Kipling and Shell-Shock

The Healing Community

George Simmers (Oxford Brookes University)

I have a dream—a dreadful dream—
A dream that is never done,
I watch a man go out of his mind,
And he is My Mother’s Son.

They pushed him into a Mental Home,
And that is like the grave
For they do not let you sleep upstairs,
And you’re not allowed to shave.

In the poem “My Mother’s Son” (first published in Life’s Handicap), Kipling is putting himself imaginatively into the mind of a soldier who has been damaged by War. He was not alone in finding this a potent and important theme. The realisation, from 1914 onwards, that some men had been so traumatised by war that they presented strange and disturbing hysterical symptoms was one that alarmed soldiers, mystified doctors and frightened the general public. Over the past ninety-odd years much has been written about the subject, and I apologise for the fact that what I am going to say now is a gross simplification, but here is a two-minute history of shell-shock.

At first there was much confusion about how to deal with it. The military had four categories in which soldiers were placed – fit, wounded, sick or mad. How do you categorise a man whom exposure to conflict had rendered trembling, obsessive and hallucinating? The first impulse of some soldiers was to say – this man is fit and unharmed, therefore malingering and subject to military discipline. This was hardly a satisfactory solution, though, for men who were clearly not in control of their reactions or their behaviour.

Doctors claimed it as a medical condition, and proposed a variety of cures – those who had used painful electric shock therapy on hysterics before the war developed its use with soldiers; Neurologists who in pre-war years had prescribed the Weir Mitchell treatment, rest, a milky diet and regimentation, advocated that; psychoanalysts recommended getting the men to understand their symptoms through the talking cure. Each of these approaches claimed some successes. Meanwhile, the military were disturbed that many men were being lost to the army. There was a suspicion that some were courting the diagnosis as an easy and not dishonourable way of evading their military duty. As the preface to the 1922 Southborough committee’s enquiry into shell-shock remarked:

…This class of complaint excited more general interest, attention and sympathy than any other, so much so that it became a most desirable complaint from which to suffer. (p. 6)

Many soldiers came to look at the problem in a different way – as a question of morale. As the Regimental Medical Officer for the 4th Black Watch told the Southborough enquiry: :

If morale is good in a battalion, you will have less so-called ‘shell-shock’ or war neurosis… I regard ‘shell-shock’ or war neurosis as very contagious when it gets into a battalion. (Report p.66)
A new pattern of treatment was developed – men were kept in France, not sent home. The label “shell-shock was avoided, and men suffering from syptoms were classified as “Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous)”. They were given a period of rest, but were not allowed to lose their military identities. Gradually they were reintroduced positively to military duties. This seems to have worked for the less serious cases.
So what did Kipling think? Well, he rejected the idea that it was a disciplinary or medical matter:

And it was not disease or crime
Which got him landed there,
But because They laid on My Mother’s Son
More than a man could bear.

But in the third line, who are “They”? The Germans who sent so ferocious an artillery barrage that the man lost his wits? Or the British Army that demanded too much of his fortitude? In that case, are They us and should we (to quote another Kipling poem) :

…end by – (think of it) looking on We
As only a sort of They?

That is a possible reading – or we can look at it quite differently and think of the man’s problem as precisely that he is making a distinction between himself and a hostile “They” to whom he does not belong. When Kipling considers the problem of shell-shock, it is linked closely with questions of isolation and belonging.
In a series of stories written over a long period, from 1918 to the mid-thirties, Kipling explored the question of those on whom the war had imposed an intolerable burden. And it’s worth noting that his treatment of the theme is significantly different from that of most other writers of the period. For a start, most others write stories centred on officers or ex-officers. Fictional accounts of psychologically suffering private soldiers are in short literary supply. The early detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers reflect the usual stereotype. Lord Peter Wimsey (Major, Rifle Brigade) returns from the war restless, neurotic, tormented by terrible dreams, and with an overwhelming need to be diverted by detection, whilst his servant and ex-batman – “the indefatigable Bunter”, as he is called in Whose Body? (1923) – who had presumably been through many of the same experiences, remains forever stolid, dependable and balanced. Neurosis becomes a mark of sensitivity, and for many writers of the day sensitivity was something reserved for the officer classes, though the statistics of actual war-induced neurosis tell a very different story, as is made clear by Peter Barham’s book Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War (2004.) Kipling knew that war affected all classes, and so set many of his stories of shell-shock in a community that proudly proclaimed its openness to all classes and sorts of men, a Masonic lodge that first appeared in 1918, in the story, “In the Interests of the Brethren”. (Kipling made much of the inclusive nature of Freemasonry. Remembering his own first Lodge in Lahore, he claimed in a 1931 letter:’I was entered by a Hindu, raised by a Mohammedan, and passed by an English Master’)

