[Sub-title] The Royal Regiment of Marines: This was first added to the poem in the Inclusive Edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse 1885-1918, published in 1919, and kept in subsequent collections. As a title for the Royal Marines, it is incorrect. It was used between 1703 and 1712 as an alternative title for the Queen’s Regiment of Marines, one of the additional Maritime Regiments raised in 1703. This regiment was transferred to the army in 1713 and later became the 4th (or King’s Own) Regiment of Foot and later still the King’s Own Royal Regiment.
[Line 1] As I was spittin’ into the Ditch: Spitting, in particular in connection with tobacco-chewing, was commonplace in the 19th century, and in bars and other public places spittoons were almost as common as ashtrays were in the 20th century. London omnibuses had notices warning of a £5 fine for spitting right up to the 1950s.
Tobacco chewing was a habit much in vogue among sailors at the time Kipling was writing, but it had been a common alternative to smoking a pipe before cigarettes became popular in England after the Army brought them back from the Crimean War with Russia (1854-56). While the ‘quid’ of tobacco (about the size of today’s lump of chewing gum) was being chewed, it was necessary to expectorate from time to time and the spittle could leave dark stains. In a ship, to spit on the deck was a crime.
The Ditch: In the original magazine version this was just ‘the ditch’, being capitalised only in the collected versions. Since it is a soldier speaking, it is more than likely to refer to the Suez Canal although the word was one commonly used by sailors on board ship to refer to the sea in general.
…aboard o’ the Crocodile: The Crocodile was one of five Imperial troopships manned and run by the Royal Navy, mainly transporting troops to and from India for most of the last three decades of the 19th century. In the original magazine version, this was written as Crocidile.
[Line 2] I seed a man on a man-o’-war: I saw a man on a warship. If the word ‘Ditch’ refers to the Suez Canal, then one may assume that the incident is imagined as taking place at one of the passing-places, where north- and south-bound convoys passed. The south-bound convoy would ‘gare up’ and allow the north-bound convoy to pass. If the Crocodile was moored next to a warship, they would have been close enough to have a shouted conversation from one to another – but it would not really have been feasible when ships were passing one another. If we think that the word “ditch” refers to the sea in general, we may assume that Kipling’s setting was one of the ports along the troopships’ route, where warships might also be found.
…got up in the Reg’lar’s style: He was wearing a soldier’s fatigue uniform, or working dress. Since it was his working dress, it would not have been the red or blue coat of his walking-out dress, but white (well-stained white) cotton drill.
The original version in Pearson’s Magazine of April, 1896, was illustrated on six pages by G. Montbard with the verses in manuscript as part of the illustrations.
Unfortunately, the artist completely missed the point of the poem and depicted each scene as if the speaker had been a sailor on the same vessel, with subsequent pictures of Royal Marines in action as well as fighting and drinking with sailors. The illustration to the opening lines (left) has the speaker as a sailor on the same ship as the Royal Marine.
[Line 3] ‘E was scrapin’ the paint from off of ‘er plates: The primary purpose of painting a ship is to prevent corrosion of the iron or steel plating: the prettifying was secondary (though in the late Victorian and Edwardian navy it might have seemed to be the all-encompassing aim of the Executive Officer). So if the paint film broke down, allowing salt sea-water to attack the metal-work below, the paint was chipped, scraped, or burnt off, the surface cleaned, and fresh coats of primer, undercoat and topcoat applied. This was all part of good ship-husbandry.
[Line 4] I’m a Jolly: The oldest of the various nick-names by which the Royal Marines have been known. It originates from the London train-bands, the City’s own citizen army of the mid-17th century, from whom the first regiment of marines (the Duke of Albany’s Regiment of Foot) was recruited. It was a derivative of the archaic meanings of the word: Of fine appearance; handsome; excellent; lively. Hence ‘jolly good show’ and ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’.
