First published in The Seven Seas 1896. Listed in ORG as No. 689.
Later collected in
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 137
- Burwash Edition Vol. 26
- Wordsworth Edition Poems of Rudyard Kipling (2001)
- Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 422
There is a musical rendition of this poem here.
The Royal Engineers
The Corps of Royal Engineers has served the British Crown for nine hundred years, and been represented in every war, collecting thirty-six Victoria Crosses – the highest decoration for valour – in the process,
“What is a Sapper? This versatile genius… condensing the whole system of military engineering and all that is useful and practical under one red jacket. He is a man of all work of the Army and the public – astronomer, geologist, surveyor, draughtsman, artist, architect, traveller, explorer, antiquary, mechanic, diver, soldier and sailor; ready to do anything or go anywhere; in short, he is a Sapper.”
– Captain T.W.J Connolly, the historian of the Royal Sappers and Miners, 1855
The jacket is no longer red, but the principle is the same, go anywhere, do anything and do it well.
The Sappers really need no tribute from me; their reward lies in the glory of their achievement. The more science intervenes in warfare, the more will be the need for engineers in field armies; in the late war there were never enough Sappers at any time. Their special tasks involved the upkeep and repair of communications; roads, bridges, railways, canals, mine sweeping. The Sappers rose to great heights in World War II and their contribution to victory was beyond all calculations.
Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, 1945
The Royal Engineers were once known as Sappers and Miners. A ‘sap’, in this context, is a trench or tunnel leading towards the enemy, the ‘mine’ can be an explosive charge – say a cask or bag of explosives – or another underground tunnel to bring down a fortification to establish a breach for the entry of the attackers. During the Great War, the sappers dug deep galleries to explode mines beneath the enemy trenches. See “The Woman in His Life”.
Apart from their military exploits the Corps of Royal Engineers designed and built public works all over what used to be the British Empire, laying out various towns and cities in North America. An engineer officer designed the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, London. They also played an important part in military aviation, starting with man-carrying kites and balloons for reconnaissance and radio communications.
Notes on the Text
In the poem’s first six verses, Kipling is of course teasing the Engineers for their claims of such venerable antiquity. “Never mind Gundulph of Rochester”, he is saying, “surely the first Royal Engineer was Adam, followed by Noah, etc.” [D.H.]
When the Waters were dried: the story of Noah and the Flood described in Genesis, Chapters 6 to 9.
monsoon: seasonal winds in South and South-East Asia; SW from May to September with rain; an important topic in Kipling’s writing
pontoon: in this context, a type of boat or perhaps a raft-like floating construction forming part of a bridge of boats.
fatigue: For soldiers, ‘fatigues’ are jobs of work, often menial and rarely popular, sometimes punishment for minor offences; also here, of course, Noah’s exhaustion after his labours.
Tower of Babel: the descendants of Noah, who were repopulating the world, were minded to build a tower that would impress the rest of the world. The Lord mixed up their languages so no man could understand another. See the Book of Genesis, Chapter 11.
bat: talk, language (Hindi).
civilian: strictly a man not in the army, but in India also referring to a civil servant, traditionally clever, perhaps suspiciously so.
young Joshua ordered the sun to stand still: ‘And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.’ Joshua, Chapter 10.
bricks without straw: When the Children of Israel were in captivity in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed that those employed in making mud bricks reinforced with straw were to collect the straw themselves and still produce the same amount of bricks; he thus established the tradition of having to get a job done without adequate materials, to which the Royal Engineers are well accustomed. (See the Book of Exodus, Chapter 5.)
sidings: in this context, railway-lines provided for the storage and sorting of rolling stock. See “Folly Bridge”.
a fuse an’ a mine: perhaps their best-known exploit, the blowing up of the Kashmiri Gate (right) in the siege of Delhi during the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, for which three V.C.s were awarded to Royal Engineers, with a total of 26 to members of other regiments for the whole campaign
Bullock brigade: guns or wagons pulled by bullocks as their strong feeling of self-preservation prevents elephants from going too near the firing. See “Her Majesty’s Servants” in The Jungle Book.
under escort: a party of riflemen will protect them if the enemy is reported nearby.
khud: a steep hillside or precipice.
telegraph-wire: the Royal Corps of Signals was founded in 1920. Before that, the Sappers provided communications.
billets: in this context, living accommodation for soldiers, either as lodgers in civilian households or camp or barracks which they probably built.
Methodist, married or mad: ‘Methodist’ implying indifference to creature comforts, ‘married’ suggesting ignorance of the realities of life for single men, ‘mad’, just a rude gibe.
©John McGivering 2017 All rights reserved