ORG Volume 5, page 2557 records the first publication of this story (Uncollected No. 232) in the Daily Express, (London) on June 19, 20 and 21, 1900, in The People’s Friend, (Dundee) on 25 June, and then in McClure’s Magazine (New York) for July, 1900. It is the third of the four stories of the South African War mentioned in the Headnote to “Folly Bridge” (Uncollected Number 231) It is collected in the Sussex Edition, Volume 30, page 119. It is also reprinted in KJ 134/05.
This story was written only a few months after the British army had suffered a series of humiliating reverses at the hands of the Boers during the Second South African War. It is a sustained attack on the ill-preparedness, complacency, and incompetence of some of the exclusive regiments sent out to fight by the British goverment.
An inexperienced and snobbish young British officer finds himself Station Commandant at an isolated spot, where a party of somewhat irregular engineers are repairing a bridge that had been blown up by the enemy. Steeped in the ancient traditions of the old County regiments of the regular army, he is smartly turned out, and has an excessively high opinion of himself and of the traditions of his regiment. Of the practicalities of soldiering in South Africa he knows nothing.
Failing to understand that the engineers repairing the bridge are not under his command, he takes upon himself to interfere with the work, with disastrous consequences. He is given a monumental reprimand by a Colonel of the Royal Engineers, and sent to a desk job at the base more suited to his limited intelligence.
The verse heading is a parody of “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, a familiar hymn to any member of the Church of England, by Bishop Reginald Heber (1783-1826) It is recorded as ‘Uncollected No. 755A’ in ORG page 5387. It makes it clear that British military failure is the keynote of the tale.
Notes on the Text
Stormberg an event of Black Week, 10-15 December 1899, during the Second South African War, when the British Army suffered three humiliating defeats by the Boer Republics at the battles of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso,
Pretoria a city in the Northern part of Gauteng Province, South Africa – one of the country’s three capital cities, serving as the executive (administrative) and national capital; the others are Cape Town, the legislative capital, and Bloemfontein, the judicial capital.
Rand short for Witwatersrand, a sedimentary range of hills, at an elevation of 1700-1800 metres above sea-level, which runs in an east-west direction through Gauteng in South Africa. The word in Afrikaans means “the ridge of white waters”. The “Rand” or “reef”, as it is sometimes known, is famous for being the source of 40% of the gold ever mined from the earth.
Army and Navy Stores A celebrated department store in central London, see “The Army of a Dream” (Traffics and Discoveries, page 244 line 32.) Setton would have obtained his uniforms from the regimental tailor – the Stores would probably have provided his camp equipment and sports gear.
two thousand stand of arms a somewhat old-fashioned expression signifying rifles and bayonets with associated equipment. The British in the Transvaal had been contemplating rebellion against the Boers, and hiding weapons down in their mines, as the goverment had discovered. See ‘a Raid’ below.
a Raid The ‘Jameson Raid’ on December 29, 1895 – January 2, 1896 on Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic, carried out by Leander Starr Jameson and his Rhodesian and Bechuanaland police. Its aim was to start an uprising by the British in the Transvaal and overthrow the Boer government, but it failed to do so. .
Following the abortive Raid, Jameson (1853-1917) was returned to England for trial, and sentenced to 15 months in jail, but was soon pardoned. After the war he was active in politics in South Africa, and became Prime Minister of the Cape.
Uitlanders Cape Dutch for ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’, they were the non-Dutch, mainly British, settlers in the Transvaal. They were virtually disenfranchised, but were obliged to pay taxes, and had a strong sense of grievance. Jameson’s bold but unsuccessful adventure was carried out on their behalf, but they failed to rise after the Raid, which was one of the main causes of the war.
cyanide process also called the MacArthur-Forrest process, a metallurgical technique for extracting gold from ore by converting the gold to water soluble aurocyanide metallic complex ions. It is the most commonly used process for gold extraction but the poisonous cyanide makes it very dangerous. .
typhoid see Dr. Gillian Sheehan’s notes.
Dissent Generally speaking, those who belong to nonconformist congregations outside the Church of England. Conservative-minded Anglicans saw non-conformists as their social inferiors. Kipling was descended from Methodist ministers, and did not have great sympathy for this view.
Home Counties the English counties around London, Essex, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Kent, and Middlesex. Some would add Sussex and Buckinghamshire. Life in yhe Home Counties was rather more comfortable than in most other parts of Britain.
Railway Volunteers There were many locally-raised formations in this war. With their local knowledge and languages, these men would have been an effective unit, but it might have been better to make them a Company within the Royal Engineers, and to have commissioned Thrupp as well as Hagan. (But then, of course, there would have been no story.)
Tel–el-Kebir a battle between the Egyptians and the British in 1882 – some scenes from which are included in The Light that Failed. See Charles Carrington, p. 45.
Pipkameelepompfontein an unlikely name for a (probably) fictitious place , but many villages around Bloemfontein have names ending in fontein, meaning ‘spring’ or ‘fountain’. (Readers of John Buchan will remember Blauwildebeestefontein, ‘ the spring of the blue wildebeeste’, in Prester John.
did not know a spike from a chair Two methods of fixing railway-lines to the sleepers, the timber beams on which the lines rest. A flat-bottomed rail can be secured with a large nail – a ‘spike’ – with a head that holds the flange to the sleeper; a ‘chair’ is a socket bolted to the sleeper which contains and supports the rail, which is kept in place by a hardwood wedge known as a ‘key’.
Folly Bridge see the text and notes in this Guide.
Numdah and Bootlace Issue a fictitious Department. A numdah (various spellings), from the Persian namad, is a woollen or felt saddle-cloth. (Hobson-Jobson)
[J H McG]
©John McGivering 2009 All rights reserved