Kipling and Memorials to the War Dead

Kipling and Memorials to the War Dead

by Michael Aidin

My subject is Rudyard Kipling and memorials to the war dead. Kipling was almost a child of the Indian Mutiny – born less than ten years after 1857, when the British were almost driven from India, returning at a time when the British maintained their position only with iron discipline. As a young journalist he became friendly with Frederick Roberts, who had won his VC at the Siege of Delhi in 1857 and subsequently became C in C in India and a Field Marshall. Robert’s influence secured a commission in the Irish Guards for Kipling’s son, John, when medically unfit. John’s death was one of the great tragedies of Kipling’s life.

Carrie Kipling was born at the end of the American Civil War and was brought up with the memory of that terrible conflict when casualties were comparable to the British losses in the First World War.

As a couple Rudyard and Carrie were both fully aware of what war involved.

Before talking about Kipling’s work for the commemoration of the war dead, I would like to mention a few issues which have puzzled me in preparing this talk.

I should explain I am neither a historian nor a Kipling scholar so I am very much the odd person out in this group, but I am interested in the history of war memorials. Kipling was important in the British commemoration of the war dead. Some questions which I would raise and to which I will return later are:

    1. What were Kipling’s religious views? Was he a Christian, a Deist, an Agnostic or an Atheist?


    1. Was Kipling responsible for the King’s visit to the war memorials in 1922 and did he write the King’s speech?

I will return to these questions later in the hope that I may interest a group of Kipling scholars and savants in finding answers to my enquiries.

Rudyard’s father, Lockwood Kipling, was an art teacher in India and I think that his art school was responsible for the metal work in the Afghan Memorial Church in Bombay. This is a memorial to British casualties in the disastrous First Afghan War (plus ça change plus ça reste la même chose).

Rudyard lived in the United States for the first five years of his marriage. He did not write about the American Civil War or the Indian Mutiny. This is odd considering how important these conflicts were to the men and women of his generation.

After Rudyard nearly died of pneumonia in New York in 1899, when the Kipling’s lost their beloved little daughter Josephine, he was advised to avoid English winters. For some years at the time of the South African War Kipling spent British winters in the Southern Hemisphere. Kipling became friends with many important Englishmen working in South Africa, including Cecil Rhodes, Lord Milner, Herbert Baker, the architect, and Lord Roberts who eventually became British Commander in South Africa. Roberts asked Kipling to work on an army newspaper and he visited the front where he witnessed some fighting.

Cecil Rhodes was besieged in Kimberley, an important mining town. After the war Herbert Baker was commissioned to design the Rand Memorial at Kimberley for which Rudyard contributed the epitaph and his father designed the metal work. This was the beginning of the co-operation on war memorials between Kipling and Baker and became so important in the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission after the First World War.

In his school story, Stalky and Co., Kipling quotes from Henry Newbolt’s once celebrated Clifton Chapel, ‘The frontier grave is far away’ commenting on an old boy killed in the second British-Afghan War. (Britain is now engaged in its fourth Afghan War). Kipling chose the same lines for the inscription on the memorial to his son in Burwash Church.

Kipling had long prophesied the coming of war in 1914 and supported Lord Robert’s campaign for National Service. Soon Kipling became very active in recruitment and propaganda work, writing about visits to the army in training and to the fronts in France and Italy, and joining the Navy at sea.

In October 1914 Carrie wrote to her mother:

‘One mustn’t let one’s friends’ and neighbours’ sons be killed in order to save us and our son. There is no chance John will survive unless he is so maimed or wounded as to be unable to fight. We know it and he does. We all know it but we must give and do what we can and live on the shadow of a hope that our boy will be the one to escape.’

John’s eyesight was so bad that he was unfit for military service and a danger to himself and the men under his command. John only obtained a commission because his father pulled strings with Lord Roberts to by-pass the medical boards which had repeatedly rejected John. One does not know how much Rudyard’s great grief was due to a sense that he was responsible for John’s fate.

In 1917 Rudyard was appointed a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission. He approved all and composed many of the epitaphs used by the Commission on its memorials. He wrote pamphlets explaining the policy of the Commission and helped to defend its work in Parliamentary debates, addressing a group of MPs. Kipling probably helped with Parliamentary speeches defending the Commission’s policy. He certainly helped his cousin, Stanley Baldwin, with his speeches and after the war wrote many speeches for King George V.