“In the Interests of the Brethren” (later included in Debits and Credits) was written shortly after Kipling joined the War Graves Commission, and six months after he had agreed to write a campaign history of his son’s regiment. In the Story-Teller magazine for December 1918 where it was first published, its propagandist purpose was made explicit by the editorial comment: ‘The motif which lies behind it is such that we urge all those who have relatives in the War who are Freemasons to send them a copy.’
In the story, the narrator has an inconsequential meeting with a stranger in a birdshop. Some time later:

…I turned into a tobacconist’s to have a badly stopped pipe cleaned out
“Well! Well! and how did the canary do? said the man behind the counter. We shook hands, and “What’s your name?” we both asked together.

The Masonic handshake has bonded the two men, and soon Brother Burges, proprietor of Burges and Son (“but Son had been killed in Egypt”) introduces the narrator to his Lodge in a converted garage just around the corner from his shop. “Visiting brothers” – soldiers in London who want to re-establish contact with Freemasonry, are being tested to make sure that they are genuine. They include a one-armed New-Zealander, a man “all head-bandages” with only six teeth and half a lower lip, a silent “shell-shocker”and a man who seems to have forgotten everything:

“I don’t blame yer,” he gulped at last. “I wouldn’t pass my own self on my answers, but I give yer my word that so far as I’ve had any religion, it’s been all the religion I’ve had. For God’s sake, let me sit in on Lodge again. Brother!”

The visitors are set to work, one as an organist, though he has to be carried to the organ-loft, others to the recitation of ritual; the familiar words of the ceremony stir the memory of the Visiting Brother who had forgotten everything. It is important to both Brother Burges and to Kipling that they should be conducting the ritual for themselves, not having it done for them. This is a place of self-help and mutual help, not of top-down charity. The community is supportive, but gives men a chance to be useful through working – “You’ll often find half-a-dozen brethren with eight legs between ‘em, polishing and ronuking and sweeping everything they can get at.”
Crucial to the enterprise is the framework of ritual. “All ritual is fortifying,” as Brother Burges says. In his early Indian stories Kipling had valued the army for the order that its routines gave to otherwise disorderly lives. In his imagined Lodge, Freemasonry offers something of the same.

Kipling had always been aware of the fragility of men, and their need for groups, both formal and informal, to which they belong. Mulvaney, Learoyd and Ortheris, his Soldiers Three, are formidable together, but each has his vulnerability, as is shown especially in the story “The Madness of Private Ortheris” where heat and melancholy drive Ortheris to the brink of suicide, but he is helped through the night by Mulvaney. One might also remember Captains Courageous. The crew of the We’re Here individually have weaknesses and limitations.. Together, though, they are strong. It is an insight that underlies many of Kipling’s stories from first to last- every human needs a group with which he can identify; isolation and exclusion lead to despair.
So what Kipling is imagining in “In the Interests of the Brethren” is a community where damaged men can feel at home, and can feel useful. The masonic Lodge is not the only such possibility. In “The Woman in his Life”(Limits and Renewals) , Kipling describes a man helped by the most minimal community. John Marden is an engineer who had spent much of the war underground, with the tunnelers under Messines Ridge. Long after the war he falls into what might now be diagnosed as a clinical depression:

…the horror, the blackness, the loss of the meaning of things… a certain secret dread which he had held off him since demobilisation.

A doctor only suggests a sedative and a rest. Marden goes to the country, but is brought to the brink of suicide by hallucinations, including a Black Dog, “an inky, fat horror with a pink tongue”.

It is Marden’s disreputable servant, Shingle, his ex-batman, “systematically a peculator, intermittently a drunkard and emphatically a liar,” who saves the day by fighting the Black Dog of the mind with one that is flesh and blood – Dinah, an Aberdeen terrier. The dog’s needs and demands bring out forgotten qualities in John, and finally, when the dog is trapped in an underground cave, he is forced to confront the wartime terrors that he has repressed.
So here we see Kipling’s idea of the healing community at its simplest: the crafty servant who looks after Marden, and the dog whom he in turn must care for. Between them they save him.

