The Light that Failed

Notes on Chapter II

These notes by Geoffrey Annis are based on those prepared for Vol. V of the ORG, published in 1970. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan Uniform Edition of The Light that Failed, first published in 1899 and frequently reprinted since.

[Heading] This verse is one of a number of headings by Kipling-which he credits as a Barrack-Room Ballad, although it does not figure in his own Barrack-Room Ballads published in 1890. These lines refer to Lord Roberts’ march to Kandahar in August 1880, and the subsequent victory there. The tone is one of appropriate heroism and bravery in battle, and the repetition of ‘two’ indirectly highlights the new camaraderie between Dick and Torpenhow.

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[Page 15, line1] I’m not angry with the British public … their morning papers then Lt Col. William Butler who organised the building in England of whale boats for the Nile expedition of 1884-5, and accompanied them during the whole of their advance up the Nile, wrote in his Campaign of the Cataracts (1887) that: ‘modern readers…would care less for this mental digest of battle if occasionally they got a little of war’s grim reality mixed with their daily lives.’ For the background to the military campaign, see the note by Mrs G H Newsom written for ORG.

Kipling himself is masterly in the vividness of his handling of such reality in this chapter; an achievement all the more remarkable when one recalls he had not actually been on the battlefield.

[Page 15, line 3] rocks where an outcrop of rocks crossed the Nile there was usually a cataract or rapids, creating difficulty and danger for the expedition’s whale boats. Col H.E Colville in his

History of the Sudan Campaign

(1889), writes of: ‘rocky ground almost impassable for cavalry … nothing but black rocks and sand everywhere.’

[Page 15, line 5] Lover of Justice, Constant Reader, Paterfamilias refers to the kind of anonymous signatures that newspapers of the day might expect from the sorts of readers referred to by Col Butler above.

[Page 15, line 7] frizzling refers to the burning gravel plains around the Red Sea port of Suakin.

[Page 15, line 8] a blue veil gauze veils, like bee-keepers’ veils, were worn by soldiers, along with goggles, as protection against the Hamsin, or hot sand-bearing wind, sandstorms, and glare.

[Page 15, line 8] his clothes in strips the soldiers often had to endure ragged, inadequate clothing, because of the blistering sun; also the rowing of whale boats against Nile currents, and the need to haul them over cataracts and rapids.

[Page 15, line 10] sugar sacks a sack for sugar supplies used with sackcloth for repairing clothes.

[Page 15, line 11] packing needle a 6-inch long curved needle, used for sewing up bales and bagging.

[Page 15 line 17] royal body an ironic allusion to Hans Andersen’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
cold blast the very cold desert nights contrasted with intensely hot days.

[Page 16, line 3] Study of our Special Correspondent This is an allusion to Frederic Villiers, special war correspondent of The Graphic, who sketched himself in similar dress after being shipwrecked on the Nile.

[Page 16, line 6] canvas probably refers, loosely, to jute sacking material.

[Page 16, line 9] pilot-man clearly an Egyptian is referred to here, but most of the pilots of whale boats were Canadians, skilled at rapids navigation, of whom 387 were engaged for the Nile Expedition.
all the sails each boat had two lug or ‘leg o’mutton’ sails (so called because of their shape), each with a hoist of 12 feet.

[Page 16, line 10] whale boats altogether 800 ‘whale boats’ were ordered for the Nile Expedition, made specially in England. They were a type of open flat-bottomed boat that was relatively narrow and pointed at both ends, enabling it to move either forwards or backwards equally well. It was originally developed for whaling, and later became popular for work along beaches, since it did not need to be turned around for beaching or refloating. Whale boats were traditionally oar-powered, although in whaling use often had a dismountable mast and sails, too. After 1850 most were fitted with a centerboard for sailing. When sailing, steering was with a rudder, when rowing, with an oar held over the stern. [Source: Wikipedia]

For the Nile Expedition there were also eight steam pinnaces and two stern wheel-paddle boats. Egyptian Government Nile steamers were also commandeered.

