First published in The Week’s News, 4 February 1888. Collected in Abaft the Funnel (Unauthorised and Authorised Editions), 1909.
The narrator is riding with the General Officer Commanding, who is pompously expounding his views on ‘Private Thomas Atkins’, the archetypal ‘Tommy’. After they part company, the narrator hears the sound of angry voices down the hillside and slides down to investigate. There he finds Gunner Barnabas of the Mountain Battery, ‘my friend, the very strong man’, sitting on a Private Shacklock, ‘a tow-haired, scrofulous, boy of about two-and-twenty.’
Gunner Barnabas had originally met Shacklock ‘at Deelali—a fish-back recruity as ever was’ , and given him a ‘lathering’ to help keep him straight. They had met again on the present occasion when they went out butterfly-hunting and shooting. Shacklock missed a bird that he had fired at, and when Barnabas pointed this out and laughed, Shacklock disputed it, turned the gun on Barnabas and fired, whereupon Barnabas knocked him down. Barnabas realised that Shacklock was drunk and this is why he was sitting on him until the drink wore off.
Gunner Barnabas then gives the narrator his views and experience of ‘scrofulous’ (unhealthy) soldiers who carry a grudge which only surfaces when they have drink taken. He goes on to enlarge on the character and qualities of some of the British soldiers sent out to India, and on the conditions of life among the troops in that country.
Roger Ayers comments: in stressing the poor physical condition of Private Shacklock and his need for convalescence, Kipling is commenting on a view increasingly held in Britain towards the end of the 1880s that the growing movement of population from the countryside to towns was resulting in recruits less healthy and less used to manual labour than before. He also couples this with the effect of drink on such recruits. However, in contrasting Shacklock with Barnabas, a soldier of the ‘old school’, big, strong and at home with animals and in the country, Kipling has picked an exceptional soldier as an example.
In his poem, “Screw-Guns”, Kipling includes the line ‘It’s only the pick of the Army that handles the dear little pets—’ and this was a fact. Since the two halves of the gun, weighing just over 200lb apiece, had each to be lifted from a cradle on the back of a mule at roughly shoulder height by three gunners, the height and physical strength requirements for mountain gunners were the highest in the army, the minimum height being six feet, which was two inches taller than the requirement for the Foot Guards, so perhaps Kipling was being a little unfair.
However, he would have even more to complain about today, since a gunner’s share of the 200lb load in 1888 was three times the maximum shoulder-height, close-to-the-body lift recommended by today’s British Health and Safety Executive guidelines. [R.C.A.]
Links to other stories
Gunner Barnabas first appeared in the Civil and Military Gazette on 7 October 1887, in the last of the 18 stories in The Smith Administration group collected in Vol. II of From Sea to Sea. The story is entitled “The Opinions of Gunner Barnabas”, wherein the Gunner expatiates on the evils of the Temperance Movement in the army.
Both Gunner Barnabas and Private Shacklock are amongst the characters named in “The Last of the Stories” published in The Week’s News on 15 September 1888, and also collected in Abaft the Funnel.
Thus there are only three stories mentioning Gunner Barnabas, who does seem to have some of the attributes of Private Mulvaney, one of the ‘Soldiers Three’. However, Mulvaney pre-dates him with a first appearance on 11 March 1887 in “The Three Musketeers”, with 17 of the 18 “Soldiers Three” stories mentioning Mulvaney as well as “The Last of the Stories”. (See the article on “Mulvaney” by R.E. Harbord, KJ 130, June 1959, p.14).
©David Page and Roger Ayers 2006 All rights reserved