The personal ideology of a poet may often become apparent in the range of the topics of their work. One of Rudyard Kipling’s priorities manifests itself in the fact that the only subject that he wrote three poems about was the Victorian military legend, Frederick Sleigh Roberts.
Lord Roberts of Kandahar was a soldier-hero of the type to be found in the pages of a Henty adventure story for public school boys, a readership brought up on a traditional diet of bravery, simplistic imperialism and a sense of the eternal greatness of England and the English. ‘Bobs’ to his admirers but never to his face, he was arguably the last of a line of professional soldiers whose careers spanned a century of minor imperial wars and skirmishes, and whose personal feats on the battlefields of the British Empire earned them an almost god-like status among the civilian population. Roberts was often called ‘the pocket Wellington’, although he displayed none of that general’s disdain for the common soldier.
Kipling’s connection with Roberts spanned almost thirty years, from the writer’s heady days as a young journalist in Simla in the mid 1880s, to the pervasive gloom of England in the early years of the Great War. For most of his adult life, Kipling regarded Roberts as a hero, personal and national, and as the epitome of all that was good about the traditional view of the British army officer.
Three poems originated from the relationship;
“A General Summary” from 1886 [presented as a preface to the first edition of Kipling’s Departmental Ditties, Lahore, Civil and Military Gazette Press, 1886
‘Bobs’ from 1893,
and the memorial ode,
“Lord Roberts”, written after Roberts’ death late in 1914, collected in The Years Between, London, Methuen, 1919.
See also “One Viceroy Resigns“
The texts reveal as much about Kipling the writer as they do about Lord Roberts the man, in that they cover, over a period of twenty eight years, a range of the poet’s reactions to both the image and the subjective reality of a popular and successful military leader.
The short satire, “A General Summary” was produced in the context of Kipling’s work in India as a young journalist and commentator on the eccentricities of the closed society of Simla, the summer retreat of the Anglo-Indian bureaucrats and their families. It was within this milieu that the best known of Kipling’s early short stories were produced, and from this expatriate micro-culture that the verses that made him famous, the Barrack Room Ballads, exploded into literary prominence.
While the Viceroy of India was the supreme social leader of the Simla set, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army was also a demigod to be revered, because of the sheer administrative and military power that he wielded. In the time of Kipling’s journalistic apprenticeship in the mid 1880s, the C-in-C India was Earl Roberts of Kandahar, V.C., the scion of a prominent Anglo-Indian military family, and ‘the greatest of the Empire’s colonial guardians and, of all the commanders of his time, the most beloved of the officers and men who served under him. [R. Adams, ‘Field-Marshal Earl Roberts: Army and Empire’, in J. Thompson and A. Meija (eds), Edwardian Conservatism: Five Studies in Adaptation, NY, Croom Helm, 1988, p 42]
Almost fifty years after the event, Kipling remembered that the:
‘proudest moment of my young life was riding up Simla Mall besides Lord Roberts who asked me what the men were thinking.’
[R. Kipling, Something of Myself, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1936, p. 66]
But Kipling was a journalist above all else, and had a nose for official frailities, even those of his hero. Kipling, as Carr points out, ‘was no blind hero-worshipper[of Lord Roberts] and at Simla he had been known as a sharp critic of Bobs’ administrative weaknesses.’ [ Charles Carrington p. 250]
“A General Summary”, within the format of a light-hearted ballad, accused Roberts of favouritism in his staff appointments, and, it could be argued, of incompetent administration and of gaining from the labours of others:
Won a simple Viceroy’s praise
Through the toil of other men.
Favouritism governed kissage
Even as it does in this age
Although Kipling wrapped his accusations in a thinly veiled parable about ancient Egypt, the comparison of the monolithic organisation of the Indian government to the building of the pyramids with all the shortcomings of both enterprises was easily made. The criticism is quite overt but, in the opinion of Parry, was ‘seen by some as a joke, as light entertainment.’ [A. Parry, The Poetry of Rudyard Kipling: Rousing the Nation, London, Open University Press 1992, p. 16] Kipling comments, in his autobiography, that:
‘my flippancy in handling what I was trusted with was not well-seen by the Government or the Departmental officialism’
[Something of Myself, op. cit., p. 76].