[Page 16, line 11] fez-crowned the familiar truncated cone-shaped hat for Muslim men, worn as the badge of a Turkish subject in Turkey (forbidden in 1928), and worn by General Gordon and other European and Egyptian Government officals. Rarely seen in Egypt nowadays, as it is considired an emblem of colonialism.
stern-sheets the space on a boat between thwarts (rowers seats) and the stern, occupied by the steersman and possibly others.

[Page 16, line 14] Norfolk jacket familar mid-length jacket,usually worn outdoors with breeches and made of greyish homespun. In vogue in the 1880’s and into the early 20th Century.

[Page 16, line 15] gray flannel shirt regulation shirt of Nile Expedition troops, considered especially durable by the War Office. See also Page 19 line 7; the first direct reference to Torpenhow.

[Page 16 line 18] some twenty whale boats On this Nile Expedition the boats proceeded in groups of twenty.

[Page 16, lines 19-20] English soldiery … washing their clothes a similar scene occurred on February 6 1885, a few miles downstream of Kirbekan, where companies from the South Staffs Regiment and Black Watch arrived soon after the news of the fall of Khartoum. The troops were given a day of rest to wash and refresh for this one and only time. Bathing soldiers seems to be Kipling’s own invention, occurring in the stories “The Taking of Lungtungpen” (Plain Tales from the Hills) and “The Captive” (Traffics and Discoveries), and possibly originating in his interest in Michelangelo’s picture “The Battle of Piscina” (see also Page 23 line 30).

[Page 16, line 21] boat rollers each boat carried three boat rollers made of hardwood, enabling boats and small steamers to be hauled along if necessary.
commissariat-boxes stout wooden boxes for carrying rations. Each boat carried 100 days’ rations per man for the crew of ten.

[Page 16, line 26-27] insufficient allowance of white lead … rudder snaps White lead was the main constituent of putty, used for caulking the seams of boats. Excessive dryness caused wooden planks out of water to crack, and the seams to open. Faulty rudders were also a frequent problem.

[Page 16, line 31] opens ‘erself… lotus the lotus is an interesting simile in this context.The Egyptian lotus is a water-lily. The universal use of the ornamental form arose from its symbolic association with the Nile, the Giver of Life. There is perhaps an ironic Kipling touch here; an image of life and beauty in the midst of war and death.

[Page 17, line 2] see a decent shop again Torpenhow is thinking nostalgically of the luxuries and civilisation of Cairo.

[Page 17, line 8] the white men The Nile Expedition was almost entirely a British force, except for the Egyptian Camel corps with the river column, and the Egyptian Artillery which went by land.

[Page 17, line 10] the stream was falling this refers to the Nile’s annual dramatic rise and fall. The rise,beginning in June, derives from the seasonal rains falling in the upper reaches of the Blue and White Nile. The flood is usually at its highest in October, and its lowest in May.The fall betwen October and November is particularly rapid.. Expedition boats therefore were moving upstream in November/December when the river was falling rapidly

[Page 17, line 11] no light thing for the whale boats to overpass This needs to be understood in the context of the constantly swift and extreme nature of the changes of the river encountered on Nile journeys, posing dangers for whale boat navigation. These included rapids, unpredictable currents, clusters of rocks, and cataracts appearing and disappearing.

[Page 17, line 12] the desert ran down almost to the banks Col.Colville (see the note for page 15 line 3) states that between the Second and Third Cataracts in many places: ‘the desert comes down to the river’ or that there was only ‘a strip of cultivation between the river and the desert’.

[Page 17, line 14] gray, red and black hillocks the gray and red would have been granite; the black was basalt.
a camel corps There was an Egyptian Camel Corps of 5 officers and 42 men, which accompanied the River Column, and an English Corps of 1,100 men divided into 4 camel regiments which went with the Desert Column.