[Line 6] ’E isn’t one o’ the reg’lar Line: The Infantry of the Line included all infantry regiments other than regiments of the Brigade of Guards. The name came from the classic formation in which British infantry fought for much of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; in two ranks, one behind the other, facing the enemy. This enabled a body of men to maximise the fire-power of their muskets – as opposed, for example, to the French army of the Napoleonic era which relied on the shock of massed columns of infantry. Hence, the Line came to be shorthand for the infantry, and “a line regiment” was an infantry regiment.
nor ‘e isn’t one of the crew: Not strictly true; the Royal Marines, although a separate corps with their own traditions and customs, were an integral part of the crew. For their duties, see the Headnote. However, as an example of their separateness, they would acknowledge an order with “Very good, Sir”, rather than the sailor’s “Aye, aye, Sir”,
[Line 7] giddy: a slang emphatic, now very dated, sometimes used by Kipling as a substitute for a swearword, such as ‘bloody’. Common parlance in Stalky & Co.
harumfrodite: a mangled form of hermaphrodite and a misuse of the word, but one which implies that the Jolly is, as the title says, two things in one – both a soldier and a sailor. It may be that Kipling corrupted the word in order to temper the introduction of a word with a specific sexual meaning.
[Line 2] a Gatlin’ gun: a Gatling gun: an early form of machine gun. It was invented in 1862 and saw very limited use in the American Civil War (1861-65). The model manufactured under license by W Armstrong & Co and introduced into the Royal Navy in 1871 had ten barrels which revolved round a central axis.
The centre fire 0.65 inch calibre cartridges were fed into the gun from a British-designed magazine mounted on top which held 240 rounds. The barrels were rotated manually by a hand crank at the rear of the gun – turning the crank forward rotated the entire barrel and lock unit. Each barrel fired as it reached the lower right-hand position. The gun was mounted on a naval cone mounting.
It was used from the 1870s for coast defence work, by the Naval Brigades and mounted in the tops of ships. It was used during the Zulu War of 1879, and in the Egyptian Campaign of 1882-3 two were mounted on an armoured train manned by bluejackets and Marines. By 1894 it was being replaced by the Maxim machine gun. (See this web-site.) In the illustration from the Graphic of 1870 above, the magazine is the small American magazine (Editor’s collection).
[Line 3] ’E sleeps in an ‘ammick instead of a cot: an ‘ammick; a hammock: a cot, a bed in a barracks on which an ordinary soldier slept. Originating in India, where Khât was Hindi for a light bedstead, ‘cot’ was used for simple beds before it acquired the later meaning of a special bed for a child.
’e drills with the deck on a slew: Normal parade drill would be practised at sea (but primarily for use in harbour) when the deck might indeed be canted due to the ship’s motion.
[Line 6] You can leave ‘im at night on a bald man’s ‘ead to paddle ‘is own canoe:
John Whitehead sees this as ‘A somewhat surrealist tribute to the initiative of the individual Marine’ and it does not seem to be related to any historical event. It just implies that you can rely on him in any kind of awkward situation – on a bald man’s head there is no cover of any sort and in the dark, there are no landmarks but the Royal Marine gets on with the job without requiring any outside help.
[Line 7] bloomin’ cosmopolouse: another mangled misuse of a word preceded by a substitute for a swearword in the last line of the stanza, this time of cosmopolite; a person familiar with many different countries and cultures. In the original magazine version, this was ‘cosmopolot’, which is closer to the original. Perhaps Kipling changed the ending to ‘louse’, not only to increase the corruption but also to link it to the bald man’s head.
[Line 1] in trooper: on board a troopship.
[Line 2] sea-sick scull’ry maids: A scullery maid was the lowest level of domestic servant, commonly as young as 14. (The scullery was where pots and pans were washed and cleaned.) Soldiers were renowned for finding their girlfriends among such servants in the garrison towns. Today, in a Britain with few domestic servants and no garrison towns as there were a century ago, the expression might be “you big girl’s blouse”
[Line 3] double fatigue: A fatigue is the Army’s word for a chore; e.g., digging or emptying latrines in camp; cleaning, carrying stores, etc. A double fatigue, working twice as long as normal, was a punishment. It is used in this line in the sense of some military operation that is more than normally difficult, hence, in the next line, sending for the Jollies to help out.
From Woolwich to Bernardmyo: two examples of locations where soldiers and Royal Marines had found themselves together, one at the centre of Empire, the other at its outermost edge.
Woolwich, on the eastern outskirts of London, had been home to the Royal Artillery from 1716 and had also been home to one of the Royal Marine Divisions from 1805 to 1869. The barracks it had occupied was still known as the Royal Marine Barracks when the poem was written.
Bernardmyo: was a British military station built high up on the Mogok Plateau in Burma (Myanmar) after its annexation in 1886. It was named after Sir Charles Bernard, the first Chief Commissioner. A military sanatorium was built there where both army and naval personnel were sent to recuperate during the fighting which dragged on to 1892. Note that in order to rhyme it needs to be pronounced ‘Bernardmy-oo’.
Kipling may have chosen Woolwich as an example because, like the Royal Marines with their cap badge of a laurel wreath around the globe, the Royal Artillery has fought everywhere, carrying the Honour Title ‘Ubique’ (Latin for ‘Everywhere’), on theirs.
[Line 6] But they’re camped and fed, and they’re up and fed before our bugle’s blew: At a night halt on a long march, the Royal Marines have their tents up and have been fed before the soldiers’ bugle call for the evening meal. Similarly, they are the first up, fed and ready for the next day’s march in the morning.
[Line 7] limpin’ procrastitutes: another qualified mangled word at the same place in the last line of the stanza. Written as ‘procrastitudes’ in the original magazine version, both are a misuse of the word ‘procrastinators’ – people forever putting off what has to be done.
[Line 1] an ‘arness-cut: In 1914 Ralph Durand stated that: ‘Harness cutting is the usual method adopted by soldiers who wish to call attention to grievances, such as the issue of bad rations, of which their orderly officers refuse to take notice.’ Taken with the next two references to ill-discipline, this remains the most likely meaning here. In the 19th century, all units, of whatever arm, had some form of horse-drawn transport in use every day, so cutting the harness was a simple, quickly noticed aggravation, without being likely to cause any bodily harm.
’ootin’in barrack-yards: hooting in barrack-yards; another somewhat childish form of insubordinate behaviour by making hooting noises behind a superior’s back.
[Line 2] or startin’ a Board School mutiny along o’ the Onion Guards: This refers to a much more serious challenge to military authority, although short of a real mutiny. Hence ‘Board School’, such as children at a Board of Education school might stage. On Monday, 7 July 1890, the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, stationed at Wellington Barracks, ‘refused duty’ because the Commanding Officer, Colonel Maitland had, on the Friday before, ordered that the Battalion would move on the Monday to a training area outside London. This order did not reach many of the men until they came off Royal guard duties or returned from weekend leave on the Sunday evening.
The men eventually paraded but in working dress so the move was cancelled, a Line Regiment was moved in to take over the guard duties and the Guardsmen were confined to barracks. After a swift Court of Inquiry, the most senior Guardsman of each company was court-martialled and given a prison sentence. The Commander-in-Chief then ordered the battalion to take the place of another which was due to sail for garrison duty in Bermuda. Colonel Maitland was replaced and the battalion sailed on the Troopship Tamar on 22 July. They only stayed for a year but the tale is told that Bermudan society never had such a lively and enjoyable season.
The nickname ‘Onion Guards’ was bestowed on the battalion because Bermuda was known for its onions, which were exported as a cash crop to both Britain and the USA.
An explanatory footnote introduced in Inclusive Verse (1933) and subsequent collections briefly explained the above.
[Line 7] they weren’t no special chrysanthemums: In the final line of three first three stanzas we have seen ‘hermaphrodite’ corrupted to ‘harumfrodite’, ‘cosmopolite’ becomes ‘cosmopolouse’ and ‘procrastinators’ becomes ‘procrastitutes’. In each case the real word the soldier speaker is trying to use is clear from the sense of the preceding two lines – the Jolly is neither Line soldier nor crew sailor, he is an hermaphrodite. Similarly, since he knows and can do any job he is a cosmopolite, and because he is always quick off the mark, he is no procrastinator.
It is my contention that “chrysanthemums” is thus no more than another mispronounced word, the meaning of which can be deduced from the preceding two lines. These lines are, in paraphrase:
‘apart from being somewhat larger, a Jolly is the same sort of chap as a soldier’.
Searching a computerised thesaurus for a word with an appropriate meaning and which, when corrupted, could sound something like “chrysanthemum”, only one came up – “criterion”, which fits, if one accepts that the soldier speaker also got the plural wrong, to give “For they weren’t no special criterions”. The final line, in paraphrase, then becomes:
‘For them there were no special criteria, despite having to be both soldier and sailor.’
In the final two stanzas, the construction is unmistakably quite different and does not affect this argument.
