Notes on the text

(by Roger Ayers)

[Title] Oonts: the Hindustani word for both camel and camels – nowadays written as ‘unt’ – with an identifiable English ‘s’ added to make it into the soldiers’ plural noun for camels. See also Line 5 and its footnote for Kipling’s comment on the soldiers’ pronunciation.

[Subtitle] Northern India Transport Train: I have not yet found this title in any list of formations or units of the 19C Indian Army but it sounds like one of the transport trains put together with hired beasts and drivers before the reorganisations of 1887-89.

[Line 1] Wot makes the soldier’s ‘eart to penk, …: ‘Penk’ is not an English word and it appears to be a Kipling invention to provide him with a single-syllable word that alliterates with ‘perspire’ at the end of the line. This has not stopped some commentators from defining it, generally in terms of ‘palpitate’, which suits the sense.

[Line 4] For the commissariat camel an’ ‘is commissariat load. Technically, before 1887 it would have been a transport camel in the service of the provisioning authority, the commissariat.

[Line 5] O the oont, …: Kipling’s footnote reads: ‘…oo is pronounced like u in “bull,” but by Mr. Atkins to rhyme with “front.” ‘ This deliberate instruction to pronounce the word as hunt with a dropped ‘h’ is more than just a device to help the reader with the rhymes. Pronounced in this way, Mr Atkins could commonly precede it with a ‘c’ and make his feelings about camels quite clear.

[Line 6] With ‘is silly neck a-bobbin’ like a basket full o’ snakes: likens the bobbing of a camel’s head on the move to the swaying head of a snake-charmer’s snakes in their basket.

[Line 7] We packs ‘im like an idol, …: The camel lay down to be loaded, with its forelegs folded under from the knee, giving it the appearance of the sphinx.

[Line 8] …’is blessed girth-rope breaks.: The equipment of hired camels was notoriously unreliable. Camel saddles were usually secured with a double rope girth so a broken girth rope would cause the saddle to slip and tilt and almost certainly bring the camel down.

[Line 10] An’ every native follower …: The moves of units or formations of the Indian Army in the late 19c, including moves in hostile territory, were accompanied by numbers of ‘native followers’ that are almost unimaginable today. One of the earliest set of notes on Kipling’s verse was A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling, by Ralph Durand (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1914). Durand, son of a clergyman from Guernsey, had two uncles who rose to be colonels on the staff of the Bombay Presidency Army and his note on camp followers bears repeating:

“A regiment on the march in India has an exceptionally large number of camp-followers. The reason for this is primarily because it is necessary to allow soldiers in the native regiments to be attended by servants who perform for them necessary camp duties from which they themselves are precluded by religious prejudices. The climate makes it advisable to lighten the duties of the British soldier as far as possible, and, moreover, as the native soldiers are allowed to have servants, it would lower the prestige of the sovereign race if British soldiers were made to perform menial camp duties from which the native soldiers are exempted. Both British and native regiments, therefore, are attended by a large number of camp-followers. These are of three classes. Private camp-followers—officers’ personal attendants, grooms, etc.—who are paid and rationed by their masters; regimental camp-followers—cooks, sweepers, water-carriers, etc.; and lastly, stretcher-bearers, mule-drivers, etc., paid and rationed by government.”
[See also Line 22 below]

[Line 11] Paythans: Pathans, inhabitants of the mountainous country on both sides of the old North-West Frontier.

[Line 12] …puttin’ on ‘is bloomin’ frills!: putting on an act.

[Line 16] …chaws …: chews

[Line 22] ‘E’s blocked the whole division from the rear-guard to the front.: unlikely in the case of a camel, as the baggage animals from a Transport Train normally travelled at the rear of a column, before the followers and rearguard, hence the concerns expressed in lines 9 and 10 above. In addition, spare camels were taken along to which loads were transferred from any animal that had broken down. Once down, that was generally the end of the camel, as Kipling notes. Durand refers to Kipling’s story, “My Lord the Elephant” (Many Inventions) as an example in which an elephant blocks a road but that was a gun-elephant travelling with the artillery in the column.

[Line 25] ‘E’ll gall an’ chafe an’ lame …: The camel is particularly sensitive to ill-fitting or worn saddlery, chafing leading to saddle galls. Rough ground can lead to lameness.

[Line 28] An’ when ‘e comes to greasy ground ‘e splits ‘isself in two.: See the Introductory Notes. Later, but more explicit, is the note by Col. C.E. Callwell in his Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (HMSO, London, 1896, reprinted 1906):

‘Camels … cannot travel over rough country on account of their feet, and they are quite helpless on slippery ground.’

[Line 31] The tribes is up be’ind us, and the tribes is out in front—: The tribes, Afghan or Pathan, being ‘up’ or ‘out’ meant that they had taken up arms against the British and Indian forces.

[Line 32] It ain’t no jam for Tommy, but it’s kites an’ crows for ‘im.: no fun for the soldier, death for the camel.

[Line 33] …an’ when the roads is blind: presumably, out of sight of the enemy, since the march is over.

[Line 38] …water-cut…: water course.

[Lines 39 & 40] We keeps a mile be’ind ‘im …etc.: Drinking water was drawn from natural sources and although filtered by the Royal Engineers for supplying camps, it could be contaminated and it frequently lead to disease, especially cholera. The instructions were firm that water should only be drawn off well upstream of known contamination or a long way downstream – the mile behind and in front. But in a water-course, everywhere is downstream from somewhere.