The Commission’s work was debated in Parliament. The policy of the Commission was to have gravestones where emblems might be engraved rather than crosses. The Christian group led by the High Church Cecil family pressed for crosses. Lord Hugh Cecil, described by Ian Gilmour, as a liturgical gendarme, spent much of his career making it more difficult for people to divorce or re-marry led the attack. Kipling’s inscriptions were largely derived from Eccliasties and do not refer to Christian doctrines of redemption or the after life. This was partly out of sensitivity to the feelings in India when the British Army recruited many soldiers.

Kipling’s religious views were uncertain. His father, although a descendent of generations of Methodist Ministers, was a non-believer. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in a remarkable Address to the Kipling Society at Burwash Church in 2006, said that Kipling in any orthodox sense did not believe in Jesus. Perhaps Kipling’s views changed over the course of his life, but my feeling is that as a freemason he believed in a god but not necessarily the god of the Christian church. Masons believe in a supreme ruler of the universe but this may be a Christian or a Jewish or a Mohammedan god or other deitiy. My feeling is that Kipling was not a Christian and this is why he did not use the language of Christianity in his epitaphs. I think he was a deist believing in God, but not an agnostic or an atheist.

I have tried to find out what I can about the religious practices of the Kipling family. So far as I know the three children were not baptised. John was baptised at his own volition only after he left Wellington. There seem to be no records of John’s sisters being baptised in Brattleboro. The Episcopalian Church has mislaid its records. When little Josephine died in New York, her mother, with a friend, took the body to a crematorium, which has no record of a religious service before it was placed in the furnace. The New York Times recorded that Kipling was taking Josephine’s ashes back to England, but I do not know what then happened to them. I have failed to discover whether there was a religious service when Rudyard’s body was cremated at Golder’s Green, although of course there was a full religious service at Westminster Abbey over the cremated remains. This record seems pretty unorthodox for a late nineteenth-century family and I think this is an interesting area for further enquiries.

It is hard to know what Carrie Kipling believed. Although Adam Nicholson wrote a short book about her, The Hated Wife this does not give very much information about her, although she seems a more interesting person than first appears. Returning from her brother’s funeral in Germany, she seems to have told Henry James that she wanted to marry Rudyard. Everything happened very quickly and they were married almost immediately after Rudyard’s return from India.

Carrie was Rudyard’s business manager, but how much she took decisions or simply acted as her husband’s personal assistant is hard to tell. Certainly Harold Macmillan, Rudyard’s publisher, said that Carrie was a frequent visitor to the Macmillan office, but Rudyard never came. During the war the Kipling’s income was greatly reduced by higher rates of tax and changes in the tax treatment of income from overseas where much of Kipling’s royalties were earned. The Kiplings reacted with planning to avoid income tax and death duties. To what extent these arrangements were driven by Rudyard or Carrie one does not know. Long after her parents deaths Elsie was involved with major litigation with the Inland Revenue concerning these trusts long after her parents’ death. Elsie’s tax affairs were even debated in the House of Commons – a very exceptional position for an individual tax payer.

Then, and I think now, American women were much more financially aware than English women from the same social class, education and economic background. Although the literature on Kipling’s life is extensive, Carrie’s role has been little studied. Too often the influence of wives is airbrushed out of biographies of famous men and I feel Carrie’s complex role in the Kipling story would repay further enquiry.

As a labour of love to John’s memory, Kipling wrote The History of the Irish Guards in the Great War. Five and a half years hard work were needed to produce a detailed account of the Regiment’s war time engagements.

Kipling’s most important intervention in the war memorial movement was persuading King George V to visit the war cemeteries in France and Belgium.

Kipling had always refused to accept any honours. In December 1921, Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Secretary, wrote offering Kipling the Order of Merit. Kipling replied declining the honour. In January 1922, Kipling received telegrams (he had no telephone) from newspapers in New York asking whether he had refused the OM. Kipling, angry at the breach of confidence, protested vigorously that there had been no leak at his end. Lord Stamfordham had to admit that he had placed a story with the press. Kipling was furious and saw Stamfordham, who wrote the following note. (So far as I know has not previously been published.) :

“He (Mr Rudyard Kipling) then proceeded to say how important it was that the King should visit the grave-yards in France and Flanders. Mr Kipling is in touch with republican propaganda and knows what capital is made out of this omission in unfortunately criticising the King, especially in Australia and South Africa, but generally throughout the Dominions and Crown Colonies. I mentioned this to the King.”

