The Parting of the Columns

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

One of the suite of sixteen ‘Service Songs’ which close The Five Nations. This may have been written specifically for The Five Nations but see note to “M.I.”.  Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.


Volunteer troops from across the Empire met in South Africa and fought side by side with British soldiers: they came from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand to join local South African forces, making up with the British the Five Nations of Kipling’s title. (Officers in India, tired of barrack duty and eager to see fighting also came out when they could get leave, see “A Sahibs’ War”.)

Kipling saw that the while the shared experience of hardship and war bound the men together in mutual respect, for British soldiers there was an extra dimension to the experience. Their eyes were opened by the independent spirit of the colonials while the stories of other ways of living expanded their imagination. Most notable, perhaps, in this poem is the insight that after hearing about the colonies, worlds created by those who in Britain would have been classed as ‘rank and file’, these British soldiers may not be so willing to accept the lives allotted to them back home.

The speaker in “Chant-Pagan”, another of the ‘Service Songs’, articulates the changes brought about in one man by his experience in South Africa.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Title] See Background note to “Columns”.

[Epigraph] Challenging the reader with the bold admission that it is fabricated, this newspaper extract nevertheless repays study for its concentrated detail. While purporting to be a dispatch from upcountry, it reminds and educates readers, not least by distinguishing between three different groups of soldiers who took part in the war, the colonials, those on garrison duty, and those from a mobile column. By attributing the extract to ‘Any Newspaper’ and by using blanks instead of names, it also presents the scene, in its display of warm feeling between the British troops and those from the colonies, as one repeated across South Africa.

[Stanza 2] Doubled out: came at the double, military expression for came at the run.

[Stanza 3] Kruger cut and run: a biased view, in line with the treatment of Kruger put forward in the British press. President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal was over seventy when the war broke out. When Pretoria fell in June 1900 he retreated east with the Boer General Botha and his forces. By August of that year, it was decided that he was too old and frail to live on the veldt. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands sent a cruiser to carry him to Europe where he hoped to win active support for the Boer cause. He died in exile in Switzerland in 1904.

Skoff: food

[Stanza 4] Red Cross train: these shuttled constantly between Cape Town and the war. See “With Number Three, Surgical and Medical” for Kipling’s account of travelling back with wounded.

Bloeming-typhoidtein: a play on the name of Bloemfontein, using the slang intensive ‘blooming’. See Background note on “Dirge for Dead Sisters”.Kipling added a note to the 1933 edition of Inclusive Verse:

‘There were several thousands of typhoid cases in Bloemfontein. Hence its name among the troops.

[Stanza 6] Calgary an’ Wellin’ton and Sydney and Quebec: towns from East Canada (Quebec), West Canada (Calgary), New Zealand (Wellington) and Australia (Sydney), all names which would now mean something to the men who went back to Britain.

run: Australian term for stock farm or ranch.

parrots peckin’ lambs to death:  this is the Kea parrot of New Zealand.

[Stanza 8] Dorps: from the Dutch, towns, as used in South Africa by the Boers.

Dawson, Galle, Montreal, Port Darwin, Timaru Dawson: was capital of the Yukon in Canada, Galle a port in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from which many tea-planters went to serve in South Africa. Darwin, as it is now known, is in the Northern Territory of Australia, and Timaru is a seaport town in New Zealand.

[Stanza 9] Drift: ford of a river – a joking term for the ocean, like calling the Atlantic ‘the pond’.

Atlases: in Greek mythology, Atlas was a man of immense strength who held up the world on his shoulders.

Kraal: Of Portuguese or Spanish origin, this word was used in South Africa both for an enclosure for livestock and for an African settlement. See note to “The Settler”, stanza 2.


©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved