First published in the fourth number of W.E. Henley’s weekly Scots Observer (later to become the National Observer) on 22 March 1890.
First collected in Departmental Ditties, Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses, United States Book Company, New York, 1890. Collected in Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses, 1892; Inclusive Verse 1919 and Definitive Verse. 1940; Sussex Edition, Vol 32, page 193; Burwash Edition, Vol 25. In the ORG it is numbered 423.
The verse form is very similar to that of “Tommy”, published two weeks before, in that it has five eight-line verses, in which the first four lines consist of two rhyming couplets. These depict some aspect of the behaviour or character of the transport camel.
However, the second four lines of each verse have a rhyming scheme a-b, a-b, which gives them a catchier swing than the insistent couplets of “Tommy”. This gives the verses a comic effect, quite different from the bitterness of that poem, making the camel a subject of black comedy and continuing the alternation from darkness to humour of the first four ballads published.
In his notes on “Oonts” in his The Complete Barrack Room Ballads of Rudyard Kipling, (Methuen, London, 1974), Charles Carrington says of the narrator: ‘He speaks an unusually illiterate Cockney’. This use of an exaggerated Cockney comic voice is Kipling’s device to defuse the seriousness or violence of a poem, as in “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”, allowing him to include ideas, scenes and language that would otherwise be unacceptable, even today. See ‘Kipling’s Comic and Serious Verse’, Christie Davis, Kipling Journal, Vol 77, No. 308, December 2003, for a full examination of his technique.
T.S. Eliot, in the introduction to his A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, (Faber & Faber, London, 1941) commented that :
“The variety of form which Kipling manages to devise for his ballads is remarkable: each is distinct, and perfectly fitted to the content and mood which the poem has to convey.”
Nowhere is this better displayed than in “Tommy” and “Oonts”, where a minor structural difference and an overdone accent completely change the mood. The juxtaposition of these two poems, one following the other in the Scots Observer, is unlikely to have been accidental.
“Oonts” had almost no comment to itself alone but was generally accepted as one of the more striking ballads, typical, if somewhat delayed, comment being:
“Out of twenty-one there are, perhaps, not more than seven that one cares about reading again, but these seven are “Mandalay”, “Danny Deever”, “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”, “Tommy”, “Oonts”, “Gunga Din” and “Soldier, Soldier”.
(Rudyard Kipling, A Criticism by Richard Le Gallienne’, John Lane: The Bodley Head, London, 1900).
A judgement, however, that puts ‘Oonts’ in distinguished company.
This poem, even if it were without its subheading, is clearly about the military use of the camel in India and was almost certainly one of the original twelve Ballads written before Kipling returned to England in 1889. Despite the well-reported use of camels by Wolseley’s Desert Column in the Sudan in 1884-85 (see “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”) there is no hint of the way they were used there in this poem.
The camel used by the army in India in the 1880s was the ‘one-hump’ Arabian camel, as opposed to the Bactrian camel with two humps. Before 1884, the Indian Army had virtually no transport animals of its own, apart from artillery transport, and relied on hiring animals and drivers from civilian contractors. In addition, the Commissariat (provisioning service) and Transport were separate, and first amalgamated in 1887 in each Presidency, then in 1889 into one Commissariat-Transport Corps for the whole Indian Army.
The main load-carrying transport animals were elephants, mules, bullocks and camels. The camel could carry an average load of about 330lb (150kg) on level ground, which was about twice that of a mule or bullock, but only at about 2 to 2½ miles an hour, slower than marching troops. In hilly country, this was reduced to about 220lb (100kg) and 1 to 1½ miles per hour.
With its ability to go longer than any other animal without water and capable of living off the leaves of trees, the camel was admirably suited to Indian deserts and plains and was an invaluable military load carrier. It could also travel in strings of up to eight animals and so required fewer drivers, one to every four camels.
However it had serious drawbacks, most of which are listed in Sir Garnet Wolseley’s Soldiers’ Pocket Book of 1882:
“After rain, in clay soil or over rocks or stony places, they split up and they are consequently useless there. … They are extremely delicate in constitution and liable to diseases little understood. When suffering from overwork they do not recover with rest like horse or mule: they pine and die away. They require a long time to feed, at least six hours; owing to their great height they suffer severely from ill-balanced loads.”
Wolseley ends with the simple statement: “The camel used in India is a vicious brute”.
Kipling was familiar with the Soldiers’ Pocket Book and quoted from it in some of his work in India. In “The Courting of Dinah Shadd”, first published in Macmillan’s Magazine in March, 1890, the same month as “Oonts” appeared, Kipling has Mulvaney say: “If you read the Soldier’s Pocket Book, (sic) which never any soldier reads, …” but he may well have read the bit about camels himself as he included all their listed faults in his poem. That this was his source is made more likely when we consider Wolseley’s statement that camels ‘split up … after rain, in clay soil or over rocks or stony places.’ It is unclear from this what ‘split up’ actually means, but Kipling paraphrases it as:
“An’ when ‘e comes to greasy ground ‘e splits ‘isself in two.” [Line 28] which is also less than exact.
There are other hints that Wolseley was Kipling’s source. At the end of the Jungle Book is the story “Her Majesty’s Servants” with its attendant verses “Parade Song of the Camp Animals”, and in both story and verses there are close parallels between the characteristics of the camp animals as given by Wolseley and those attributed to them by Kipling. An example is Wolseley’s statement that bullocks ‘stand fire better than any other animals’ and Kipling’s pair of gun-bullocks who graze alongside the guns in action and do not understand why the gun elephant refuses to go within range of the enemy. Kipling published this just 4 years after writing ‘Oonts’.
A much later possible connection concerns Wolseley’s phrase quoted above:
“When suffering from overwork they do not recover …: they pine and die away.”
In the poem “The Bee-Boy’s Song”, which accompanies “Dymchurch Flit” in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), there are two lines which appear to be a direct throwback to the final phrase:
In the first verse:
Fly away – die away – Dwindle down and leave you!
And in the last:
Pine away – dwine away – Anything to leave you!
Quite a complex way of getting in ‘pine and die away’ but Kipling seems to have been so keen to do it that he has invented a word in order to get it to fit, though not for the first time – he also did it in the first line of “Oonts”.
©Roger Ayers 2006 All rights reserved