‘If Any Question Why He Died’

 John Kipling and the Myth of the Great War

by Dorothea Flothow (University of Salzburg)

On September 27th, 1915, John Kipling, the author’s eighteen-year-old son, who had joined the army almost immediately after the outbreak of the First World War, fought his first battle. He was severely wounded; it seems certain that he died the same day. Tragic as this is, John’s fate is in itself unremarkable, for a similar story could be told of many young men of the Kiplings’ friends and relatives – Oscar Hornung, Julian Grenfell or George Cecil.

Nevertheless, especially since John’s body had been identified by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1992 (cf. Holt/Holt 1998: Epilogue), his fate has attracted much attention. His relationship with his famous father, his short span in the army and in particular his terrible death have been retold in a historical account by Major and Mrs Holt (1998), in the young adult novel Kipling’s Choice (2005) by the Flemish journalist Geert Spillebeen, in a short poem by the British author Helen Dunmore, “Don’t Count John Among the Dreams”(2007), and in a successful theatre play by the actor David Haig, My Boy Jack (1997). This play is currently being turned into a film, starring Daniel Radcliffe as John and Kim Cattrall as Carrie Kipling and will be released on November 11th 2007.

As I will argue in this paper, this interest in John Kipling and the relationship with his father cannot be explained with the continued fascination for the private life of a famous author alone. Rather, John Kipling’s life and death as described in the fictional accounts seem to epitomize many of the ‘myths’ still surrounding the Great War in British popular memory. The story of this unremarkable young man and his famous father serves as a symbol of what this conflict stands for to this day. .
The Great War in British Popular Memory

The First World War still takes a prominent place in British popular memory, as is shown by rituals such as Remembrance Sunday, by the general knowledge of World-War-One poetry and by the continued attraction of battlefield tourism to Flanders Fields. Particularly in recent years the Great War has experienced a renewed surge of interest which has led to the great popularity of novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy (1991-5) or of TV-shows such as The Trench (1999). There is a widespread feeling that this conflict which clearly revealed the nature of industrialized warfare still affects us.

The popular memory of the First World War is dominated by a number of stereotypical images or ‘myths’, which Samuel Hynes defines not as a “falsification of reality, but [… as] the story of the war that has evolved, and has come to be accepted as true.” (1990, ix) For instance, while the Second World War is remembered as a crusade against Nazi barbarism, the First World War is seen as a futile conflict fought for no genuine reasons (cf. Bond 1997); in retrospect, the War seems to have resolved little, as it soon led to another World War. .

Moreover, its high casualties seem out of proportion with what the War achieved. While historians such as Jay Winter have pointed out that the percentage of casualties was no higher than in previous wars (cf. 1995), the absolute number of nearly a million British dead certainly was. Officers were particularly conspicuous targets; therefore, casualties were proportionately higher in the upper classes of society. As many officers were extremely young men, it is unsurprising that in popular memory the ‘myth of the lost generation’, that of a promising youth cut down before its prime, is still prominent (cf. Wohl 1979: ch. 3). .

According to popular ‘myth’, many soldiers were sent to this conflict with highly idealistic ideas of war – ideals they had been taught by their parents and teachers. Scholars like Paul Fussell also blame the literature of that time for instilling the young with an image of war as a heroic and chivalric adventure (1975: 21). Under the realities of battle in this modern, industrialized conflict, the soldiers’ attitudes towards war changed. This process is known as the ‘Myth of Disenchantment’ and has been summarized by Samuel Hynes: .

[A] generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory, and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences […]. (1990: x)

The process of disenchantment is mainly attributed to the Western Front, which was characterized by “exhaustive attacks, artillery bombardments and season-length battles” (Onions 1990: 2). Here, the British suffered the greatest number of casualties. With its maze of trenches, the rain and mud, the dangers of gas and enemy artillery, the Western Front dominates the memory of the Great War and, as Hynes states, seems to symbolize the evils of all modern warfare: “If you want the purest embodiment in history of that vision of war in all its cruelty and stupidity and power, the Western Front is the place to go. It is a tragic vision, on a vast scale; compared to the Western Front, other wars are only wars.” (1997: 75) Though many of these myths have been questioned by recent scholarship (cf. Bond 1997; Winter 1995; Watson 2004; Flothow 2007: Ch. 4), these images of the War also prevail in the fictional accounts of John Kipling’s life.
Kipling’s Choice

As a young adult novel, Spillebeen’s Kipling’s Choice is overtly didactic, in particular in its rejection of war. The story starts during the British attack on September 27th, just before John received a serious face wound. John’s slow, painful death is then described in detail; in between, flashbacks convey the story of how John became an officer and show the contrast to the luxurious life he led before. The novel stays close to the historical facts of John’s life; yet like any fictional account, it shapes its story by emphasizing selected themes and events. .

Two of the dominating themes are present from the start: John’s physical deficiencies and the overpowering influence of his famous father. Like Rudyard, John was extremely short-sighted. While this similarity brings the two men closer together – “they look at each other; one pair of spectacles reflects the other” (13) – it also poses a problem. As Rudyard himself could not join the Navy because of his eyes, he was determined that his son should become an officer in his stead. “‘I know what you are feeling, boy. I have the same eyes, you know. I had the same dreams of the navy.’” (12) Throughout the novel, John fails various eye-tests and thus does not qualify for the armed forces (e.g. 9, 13, 20 and 27). After the outbreak of the Great War, when the army was desperate for volunteers, he is rejected again: .

‘Left 6/36 without glasses, 6/6 with glasses.’ […]
The war is six weeks old. John […] wants to serve in Lord Kitchener’s new army. […] ‘Right 6/36 without glasses, 6/9 with.’
The verdict is given: ‘Unsatisfactory.’ (27)

While John is clearly disappointed, his father is even more so: .

Rudyard Kipling feels wounded. After all, everyone wants to do his part in the war. Why should his only son be barred from serving king and country. How can they pass over the son of Rudyard Kipling, the most celebrated writer of his time […]? (29)

There are other reasons why John is not qualified for the demands of an officer’s life: John is a likeable boy, yet he fails to pass the exam for Sandhurst (22f.) and is repeatedly described as small and weak (1, 23, etc.). Unsurprisingly “[t]he harsh outdoor life during the raw winter months undermines his health” (44); the military training proves too much for him. In a war which is often perceived as unnecessary, John’s terrible death looks even more futile, as, clearly, he would have had any excuse not to fight. This physically unfit young man, who had no real chance of surviving the war, serves as a proxy for thousands of young, eager, yet ill-prepared volunteers sacrificed in the First World War.

As the novel repeatedly points out, John died on the Western Front because his father wanted him to do his ‘bit’. Indeed, John only got into the Irish Guards because Lord Roberts, their commanding officer, owed Rudyard a favour. Though John wanted to volunteer, Rudyard is shown to be the decisive force:

[Rudyard] believes that the war is a heroic fight against the barbarians, and that the noblest fate a young man can encounter would be to give his life for his country. He recalls the words of Horace, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori […].’ (53)

With these thoughts, Rudyard personifies an image frequent in the memory of the Great War: the old generation who, unaware of the true horrors of modern warfare, sacrificed the young for their ideals (cf. Winter 1995: 2). As the author of well-known war propaganda, for instance the poem “For All We Have and Are”, which is partly quoted in the novel (29), Rudyard is presented as a great war-enthusiast who, however, fails to understand that this war does not resemble the heroic wars of his imagination. The novel emphasizes this point by establishing a parallel between John and Mowgli. In an imaginary conversation with his fictional creation Rudyard finally realizes the difference between fiction and reality: “I sent you to the Jungle, Mowgli. […] But you survived, Mowgli. John didn’t.” (149)

The feeling that John’s death could have been avoided is strengthened by the frequent foreshadowing of his fate through the deaths of his friends – George Cecil (34), George Manners (35), Oscar Hornung and Julian Grenfell (49f.). “[T]he list of dearly beloved sons of friends is growing longer every day” the narrator states prophetically (35). The ‘myth of the lost generation’ is thus mirrored in the fate of the novel’s characters: These hopeful young men from a promising background, who have all the splendid things money can buy – skiing holidays in Switzerland, dinners in expensive restaurants, John’s splendid car ‘Car-Uso’ –, die at a time when they are just beginning to enjoy life to the full. In his dying thoughts, John himself makes this point: “‘One battle? […] Is that really all, Daddo?’” (128)

The novel blames Rudyard for John’s death, yet his love for his son, “the apple of his eye”(15), and his great distress after John’s death are also emphasized: “Rudyard Kipling is slumped in an easy chair, grasping the armrests and weeping hysterically.”(129) Though Rudyard continues to write war propaganda, his disillusionment with the war dominates:

And every day the questions running through his head become clearer: Why? Did he have to defend that war so strongly? Who dies if England live? What kind of father sends his only son to his death? How many boys have I written into the grave, he wonders? (146)

His reaction illustrates the disenchantment with the First World War and with the glory it seemed to promise; the novel retells the story of the famous author who started out as a war enthusiast and reversed his attitudes completely to demonstrate to a modern readership how widespread this disillusionment was.
A further myth central to the Great War, which also dominates in the novel, is the Western Front. It is, of course, not the “Great Picnic” (54) and “real adventure” (68) John and his friend expect. Instead, the novel’s graphic battle descriptions show the Western Front to be terrible beyond belief. “From the maze of trenches, the British and French had been able to hold the front line that curved around the city of Ypres, but it had cost thousands of lives and many appalling injuries: men whose eyes were burnt out, whose lungs had burst.” (79) Or “Horribly mutilated boys ride in open wagons past the advancing troops, crying fearfully.” (124) Though in reality many men survived the War uninjured, these are the images of the Western Front most people share to this day. John is wounded quickly and in his first battle – “At five o’clock Lieutenant John Kipling is observed for the last time. His head is bloodied and he seems half-crazy, bawling from the pain. […] He takes a bandage and tries to stop the blood that is gushing from the shattered remains of his mouth […].”(7) His fate supports the image of the Great War as a lethal conflict which made the individual soldier a mere victim.
My Boy Jack

Though also showing a number of interesting differences, David Haig’s My Boy Jack emphasizes many of the themes central in Spillebeen’s novel; most importantly, Rudyard is again blamed for sending his son to a certain death. Before the interview at the Army Medical Board, Rudyard instructs John in detail in what to say and what to wear; he then poses as the famous author to distract from John’s physical deficiencies. The play exaggerates John’s eye problems in order to highlight the folly of Rudyard’s action: “John. I can’t see anything I’m afraid. Sparks. Top line, don’t worry about the smaller letters for now. […] You can’t read the top line?”(17)

In contrast to the novel, where Carrie and Elise Kipling seem to go along with Rudyard, in the play, they point out the dangers of his action from the beginning. Carrie cautions: “He is too young. […] His eyes are not just an excuse.”(11) And when Rudyard finally secures John a commission, Elise exclaims: “Three times the Army has turned Jack down. Why is he suddenly fit to fight? […] He can’t see five yards without his specs. Doesn’t it worry you that he might be killed?” (27f.) The two women serve as voices of reason, and through them, the play reproaches Rudyard for the unnecessary sacrifice of his son. Unlike the novel, the play claims that John did not volunteer from a feeling of patriotism. Rather, he looks upon the army as a means of escape from the stifling love of his father: “I don’t care whether it’s sensible or not, or dangerous or not, I don’t give a damn as long as I get away, and get out of this house. […] I can’t breathe in. […] It’s suffocating.”(22f.) Of course, this is merely another means of blaming Rudyard for John’s unnecessary death.

Like the novel, the play presents Rudyard as a fanatic believer in the British cause and emphasizes his role as a war propagandist. Even when John is missing, Rudyard clings to his belief of a just war:

Rudyard. Do you really blame me for this? … [People] know what we are fighting for. They know we must go forward, willing to sacrifice everything to deliver mankind from evil. […] Carrie, if by any chance Jack is dead, it will have been the finest moment in his young life. We would not wish him to outlive that. (52f.)

Even an eye-witness’ description of John’s brutal death cannot shake him: “Bowe. I see Lieutenant Kipling. […] The bottom of his face is … shot away. […] There’s nothin’ below his top lip, nothin’ at all. He’s cryin’, tears, cryin’ with the pain, Sir.”(74f.) Though this description should have revealed to Rudyard the true nature of John’s suffering, he draws the wrong conclusion – a conclusion which illustrates the discrepancy between ideal and reality that seems so typical of the First World War. “Rudyard (quietly). Thank you…so…he was killed by a shell… […] He led his men from the front, and was courageous in the face of considerable enemy fire.” (76)

Only at the end of the play does Rudyard finally change his opinion. The play uses his disillusionment with the War to support the wide-spread myth that the First World War achieved nothing. The final scene is set on January 30th, 1933. Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor is announced on the radio. Rudyard’s response: “For nothing, for nothing, for nothing.” (88) illustrates that the Great War – instead of being ‘the war to end all wars’ – was only the beginning of further conflicts.

Unlike the novel, which contains a number of very graphic battle descriptions – which would have been difficult to show on stage –, the play concentrates on the War’s mental influence on the soldiers, taking up another prominent theme in the memory of the Great War: the shell-shocked soldier. Before the attack, the men in John’s company are completely petrified and their grotesque behaviour illustrates the horrors they have to face:

Doyle. (holding up his rifle). Shit there’s mud in the barrel.
He immediately undoes his trousers and tries to urinate down the barrel. […]
Bowe (sincerely panicked). Sir! – Sir! My pigeon’s dead! […] Do I have to take the basket across if the pigeon’s dead, Sir? (46)

The war’s long-term effects are depicted when Bowe, who is shell-shocked after a gas-attack, comes to Batesmans to tell the family of John’s first and final battle.

Bowe. The din is diabolic, so loud you can’t hear it, you can only feel it, feel the whole planet tremblin’. […] Then … Jesus … I see the gas creepin’ towards me, like somethin’ livin’ an’ I know I’ve lost my mask. Help me Jesus, where’s me fuckin’ mask? … the gas is round me, creepin’ up me. Where’s me fuckin’ mask! (71)

Bowe’s fate might have been shared by John had he lived; by inventing this meeting between the Kipling family and a man who witnessed John’s death, the play emphasizes the impact of the First World War on those sent to fight on the Western Front.
To Conclude

As we have seen, both Kipling’s Choice and My Boy Jack use John Kipling as a symbol of the First World War, emphasizing those aspects in his life which illustrate the horrors of this conflict – in particular the futility of the many sacrifices, the disillusionment and the suffering on the Western Front. By retelling John Kipling’s story, the two texts not only use common myths of the Great War, they also help to perpetuate the dominant memory of this conflict and use it as a warning to future generations. It seems that the upcoming film will enhance this interpretation of events. For we can read on Daniel Radcliffe’s webpage:

In World War I, millions of young men were killed fighting for their country – many were only 17 years old. […] My Boy Jack is a moving and powerful story NOT ONLY of duty, sacrifice and bravery, but also the horror of war.



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