The Irish Guards

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

First published in a special programme for a concert in aid of the Irish Guards on March 18, 1918, when the Great War was still in progress. 100 copies of this programme were printed. Signed by Kipling and bearing the arms of the Irish Guards in silver and colours on the cover, they were sold at the concert. In The Times there was a heading as follows:

Queen Alexandra, accompanied by Princess Victoria, was present at yesterday’s Empire matinée. organised by Lady Paget, in aid of the Iriah Guards’ War Fund. The chief novelty was the recital by Mr Henry Ainley of the following poem, entitled “The Irish Guards”, specially written for the occasion by Mr Rudyard Kipling.

The poem appeared in separate American and English copyright editions in 1918, and is collected in:

  • The Years Between, 1919
  • Inclusive Verse, 1927 and 1933
  • Definitive Verse, 1940
  • The Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 383
  • The Burwash Edition, Vol. 26
  • The Cambridge Edition, ed. Pinney, 2013, p. 1090


On 1 April 1900, the Irish Guards were founded by order of Queen Victoria to commemorate the Irishmen who fought in the Boer War on the side of the Empire. Field Marshal Lord Roberts, one of the most distinguished and decorated British commanders of the nineteenth century and a man of Irish stock on both sides, was appointed their first colonel-in-chief.

At that time Roberts had just taken over command of British forces in the Second Anglo-Boer War and was out at the Cape, as was Rudyard Kipling. They had first met in India during the 1880’s, when Roberts was Commander-in-Chief, India, and Kipling was a young journalist.

In later years it was through Roberts that a commission was obtained for John Kipling in the early weeks of the Great War. Having been turned down elsewhere on medical grounds, Kipling’s son was threatening to sign up as a private, which meant he would have been sent out raw and untrained to the front. Getting a commission for him in the Irish Guards meant that he received proper training, which his father hoped might give him a better chance. (In fact, John Kipling, 2nd Lieutenant, no.2 Company, Second Battalion The Irish Guards died in his first encounter with the enemy at the battle of Loos, in 1915.)

Kipling’s close personal connection with the regiment accounts for his willingness to write on its behalf. Early in 1917, he had already agreed to write what was a new kind of book for him, a chronicle of what the Irish Guards did in the war. The Irish Guards in the Great War, compiled from soldiers’ diaries and letters, and thought by some to be Kipling’s masterpiece, came out in two volumes in 1923. Though he does not pick out his son’s part in the war, let alone his death, a quiet paragraph in his introduction might be taken as his only elegy for Second Lieutenant John Kipling, who died six weeks after turning eighteen and whose body was never found:


‘And there were, too, many, almost children of whom no record remains. They came out from Warley [the training barracks] with the constantly renewed drafts, lived the span of a second lieutenant’s life and were spent.

Their intimates might preserve, perhaps, memories of a promise cut short, a chance seen act of bravery or of kindness . . .In most instances the compiler has left the mere fact suffice since to his mind it did not see fit to heap words on the doom.’

Kipling’s feelings about Ireland had always been somewhat mixed and he was violently opposed to the Irish republican movement as a treacherous attack on the Empire. Nevertheless, once linked with these young Irish soldiers through the memory of his dead son, Kipling was able to make a shot at identifying with them, allowing them a dignified history and a voice.

On 18 March 1919 Kipling sent this note on the poem to his American publisher:

‘The Irish Guards: This Regiment traces its descent with more or less accuracy, from the Irish Brigades who fought for France against England in Louis XIV’s time: and at Fontenoy very nearly broke up the attacks of the Grenadier Guards. The recruits who fled out of Ireland to join these corps were generally known as the Wild Geese. The great stand of the Irish Brigade at Fontenoy was made at Barry Wood, and Gouzeaucourt (1917) was one of the many great battles during this War in which the Irish Guards took a leading part.’
[Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters IV]

Notes on the Text

[Stanza 1]

 Army List: the list of serving regular, militia or territorial British Army officers, that has been kept since 1702.

