The Jacket

(notes by Roger Ayers)


First published in the Barrack-Room Ballads section of The Seven Seas (Methuen, London, 1896). It is listed in ORG as No 686.

It is collected in:

  • InclusiveVerse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxiii (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxvi (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 450.

Verse Form

This is close to the traditional Ballade format with six stanzas of eight lines, although with a refrain of four lines rather than the usual single line. For the first and last stanzas, the refrain forms the last four lines of the stanza; for the remainder, it is additional to the eight lines of each stanza.

Critical reception

In 1899, G.F. Monkshood wrote:

’If Barrack-Room Ballads has had any superior in the last twenty years, that superior is The Seven Seas, and that only.’

He then listed the poems that he felt made this so, and second on his list was ‘..the song of The Jacket’. (Rudyard Kipling, An attempt at an Appreciation, Greening & Co., 1899)

A year later, Richard Le Galliene wrote of the Barrack-Room Ballad section of The Seven Seas:

‘… the strength of this second instalment is in their humour, in the delightful devil-may-care fun of “The Shut-Eye Sentry” and “The Jacket” …’ (Rudyard Kipling, A Criticism, – John Lane, The Bodley Head, London & New York, 1900)

At the same time, an opposing view on “The Jacket” could be found in The Spectator

‘…it represents the worst type of Mr Kipling’s ballads”, was its judgement, quoted in A Kipling Primer, (F.L.Knowles, Chatto & Windus, London, 1900).

So it was considered either the best or the worst – but at least it had been well and truly noticed.

Subsequent commentary was largely confined to discussion of whether there was any basis in fact for the episode and, if so, on whose actions it might have been based. An examination of comment on this aspect is dealt with below.

Background to the poem

The poem is a distinctly light-hearted description of an improbable action by a small artillery subunit, clearly set in the war in Egypt in 1882.

In August of that year, a British force of some 25,000 men was sent to the aid of the Khedive of Egypt, whose rule was threatened by a nationalist uprising led by Arabi Pasha, that is, Colonel Ahmed Arabi (now often spelled Urabi or Orabi), who had been the Egyptian Minister for War.

The British force under General Sir Garnet Wolseley, a former Adjutant General and the author of The Soldier’s Pocket Book, arrived at Alexandria in early August 1882. The impression was given that it would advance on Cairo from Alexandria but on 20 August the force sailed via Port Said and the Suez Canal to Ismailia on Lake Timsah. It then fought its way west up the road and rail routes alongside the Sweetwater (or Ismailia) Canal towards Cairo in a series of minor actions until it was facing a considerable entrenched force at Tel-el-Kabir, a major Egyptian army camp. After a night march before dawn on 13 September 1882, the British force attacked and drove the Egyptian forces from their position, inflicting heavy losses.

The setting for the action depicted in the poem is similar to that in which several minor actions took place on the route alongside the Sweetwater Canal from Ismailia to Tel-el-Kabir. The Egyptian forces had attempted to prevent the British advance at a number of places, using troops protected by entrenchments covered by artillery fire or by defending one or two small existing forts.

The story is told in Kipling’s familiar near-Cockney speech as if narrated by a gunner from the Royal Artillery. In the opening lines, he tells of the gunners’ hard work in serving the guns in Egyptian conditions, then the story switches to the way in which the battery concerned celebrated the fact that the captain, normally the second-in-command of a battery of six guns, had been selected for service with the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA). This is the elite branch of the Royal Artillery, which at that time deployed with and supported the cavalry.

For an officer to be selected for the RHA was, and still is, known as ‘getting one’s jacket’, from the hussar-style jacket, well decorated with gold braid, then worn by the RHA, although now only in full dress. The celebration in the officers’ mess of such selection was known as ‘wetting the jacket’ but in this case Kipling has two gun detachments of the six in the battery take part in an alcoholic celebration in the middle of a campaign, for which the captain has thoughtfully provided the drinks by substituting ‘proper liquor’ in place of some of the ammunition normally carried for the guns.

The basis for the story

While there is no recorded action or incident on which the poem might be based, Kipling himself admitted that he did base it on a story that he had come across. This admission was identified by Professor Thomas Pinney when doing research at Sussex University for his outstanding 6-volume set, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, although the letter, and the note that revealed it, were not eventually included in his published collection.

On 23 June 1931, H.G. DeWatteville, Assistant Editor of the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, wrote to Kipling asking:

‘… if ‘The Jacket’ was based on the exploits of ‘Treasure’ Dalbiac in the battle at Tel-el-Kebir?’

Kipling drafted a short reply for his secretary on the letter, which reads:

‘Dear Sir/ In reply to yours of the 23rd the verses to which you refer were based on a legend (unverified) of one of the Treasure’s doings in Egypt.’

