(Mounted Infantry of the Line)

(notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

New York Tribune, September 21 1901; Windsor Magazine, October 1901, where there are minor verbal differences from the text published in The Five Nations, and the poem is accompanied by six black and white illustrations done by Leonard Raven-Hill (1867-1942); in this version, the penultimate stanza, the thirteenth, is omitted. Also McClure’s Magazine, October 1901, where it is also generously illustrated; also published separately using McClure’s type. Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.

A separate illustrated edition of the poem, called “Ikona” Sketches was published in 1915 by the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as a memorial to Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Trevor Crispin.

The Windsor Magazine illustrated publication is here. The McClure’s Magazine illustrated publication is here.


Alone of the set of’ ‘Service Songs’ which bring The Five Nations to a close, “M.I.” had been published earlier in 1901, some months after Kipling’s second visit to war-time South Africa. According to Charles Carrington (p. 325) several other ‘Service Songs’ were also mostly written in 1901. He cites “Boots”, “Lichtenberg”, “Piet”and “Stellenbosh”.

Along with the infantry battalions which made up most of the reinforcements from Britain, fourteen cavalry regiments had been sent to South Africa in 1899. But when Lord Roberts took command early in 1900 he saw that against a mounted guerrilla enemy, there was limited value in a force trained to make charges with sword and lance; he ordered an increase in the number of mounted infantry, or M.I. as they were known.

Eight battalions were raised by making a levy on existing forces and to them were added various units sent from Canada, New Zealand and Australia. However, there were always difficulties in finding appropriately trained officers, in teaching the men horsemanship, and in keeping up a supply of horses.

In any case there had never been permanent units of M.I. but a pool in each battalion of trained M.I. who could be mobilised at need into M.I. companies made up of different bodies of men with different regimental loyalties. Furthermore, in the course of this war, many reorganisations, both official and unofficial took place as officers were lost or transferred and men became detached from their units. It is this hybrid identity with its mobile loyalties, its ad hoc way of learning and doing things that Kipling’s poem so exuberantly celebrates.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Subscript] Mounted infantrymen were soldiers armed with infantry weapons but who rode rather than marched. They did not fight on horseback, unlike the cavalry; their mounts were used as means of transport. Some mounted infantry had been in use since the 1830s but it was in the Anglo-Boer War, waged against an enemy whose own forces consisted largely of mounted riflemen, that they came into their own. To describe them as ‘of the line’ made it clear that they were counted among the regular and numbered troops, not as auxiliaries.

By 1914 thanks to the arguments of the Cavalry, who saw them as graceless and incompetent rivals, the Mounted Infantry had ceased to exist. (See Michael Barthorp, ‘The Mounted Infantry’, Soldiers of the Queen, December 1999.)

[Stanza 1] with a fence post under my arm: once found, at once picked up and carried away to be used as fuel for cooking fires in that landscape free of timber.

in my putties … that I found on a Boer farm: tucked into his leg-wrappings; like the fence-post, this detail is a reminder of the widespread destruction of Boer homes and property. See note to “The Settler”, stanza 7.

Sore-backed Argentine: many of the huge numbers of horses imported by the British came from the Argentine.

I used to be in the Yorkshires once/(Sussex, Lincolns and Rifles once): see the Background note above. A photograph reproduced by Barcroft shows ‘Militia sergeants from 3rd Wiltshires, 3rd Dorsets and 4th East Surreys with 11th Battalion, regular M.I. in 1902’.

[Stanza 2] the chronic Ikonas: chronic is a slang intensive used by the uneducated, here meaning something like ‘inveterate’. ‘Ikonas’ was the nickname of the Mounted Infantry. The way its provenance has been traced at different periods suggests a good deal about changing attitudes to the native inhabitants of South Africa, to the Xhosa people, and to their language.

According to Ralph Durand, writing in 1914

Ikona (pronounced aikorner) is an ‘Afrikander’ word which means anything from simple ‘no’ to ‘no you don’t, my boy’. The language is ‘Kitchen-Kafir’, a manufactured dialect which enables Englishmen and South African Kafirs (native South Africans, Ed.) to meet each other half-way, each party thinking that it is speaking the other’s language. The word is in general use in South Africa, even between English-speaking people … An M.I. trooper who strolled into a neighbour’s horse-lines on the lookout for a remount (see stanza 6) would probably be greeted by a shout of ‘ikona’ from any who saw him and suspected his motives.’

In 1937 Sir George MacMunn glossed Ikona as: ‘Kafir for “there ain’t none” (a) frequent reply to questions (which) took the imagination of the soldiery.’ [See Rudyard Kipling, Craftsman 1937.]

In 2007, Elria Wessels, director of the Anglo-Boer War Museum, after consulting Xhosa speakers, explained the term thus:

Among Xhosa speakers ‘Ikona’ means ‘I have it’ or ‘it is here’, while ‘Aikona’ means ‘No I cannot understand.’