The indictment of the unhappy departmental officials was compounded in the next stanza:
Who shall doubt “the secret hid
Under Cheops’ pyramid”
Was that the contractor did
Cheops out of several millions?
Or that Joseph’s sudden rise
To Comptroller of Supplies
Was a fraud of monstrous size
On King Pharaoh’s swart civilians.
It should be borne in mind that Kipling was a young reporter aged twenty-one when he wrote “A General Summary”. The lines bear all the hallmarks of a callow sense of humour in search of official targets as easy marks for his reporting skills, to be turned into facile but pointed verses to amuse the Anglo-Indian community. The target, in this case Lord Roberts, seemed unconcerned by the accusations, and continued to be Kipling’s mentor and unofficial patron. It was Roberts to whom Rudyard Kipling turned for help when his son, John, was rejected for military service on medical grounds in 1914. Roberts arranged a commission in the Irish Guards for John Kipling who was killed early in 1915 at Loos.
In 1892, six years after the publication of “A General Summary”, Kipling wrote ” ‘Bobs’ “, an appreciation of Lord Roberts from the point of view of the soldiers who served under him in India. While the earlier poem was a satirical look at the vagaries of the machinery of Empire, ” ‘Bobs’ ” was an exercise in unalloyed praise for the personal qualities of ‘the most popular man in the British army’. [J. Morris, Pax Britannica, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968, p.237].
The verses are composed in the dialect that Kipling commonly used when ascribing the narration to a private soldier, full of missing aspirates, slang expressions and phrases of Hindustani that were part of the everyday conversation of the Anglo-Indian professional soldier. Birkenhead feels that the what he calls ‘the soldier verse’ is, to the modern reader, ‘vulgar and jarring on a sensitive ear’ [Lord Birkenhead p. 144], but Kipling seems to have caught the mixture of admiration and affection that Roberts engendered among his subordinates.
Roberts, who by this stage in his career was seen as ‘a gallant and endearing old gentleman’ [S. Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910-1914, London, Constable, 1935, p. 135], was a figure who had achieved legendary status through his exploits on the Indian North West Frontier, including the celebrated forced march to relieve Kandahar. He had, as a junior lieutenant, been awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, and had been fortunate enough to rescue his commanding officer, the renowned John Nicholson, from certain death on the battlefield. This led to a rapid promotion through staff ranks until, in 1892 when ” ‘Bobs’ ” was written, Frederick Roberts was Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army and had been raised to the peerage to become Baron Roberts of Kandahar and Waterford:
‘Now they’ve made a bloomin’ Lord
Which was but ‘is fair reward –
Weren’t it, Bobs?
So ‘e’ll wear a coronet
Where ‘is ‘elmet used to set,
But we know you won’t forget –
Will yer, Bobs?’
is following among the troops under his command was often noted. Kipling wrote of it to Roberts himself in 1897; ‘never did living leader of men have so many passionate worshippers among his rank and file’. [Personal letter from Kipling to Roberts, cited Lord Birkenhead, op. cit., p. 176]. The Morning Post ascribed his soldiers’ loyalty to ‘his care for his men’s welfare’ along with ‘his personal charm’ and ‘his brilliant military qualities’ [Morning Post, 16.11.1914], while a modern commentator points to the fact that Roberts was also ‘simple, sweet-natured’ . [J. Morris, op. cit., p.237]. These attributes are augmented in the sentiments of Kipling’s narrator:
‘E’s the man that done us well,
An we’ll follow ‘im to ‘ell’
‘…you’ve ‘elped the soldier’s load
An’ for benefits bestowed
Bless yer, Bobs!’
Kipling also allows his narrator to illuminate further some of the myths that had grown up around Roberts. One of the popular stories, despite the lack of any supporting medical evidence, was that he had been frequently wounded in battle during his career:
‘If you stood ‘im on ‘is ‘ead
You could spill a quart of lead
‘E’s been at it thirty years
In the way of slugs an’ spears –
Ain’t yer, Bobs?’
