A Sahibs’ War

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


First published in the Windsor Magazine, December 1901 and Collier’s Weekly 7 December the same year. Collected in Traffics and Discoveries in 1904.

The story

This is another story of the Second Boer War seen through the eyes of a Sikh soldier, in which Kipling uses the device of the ‘imperfectly-informed narrator’ who reports what he sees and hears without always fully understanding it, although the reader does.

Umr Singh is an elderly Sikh, probably a very senior non-commisioned officer, who had served in many campaigns in India with distinction, and had come to South Africa with his much loved Captain, ‘Kurban Sahib’, Captain Corbyn. Corbyn had come, on ‘sick leave’ from his cavalry regiment, for the chance of seeing some fighting against the Boers. He had joined up with a troop of volunteer Australians, fine horsemen and skilful soldiers, fighting on the veldt. Behind the lines there were many Boer farms, whose people had secured a certificate of neutrality from the naive British authorities, but who were often in close touch with the Boer commandoes.

They are near a farm, which has been signalling to the Boer riflemen, and are treacherously fired on. Corbyn is mortally wounded, and Umr Singh and a fellow soldier, a Pathan, swear revenge. They enter the farm, where some wounded Boer soldiers have taken refuge, and prepare to hang those responsible for the shooting; but they are held back by their memory of Corbyn’s insistence that this is a ‘Sahibs’ War’, for white men. They hand over their prisoners to the Australians, who raze the place to the ground. Umr Simgh is on his way back to the Punjab, in sadness.


Harry Ricketts (p. 269) reports Kipling at “The Woolsack” (the house near Capetown lent to him by Cecil Rhodes) writing this story and the verse “The Lesson” which points out the British mismanagement of the war; see also the note to “The Captive” earlier in this volume. This is a tale for which we may, perhaps, for once, disregard Dr. Tompkin’s dictum and regard the narrator, to whom Umr Singh tells his story, as Kipling himself.

See Angus Wilson (p. 218) for a discussion of the rights and wrongs of both sides in the war. Also see the Headnote to “The Captive” earlier in this volume. There is an excellent summary of the background and causes of the war in ORG Vol. 4, p.1892, which precedes “The Comprehension of Private Copper” later in this volume.

Some critical comments

Dr Tompkins examines this story (p. 144) describing it as:

… a tale of the Boer War, vibrant with anger and with exasperation at the way the war is being waged. These emotions are expressed by Umr Singh …. and they are the more vehement for being poured through the narrow channels of his comprehension and his code.

Charles Carrington (p. 310) calls this:

a powerful but vindictive tale … a hint of what the British imperialists might have done if they had behaved as they were expected to… The violence with which the treachery is answered is shocking, but then Kipling means to shock us, and, as always, he knows how.

See also Jad Adams, Chapter 7 “No End of a Lesson”, a quotation from Kipling’s verse “The Lesson”. Other verse in similar vein includes “Song of the Old Guard”, “The Islanders” “M.I.”, “Bridge-Guard in the Karroo”, and “Boots”. See also “One View of the Question” (Many Inventions) and “In the Presence” (A Diversity of Creatures) Also “A Letter from Golam Singh” (From Sea to Sea, Vol. 2 p. 392) which examine life in Great Britain as seen through Indian eyes.

Michael Ball, Head of the Department of Printed Books at the National Army Museum writes:

The scenario which you describe seems very improbable and although I do not know of any example of this actually happening, officers of the Indian Army were allowed fairly extensive time on furlough, so it would in theory be possible for one of them to have travelled to the war in South Africa. He would not have been able to join a regular regiment, so would have had to serve in one of the locally raised contingents. Other ranks would not have disappeared for extended periods of time on ’sick leave’.

The Indian Army may not have been deployed in South Africa as such, but there was a small Indian military presence. For example, Lumsden’s Horse, an Indian volunteer unit, served there, and the Queen’s South Africa Medal was awarded to a number of Indian soldiers. [M.B.]

[J H McG/J.R.

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe  2007 All rights reserved