The poem, ‘The King’s Pilgrimage’ is about a tour, officially called a Pilgrimage, undertaken by King George V in May 1922. Accompanied by Field Marshal Earl Haig and a very small group of officials, he visited a considerable number of British war cemeteries on the battlefields of Flanders and Northern France at a time when they were still being formally established by the Imperial War Graves Commission (later renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission).
In addition to writing the poem, which was published at the end of the tour, Kipling had drafted a speech for King George, which was given by the King with only very minor amendments at the close of this Pilgrimage. Within weeks of the event, an illustrated book was also published with the same title, containing both Kipling’s poem and the King’s speech, together with a text by Frank Fox describing the tour, with photographs of the King’s small entourage visiting many cemeteries.
Although the text of the book, The King’s Pilgrimage, is not by Kipling, and his authorship of the King’s speech was not publicly acknowledged, the ideas and words used in all three are very closely related. They are so inter-dependent that some commentators have assumed all three to be by Kipling. This may, to some extent, have been aided by the fact that James McG Stewart, for many years accepted as the prime authority on Kipling’s bibliography, included the book The King’s Pilgrimage in his Bibliographic Catalogue, without indicating that the text was credited to Frank Fox.
The poem was first published on Monday, 15 May 1922 in The Times, London, and The World, New York. These newspaper publications were on the first weekday after Saturday, 13 May 1922, the last day of the King’s tour and the day on which he gave his speech.
The poem appeared again in May 1922 as the epigraph to the book, The King’s Pilgrimage, and once more in 1929 as the epigraph to The Silent Cities, an illustrated guide to the war cemeteries and the memorials to the ‘missing’ in France and Flanders, 1914-1918. Compiled by Sydney C Hurst, published by Methuen & Co.
The poem was collected in Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, Inclusive Edition (1927 & 1933); the Definitive Edition (1940), and the Sussex Edition, Volume 35, page 249, and Burwash Edition, Volume 28. The King’s speech Given at Terlincthun Cemetery, Boulogne, 13 May 1922. Published in The Times, 15 May 1922, and subsequently included within the text of the book, The King’s Pilgrimage.
The Book Text
Published in 1922, shortly after the Pilgrimage, in an edition of 25,000 by Hodder and Stoughton. The text is credited to an Australian author and journalist, Frank Fox, a supporter of the Empire and of the National Defence League. In 1914 he was a reporter for the Morning Post. Commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery in December 1914, he was later twice wounded on the Somme. He was appointed an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List of 1919 for his work as a staff officer and was subsequently knighted for his work in connection with the British Empire Exhibition 1924. His biographical details can be found in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
The text describes the King’s tour, which immediately followed a state visit by King George to the King of the Belgians, from the 11th to the 13th May 1922. It gives the details of his entourage, the personages he met and his involvement in ceremonies at major locations, listing the cemeteries and memorial sites in sequence as he visited them. Particular attention is paid to the King’s visit to a major French cemetery and meetings with French military and civil officials. The King’s subsequent messages of thanks to Belgium and France for their gift of land for the cemeteries and to the Commission for its work appear after the text.
The complete contents of the book may be downloaded in a choice of formats from the Gutenburg site.
By 1922, the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), which had been created in 1917 to provide for the proper burial and recording of the thousands of British and Empire dead in all theatres of war, had made an impressive start in setting out the formal war cemeteries that we know today, particularly in France and Belgium, where the greater proportion of the almost one million dead had fallen.
Rudyard Kipling had accepted an invitation to become a member of the Commission in 1917, which was one of the very rare instances of him adopting a public role but one to which he whole-heartedly devoted himself. His contribution is well detailed in an article by Dr Deborah H Wiggens in the Kipling Journal KJ313, for March 2005. (p. 47).
The basic principles of the Commission were that all the dead would be buried close to where they fell; that all, of whatever rank, race or creed, would be treated equally, and that all, including those unidentified or with no known grave, would be equally honoured and remembered. The King’s pilgrimage was to demonstrate that these aims were being applied in practice and a message from the King to the IWGC, published as an addendum to the book, included the words confirming that he had found this to be so.
...In all the cemeteries visited by His Majesty, Dominion and British graves lay side by side, and the King assures the people Overseas that these graves will be reverently and lovingly guarded. It is a satisfaction to His Majesty that the Imperial War Graves Commission has been so constituted that these graves may be honoured for all time.
This task is still carried out by what is now called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The pilgrimage also sought to promote remembrance through visits to the cemeteries and memorials by relatives and to encourage support for those charities established to help relatives make such visits, the profits from the sale of the book also going to these charities.
Kipling’s role in the Pilgrimage
The pilgrimage was organised by the vice-chairman of the IWGC, Major-General Sir Fabian Ware, who had been instrumental in getting the Commission established in 1917. By 1922, he and Kipling had developed a close working relationship and at the end of March, it was Ware who asked Kipling to draft a speech to be sent to the Palace officials as a basis for a speech the King might give. This was accepted in April with only minor amendments. The speech, as given, was to be published in selected newspapers immediately after the pilgrimage, so Kipling then wrote the poem “The King’s Pilgrimage” to accompany it. The poem was based on the planned course of the tour of the battlefield cemeteries, incorporating verses matching sentiments included in the speech and in the founding principles of the IWGC. Carrie Kipling recorded in her diary on 3 May ‘Rud finishes his verses on ‘The King’s Pilgrimage” ‘.
Since the King was to travel by train with only very few accompanying him, arrangements had to be made to get other dignitaries who were to meet the King during the pilgrimage to the appropriate battlefields, cemeteries, and memorials. Kipling, accompanied by Carrie, would be travelling by car so he agreed to transport the High Commissioner for Canada, the Hon Peter C. Larkin, on 11 May to Vlamertinghe Cemetery in Flanders, where the first Canadians to die in the war were buried, and then on to Lille overnight before seeing him leave for England on 12 May. Kipling returned to the tour to be present early on 13 May when the King visited the Meerut Cemetery near Bologne, where many Indian soldiers were buried, and following that he was driven to nearby Terlincthun with Carrie to hear King George give the speech that he, Kipling, had drafted.
Kipling’s part in the Pilgrimage was just one aspect of his involvement in remembrance of the dead of the war. The best review of his personal commitment to public aspects of this, including the King’s Pilgrimage, can be found in Chapter 8 of My Boy Jack (Tonie and Valmai Holt, Leo Cooper, London, 1998), although the authors do appear to assume that the text of the book, The King’s Pilgrimage, was also by Kipling.
The results of the King’s Pilgrimage were all that the IWGC had hoped for, in terms of silencing those who had still wanted individual bodies brought back to Britain or private monuments erected over individual graves. It also promoted the idea of perpetual care for the cemeteries and perpetual remembrance at home for those who gave their lives in the war, an idea that took such root that it was followed without question after the 1939-45 war and is still followed today.
The last verse of Kipling’s poem, expressing the significance of this idea, has also remained alive, appearing on service sheets at Remembrance Day services, and on publications and web-sites dealing with remembrance and the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
However, shortly after the events of May 1922, those few lines and their author were again in the news in what, for Kipling, was the worst possible situation – he was trapped by a reporter, ruthlessly exploited and publicly humiliated. This event, in September 1922, which hung on an interpretation of the last stanza, is discussed in the Notes on the Text.
Ten years after the Pilgrimage, Kipling published Limits and Renewals, a collection of stories which included one entitled “The Debt”, in which reference is made to an incident involving King George V whilst visiting a cemetery for Indian soldiers during his tour.
(I am grateful to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and to Special Collections, University of Sussex for information provided in past visits. See also Wikipedia)
An update a hundred years later
On 16 November 2022, Christopher Kreuzer gave a talk to the Kipling Society on the 1922 visit of King George V to the Flanders war graves. This was the subject of Kipling’s poem ‘The King’s Pilgrimage’, during which the King delivered a speech written for him by Kipling. The talk and the Q&A session afterwards can be viewed at The King’s Pilgrimage – YouTube . [M.K.]
©Roger Ayers 2012 All rights reserved