This I was shown by the Royal Archives, and it is reproduced by permission of H.M. The Queen.

In short order, a visit to the war cemeteries was arranged, following a state visit to Belgium in May 1922. The King travelled in a special train consisting of his own private carriage which he had used on his visits to France during the War, a restaurant car and a sleeping car for accompanying officers including General Haig and the King’s private staff. Members of the War Graves Commission in attendance were transported in a fleet of hired Rolls Royce cars. The King returned to England on the Royal Yacht. Not surprisingly, there was considerable envy among those who did not travel in the royal train or the royal yacht. Some things never change.

It is generally said in the biographies that Kipling wrote the speech for the King’s visit. There is no paper trail of drafts from Kipling to the War Graves Commission and then on to the Palace, but the evidence seems pretty clear that Kipling was the author. It is hard to imagine who else in the King’s circle would have composed a speech of such quality.

However, I stumble over the words:

“Never before in history have a people dedicated and maintained individual memorials to their fallen and in the course of my Pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be a more total advocate of peace upon earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of War.”

Wonderful language but totally wrong as anyone who has been to Arlington or Gettysburg or other American Civil War cemeteries would have known. Kipling was married to an American and had lived in the United States at a time when many Civil War memorials were being erected and had a keen sense of history. I wondered whether he had in fact written this speech but I think the evidence is overwhelming. I suspect that Lord Stamfordham or someone else altered Kipling’s text and Kipling did not comment. Alternatively, perhaps Kipling made a mistake. I have found no record that he visited Arlington, so perhaps he just did not know.

The King spent four or five days on an exhausting trip to the war cemeteries. There is an amusing photograph of Kipling speaking confidentially into the King’s ear, with General Haig hovering in the background with his notes apparently attached to a clipboard. Haig was a notorious intriguer, using his contacts with the Court. Now perhaps he was wondering what Kipling was saying to the King.

Kipling like many others had a low opinion of Haig’s generalship. Indeed, when asked to compose an epitaph for Haig’s grave in Scotland he suggested, ‘This Cross of Sacrifice is identical with those that stand above the dead of Lord Haig’s armies in France and Flanders.

The visit to the war cemeteries was the beginning of Kipling’s friendship with the King and his role as a royal speech writer.

In 1927 Kipling attended the dedication of the memorial at Neuve Chapelle, designed by Herbert Baker to the soldiers of the Indian Army and their British officers. Kipling called to his feet and spoke without notes briefly and movingly about the bravery of Indian soldiers fighting on European soil.

Kipling was greatly moved by Baker’s Memorial Cloister at Winchester, which he said was incomparably the best of all war memorials. Kipling was involved with the memorial to his son, John. This is commemorated at the village war memorial at Burwash. This is unusual and as a light is illuminated on the anniversary of the death of each man. Although much involved in planning the memorial, Kipling did not attend the dedication ceremony. Probably because he could not face the emotional strain.

Kipling as a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission, attended also the dedication at the cemetery at Loos, but was so overcome he could not speak.

The Kipling’s wished to erect a memorial to John Kipling at Burwash Church. Herbert Baker recommended Charles Wheeler, subsequent President of the Royal Academy. The Kiplings commissioned a memorial plaque with Newbolt’s words from his once celebrated poem, Clifton Chapel, “Qui ante diem periit sed miles sed pro patria”, ‘Who died before his time yet a soldier for his country.’ Kipling quoted the same words in the ‘Stalky’ stories about an old boy killed in one of the Victorian Afghan Wars.

The Kiplings then asked Wheeler to make a bust of John from photographs. They said they would inspect the work as it progressed. Wheeler asked them to come to London to see the marquette. After receiving no response to several reminders, he suggested that perhaps they found it hard to face up to the sculpted image. If that were the case, he would destroy the work. This proved to be right. Wheeler said that poor Kipling was utterly undone by his son’s loss and never got over it.

I have tried to pick up some of the major, perhaps less well known, points of the story of the involvement of Kipling in the commemoration of the dead of the First World War.

Returning to my questions:

  1. I think Kipling was a covert deist.
  2. I think Kipling wrote most of King George’s great speech, but I suspect the text was modified; by whom and how much, I do not know.

Perhaps I have asked more questions than I have answered, but this is not uncommon for those who study this complex and secretive genius.