The ‘Treasure Dalbiac’ was Captain Henry Shelley Dalbiac, who took part in the campaign of 1882 as the second-in-command of a field battery of the Royal Artillery that was employed, without its guns, as the Reserve Ammunition Column to the force artillery, a purely logistic role.

Dalbiac was aged 32 at the time, an accomplished horseman whose reputation as a rake and practical joker had already given rise to numerous very wild stories, including some of very doubtful authenticity.
There is, however, one major obstacle to the central theme of Kipling’s poem, the ‘wetting of the Jacket’, applying to Captain Dalbiac, since he had already received his Jacket, having been selected for the RHA at the end of 1877 as a lieutenant of six years seniority. He had served in A Battery, A Brigade RHA at St John’s Wood in London, a unit with a ceremonial role where he would have had every opportunity to wear it. He served there until his promotion to captain in May 1881, when he was posted from the RHA to a Garrison Artillery Battery in Gibraltar. He left this unit six months later in November 1881 for reasons unknown to join F Battery, 1 Brigade RA, with which he served in Egypt in August and September 1882.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem was the second version of such an incident to have appeared in print. The first was an unsigned story, “X2 R.H.A.”, published in the St James’s Gazette of February 1890, six years before “The Jacket”, apparently based on the same unverified incident but differing very considerably in detail and style. .

However, “X2 R.H.A.” is so remarkably similar in its central action to the incident in Kipling’s later poem that it is not surprising that many have taken it to be by Kipling as well. One commentator in particular, Lieutenant-General Sir George MacMunn, a Vice-President of the Kipling Society, maintained that it was by Kipling, initially in an article in the Kipling Journal KJ020 of December 1931 and later in his Rudyard Kipling, Craftsman (Robert Hale, London, 1937). In the same year, the Kipling Society reprinted “X2 R.H.A.” in its issue KJ041 of March 1937 pp 26-29. and it was later included in the Society’s original Readers’ Guide (ORG) as ‘Uncollected No. 183. While it was admitted that the piece was unsigned, the attention of doubters was drawn to the similarity of the story to Kipling’s poem.

This editor believes that it is much more likely that they came from different hands, or more importantly, from different minds. “X2 R.H.A.” is written specifically about a ‘division’ of two guns from an RHA battery which, under the command of their lieutenant, goes into action against an enemy defending a desert entrenchment but without waiting for the cavalry escort allocated to it. The whole tone of the piece reflects the ‘go everywhere cavalry can, and do everything cavalry can’t’ nature of the RHA and especially of their rivalry, somewhat sharper then than now, with the cavalry. In addition, the considerable background detail about the handling of the guns, the orders, and the technical details lead me to believe that the author was a Gunner. If not by Kipling, it may well have been the published story that alerted him to tales of Dalbiac’s alleged involvement although he could easily have come across them independently.

Both added to Dalbiac’s reputation, although by the time they appeared he had had to resign from the army as a major, his lifestyle having led to his bankruptcy in 1888. In 1900 he volunteered for the Imperial Yeomanry and in May of that year he was killed in action in South Africa as a captain commanding a company.

Could Captain Dalbiac have been involved in some such incident?

Long after his death articles appeared regularly in various journals, including the Kipling Journal, discussing whether any such event had ever taken place and, if so, was Dalbiac involved? Many commentators before 1940 accepted that he had been involved in some such incident, although more recent studies have found no record of such an incident and little or no opportunity for Captain Dalbiac to have been involved, although he did take part in the 1882 campaign but, as stated above, as the second-in-command of a field battery in a logistic role without any guns. .

The subject was revived in 1986 by a letter to the Kipling Journal (KJ240, Dec 1986 page 60) drawing attention to an article on the subject in the Bulletin of the Military Historical Society.
This resulted in a response from the Senior Librarian of the Ministry of Defence Library, Mr M.M.Chapman, (KJ241, Mar 1987, page 45) reporting on the failure of his own searches within the Ministry of Defence Library to find a record of any situation in which such an action might have taken place, and forwarding a letter and documents from the Secretary of the Royal Artillery Institution with similar findings.

Notes on the Text

[Title] The Jacket: See Background to the Poem above.

[Subtitle] (Royal Horse Artillery): not included in any editions of The Seven Seas but added in all later collections to explain who the “ ‘Orse Gunners ” were in the refrain.

[Stanza 1]

[Line 1] Plagues of Egyp’: a comparison of the conditions experienced by soldiers in the 1882 campaign with the Biblical plagues inflicted on Pharaoh and the Egyptians in Exodus, Chapters 7 to 11.

Arabi: The leader of the uprising against the Khedive was Colonel Ahmed Arabi, also known as Arabi Pasha, who had previously been the Egyptian Minister for War.