Not so young at our trade: though it was only in 1900 that the Irish Guards were founded, this poem celebrates the long history of Irish troops fighting as a body in Europe. See following note.

Fontenoy: the battle of Fontenoy 11 May 1745, took place in the course of the War of the Austrian Succession. It was fought between allied troops, (mainly Dutch, British and Hanoverian) and a French army, fighting for Louis XV. (In his note, above, Kipling named the wrong king.) In this French army was an Irish Brigade, composed of Irish exiles. It had been formed in May 1690 when five Jacobite regiments were sent from Ireland to France in return for a larger force of French infantry who were sent to fight in Ireland; they joined the supporters of James II against those of William of Orange, in the battle over the English throne. The Irish Brigade remained part of the French army until 1792, though it transferred into the regular French army as line infantry in 1791.

Guards’ Brigade: an elite unit of the British Army with a history that goes back to the seventeenth century. Now known as the Guards’ Division.

Lally, Dillon, Bulkeley, Clare: colonels who gave their names to the regiments of the Irish Brigade. Arthur Dillon was colonel of one of the original five regiments sent to France, one of the three that formed the Irish Brigade. Gerald Lally was lieutenant colonel in Dillon’s regiment

Lee: presumable the name of another colonel.

after a hundred and seventy years: since the date of the battle of Fontenoy, see above.

fighting for France again!: as at Fontenoy, fighting on the side of France.

The wild geese are flighting: the 1691 Treaty of Limerick which brought an end to the fighting for the English throne between James II and William II, see above, provided for 12,000 Jacobites to arrive in France, known as the Flight of the Wild Geese. Separate from the Irish Brigade, they were the army in exile of James II. N.B. To make it clear this was not a poetic nature reference but a historic term, Kipling made sure Wild Geese was capitalized in later editions.

[Stanza 2]

The fashions all for khaki now: by the end of the seventeenth century the English army was in scarlet, which lasted till the Abyssinian campaign of 1867-8 , when khaki or soil-coloured uniforms were introduced. From then on khaki was used for colonial campaign dress. It was used during the Boer War.

Full-dressed . . .scarlet Army cloth: see previous note. Wearing the scarlet, which by the time the Irish Guards were founded, was only retained for full dress uniform.

The English—left at Ghent: a mocking reference to a moment when the English, historic enemies of the Irish, had not distinguished themselves. In the wake of the battle of Fontenoy (see above) English troops which had formed part of the allied garrison of the Belgian city of Ghent escaped before the French force surprised and captured the town.

[Stanza 3]

Barry Wood to Gouzeaucourt: see Kipling’s own note above.

Boyne: the Boyne is a river on the east coast of Ireland where a battle of lasting historic significance to Ulster patriots was fought in 1690 between two rival claimants of the English, Scottish, and Irish thrones – the Catholic King James and the Protestant King William.

Pilckem Ridge: the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, 31 July – 2 August 1917, was the opening attack of the main part of the Third Battle of Ypres in WWI.

the water runs/As red as yesterday: at legendary battles, the fighting is often said to have been so fierce that neighbouring streams ran red with blood.

the Irish move . . . like salmon to the sea: the sound of battle has an instinctive attraction for the Irish, just as the sea draws salmon to begin the second part of their life-cycle.

[Stanza 4]

in the ring: in the area where fighting takes place, cf the boxing ring.

we’ve carried our packs with Marshal Saxe: in Spring 1745, Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750), Marshal General of France, marched an army division of 95,000 men down the Sheldt river valley on their way to invade Austria.

When Louis was our King: when they were fighting on the side of France.

Douglas Haig’s our Marshal now: Field Marshal Douglas Haig commanded the British Expeditionary Force in France from 1915 to the end of WWI; often criticized today for the scale of the losses over which he presided.

we’re King George’s men: we’re fighting on the side of England.


©Mary Hamer 2014 All rights reserved