There is also reference to Roberts’ diminutive stature – he was a very small man by modern standards:
‘There’s a little red-faced man
Which is Bobs’
‘Oh, ‘e’s little but ‘e’s wise,
‘E’s a terror for ‘is size’
but the point is made with affection and a certain amount of awe at Roberts ability in spite of his size, especially in view of the fact that he:
‘Rides the tallest ‘orse ‘e can’,
a reference to his huge chestnut Arab, Volonel, which he had ridden on the fateful march to Kandahar, and which had been awarded its own Afghan War medals by order of the Queen.
Kipling also includes a passing dig at Roberts’ prime rival for promotion to the highest military position – Sir Garnet Wolseley, leader of the ‘Africa Ring’ set of reformist army officers who were opposed to the methods of Roberts’ own cadre, the ‘India Ring’. [W.S.Gilbert used Wolseley as the inspiration for his ‘model of a modern major-general’ in his Pirates of Penzance in 1880]. Although of indisputable ability, Wolseley was neither liked nor trusted by the traditionalists in military circles because of his tendency to draw attention to himself. Kipling makes the comparison without mentioning Wolseley, saying emphatically of Roberts that:
‘… ‘e – does – not – advertise – Do yer, Bobs?’
Later, in one of the short stories from his Plain Tales from the Hills, Kipling has the narrator, Private Mulvaney, say derisively of Wolseley that:
‘Wolseley…he’s a ramblin’, incoherint sort av a divil, wid wan oi on the Quane an’ the other on ‘is blessed silf – everlastin’ly playin’ Saysar and Alexandrier rowled into a lump’.
[“The Taking of Lungtungpen” in Plain Tales From the Hills] The rivalry was to last until Roberts succeeded Wolseley as the last Commander-in-Chief of the British Army on the latter’s retirement in 1900.
The last of Kipling’s verses concerning the hero of his youth is the elegiac “Lord Roberts”, published soon after Roberts’ death in November 1914. Roberts died on 14.11.1914 of pneumonia while visiting Indian troops from his old regiment stationed at the front line in France. Kipling notes that:
‘before his eye grew dim
He had seen the faces of the sons
Whose sires had served with him.
It was an occasion when:
‘He passed in the very battle-smoke’,
Three hundred mile of cannon spoke
When the Master-Gunner died.
Apart from his view of Roberts’ personal qualities:
Clean, simple, valiant, well-beloved,
Flawless in faith and fame,
Kipling also uses the poem as a vehicle for a general warning to his readers about the dangers of ignoring the message that Roberts had borne for the ten years since his retirement from active duty in 1904:
Never again the war-wise face,
The weighed and urgent word
That pleaded in the market-place –
Pleaded and was not heard.
In many ways, Roberts’ impact after 1904 was greater than his previous fifty years of military service. He spent the ten years until his death campaigning in the House of Lords and on the public stage for a better awareness of the threatening military situation in Europe. His prescient concern about the looming conflict, ‘the war that he had descried’ [Roberts had presented the possibility of war against Germany as early as 1905 in Nineteenth Century, LVII, January 1905, p. 68], was sparked by a belief that the British armed forces were as insufficiently prepared for a German invasion as they had been for the rigours of the Boer War. Kipling shared with Roberts a fear that Britain would have no answer to an invasion, and both men were leading members of the National Service League, a popular organisation that agitated for compulsory military service. After the Committee of Imperial Defence rejected proposed legislation supporting conscription, Roberts took over the leadership of the National Service League which had been founded in 1902, and took it to a membership of 270,000 by 1914.
Roberts’ personal ideology parallelled that of Kipling during this time. Adams comments that:
‘to Lord Roberts, it was not that the acquisition and maintenance of colonies made Britain great; rather, they were the proof of her greatness’
[R. Adams, ‘Field-Marshal Earl Roberts: Army and Empire’, in J. Thompson and A. Meija, op. cit., p 42],
It was Britain’s greatness to which Roberts devoted his retirement. Kipling notes this devotion:
Whom neither ease nor honours moved
A hairs-breadth from his aim,
Roberts himself summed up the basis of this aim in his maiden speech to the House of Lords:
‘we are links in a living chain pledged to transmit intact to posterity the glorious heritage we have received from those who have gone before us in this place’.