[Line 4] … talkin’ at the gun: almost certainly meaning swearing at it, as they manhandled it through the sand. In 1882, both the horse and the field artillery were equipped with the 13-pounder Rifled Muzzle-Loader (RML), introduced just before the campaign.

[Lines 5 to 7] But the Captain ’ad ’is jacket, etc: he had been selected for posting from the Royal Artillery to the Royal Horse Artillery. See the Background to the Poem above.

(‘Orse Gunners, listen to my song!):  Kipling’s call to members of the Royal Horse Artillery to hear how the Jacket was being ‘wetted’ (celebrated) in style.

[Stanza 2]

[Line 9] … a sand redoubt: A redoubt was a detached defensive fieldwork not connected to or flanked by other defences. In this situation it would have been a trench in the sand with at least some form of walling (revetment) supporting the sides and with a parapet, that is, the forward side of the trench, built up to give added protection. In Line 35, Kipling also gives it a glacis, a gradual slope built up in front of the parapet almost to the top to ensure that an attacker immediately outside the parapet could not find cover from fire.

[Line 10] Loadin’ down the axle-arms with case: filling the emergency ammunition boxes on the axle-tree of the gun carriage (Kipling’s ‘axle-arms’) with case-shot and propelling charges. Case-shot for a light field gun consisted of a thin metal canister of some 40 small iron balls, each of about 4 ounces (114 gm) which, when fired, separated from the canister on leaving the muzzle and spread out in a narrow cone. With only four such rounds on each gun, this was a last-ditch, short-range weapon for use against infantry at close quarters.

[Lines 11 & 12] … took the crackers out An’ he put some proper liquor in its place: replaced the case-shot and charges with spirits or champagne.

[Line 13] An’ the Captain saw the shrapnel, which is six-an’-thirty clear: Apart from the case-shot, all the ammunition which travelled with the gun was carried in the limber, a short two-wheeled cart, drawn by six horses, to which the gun was hooked for travelling. The bulk of the ammunition carried was shrapnel, a shell for use against infantry at around 2000 yards range. It had a time fuze that caused the shell to burst at a pre-determined point on the trajectory, discharging a mass of steel balls to shower down on the target. A small number of rounds would have been ‘common shell’: shells filled with explosive fused to burst close to the target. The figure of 36 rounds in a limber suggests that Kipling was still thinking in terms of the 9-pounder gun which had been superceded by the 13 pdr RML (see Line 4 above).

[Line 15] “or will you draw the beer?”: pull the limber with beer in place of shrapnel.

[Stanza 3]

[Line 18] … Arabites …: the forces of Arabi Pasha.

… all their ranges marked: normal practice in a defended position where the defenders (in this case, the Egyptians) have noted the range from their position to identifiable points in the ground to their front, in order to be able to bring down accurate defensive fire with the first rounds.

[Line 19] … bottled Bass: Pale Ale exported throughout the Empire by the Burton-on-Trent firm of William Bass, which had celebrated its centenary 5 years before this campaign.

[Line 21] … the shells we ‘ad in ‘and: presumably the common shell. See Line 13 above.

[Stanza 4]

[Lines 28 & 29] An we used the bloomin’ guns:  Out of ammunition, the gun teams ‘limbered up’, that is hooked the guns to the limbers, and charged with the gun teams towing limber and gun as very heavy cavalry. Actual examples of this being done were in May 1811, when 2nd.Captain Norman Ramsay led two guns of Captain Bull’s Troop in a charge through encircling French cavalry at Fuentes de Onoro in the Peninsular War and on 20 October 1858, when Lieutenant Thomas Bland Strange ordered his two guns of Q Field Battery, Bengal Horse Artillery, to charge when surprised by two rebel guns blocking a road at Doadpore during the Mutiny. The rebel gunners fled and their guns were captured.

[Stanza 5]

[Line 33] … goin’ most extended:- at full gallop.

[Line 34] … loosin’ high and wide: wild, inaccurate firing.

[Line 35] … the Captain took the glassy: led his guns up the slope of the glassis of the entrenchment. See Line 9 above.

… a rattlin’ “right incline”: The order “right-incline” is an order to change direction half-right. The whole action would have been accompanied by the rattling of harness, limber and gun parts which would have been increased by the change in direction and possibly by a change in the ground surface.

[Line 37] … give ’em quarter:- let them surrender.

[Line 39] … fizzy somethin’ Brutt: Champagne Brut, i.e. dry, with a minimal amount of sugar.

[Line 41] We might ha’ been court-martialled:  or rather, the captain might have been tried by a military court for any of a number of offences under the recently introduced Army Act, 1881.

©Roger Ayers 2018 All rights reserved