The story that most clearly shows the great variety of possible supportive communities is “The Janeites” (Debits and Credits). This story centres round a member of the lodge called Humberstall, “an enormous flat-faced man, carrying the shoulders, ribs and loins of the old Mark ’14 Royal Garrison Artillery , and the eyes of a bewildered retriever,” presently a hairdresser. He had been badly affected when “the dump blew up at Eatables” but the Colonel allowed him to stay in France with the battery as a mess waiter – obviously because he knew that the military identity was essential to the man. A friend and fellow-soldier, Macklin, a “toff” and ex-schoolmaster looks after him, and realises that Humberstall needs something to fill his mind. Macklin, as an educated man, can discuss literature on equal terms with the officers.

A debate about Jane Austen mystifies Humberstall – (Here’s a private contradicting an officer, and who’s Jane?) so Macklin invents a fantasy about a fictional community of Janeites, into which Humberstall can be initiated, if he makes a huge effort. This works not unlike Brother Burge’s Masonic lodge; Humberstall’s mind is kept busy with detail, as Macklin makes him not only read the books, but learn pages by heart. “’E said e’d been some sort of schoolmaster once, and he’d make mind resume work or break itself.”
And there actually is, Kipling suggests, both in the story and outside it, a community of Janeites, though it as informal one, and not the organised esoteric society of Humberstall’s imagination. A new officer feels at home in the Mess when he discovers others who share his literary enthusiasm; the officers accept being put right by a drunken Macklin on this literary matter, when almost any other kind of interruption would have led to a charge and punishment. Finally, and most important for Humberstall, his mention of Miss Bates to an otherwise imposing matron ’a woman with a nose and teeth on ‘er’) means that she takes a special interest in him, and ensures that he is included in the hospital train back to England – which possibly saves his life. People recognising a commonality of interest form bonds that help them in unexpected ways. In the Lodge it’s mentioned that a taxi-driver argues with his fare, but when both realise that they have served together in the Palestine campaign, they are firmly bonded against the rest of the world:

“Just like ‘avin’ the Password, eh?” was Humberstall’s comment.
“That’s right. Ours was Imshee Kelb. Not so hard to remember as your Jane stuff.

In the Lodge, Humberstall has been supervised by Brother Anthony, who makes him work hard and talk about his experiences – two essential elements of the restorative process. Right at the end of the story, Anthony’s blush reveals that he is engaged to Humberstall’s sister. A final type of supportive community is revealed – a loving and caring family.
There is more to these Masonic stories than is suggested by the comment of critic Douglas Hewitt that:

The stories of shell-shock end with the clipped tones of men of power and action who know how to put things right. (347)

Paternalism was something that Kipling quite frequently approved of, but I don’t think it’s what is happening in these stories. In “Fairy-Kist”(Limits and Renewals), for example Lodge-members prove that a war-damaged ex-soldier is innocent of murder, and even show how the man’s odd delusions and eccentricities come from memories of a children’s story read to him by a well-meaning nurse. However, Kipling makes it clear that their solution to the problem has no effect on his mental condition, and he happily continues with his eccentric practice of planting flower seeds on the verges of roads, lunatic by everyday standards, but to him a sensible, satisfying and absorbing practice.

Shell-shock may not be cured, but men, Kipling is saying, can be helped to find an alternative to the existential emptiness that war has inflicted on them. Kathryn Sutherland, in her commentary on “The Janeites” in Jane Austen’s Textual Lives, has described clearly why the masonic lodge is, for Kipling, particularly useful. It offers:

…a set of social ideals based on male self-sufficiency, shared knowledge and comradeship, where special jargon and rituals not only confer power – the power of a secret mastered and shared – but imply unity and sense, a world that makes sense, obeys rules, and protects those inside it.
And Kipling’s remedy is a long way from the rest and milky diet formula that wants to cure men by giving them a life that is the opposite of war. The lodge’s familiar ritual, hard work and all-male community is very like the Army in whose service these men have have been damaged. So we can see Kipling as being on the side of those who saw shell-shock as a problem of morale, as a loss of control that needs to be combated by the reinforcement of a sense of the man’s identity as member of a supportive group.