[Lords Parliamentary Debate, 4th series, vol CXVI, col 1695, 16.3.1905]
Both the reality and the image of Roberts were iconic. He was hated by the Liberals in government. The members of Asquith’s Liberal government supported Wolseley for promotion because of rumours of Roberts’ atrocities on civilians in the Afghan campaign. There does not appear to be any historical evidence to support these innuendoes. He was lionised by the ultra-conservative right wing of the opposition. Roberts included among his social circle such Radical Right luminaries as F.E.Smith, Lord Willoughby de Broke, Lord Halsbury, and, of course, Kipling himself. He symbolised a tradition of incorruptible service to his country that his supporters used as a shibboleth of national pride to divide the faithful from those whom Kipling was to call ‘The Lords of Looseness’. [ “The Holy War” in The Years Between]
In his three views of Roberts in verse, Kipling managed to capture an essence of the man that would have been very familiar to readers who, like the career of Roberts himself, spanned the reigns of three British monarchs. In turn satirised as a nepotistic incompetent, lauded as a military legend, and, finally, mourned as a national seer, Lord Roberts of Kandahar epitomised, for Kipling, a set of values that had virtually vanished in the chaos of the Great War. But, Kipling insisted, it was important that his ‘steadfast spirit’ should live on in the courage and perseverance of British troops at the front:
…from his life a new life springs
Through all the hosts to come
Emulation of the constant striving for national greatness embodied in Roberts’ life and work was essential if Britain was to be victorious in the physical and psychological confusion of the Western Front. Kipling is quite clear about this transference of national spirit, in that Roberts’ death has imbued the embattled fighting forces with ‘a new life’, a reminder that:
Glory is the least of things That follow this man home.
Kipling’s documentation in verse of his relationship with Roberts over the thirty years of their acquaintance is as revealing of Kipling the poet as it is about his subject. For the young inexperienced journalist in Simla in the 1880s, Roberts represented a higher authority which, almost by definition, could be used as a target for derision through self-consciously subversive doggerel. Ten years later, the Indian Army’s favourite bard could put into verse, deliberately colloquial to appeal to a specific readership, the idolisation of a military leader by the men who served under him. A further twenty years saw the measured tones of a funerary ode that was written more to support an ideology than to remember a man.
The three poems mark important stages in Kipling’s development as a chronicler of the aspirations of the British middle class. “A General Summary” bears the hallmark of the cheeky young commentator cocking a literary snook at the majesty of the slow machinery of Empire. Such apparent subversion, the clever sniping at easy official targets, was Carnivalesque in intent. (This term is used in the sense that Bakhtin used it – as a descriptor for officially tolerated apparent subversion.) It would have been welcomed as a diversion by an Anglo-Indian middle class very aware of the uncertainty of their place as a tiny ethnic minority amid a sea of alien faces.
” ‘Bobs’ “, on the other hand, bears none of the laboured satire of the earlier poem. As with many of his short stories that used the Indian Army as their background, Kipling’s narrator adopts the persona of an old India hand, a professional private soldier of the type so familiar to the readers of Kipling’s prose of the time. ” ‘Bobs’ ” is a music-hall song, written in a simple bouncy rhythm with a succession of short catchy lines that seem to beg to be shouted aloud after the sung verses. It shows Kipling at the height of his appeal to a huge readership starved of light verse, before his realisation of the inexorable doom of empires, and before his indignation over the spreading stain of post-Gladstonian Liberalism that had already begun to mar the traditional conservatism of Westminster.
“Lord Roberts” completes not just the trio of poems, but also Kipling’s political progress toward radical conservatism, so evident in his The Years Between collection. The poem is quietly nostalgic in its harking back to the qualities of Roberts as a personification of a older, golden age, but still contains a call to ideological arms to save Britain from the present dangers of war, and the future dangers of peace.
[Readers may be interested to see the image of this little statue of ‘Bobs’ in the form of a doll, made circa. 1900, which is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, a mark of the popular regard in which he was held: Ed. ]
©Julian Moore 2013 All rights reserved