(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

One of the suite of sixteen ‘Service Songs’ which close The Five Nations. According to Carrington written in 1901 see notes for “M.I.” Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.


It was not only the soldiers fighting on the side of Britain who came to know and respect each other as men; the courage and endurance of the Boers, their horsemanship, and their scouting provoked wide admiration in their opponents.

Having destroyed their farms and livestock, the British government gave three million pounds to restart Boer agriculture once peace was made. Boer farmers were supplied with stock, seed corn, etc and given loans that were interest-free for the first two years, rising after that to 3%. Where oxen could not be immediately supplied, the government itself ploughed the land.

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] When the poem was collected in the Sussex Edition Kipling added the subscript ‘(Regular of the Line)’ in order that it should be clear he was talking about fighting men. As used in the British army the phrase indicated ‘counted among the regular and numbered troops’. In applying it to the Boer fighters, whose appearance and fighting methods were so unlike those of the British forces, Kipling meant to do them honour.

For the Sussex Edition. notes on biltong, Dop, and Ceylon were also added.

[Stanza 1] all that foreign lot/which only joined for spite: On the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer war liberal feeling ran high against the British. A number of men of European or American nationality joined on the Boer side. There were three or four hundred Germans, four hundred Dutch, two hundred Irish, mainly Irish American, three hundred French, and one hundred Scandinavian. There were also Swiss, Americans, Italians, and Russians. The total number of foreign allies was about two thousand five hundred. See Kipling’s story “The Captive”.

‘is trousies to ‘is knees/’Is coat-tails lying level: the Boers had no uniform but fought in their ordinary clothes, which often included old-fashioned frock-coats

[Stanza 2] Abel’s blood: cf Genesis 4,10, where the voice of God exclaims: ‘What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.’ This passing note of moral anxiety is in contrast with the wishful thinking of “The Settler”.

Dressed in stolen uniform with badge and rank complete: as the war went on it was impossible for the Boers to replace their worn-out clothing, so they would take the uniforms of captured British soldiers. This was technically a breach of the Hague Conventions but they had little choice. See note to “Stellenbosh” Stanza 2

[Stanza 3] lines 1-8 refer to the sniping by which men set on guard duty relieved their boredom.

Boer bread, biltong, Dop Boer bread: was a twice-baked rusk enjoyed by British soldiers when they captured supplies; biltong was strips of sun-dried meat; Doop was coarse homemade brandy.

‘is stony kop:  Kopjes are rocky outcrops, or small hills rising up from the veldt.

‘is mauser: the Mauser magazine rifle from Krupps, the German manufacturers, could kill at 2,000 yards.

[Stanza 4] An’ borrowed all my Sunday clo’es: See note to “Stellenbosh” Stanza 2

Spoored: tracked, from Dutch spoor, footprints, or animal tracks.

Ceylon: site of one of the camps for Boer POWs. See the Background note to “Half-Ballad of Waterval”.

Sold me many a pup: often tricked me.

‘ands up!: surrendering. In the later war, the Boers did not want the trouble of prisoners (See note to “Stellenbosh” Stanza 2) and would release their captives, so that encounters were somewhat inconclusive and were many times repeated.

leavin’:  the deserter is putting his uniform on a dead Boer, which inverts the process of Boers’ stealing British soldiers’ uniforms, as evoked in “Stellenbosh” Stanza 2) [D.H.]

[Stanza 5] Plewmans to Marastabad, Ookiep to De Aar: Plewmans lies south of Colesberg in the Cape: the line connecting it with Marastabad to the north formed the longest stretch of railway in the war area. Conversely, the longest extent of territory without a railway line fell between Ookeip and De Aar.

The drive: in order to pick up the remaining 25,000 Boer guerrillas still in the field, in 1902 Kitchener ordered a series of ‘drives’; small British forces moving in line kept in close communication as they swept the country for Boers. The term is associated with hunting game.

took it younder: “it” is “our chance” of stanza 4, l.1. [D.H.]

[Stanza 6] Block’ouse: Under Kitchener, late in 1900, lines of garrisoned blockhouses usually about 1,000 yards apart and connected by fences of barbed wire were built across the veldt. One aim was to fence in the Boers by constructing an obstacle against which pursuing British columns could trap them; they also served to create a ‘safe path’, under surveillance from the blockhouse garrisons, along which convoys could move in delivering supplies to mobile columns out in the field.

Gifts an’ loans: see the Background note, above.

frow: wife, the British soldier’s pronunciation of Afrikaans vrouw.

pet battalions: favoured or choice battalions, ones with excellent reputations. A battalion is a military unit usually commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel. Several battalions are grouped together to form a regiment.


©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved