The Outlaws

(notes by Philip Holberton)



Included in King Albert’s Book published in December 1914 on behalf of Belgian refugees, after the German army had overrun their country in the early weeks of the Great War. Collected in:

  • The Years Between (1919)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol. 33 p. 367
  • Burwash Edition vol. 26
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney (p. 1074)

Kipling’s well-known poem “For All We Have And Are” set out the task confronting England with the outbreak of World War I:

Stand up and take the war.
The Hun is at the gate!

“The Outlaws”, published at much the same time, explains the necessity of that task, concluding that the Germans no longer have souls and are utterly outside the laws of civilised nations. It is interesting to compare it with
“Justice”, written in 1918 just before the Armistice, in which he describes them as ‘a people with the heart of beasts’ and ‘Evil Incarnate.’ As Peter Keating says (p.207), discussing “Justice”:

Germany, he believed, was essentially unchanged by the war.

Keating (p.187) writes of “The Outlaws”:

He was fully convinced that Germany had been planning the war, cold-bloodedly and hypocritically, for many years, a point he was quick to make in “The Outlaws”, the poem he contributed to King Albert’s Book (1914). Most of the contributors to this handsomely-produced tribute to the King and the people of Belgium concentrated on the gallantry of “little” Belgium’s refusal to surrender to the might of the German army, but Kipling stressed the malignant, sadistic nature of the German character:

Through learned and laborious years
They set themselves to find
Fresh terrors and undreamed-of fears
To heap upon mankind.

All the ‘abominations of old days/ That men believed were dead’ were actually being nurtured by Germany until the moment, now arrived, when they could be loosed on mankind. Like many other people at the time, Kipling was eager to believe all the stories of German atrocities being circulated: nothing was too outrageous or bizarre. Britain was confronted with an evil enemy, and must now fight a “holy war”, as
Kipling was to call it in one of his later poems.

See also Hugh Brogan’s article on “The Great War and Rudyard Kipling” .

Notes on the Text

Verse 2

they drew from Heaven above: Two days after the Germans invaded Belgium, on August 6 the Zeppelin L-Z was sent from Cologne to bomb the city [Liege]. ‘The 13 bombs it dropped, the nine civilians it killed, inaugurated a 20th-century practice.’ (Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August p.176, Presidio Press 2004).

Verse 3

When the fit hour should strike: Germany’s Schlieffen Plan for attacking France through neutral Belgium was first put forward in 1905.

Verse 5

a land/Their oath was pledged to guard: Belgium became an independent state in 1830. By the Treaty of London in 1839, the European powers, including Germany, had guaranteed the neutrality and territorial inviolability of Belgium. In 1870, Germany, France and Britain specifically affirmed the continuing force of this treaty.

Verse 6

Abominations of old days: Germany signed the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which laid down certain rules for the conduct of war and the protection of non-combatants. Collective punishment was specifically forbidden: an individual’s actions could not be blamed on family, friends and associates, and only he could be punished.

Germany’s breach of this article was widespread and well-proven. German troops, afraid of Belgian francs-tireurs (guerrilla fighters) executed civilians throughout eastern and central Belgium, including Aarschot (156 dead), Andenne (211 dead), Tamines (383 dead), culminating at Dinant with 674 dead. The victims included women and children.

There were persistent rumours that German soldiers in Belgium perpetrated widespread rape. Further stories accused them of cutting off the right hands of Belgian boys so that they could never fight when they grew up. (There is a quiet hint of this in Kipling’s story “Swept and Garnished”, published in January 1915.) These rumours were never proven, but Kipling always believed the worst of “the Hun.”


© Philip Holberton 2015 All rights reserved