Notes on the text

(by Roger Ayers)


[Title] ‘Snarleyow’:  In Staff Sergeant Bancroft’s telling of the tale, the horse was called ‘Snarley Yow’, named after the eponymous canine villain of a novel by Captain Frederick Marryat, Snarley-yow or the Dog Fiend, published in 1837 and quite definitely one of his lesser works. It is Kipling who has reduced it to a single word.

[Line 1] ‘This ‘appened in a battle to a batt’ry of the corps’:  Kipling’s unnamed battle (Ferozeshah) and anonymous unit, given away by his paraphrase of the boast of the Bengal Horse Artillery – ‘First in War and First among the Women’. The Bengal Horse Artillery considered themselves the elite of the East India Company’s armies, and wore high black boots, white buckskin breeches, an elaborate gold-braided jacket and a polished brass helmet with a leopard-skin facing and long red horsehair plume. In 1844 the British 3rd Light Dragoons and the 16th Lancers were permitted to wear moustaches, so Bancroft recounts how the Bengal Horse Artillery was then allowed to follow suit, since these ‘hirsute facial appendages were the envy of the men and the distraction of the women’.

[Line 4] ‘Two’s off-lead…’:  In transposing the action to a Royal Horse Artillery troop, Snarleyow becomes the right-hand, or off, horse of the leading pair of the six-horse team towing No. 2 gun.

[Lines 5 to 8] ‘Down in the Infantry, …’: Kipling’s exact meaning in these four lines is not absolutely clear as regards the Infantry and the Cavalry. A possible interpretation is that the Infantry do not care about the danger, in the Cavalry only the Colonel is aware of the danger but in the Artillery, the Bombardier on the lead horse of a six-horse team being whipped to top speed by the wheel driver is only too well aware of the thundering hooves and two tons of bouncing limber and gun behind him; from front to back the gun drivers were known as the ‘lead’, ‘centre’ and ‘wheel‘.

[Line 8] ‘…Bombardier…’:  The equivalent of a lance-corporal (one stripe) up to 1920 when the rank replaced that of corporal (two stripes) in the Royal Artillery, the one-stripe rank becoming lance-bombardier.

[Line 10] ‘…a native army corps,…’:  The large Sikh army which was camped around the village of Ferozeshah.

[Line 11] ‘They ‘ad nipped against an uphill, they was tuckin’ down the brow’: This is a wordplay on the phrase ‘nip and tuck’, then an American expression defined as ‘Very close’ so that the advantage or lead of competitors keeps shifting, as in ‘It was nip and tuck whether they would deal with the bill before Congress adjourned.’ The precise allusion in this term has been lost. (Early 1800s).’ [The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Copyright © 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.]

It must be read in conjunction with ‘…they was needed very sore’ in line 9, which makes clear that the outcome of the battle was a close-run thing, or ‘nip and tuck’. Kipling probably picked up the expression from his American friend, Mrs Edmonia Hill, or when he travelled across the United States in 1889 on his return to England from India.

[Line 12] ‘When a tricky, trundlin’ roundshot…’: Round shot are cannonballs. Lifted by Kipling from Bancroft’s description of the action at Moodkee two days before Ferozeshah:

‘We had not advanced far when the round shot from the enemy’s artillery began rolling and plunging among the horses’ legs like so many cricket balls, but not quite so harmless as they looked, for they broke several of our horses’ legs.

[Line 14 & 15] ‘But he tried to follow after as a well-trained ‘orse should do; ‘E went an’ fouled the limber, …’:  exactly as the wounded horse from the neighbouring gun in Bancroft’s description.

[Line 15] ‘…an’ the Driver’s Brother squeals:’: In Bancroft’s description, one gunner has to mount a horse from which his brother’s shattered body has just been removed. Kipling avoids this gruesome detail but keeps some of the emotion by retaining the brother relationship. In writing ‘Brother’ I feel that he is referring to the Brotherhood of the members of the gun detachment, rather than a blood relationship, and I see no grounds for assuming any more formal Masonic connection.

[Line 16] ‘…– ‘is head’s between ‘is ‘eels!’:  This is Kipling’s euphemism for the disembowelling suffered by Snarleyow in Bancroft’s description.

[Line 17] ‘An’ there ain’t no “Stop, conductor!”…’:  means ‘Do not imagine that a battery deploying can be stopped as one might stop a horse-drawn omnibus.’

[Line 21] ‘…a droppin’ shell’:  An explosive shell, as opposed to a solid round shot, that burst in the air or on the ground. Bancroft does not mention shells in his description, although the Sikhs had them.

[Line 22] ‘A little right the batt’ry an’ between the sections fell;’: fell between the right hand two pairs of the three pairs of guns on the position.

[Line 26] ‘…mortial, …’: mortal, fatal.

[Line 30] ‘But ‘e swung ‘is ‘orses ‘andsome when it came to “Action Front!”:  In order to bring the gun into action at the end of a move towards the enemy, the team has to do a sharp U-turn to get the rearward-facing gun pointing in the right direction. Such a manoeuvre takes skill and concentration and the fact that the Driver did it ‘handsomely’ indicates that his performance had been unaffected by the death of his Brother Driver.

[Line 31] ‘…juicy…’: bloody.
‘…you may lay your Monday head’:  ‘You may bet your Monday morning hangover’. ‘Sunday head’ was the more usual expression, after Saturday night drinking, and it is not clear why Kipling opted for one on Monday.

[Line 32] ‘ ‘Twas juicier for the niggers’:  In this savage line Kipling transmits a feeling of the satisfaction of revenge felt by the Driver for the loss of his Brother, a primitive but natural feeling for a soldier who has lost a comrade and one that would only have been given greater strength of feeling by the way in which he had to die.

As John Whitehead put it:

‘Anger at what had happened and the determination to avenge the deaths of Snarleyow and the Driver’s Brother are surely sufficient justification for the shocking language in the seventh stanza’.
[Hardy to Larkin: seven English poets, (Hearthstone Publications, 1995).

Although the word ‘nigger’ could have been used to indicate a black person in everyday English speech in Kipling’s day, and long after, without any special racial emphasis, in these circumstances, a soldier would have been likely to use it as a derisive epithet or term of abuse, just as soldiers of every race and creed have always found something derogatory to call their enemies.

[Line 32] ‘…when the case begun to spread.’: Case shot was used with smooth-bore, muzzle-loading guns as a last resort against infantry or cavalry at very close range. It consisted of a charge of propelling gunpowder behind a cluster of small cast-iron golf-ball-sized shot packed in a canvas bag, with a metal plate between powder and shot. On leaving the muzzle, the bag ruptured and the shot spread out in a deadly cone.


©Roger Ayers 2006 All rights reserved