(notes by Roger Ayers)

Publication History

First published in W.E. Henley’s weekly National Observer (formerly the Scots Observer) on 29 November 1890.

First collected in Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses, 1892; Inclusive Verse 1919 and Definitive Verse. 1940; Sussex Edition, Vol 32, page 199; Burwash Edition, Vol 25. In the ORG it is numbered 477.
Verse Form

The poem has eight four-line verses, each consisting of two rhyming couplets, which tell the story of an artillery action and end with a moral. The first and last verses each have a four-line stanza attached as a refrain, again of two rhyming couplets but shorter and snappier than the verses.

Both refrains are identical and, as with many of Kipling’s ‘ballad’ poems, they give the page with the poem the appearance of a song sheet, with a chorus to be sung after each verse.

The action of the story could have taken place in any battle, anywhere, but it is tied unmistakeably to India. However, Kipling is unlikely to have written it before coming to England in October 1890, since he did not publish it until over a year after he arrived.

The Source

The key to the setting and also to Kipling’s source material lies in the title, “Snarleyow”, and to the artillery action described. Just such an action, involving a horse of the same name, appeared in the memoirs of retired Staff Sergeant Nathaniel W. Bancroft, of the old Bengal Horse Artillery and later the Royal Horse Artillery. His memoirs, From Recruit to Staff Sergeant were published in Calcutta in 1885 by Thomas S Smith. Kipling himself reviewed the book for the Pioneer on 5 February 1886, (Kipling’s Writings on Writing, Ed. Sandra Kemp and Lisa Lewis, Cambridge University Press, 1996) so he may well have kept the review copy and brought it back to England with him.

It is also possible that Kipling met Bancroft during his last stay of three weeks in Simla in June and July, 1888. Bancroft, having retired again as Head of the Calcutta Lunatic Asylum with a second pension, moved with his wife to Simla that summer to live with his son, who was Superintending Clerk to the Director-General of the Indian Medical Service. At the time, Bancroft was a member of the Council of the Army Temperance Society, of which Lord Roberts was President. This information comes from the second edition of Bancroft’s book, published by the Army Temperance Society Press, Simla, 1900.

Comparison of source and poem

While there are quite a number of Rudyard Kipling’s poems and stories for which the record of an actual event can be postulated as the source, such as “Danny Deever”, nowhere else is it possible to see so clearly how Kipling has taken a written account and converted it into a narrative poem. However, in order to understand the account, it is essential that some of the background details are known.

The son of a serving soldier, Bancroft enlisted as a boy, aged 9, in the Honourable East India Company’s Regiment of Bengal Artillery in 1833, and went into the band. The H.E.I.C. troops were not part of the British Army and consisted of Native Units, locally recruited Indian officers and men, with a British commander and staff, and European Units, the Europeans being mainly English and Irish, with a few Indian soldiers as well. Bancroft was trained as a Trumpeter, a post that he filled until he achieved a transfer to the Bengal Horse Artillery as a Gunner in 1841. He joined the 2nd (European) Troop of the 1st Brigade in May 1842. He experienced the routine of drills, marches, fevers, and Camps of Exercise until his unit was to see action in the Sutlej campaign of the First Sikh War, December, 1845.

A good description of this campaign, which mentions Bancroft’s book, can be found on the
Queen’s Royal Surreys website. At Bancroft’s level, his troop was first in action in the protracted artillery duel and the subsequent battle of Moodkee (Mukdi) on the afternoon of 18 December, suffering a number of casualties. After burying the dead and resting on the 20th, the artillery was under arms before dawn the following morning as part of the force which faced the Sikhs entrenched in Ferozeshah (Fereozshah). With their light six-pounder guns, the horse artillery had no option but to keep as close to the enemy as possible – 400 yards was about the most effective range – and this battle was no exception. Early on, the troop commander, Major Elliott Darcy Todd, finding the enemy out of range, called for his horse to Bancroft, who was mounted on one of the gun horses. Seconds later a round-shot beheaded the Major, having passed under Bancroft’s right arm, tearing away the muscle.

