The Rowers

(notes by Philip Holberton)


First published in The Times on 22 December 1902. Reprinted as the opening poem in The Years Between (1919). Collected in:

  • The Five Nations (1903), some editions only
  • The Years Between (1919)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol. 33 p. 351
  • Burwash Edition vol. 26
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1059


The epigraph explains the occasion for writing this poem:

When Germany proposed that England should help her in a naval demonstration to collect debts from Venezuela.

Historically, this is less than fair. It sounds as if only Germany was owed money. See Verse 8: ‘our strength is sold /To help them press for a debt. In fact, Britain too had debts to claim: Venezuela had borrowed $15 million from Britain in 1881 but defaulted on repayments.

But Kipling’s main objection was that he felt that Germany had been openly hostile to England throughout the Boer War, which had only ended in the previous May. The Germans had supplied the Boers with rifles, and artillery and ammunition, and conducted a virulent anti-British propaganda campaign. As such a recent enemy, Kipling thought that Germany did not deserve any help from England. In the upshot, Britain did join Germany in a joint naval blockade of Venezuela in December 1902, which was lifted after two months when the two sides agreed to arbitration.
Critical Comments

Andrew Lycett (p.477) dismisses the poem as a rant against co-operating with Germany.
Peter Keating (p, 214) notes how appropriately Kipling uses it as the opening poem in The Years Between.

Germany was announced as a central preoccupation by opening the volume with “The Rowers”, which had been published originally as long ago as 1902, and closing it with “Justice”. “Justice”, published in 1918 just weeks before the Armistice, expressed Kipling’s fear that Germany would escape without paying the full price for starting the War and for the atrocities committed.


Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

[ line 1] The Royal Navy is pictured as a galley rowed by 50 men on each side in two banks or tiers.

[line 2] backed: to turn a rowing boat quickly, one side rows backwards while the other rows ahead.

threshed: Kipling defines this in “The Finest Story in the World” (Many Inventions p.127). In the tale, Charlie Mears’s ‘blank verse’ includes the line:

you will never catch us till you catch the oar-thresh.
The narrator asks: ‘What’s oar-thresh, Charlie?’. ‘The water washed up by the oars.’

ground: the oars make a grinding noise as they move.

Verse 2

[line 2] whale-bath: the sea. An example of a “kenning” – a poetic phrase used instead of the simple name of a thing in Old English poetry (Oxford English Dictionary).

Verse 3

[line 3] the Southern deep: the ship is coming home from South Africa where the Boer War has just ended

[line 4] Baltic: the Baltic Sea along Germany’s north coast.

Verse 4

[line 3] a secret vow: In November 1902 the German Kaiser Wilhelm and King Edward VII signed a secret agreement to act together on Venezuela. Kipling wrote this poem a month later when the terms of this agreement became public.

[line 4] an open foe: Germany did not actually take part in the Boer War, but supplied the Boers with arms and ammunition.

Verse 5

[line 3] the breed that have wronged us most: Germany had conducted a fierce propaganda campaign against England. The Kaiser was especially unpopular among the British for sending a telegram of congratulation to President Kruger on the failure of the Jameson Raid, an attempt to stir up a revolt among the British and other foreign adventurers working in the Transvaal goldfields.

Verse 6

[line 1] There was never a shame in Christendie / They laid not to our door: German propaganda accused British troops of atrocities and war crimes. In Something of Myself (p.158 & 162) Kipling gives an example from personal experience. He had driven out to see a battle at firsthand.

At last we came to a lone farm-house adorned with no less than five white flags. The farm-house (you will see in a little why I am so detailed) held two men and , I think, two women, who received us disinterestedly.

Months later, I got a cutting from an American paper describing how I and some officers – names, date, and place correct – had entered a farm-house where we found two men and three women. We had dragged the women from under the bed where they had taken refuge and, giving them a hundred yards’ start, had shot them down as they ran.

 Christendie: an archais Scots word for ‘Christendom, the Christian lands. [D.H.]


Verse 11

[line 1] the Narrow Seas: the seas between Britain and continental Europe

[line 4] the Goth and the shameless Hun: tribes who invaded the declining Roman Empire and whose names came to mean uncivilised and barbarous. “Goth” has been used in this sense since 1663 (Oxford English Dictionary). The Kaiser himself was responsible for the Germans being called “Huns”. In a speech to soldiers going to China in 1900 to relieve the siege of Peking, he told them to act like the troops of the notorious 5th century Hun leader Attila: “…no quarter will be given, no prisoners will be taken.”. During the Great War, Kipling frequently used the expression about the Germans.


© Philip Holberton 2016 All rights reserved