[Page 17, lines 15-17] No man dared … for weeks past Infantry were tied to their boats on which were stored their rations and ammunition. ‘Slow moving’ because of the Nile’s strong currents and little wind. The first troops to embark in whale boats to the Sudan border did so on November 1, 1884. The first encounter with the enemy was the Battle of Abu Klea on January 17,1885, involving the Desert Column. The River Column had no fighting until the Battle of Kirbekan on February 10, 1885.

[Page 17, lines 20-21] long since lost all count of direction … and very nearly of time Col Butler (see the Note on page 15 line 1 above) describes the many channels and streams of the river, broken by rocks and islands over many miles. This hardship was compounded by disorientation caused by fatigue, labour, fighting, and incessant scouting and watching. It seemed that during a six-month period ‘…with failure, that years instead of months … have passed in that brief interval of time.’

[Page 17, lines 22-23] they did not know why…they did not know what Among the troops there was considerable hostility towards the division of the Expedition into Desert and River columns. Desert Column officers believed Gordon would have been saved if both Columns had been kept as one unit. Some River Column officers thought that it a mistake that the Expedition did not keep to the Nile. This applies to the immediate conduct of the campaign as all knew its primary purpose was to relieve Gordon at Khartoum. This was made clear by Lord Wolseley’s Special Orders of November 30, 1884, in which he refers to: ‘the glorious mission that the Queen has entrusted to us.’

Bennet Burleigh, the special correspondent of the Daily Telegraph wrote: ‘It is impossible to magnify the intensity of feeling openly expressed amongst the soldiery.’ Burleigh is thought by many critics to be the inspiration for the character of Torpenhow.
These sentiments recur in the verses from “The Parade Song of the Camp Animals” (from “Her Majesty’s Servants” in The Jungle Book 1894):

While the men that walk beside
Dusty, silent, heavy-eyed,
Cannot tell why we or they
March or suffer day by day.

The verses, as do Chapters II and XV, illustrate Kipling’s honesty in presenting the reality of the endurance and suffering
of battle conditions.

[Page 17, line 25] fighting for dear life during the last days of the siege, life in Khartoum had reached famine conditions.

[Page 17, line 26] Khartoum capital city of the Sudan; in those days it was a strongly fortified Egyptian garrison town at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, about 1,500 miles from Alexandria, the port of disembarkation for the British Expeditionary troops.
columns of British troops in the desert there was a Desert Column of about 2,250 men and 12 guns.

[Page 17, line 27] one of many deserts the Nile Expedition passed through the Nubian, Dongola and Bayuda deserts in the Sudan.

[Page 17, line 28] columns on the river the rest of the Nile Expedition, totalling about 5,000 troops, followed the Nile. Unmounted men travelled in whale boats, which sailed single-file up the river.

[Page 17, line 29] Assioot and Assuan Assioot (or Assiout or Assiut) is a Nile town, then a railway terminus from Cairo, about 200 miles away. Assuan (or Aswan) was at the foot of the first cataract 325 miles by river from Assioot. Between these two, the troops were transported by steam boat.

[Page 17, line 31] lies and rumours Gordon was in the habit of sending contradictory reports of the Khartoum situation in order to deceive the enemy.

[Page 17, line 32] Suakin to the Sixth Cataract Suakin was then Sudan’s most important port, reachable from the interior by a 100-mile journey through inhospitable deserts between Berber and the Red Sea Hills.The Sixth Cataract is about 50 miles south of Khartoum.

[Page 18, line 1] some one in authority Lord Wolseley, the Commander-in-Chief of the Nile Expedition.

[Page 18, line 2] the many movements When the relieving force arrived at Korti in Northern Sudan, it split into two columns. One division under Sir Herbert Stewart took the desert route; the other, under General Earle, advanced along the Nile.

[Page 18, line 5] the gangs ‘tracked’ the boats with lines thrown from mid-stream a method of towing a boat when the current is too strong for sail or oars. Using a track line and pole is the best means by which rapid water can be stemmed. In high water, because the pole will not reach bottom, the tracking has to be done along the outer, main banks of the stream. The rough terrain encumbered by trees, bushes or driftwood, made progress slow and difficult. In low season, the sand banks left bare by receding waters became admirably adapted to the use of the trackline. The method was American Indian in origin.

[Page 18, line 10] the correspondents English newspaper correspondents all appear to have accompanied the desert column, presumably in the hope of being first with the news of Gordon’s relief at Khartoum.

[Page 18, line 12] that England … thrilled and interested a cynical insider comment from Kipling, who was writing after seven years in India on two newspapers (See also Page 15 line 1 for Col. Butler’s remarks on people at home keen to read about modern war).

[Page 18, line 14] whether Gordon lived or died a matter of real concern both in England and across the world.

[Page 18, lines 15-16] half the British Army The Nile Expedition was not half the Army. The whole overseas force, including India, was about half the total strength. 11,000 British troops were employed to relieve Gordon, including Egyptian, Indian, and West Indian, as well as British troops.
…went to pieces in the sand probably alludes to the Hicks expedition and its annihilation in 1883 by the Mahdi’s forces. Col. Hicks, a retired Army officer,employed by the Khedive, commanded the Egyptian Field army of the Sudan at the time of the disaster. During its last days it was lost, and hundreds of men died from thirst. Because Hicks was English the event compelled the British to take a more active part in Sudanese affairs. The Khedive (Persian for “Lord” or “Viceroy”) was Ismail Pasha, appointed governor and monarch of Egypt by his nominal Ottoman Turkish overlord in 1867. From 1882 Egypt was under British military occupation, but Ismael Pasha remained on his throne, and the country was still nominally underTurkish sovereignty.

The campaign was a picturesque one, and lent itself to vivid word painting: the accounts in the press and in book form by correspondents, artist correspondents and officers must surely have influenced the writing of the novel and its own vivid descriptions of the desert and desert warfare.

[Page 18, line 18] a ‘Special’ managed to get slain This refers to Frank Power, Khartoum correspondent of The Times, whose letters caused a journalistic sensation. He was killed with Col. Stewart, Gordon’s remaining British officer, on the steamer ‘Abbas’ in 1885 , having sent his final despatch. Both were trying to bring news of the situation to the outside world.

[Page 18, line 21-22] the hand-to-hand nature of the fighting Lord Milner, who became Secretary of Finance in Egypt in 1889. wrote of the ‘homeric intensity’ of such fighting in his Egypt and England (1892). The Mahdi’s tribesmen were skilled in the use of spears and swords and were very daring. In two battles they penetrated the British squares in considerable numbers but were repulsed.

[Page 18, line 22] telegraphing home at eighteen pence the word the figure varied and rose as the campaign progressed. Bennet Burleigh, after reporting Sir Gerald Graham’s Battle of El Teb (February 1884) mentions ‘half a crown a word for telegraphing’ (30 pence in the currency of those days) from the newly opened telegraph office at Suakin. Burleigh took an active part in making a redoubt under fire prior to the battle of Abu Kru in 1885 (also known as the Battle of Gubat). He was much liked and respected for his kindness, courage and generous spirit. Although British, he fought with the Confederates in the American Civil War, twice escaping execution by the Union side. (see the note to Page 17, lines 22-23 above)

[Page 18, line 23] There were many correspondents with many corps and columns Many notable journalists and illustrators, as well as Burleigh, accompanied the Nile Expedition, displaying bravery and resourcefulness. These included St Leger Herbert of the Morning Post who acted as Private Secretary to Sir Herbert Stewart, General commanding the Desert Column (see the note to Page 18 line 2 above); Frederic Villiers (see the note to Page 16, line 3); and Walter Ingram, brother of the proprietor of the Illustrated London News. Ingram brought his own launch up the Nile to the Second Cataract; his gallantry was such that he was appointed acting 2nd Lieutenant RN to the Naval Brigade after its officers suffered many casualties at the Battle of Abu Klea (1885).