Whitehead suggests that the reference is to some unknown fancy regiment nicknamed “The Chrysanthemums”, but the lack of capitalisation and there being no such unit in the 1890 Gale & Polden book of regimental histories, nicknames and battle honours, rules this out. If the word chrysanthemum is taken at face value, then that does not fit the bill either, since chrysanthemums were no longer pampered hot-house flowers by 1894, the 1911 on-line encyclopaedia stating that: ‘Since 1890… the border chrysanthemum has taken first place among hardy autumn flowering plants.’
Stanzas 5 and 6
These two stanzas are somewhat confusing. They seem to suggest that the Royal Marines were involved in the self-sacrifice shown by the troops on board the troopship Birkenhead and also on board the battleship Victoria lost in collision in the Mediterranean in 1893. The second of two footnotes first introduced by Kipling in Inclusive Verse (1885-1932) states: ‘In 1852, the Birkenhead transport was sunk off Simon’s Bay. The Marines aboard her went down as drawn up on her deck.’ In point of fact, there were only four Royal Marines on board the Birkenhead, as against 482 soldiers from various regiments – see below. Also, although Simon’s Bay was her last port of call, John Hofmeyr has pointed out that: ‘the Birkenhead went down off Danger Point (13 nautical miles South by East from Hermanus; the southern tip of Walker Bay and over 150 miles from Simon’s Bay). At the time, the settlement was still known as Hermanus Pieters Fontein. A detailed history may be read at this web-page: “The Birkenhead and its heroes”.‘ [J.H.]
A third additional footnote in Definitive Verse (1940) refers to stanza 6 and the loss of the Victoria. Pinney (p. 429) notes that this was added by Kipling for the Sussex Edition. However, without denigrating the Royal Marines, it should be pointed out that the action involved the whole ship’s company, not merely the Royal Marines.
[Lines 3 and 4] but to stand and be still to the Birken’ead drill: This whole verse seems to imply that Royal Marines were involved when the iron paddle steamer Birkenhead sank after hitting a rock off Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of the African continent, in 1852. In British history, it is well known for the self-sacrifice of the troops on board who allowed the women and children to get away in the boats but stood drawn up as on parade while the ship went down. In fact, the troops concerned were from the 12th Lancers and the 2nd, 6th, 43rd, 45th, 73rd, 74th and 91st Regiments of Foot (the last three, Scottish regiments): there were only four Royal Marines.
[Lines 5 to 7] Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in heaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw: This cannot apply to the Birkenhead, since she was a paddle steamer, but as will be seen in the following notes, it was a fate which befell some of the crew of the Victoria.
the screw: The engine [D.H.] John Walker suggests that this must be specifically the driving propeller, which would endanger any man swimming near the stern.
[Line 4] When you think of the sinkin’ Victorier’s Jollies: In 1893, due to an error made by the Commander-in-Chief, the battleship Victoria was rammed by another battleship Camperdown as the fleet approached its anchorage off Tripoli, now in Lebanon. In The Rules of the Game, Andrew Gordon describes the immediate aftermath, citing another book Admirals in Collision by Richard Hough, and the eye-witness account of Captain Noel:
… In four minutes her foredeck was submerged and the sea was pouring in through the open casemate doors in the side of the bridge superstructure. Efforts to manoeuvre a heavy canvas collision mat over the hole in the hull were abruptly curtailed, and most of the crew (some 600 of them) [i.e., seamen and marines] fell in four deep on the quarterdeck and silently waited for the order to move. Nobody broke ranks. Then “without any warning she appeared to fall over to starboard, slowly at first, but with increasing rapidity.” (quote from Captain Noel) “Lieutenant Heath gave the order to jump, and the disciplined ranks of bluejackets” [and marines, understood] “broke up like a flock of roosting birds at a gunshot”…
“358 officers and men died. Many of the victims … failed to get away from the ship. Some were caught by the still-turning propellers. Some were non-swimmers who had prided themselves on never getting their feet wet. Some were killed by debris rocketing to the surface after the ship had gone.”
[Line 6] whether it’s Widow: the reference is to Queen Victoria (“the Widow at Windsor”); i.e. whether it is for the Queen or for the ship, the Royal Marines do what is necessary.
©Roger Ayers and Alastair Wilson 2008 All rights reserved