6-pdr gun team of the Bengal Horse Artillery, 1845
(Drawn by Joan Wanklyn)

Each of the six horses has a rider, the two rear horses have a pole between them attached to the two-wheeled limber and the gun is hooked to the limber, muzzle facing to the rear. Two Indian horse-holders are seated either side of the gun between the wheels.
Property of the Royal Artillery Institution. Reproduced from Gunner by permission of the Editor.

Being disabled, Bancroft was ordered down from his horse and sent to the rear of the guns. As the troop was then ordered to advance, Bancroft, thirsty, and weak from loss of blood, found a seat on the limber of an ammunition wagon. He changed to another wagon limber when the headless body of the major was strapped to the first and the troop then advanced yet again.

Bancroft now tells in his own words the story that Kipling converted into verse:

… It was now getting dusk; the troop was in a frightfully crippled state from the loss it had sustained in men and horses, there being only a young lieutenant (W. A. Mackinnon) in charge. Still the troop advanced, and in the advance the writer took his seat on the trail of a wagon, and felt for a short time pretty comfortable. But only for a very short time: the gun on his right halted in consequence of its two polemen (1) being literally cut in two, the lower portions of their bodies still remaining in the saddle, the upper portion of the right pole-man’s body being on the ground, while that of the left was suspended by the head over the collar-bar(2) . The sergeant-major brought up a spare man to take the place of the near poleman, at the same time emptying the two saddles of their ghastly burdens. It must be said that the spare man hesitated to jump into the saddle—for one of the mangled bodies was that of his brother! The sergeant-major seeing there was no time to be lost, freed the collar-bar from the half body hanging over it, and threatened the spare gunner with his pistol if he did not jump into the saddle immediately, and he did so.

The gun on the writer’s left had now halted; the off(3) poleman having been struck by a round shot in the face, which carried away the left half, the body still sitting erect in the saddle. Here another spare man ran up, tilted the body out of the saddle, and sprang up into his seat, which he had scarcely attained when a shot broke the off fore-leg of the horse he had just mounted. The horse was sent adrift, but appeared loath to leave his mates on the advance of the battery, for he hobbled after it, and as ill-luck would have it, came blundering up to the wagon, on the beam (4) of which the writer was seated, and poked himself between the wheels of the limber and wagon, putting an end to all progress for a time. Holding on with his left arm, the writer tried his utmost to keep the brute off with his feet; but a cannon ball soon solved the difficulty. It struck the horse on the hind-quarter, causing him to bound forward, and knock the writer off his perch, placing him in imminent danger of being run over.

There is one incident which may be worth relating here: prior to his being knocked off his seat, a ball struck the pole horse of the wagon on which the writer was seated, in the stomach, and in an instant the poor animal’s intestines were hanging about its leg. The writer called to the rider (5) informing him of the mishap in language more plain than refined perhaps by saying “Tom! Tom!” (the man’s name was Tom Connolly) “Snarly Yow (the horse’s name) has turned inside out, and his inwards are dangling about!” Tom shouted to the corporal(6) leading the team, “Joe! Joe! Pull up! Snarly’s g—ts are hanging about his legs! ”
To which request the corporal coolly made answer: “Be gorra, Tom, I wouldn’t pull up at such a time as this if you’re own g—ts were hanging out!”
The writer was afterwards told that the horse did not drop until the troop formed battery again at a considerable distance to the right.
[From Recruit to Staff Sergeant, N.W.Bancroft, Reprinted by Ian Henry Publications, 1979.]

(1) The polemen were the riders of the pair of horses either side of the limber pole.
(2) The collar bar was attached to the end of the pole and to the collars of the two pole horses.
(3) The right hand poleman. The left was the near-side, the right the off-side.
(4) Bancroft was on a two-wheeled ammunition wagon. This was drawn by 6 horses and a two-wheeled limber and had a beam across the front, to which was attached the trail, which hooked onto the limber.
(5) All six wagon horses were also ridden.
(6) The sergeant in command of the half-section of a gun team and a wagon team had his own horse. The corporal, as second in command, rode the lead horse of the wagon team. The bombardier (at that time equivalent to a lance corporal) rode the lead horse of the gun team.

