The Instructor


(notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

One of the suite of sixteen ‘Service Songs’ which close The Five Nations. This may have been written specifically for The Five Nations but see below.  Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.


The voice of an uneducated yet thoughtful and responsible man speaks of the experience of being under sustained fire. This was not something Kipling himself knew about from personal experience, having only once or twice been anywhere near being shot at. From his youth in Lahore Kipling had put a high value on the voice of the ordinary soldier, appreciating the vigour of their language and their realism. All ranks are subject, as the speaker points out, to the arbitration of enemy fire; that supersedes all official plans and trumps the work of the Staff.

See our note to “M.I.”.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Title and subscript] ‘Corporal Instructors’ were junior non-commissioned officers, closer in rank to the men whom they trained than others. The Instructor here though is the enemy’s fire. When it was collected by Kipling for the Sussex Edition Kipling amended the subscript to read (Non-Commissioned Officers of the Line).

[Stanza 1] Old Nickel Neck: refers to the nickel casing which had been adopted for lead bullets since late in the nineteenth century.

There’s one above:  Similar language in stanza 3 of ‘The Sacrifice of Er-Heb”. God above, the speaker’s grim joke. [D.H.]

[Stanza 4] Mem’ry’s gratis biograph:  free film-show. The ‘biograph’, a term borrowed from across the Atlantic, was one of the earliest names for moving pictures, or movies, which had begun to be shown commercially less than ten years earlier. The speaker has evidently absorbed and naturalised the concept already.

An American engineer, Herman Casler, patented the device he called the Biograph in 1894. With others he founded The American Mutoscope Company, later named The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. This developed an exhibition service, featuring large-format films and the Biograph projector, which had its commercial debut in Philadelphia in September 1896. That same year the first film shows were also held in England. These followed in the wake of the very earliest paying audiences for projected film, which are usually taken to have begun in Paris and Berlin at the end of 1895.

Kipling’s interest in the cultural impact of this new technology is also evident in his story “Mrs Bathurst” written in 1904. But the language he uses there reflects a shift. The term ‘cinematograph’ is in the process of replacing the earlier ‘biograph’, as his speakers demonstrate:

‘Oh, you mean the cinematograph—the pictures of prize-fights and steamers. I’ve seen ’em upcountry.’
‘Biograph or cinematograph was what I was alludin’ to.

[Traffics and Discoveries, p. 353 line 24]

the quick an’ the dead:  See here for sources. This, and the re-iteration of “greater than us all” reinforces the idea of the bullet being in loco Dei.  [‘D.H.]

By 1919, when Kipling revised this poem for the Inclusive Edition, he had substituted ‘cinematograph’ for ‘ biograph’, which had fallen out of use.


©Mary Hamer 2011 All rights reserved