To go back to “In the Interests of the Brethren” – it is capable of being looked at in a different way. While The Storyteller’s editorial comment focused on the possibility of a Lodge’s helping others, Kipling’s narrative suggests something else as well. Brother Burges, as I reminded you, was proprietor of Burges and Son (“but Son had been killed in Egypt”) . In The Storyteller, the tale begins like this:

I WAS buying a canary in a birdshop when he first spoke to me and suggested that I should take a less highly coloured bird. “The colour is in the feeding,” said he. “Unless you know how to feed ’em, it goes. Canaries are one of my hobbies.”
By the time it was reprinted in Debits and Credits in 1926, however, Kipling had made a significant correction:

I WAS buying a canary in a birdshop when he first spoke to me and suggested that I should take a less highly coloured bird. “The colour is in the feeding,” said he. “Unless you know how to feed ’em, it goes. Canaries are one of our hobbies.”

“My” has become “our”. Later in the story Kipling drops the hint that Burges has now given up canaries. With the correction, Kipling wants to make very sure that we recognise that bird-breeding was something that Burges and his son had done as a pair. Their joint hobbies have lost all their appeal. No longer part of that significant pair, Burges has devoted immense effort to transforming the lodge as much for his own sake as for the soldiers. Organising meetings several evenings a week and two afternoons as well is his way of filling his life with useful activity, just as the polishing and ronuking was for the soldiers, and maybe as the War Graves Commission and The History of the Irish Guards were for Kipling.
When Burges says that ‘All ritual is fortifying’ he is not just speaking of the soldiers but for himself as well, and indeed for Kipling. We can see Burges as a partial self-portrait of the author not only in his desire to help the war-damaged, but also in the intensity of his need. The same things are needed to help the bereaved as to help the war-damaged, Kipling is saying; they are in the same boat. What threatens them both most frighteningly is loss of meaning, existential emptiness. That is why Kipling felt able to write My Mother’s Son in the first person.

It is also, perhaps why these stories so often foreground the act of story-telling. The middle-aged lodge members of the frame stories sometimes sort out problems, but more characteristically they are engaged in story-telling, often as a group, each of them making his own contribution to the narrative. Kipling doesn’t explain why they do this – he doesn’t feel that he needs to – the sharing of stories is a way of reinforcing the group’s bonds, as well as refining its shared view of the world.

In “Fairy-Kist” the lodge-members communally tell a story which is about the unexpected effect of a story on a troubled man – quite unexpectedly it gives him purpose and activity. The story that obsesses him is Mary’s Meadow by Juliana Horatia Ewing, a chidren’s book from the 1880s that in itself is a story about the power of stories – inspired by old books, a family of children improvise together a tale about gardeners and honest-root-gatherers, and then put the story into practice by planting flowers by the roadside, for the pleasure of travellers. By writing his story about men telling a story about a man obsessed by a story about children acting out a story based on stories that they have read, Kipling has affirmed his own place in the great community of storytellers. Possibly, too, he has given us a rather strange self-portrait.

By 1927 Kipling felt increasingly isolated and out of touch with an age that had by and large rejected many of his political ideals. Yet he kept on writing stories, and publishing them, often in magazines where they sit rather oddly with the rest of the contents, despite complaints that they were becoming too obscure, in the hope that they would give pleasure and consolation to others. One of these tales is “Fairy-Kist”, with Wollin, who is impelled to motor-cycle obsessively around the countryside, for reasons he only partly understands, planting flowers in the hedgerows with the hope of making the world a better place for others; who has been damaged and disturbed by the war, but who when he busily “cuts around the Home Counties planting his stuff” and is utterly absorbed in this work, becomes “as happy as – Oh my soul! What wouldn’t I give to be even one fraction as happy as he is!” If we take flowers as an equivalent of stories, isn’t this perhaps a portrait of the artist?


Books and articles referred to:

Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into Shell-Shock, 1922, reprinted by the Imperial War Museum, London, 2004 (The Southborough Report)
Juliana Horatia Ewing, Mary’s Meadow, 1886,
available online
Douglas Hewitt Review of Kemp, Kipling’s Hidden Narratives, in Essays in Criticism, Vol 39, Jan 1989.
Kathryn Sutherland Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood, Oxford 2005