church on Sunday, when local gossip was exchanged (cf, the scene in “An Habitation Enforced” (Actions and Reactions pages 30-31). This whole story is Kipling’s rather elaborate working-out of a similar leg-pull at the expense of the Army. It may be remarked that Kipling was still very much interested in Naval matters, as much as anything because his son John had been, until very recently, destined for the Navy himself. When John’s eyesight was shown to be defective, and a Naval career no longer an option, Kipling’s interest in the Navy became, let us say, somewhat diluted.

Pyecroft’s involvement

As a naval historian of a sort, this Editor must question, in naval terms, what Pyecroft was doing on leave in London, and why his ship might have been in Portsmouth. As has been argued elsewhere (KJ June 2007, pp 44-49), Kipling made Pyecroft a Devonport rating: as such, his naval life would have revolved round that port, and his appearance in Portsmouth would have been highly unlikely. We can only suggest that he has been on ‘leaf’, visiting relatives in London (where he clearly had been brought up, from his manner of speech), and that he had decided that a side-visit to his uncle in Portsmouth would make an excuse for him to see that Jules returned safely to his ship, before he (Pyecroft) went back to his own ship in Devonport.

We are not specifically told that Pyecroft’s ship was in Portsmouth – merely that he was on his way back to Waterloo to rejoin his ship. Although a more usual route to Plymouth would have been from Paddington, Plymouth was also served by competitive services from Waterloo.

Does all this matter? Not one whit – but this Editor wishes he could have asked Kipling for his explanation!

The Geographical Setting

The initial setting is the old Portsmouth road from London. (The A3 then and now, although virtually all the road now follows a slightly different alignment than that which Leggatt followed with Pyecroft and Jules as passengers: with the completion of the Hindhead tunnel (due mid-2011) the whole road will be on a new alignment from the bottom of Putney Hill to the entrance to Portsea Island. Their initial encounter with the Boy Scouts would have been somewhere in the vicinity of what were then the small villages of Horndean and Waterlooville, about three to five miles from Portsdown Hill.

The main setting of the story, the ridge on which the rocking horse Persimmon is set up, might have been anywhere along the main ridge of the Downs between Old Winchester Hill in the west (which is at least ten miles from Winchester, but marks a gap in the Downs through which the River Meon runs), to Sunwood, above West Harting, in the east. The whole area encompasses an arc of some thirteen miles radius from Portsdown Hill. The precise location is of no great moment, but this editor would suggest that it is of help in bringing the action to one’s mind’s eye if one has a knowledge of the locale as Kipling did. In fact, although the story places emphasis on “the Downs” as the setting, clues inside the story suggest that Kipling had in mind an outcrop of the Wealden ridge some ten miles north-east of Sunwood, and not far from Black Down (“such lands as lie ‘twixt Rake and Rye / Black Down and Beachy Head”). The clues (see page 315, lines 20-23) are in the fact that the ridge is called “The Heights of Something”, and that it is at the junction of three counties: the only place which fits this description is Marley Heights, close to where Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex all meet.

The ORG seems to have taken literally Kipling’s mention of Leith Hill (page 318, line 20) as indicating where Morshed’s uncle’s brigade was to be found: but Leith Hill is an outpost of the North Downs, some 50 miles from Portsmouth, and the actions described and implied mean that the time and distance equation just did not add up: and besides, Kipling had specified the South Downs as the setting (page 313, line 26). It would seem that the mention of Leith Hill is a red herring.

The Critics

The critics have not paid a great deal of attention to ‘The Horse Marines’- which is not really surprising, since it is generally, and fairly, regarded as being one of Kipling’s lesser stories.

However, Tompkins makes the following observations which involved a reference to the tale. In her chapter entitled ‘Laughter’ she writes:

Close to these farces, but not quite the same, are those in which the ridiculous incidents serve some extraneous purpose as ordeals or gauges. The gaudy jest of ‘The Horse Marines’ reassures the retired Colonel that the spirit of his regiment has not changed since he commanded it. ‘Same old game – same young beggars.’

Four pages on, she writes:

Kipling’s own delight in these tales is manifested in the gaiety of their detail. His imagination keeps offering him more and more. Scenes, types and similes bubble up …. . Many of these accessories to the jest are fibres which tether it to earth: such are Pyecroft, shining his uncle’s boots at the beginning of ‘The Horse Marines.’

And another two pages on, still in the chapter on ‘Laughter’, she cites the poem ‘The Legend of Mirth’ which is linked to, and immediately follows the tale:

All these examples are linked by the fact that the laughter – the violent sense of fun – is accompanied by a suspension of daily hardship and strain. … Something, too, may be gathered from the tales themselves and their accompanying verses. Those who laugh are men who carry responsibilities and control large interests. It is a Law Lord and a famous engineer who apply themselves to find out if a monkey will climb a monkey-puzzle tree, … (even) the Archangels present themselves. They appear in ‘the Legend of Mirth’ which is attached to ‘The Horse Marines’. Theirs is the rigour of unresting zeal, so careful to conform to its own high standards, so anxious, so perilously near to pride, that it needs to be pierced by:

Tales of the shop, the bed, the court, the street,
Intimate, elemental, indiscreet . . . .
Tales to which neither grace nor gain accrue,
But only (Allah be exalted!) true.

And Allah despatches a Seraph on this mission. The ‘utter mirth’ in which the Four forget both ‘zeal and pride’ sends them reeling through the universe which answers to their laughter:

And e’en Gehenna’s bondsmen understood
They were not damned from human brotherhood.

The Archangels have received new light on their tasks from frivolity, and they tell the tale roundly against themselves in heaven. These are some of the implications that came to enrich Kipling’s natural – he might have said national – addiction to farce.


©JAlastair Wilson 2009 All rights reserved