[Page18, line 25] the veterans Burleigh, and Melton Prior, artist correspondent of the Illustrated London News, were present at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir (between the Suez Canal and Cairo) in 1882, and the early fighting around Suakin in 1884. Villiers was in the Arabi campaign (see the note following). John Cameron of the Standard, and John Macdonald of the London Daily News were correspondents in Suakin in 1884.

[Page 18, lines 25-26] on the heels of the cavalry that occupied Cairo in ’82 … called himself King On September 13 1882, Sir Garnet Wolseley’s troops stormed the earthworks of Tel-el-Kebir ( see the note above), and swiftly destroyed the forces of Ahmed Arabi.

Arabi, an Egyptian from a peasant background, was in 1881 a rebel colonel of the 4th Regiment of the Egyptian army, which he encouragd to mutiny. The Khedive (see also the note to Page 18, lines 15-16), under pressure, appointed him Minister of War, and this led to a dictatorship of the military party. Owing to British and French control of the public debt in Egypt, and on the pretext of protecting the Suez Canal, Wolseley attacked and defeated Arabi , who was banished in 1882 to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka, then part of the British Empire) but permitted to return to Egypt in 1901. It is not reported that he called himself King, but perhaps the French reference, published in Kipling’s lifetime: ‘sous le regne ephemere d’Arabi-pacha’ (under the ephemeral sway of Arabi Pasha) best conveys the author’s intended meaning.

[Page 18, line 28] the first miserable work round Suakin The reference here is to several disastrous Nile Expedition defeats, which began with the Mahdist rebellion of Eastern Sudan against the Egyptian Government in August 1883 and ended in March 1884, when a British Force landed at Trinkitat, took Tokar and laterTamai, after a successful battle at El Teb in February 1884. (All the above-named battle places are in the Sudan.) Suakin was a base for Egyptian expeditions, approached by ship through a channel between coral reefs.
when the sentries were cut up nightly … spears In the Barrack-Room Ballad “Fuzzy Wuzzy” (1892) Kipling wrote famously and admiringly:

‘E cut our sentries up at Suakin
An’ ‘e played the cat an’ banjo with our forces,
So ‘ere’s to you Fuzzy Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man”

(‘Suakin’ is spelt ‘Suakim’ in some editions)

The Arab fighters’ skill was in sending small bodies of men to spear sentries and cause maximum confusion. Each man usually carried three spears. Such attacks were usually combined with long-range rifle fire from cover. (see also the note to page 18, line 21)

[Page 19, Lines 7-8] the man in the flannel shirt …Torpenhow the man casually described on page 16 line 15 now comes into the foreground as a main character. (The reference to ‘black-browed’ fits Kipling himself.) In addition to Bennet Burleigh, Torpenhow is said to be a composite of many other well-known journalists of the day, including possibly Kay Robinson, Editor in 1886/7 of The Civil and Military Gazette, the paper for which Kipling worked in Lahore. In p. 66 line 10 of Something of Myself Kipling refers admiringly to the ‘joyous reign’ of Robinson who worked his staff to near breakdown to change the paper’s format, but made them proud of the results. [I find this association is quite as credible as that with Burleigh; Ed.]

Torpenhow is also a village east of Cockermouth in Cumbria. The etymological derivation of the name is complex, but it is perhaps sufficient to mention here that the early English name for ‘hill’ was ‘how’, and that the Celtic ‘tor’ has similar connotations. ‘Pen’ in Welsh means ‘head’ and also ‘chief’ or ‘supreme’. All this suggests that the choice of name is deliberate, and that Kipling has endowed Torpenhow’s character with qualities of ancientness, Englishness, and the traditional Kiplingesque virtues of steadfastness and leadership. [I think Kipling, therefore, may have been projecting the duality of his own character in the contrasting personalities of Torpenhow and Dick; Ed.]

Janice Lingley writes: ‘In using its name Kipling may also have been drawing attention to the village’s unusual twelfth-century church, St Michael’s. The chancel arch rests on two columns with differentiated capitals: to the north, the side of darkness, are demon-like figures in dark red sandstone; in contrasting light sandstone on the south capital, human and animal figures are carved. In the nave there is a Renaissance ceiling painted with garlands and cupids.

These decorations can be thematically linked to the novel; Mrs. Jennet’s emphasis on the notion of hell and damnation, the references to a diversity of fauna in association with humans, young love. There is no record of Kipling knowing of the church, but possible sources could have been his father, John Lockwood Kipling, an expert in arts and crafts, or his pre-Raphaelite uncle, the distinguished painter Edward Burne-Jones.’

[Page 19, line 8] Central Southern Syndicate this appears to be reference to Bennet Burleigh having made his name as a war correspondent for the Central News during the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 in the course of the Arabi campaign.

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[Page 20, line 9] comprador A Portugese word for a servant in European households in the East.

[Page 20, line 9] Hakodate Japanese city visited by Commodore Perry after the ‘Japan-USA Amity Treaty’ in March 1854.

[Page 20, line 11] Berbera Somali seaport, south of the Gulf of Aden

[Page 20, line 12] Slave dhow a ‘dhow’ is a traditional sailing vessel commonly found in the Arabian Peninsula, India and East Africa.
…sunstroke slave-dhowin’ in Tajurrah Bay
Tajurrah Bay is also referred to by the explorer Richard F Burton in his travel book First Footsteps in East Africa and in Kipling’s Letters of Travel 1892- 1913. It is also a Somali port.

[Page 20, line 14] Fuzzies ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy’ was the familiar name given by British soldiers in the campaigns of 1882-1889 to the Baggara and Hadendoa tribesmen in the Mahdi’s forces, because of their remarkable hair-style.

[Page 20, line 16] Versestchagin Vassily Vassilyevich Versestchagin (1842-1904), a Russian artist notable for his technical skill as a war artist, and for his often violent and controversial subject matter. He died in 1904 in the sinking of the Russian Flagship Petroplavlovsk in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

[Page 20, line 32] Gate of the Two Warships Suakin, a major Red Sea Port, is an islet connected to the mainland by a causeway and a viaduct. The gate mentioned was the entrance of the causeway.

[Page 21-22, lines 28-6] “To these things are added in time….(and following) an admiring description of the unspoken ethos of the brotherhood of war journalists, and a good example of Kiplingesque virtues.

[Page 22, lines 27-28] Philae … Herawi … Muella Philae is the site of the great ancient temple of Isis, south of Aswan in Egypt. Herawi and Muella are Egyptian desert towns.

[Page 22, line 29] penned into a square the square is a tactical formation developed from the column, enabling defence against strong attack.

[Page 23, line 13] Eurylas usually spelt Euryalus, probably after the son of Mecisteus, an Argonaut in the ancient Greek legend of jason and the Golden Fleece.

[Page 23, line 15] Jakdul Jakdul Wells, in the Sudan, was the burial place of Sir Herbert Stewart, the gallant cavalry commander under Sir Gerald Graham, who repulsed the Mahdi’s troops at the Battle of Abu Klea. He died of wounds on the way back from Khartoum to Korti in February 1885.

[Page 23, lines 28-30] “Pisan soldiery surprised while bathing” This refers to the Battle of Piscina in the early sixteenth century, commemorated in a famous painting by Michelangelo, in which soldiers from Pisa were taken by surprise while bathing. (see also the note above to Page 16 lines 19-20)

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[Page 25, line 1] little hundred-and-fifity-pound camel-guns light artillery used by the Camel Corps with equipment suitable for transport on a camel or mule.

[Page 28, line 31] Khartoum the accursed one is dead ORG has this down as a textual error, not corrected in English editions until 1938 in the Sussex Edition Vol XVIII, where “Khartoum” becomes “Gordon” [Would Kipling have been that careless, I wonder? He could be implying that the shouted words were only partially heard and so read to us like an error. Or, the strange figure is consciously or unconsciously conflating Gordon with Khartoum in his frenzy. Such subtle ambiguities are typical of him; Ed.]


©Geoffrey Annis 2006 All rights reserved