Bancroft was not run over but he was unable to keep up when the battery moved forward once more and was left on the battlefield in a desperate state, until he was gathered in with other wounded the following day. The wound gave him trouble for the rest of his life.

Kipling’s version

This, then, was Kipling’s source. We can now look at what he made of it. Having decided to use the anecdote, Kipling had a problem presenting it to the British public for which he was now writing. Not only was the event from a little-known battle forty-five years in the past, but the Bengal Horse Artillery had ceased to exist in the post-Mutiny reforms of 1859, over thirty years before.

It was possible to overcome both these drawbacks by not specifying the battle and by attributing the event to the horse artillery of the day, the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) of the British army. This introduced the need for other changes since in the RHA there were only three riders, known as ‘Drivers’, on the horses of the gun and wagon teams; one driver on the near-side (left) horse of each pair. They controlled the speed and direction of the unridden horse by pressure on the neck from a short riding-whip. The positions of the corporal and bombardier as lead drivers remained the same. The remaining members of the RHA gun detachment were all mounted on riding horses.

In addition to these changes, Kipling also reduced the scale of the action to concentrate on the gun team and its three riders, although we only hear of two of them. Events and incidents from Bancroft’s description were merged, telescoped, or just hinted at, and touches from other parts of his book were brought in as colour.

The greatest change comes when the corporal, or the Driver, is faced with the thought of what he would do if Tom, or his Brother, were to be struck as Snarleyow was struck. In life, the corporal, with the team at a gallop, did not have to think twice and he probably could not have stopped even if he wanted. But Kipling gives the Driver the most awful of choices – the team has stopped and his Brother lies before the wheels. This gives the poem a dimension that goes beyond the anecdote and provides the grim example on which to base the moral that Kipling then adds to the story.

However, when ending with the injunction If you want to win your battles, take an’ work your bloomin’ guns!’, Kipling leaves another moral hanging in the air. ‘Working the guns’ required close, unfailing, coordinated teamwork, true of the work of other arms today but then the unique requirement of the Gunner. In extremis, soldiers do not rise to outstanding effort or outstanding bravery for Queen and Country, or even for the family at home, but for their unit and their immediate comrades. This is displayed in Bancroft’s description by the soldier who hesitated when told to mount the saddle from which the remains of his brother’s body had just been tipped. The sergeant-major’s pistol may have been necessary to speed up his decision but he actually had no option. It was the family of the gun team, his other Brothers, to which he had to remain true if he and they were to survive.

The introduction by Kipling of a sense of revenge in the penultimate verse, in no way present in Bancroft’s book, has been dealt with in the Notes on the Text.

Critical Reaction

“Snarleyow” appeared late in 1890, Kipling’s annus mirabilis, and by that time it was just one more of the stream of soldier songs that had dazzled the public. A little later, it became:

“one of those Barrack Room Ballads that … contribute their share to Mr Kipling’s picture of the British soldier in India, but their value stops there.”
[Richard LeGallienne, 1900]

However, one thing about “Snarleyow” that did stand out was that ‘In no poem is the bloody misery of war so nakedly portrayed as in Snarleyow’ (Rudyard Kipling, his Life and Works, Cecil Charles, Hewetson, London, 1911)

But, despite this, it was seldom bracketed with “Fuzzy Wuzzy”, “Loot”, or “The Sergeant’s Wedding” and others which were taken by some commentators to be proof of Kipling’s own brutal, personal vulgarity, attributing the opinions, habits, and morals, or lack of them, that he put into the mouths of his speakers to himself. This may have been because, however shocking the action may have been to the sheltered reader, even after Kipling had given Truth a shift to cover her modesty, its content was seriously portrayed without overdoing the ‘Cockney accent’ and without a hint of humour.


©Roger Ayers 2006 All rights reserved