To a certain extent this last account squares with Durand’s ‘No you don’t my boy.’

[Stanza 3] veldt-sores: bacterial infections of the skin, following pressure, eg rubbing from holding a bridle. Not found only on the veldt.

my shirt is a button and frill: as the war went on, clothes wore out and uniform came in many cases to be abandoned in favour of various makeshifts.

the things I’ve used my bay’nit for: among a wide range of possible uses, bayonets could be employed both for digging drains and in the preparation of food, opening tins or cutting up a dead sheep.

From the Vaal to the Orange, etc: The Vaal River separated the Transvaal from the Orange Free State, whose southern boundary in turn was marked by the Orange River.

The Pongolo was in the east of the Transvaal. The speaker emphasises the huge distances he has ridden when he wonders insouciantly whether he’s been as far as the Zambesi River – but that lay far to the north of any campaign of the Anglo-Boer War.

[Stanza 4] the push: the crowd.

[Stanza 5] Our Sergeant-Major’s a subaltern: hierarchies have been set aside, for a junior commissioned officer has given up his own rank in order to fill the role of a non-commissioned officer.

Our Adjutant’s ‘late of Somebody’s ‘Orse’ and a Melbourne auctioneer: companies of Australian volunteers were among those drafted into M.I. units. In some cases, these units bore the names of the individuals who had raised them. Spells in hospital, or on special duties, could mean that on their return officers were not able to rejoin their original regiment if it was scattered and deployed in the field. In such cases they would attach themselves to another company. Cf “A Sahib’s War”.

Hussars, Dragoons an’ Lancers: three branches of the Cavalry.

‘elmets, pistols, an’ carbines: weapons and equipment rendered obsolete in the conditions of the Anglo-Boer War. Helmets were much too visible: slouch hats came to be the preferred headgear.

[Stanza 6] For beggin’ the loan of an ’ead-stall: The headstall is the part of a bridle or halter that fits over the horse’s head. [D.H.]

makin’ a mount to the same: acquiring a horse. A dismounted man was useless to his mounted comrades until he had found himself a horse, besides missing the action. Not feeling it was stealing to equip himself with a new mount, if asked where he got it he would reply ‘made it.’

footsack: Anglicised spelling of voetsak or more properly voertsek, meaning ’go away’, a term used with dogs.

[Stanza 7] we scout with a senior man in charge where the ‘oly white flags fly: It is often claimed that in spite of the piety of the Boers, they did not scruple to lure unwary British troops with a show of surrender, only to fire on them once they were within range. (Cf “A Sahibs’ War”.)

[Stanza 8] three days ‘to learn equitation’: When General Roberts ordered an increase in the number of units of M.I., less than four weeks were available for retraining the men before the advance on Bloemfontein.

Cow-guns: heavy guns drawn by teams of bullocks.

convoys: trains of supply wagons, under guard.

Mr de Wet on the fly: Christiaan de Wet (1854-1922), a Boer general exceptionally talented in guerrilla warfare, who consistently evaded capture.

[Stanza 9] ‘Scatter’ and ‘Close’ an’ ‘Let your wounded lie’: Before this war, fighting had usually been done in close formation but now different tactics were required and the words of command changed too. Troops were trained to dismount and find individual cover from which to fire when they came across the enemy. At the close of an engagement they would be called back together and might be warned to leave their wounded comrades on the ground in order to avoid making targets of themselves. The wounded were treated well by the Boers.

Number Three:  The Wordsworth edition note that the job of the number three man in each section in action was to hold the horses. [D.H.]

[Stanza 10] Kopjes: hills.

[Stanza 11] Tod Sloan: an exceptionally successful jockey of the day, who invented the so-called ‘monkey-ride’, using short stirrups and lying low on the animal’s neck. After a racing scandal in 1900 he had been excluded from the sport.

[Stanza 12] Mausered: The Mauser magazine rifle could kill at 2,000 yards. Some months before the outbreak of hostilities, the Boer General Joubert bought 30,000 Mausers from Krupps, the German manufacturers. The British used Lee-Metfords.

one and a penny a day: the rate of pay awarded to British volunteers.

five-bob colonials: troopers and privates in the colonial corps were paid five shillings a day; there were twenty shillings to the £ sterling.

[Stanza 13] Red little, dead little Army: a phrase which has become famous, crystallising the folly of making fighting men vulnerable by dressing them in so visible a colour, and at the same time implying the more general folly of the Staff. (This scathing tone may explain why the stanza was omitted when the poem came out in the Windsor Magazine.) Although it is often repeated that the Anglo-Boer War taught the Army to change to khaki uniforms, in fact the changeover had begun earlier, if sporadically; ‘ khakis’ were issued to troops bound for South Africa as early as 1899 according to the letters of Sir John Gilmour published in Clearly My Duty, 1996.


©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved