The Spies’ March

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

First appeared in London, in a fund-raising book, The Literary Pageant, issued in aid of the Prince Francis of Teck Memorial Fund for the Middlesex Hospital and published June 23 1911. Later collected in The Years Between and in the Sussex Edition vol. 33. the Burwash Edition vol. 26, and the Cambridge Edition of 2013 (Ed. Pinney) p. 1102.


Probably written for this fundraising publication at the request of his close friend, the distinguished doctor John Bland Sutton, later knighted, who was a surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital and one of its chief benefactors. As a young man, Kipling had seriously considered studying medicine. He suffered from poor health himself and developed a lifelong interest in matters of medical science, sickness, and disease. See “Kipling and Medicine”.

This poem focuses on the work of epidemiology, the science which traces the causes and patterns of disease and the paths by which infection travels. Its first readers would have been aware of the current outbreak of pneumonic plague in Manchuria in which between forty and sixty thousand people died. In 1911, the year the poem was published, frequent reports in The Times traced the progress of this epidemic and noted names of doctors treating its victims who had died.


The notion of a ‘Spies’ March’ suggests rousing regimental band music and fits in with the title of the overall publication The Literary Pageant. (A pageant is a celebration, often local in reference, that involves procession, spectacle, and music: theatrical but taking place in public space.)

Because the poem plays on war as a metaphor and this literary game might well have seemed trivial in 1919 following the bitter reality of WW1, the explanatory phrase (BEFORE THE WAR) was then added in caps below the poem’s title. To appreciate the minute tweakings Kipling made in this poem for its publication in 1919, see Poems of Rudyard Kipling, vol 2, Ed. Thomas Pinney.


This fake extract has been made up by Kipling and offers almost a short story in itself: the voice is very like those of the dedicated European officials he presents in his Indian tales. Undaunted by the death of colleagues and in the face of his own possible death, the doctor continues to keep careful records so that others may learn from his scientific observation of the epidemic.

Notes on the Text


our death-rate would sicken Napoleon: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 was a notorious disaster that involved huge military losses. After the retreat, only 27,000 fit soldiers remained while 380,000 were dead and 100,000 had been captured.

Manchuria: a name that used to be given to a large geographic region in northeast Asia, here an area divided between China and Russia.

[Stanza 1]

Standard of Yellow: In the past, vessels flew a yellow quarantine flag if any crew members or passengers were suffering from infectious diseases, such as plague. No one aboard a vessel flying a yellow flag would be allowed ashore for an extended period, usually 30 to 40 days. Today the flag used is both black and yellow.

Fall in!: military command, meaning form ranks or lines. Here it implies ‘get ready to march’.

[Stanza 2]

squadrons: units of mounted soldiers

the cleanly game of war: this phrase idealises war, in contrast with disease. But it sits uncomfortably with Kipling’s poem “Mesopotamia” , which is printed only a couple of pages earlier as collected in The Years Between. In “Mesopotamia” he attacks the generals who betrayed young soldiers by their incompetence, not least by leaving ‘them thriftily to die in their own dung’

Princes, Thrones and Powers: Biblical language also found in the New Testament, here used for its resonance and as a way of referring to warring nations, rather than for its religious meaning. See Colossians1:16: ‘For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him.’

your work is less than ours: the work of the doctors who study disease is of greater significance that the work of those who rule and go to war.

Here is no place for a spy!: deaths in war offer no scope for investigation by those doctors who study disease rather than wounds or injury.

[Stanza 3]

colours furled: The colours referred to here are regimental flags. To say that they march with them tied up, not flying, implies that these doctors go about their routine duties quietly, only displaying their special concern to trace the paths of disease when an epidemic breaks out.

a front of half a world: A front is where armies are drawn up against each other, where the fighting takes place. The expression brings home what a challenge it is to fight infectious disease which can spread so far and so fast.

General Death: a pun, playing on the poem’s military metaphors and on the idea of a death caused by disease that is widespread.

Yellow Flag: See Standard of Yellow, above.

take post: take up our position

Dominions: up to 1939, the term used to describe the status of the British Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Eire, and Newfoundland

[Stanza 4]

dropping shots: the first surprise signs of danger, coming out of the sky as it seems.

(DRUMS)—‘Fear is upon us, spy!: rather like a stage direction, and taking up the pageant idea, Kipling invokes the sound of drums and uses italics to indicate the voice of terrified communities. This device is repeated at the close of the next three stanzas.

[Stanza 5]

The remaining stanzas are a response to the question ‘What is the work for a spy?’, posed at the end of Stanza 4.

pickets: soldiers or troops placed on a line forward of a position; here, the living creatures that are known as carriers of infection.

brake: originally clump of bracken but more generally undergrowth.

[Stanza 6]

by water, earth or air?: possible paths by which infection may travel.

Slip through his lines and learn: in the military sense, spies may infiltrate the enemy’s camp. In a medical sense, it must mean something like ‘study very closely the way the disease is transmitted.’

[Stanza 7]

does he feint or strike in force?: is evidence of the disease hard to pick up or has it obviously taken hold?

ambuscade: ambush, take by surprise as distinct from being seen coming.

[Stanza 8]

ride with him girth to girth: study the epidemic as possible. A girth is the band attached to a saddle. Fastened around a horse’s belly it keeps the saddle in place.

Pale Horse: Death: A reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in the Bible, Revelation 6:1-8. These four beings ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses. The four riders are usually seen as symbolizing Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.

the smoke of our torment . . . the burning thousands: suggests the mass cremation associated with the fear of epidemics.

What do we care for men’s bodies or souls?: At whatever cost in terms of the risk to doctors’ lives or the psychological stress they endure, as they work on the spot to make notes on the epidemic and its progress, the ‘Peoples, Kings and Lands’ of Stanza 4 demand to be saved.

Bring us deliverance: find a way to protect us from epidemics.

The original version closed with a quatrain that Kipling chose to omit when he was tweaking the poem for collection in The Years Between (see under Title above):



©Mary Hamer 2014 All rights reserved