Only a Subaltern

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in The Week’s News of 25 August 1888, and collected the same year in Under the Deodars (No. 4 in the Indian Railway Library), in 1890 in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories, and in numerous later editions of that collection.

The story

Bobby Wicks is a promising young subaltern, devoted to his men and admired by his fellow officers. When the regiment is devastated by an epidemic of cholera, he does all he can, unstintingly, to keep up the spirits of the men in hospital, who are dying every day. Then Bobby is stricken in his turn, dies as did many young officers in India, and is much mourned.

The background

Kipling’s first published biographer, Charles Carrington, a soldier himself, served in the trenches for the whole of the Great War. (See his Soldier from the Wars Returning, Hutchinson, 1965) and – as ‘Charles Edmunds’ – A Subaltern’s War, Davies, 1929. In addition to his other works, he edited The Complete Barrack-Room Ballads in 1973, and Kipling’s Horace in 1978. His Obituary in The Times of 25 June, 1990 calls his biography of Kipling “… a sure repository for facts and dates, a lucid framework on which others have built, and has outlived many more ephemeral and fanciful appraisals.”

Carrington sets the scene for us (p.110):

The regiment of the line that Kipling knew best was the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers who were stationed at Mian Mir from 1886 to 1888; he calls them ‘The Tyneside Tail-Twisters’ They had fought in the Afghan War, though not in any action that can be identified in a Kipling story …They did not serve in Burma.

With ‘Bobby Wicks’ (Kipling) moulded a whole generation of young Englishmen into that type. They rose up in their thousands , in 1914, and sacrificed themselves, in the image that Kipling had created. (p.111.)

Kipling himself also lost his son John who, as an officer in the Irish Guards, was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915; his body was never identified. Although a grave once believed to be his was recently found, further investigation decided otherwise. (See KJ 267/52, 287/11,288/40 and 301/56, and My Boy Jack by Tonie and Valmai Holt, Leo Cooper 2001).

Some critical comments

The Athenaeum found this story the ‘one redeeming feature’ of Under the Deodars (quoted by Norman Page, p.113) but Angus Wilson, writing some three generations later found
… a mawkish, Sunday-school-prize tone that spoils it.

Like “The Brushwood Boy” and “The Tomb of his Ancestors” (The Day’s Work) this is another story of a brilliant and promising young officer which some find just a little too good to be true – even allowing for the “Ripping Yarns” atmosphere of a hundred or so years ago. It is however, perfectly in tune – in more ways than one – with the sentiments expressed by Sir Henry John Newbolt (1862–1938) in his Vita Lampada:

The sand of the desert is sodden red-
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;-
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
Play up ! play up ! and play the game !

(A ‘square’, in this context, is a fighting formation – riflemen on four sides, machine-guns at the corners and baggage in the centre. See The Light that Failed, Chapters 2 and 15: and the poem “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”. A Gatling was an early machine-gun)

Newbolt did not see eye to eye with Kipling at one time and accused him of trying to corner the market for patriotic verse but they later became friends when they met on the War Graves Commission and Newbolt later accepted an honorary degree when Kipling was installed as Rector of St. Andrews. (Andrew Lycett, p. 517)

Eric Stokes in “Kipling’s Imperialism”, collected in Rudyard Kipling, the man, his work and his world p. 93, regards this story as an example of (Kipling’s) cloying idyllic vignettes …. In which his characters observe a perfect cardboard fit.

The same detractors are also inclined to sneer at Kipling’s treatment of the yound Roman officers, Parnesius and Pertinax in “A Centurion of the Thirtieth”, “On the Great Wall” and “The Winged Hats” (Puck of Pook’s Hill) and Valens in “The Church that was at Antioch” (Limits and Renewals) despite the paucity of information about the behaviour of young men in those days. (As human nature does not seem to have changed much in a couple of thousand years, Kipling’s guess is probably as good as any; Ed.)

(See also “The Honours of War” in A Diversity of Creatures and “A Conference of the Powers in Many Inventions and the poem “Follow Me ‘Ome.”)
Louis Cornell (p. 157) sees this story as sentimental, for the author has …sought to control all his reader’s responses, to draw upon the reader’s easily accessible stores of admiration and pity…