(Composite Columns)

(notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

One of the suite of sixteen ‘Service Songs’ which close The Five Nations. According to Carrington, written in 1901 see notes for “M.I.” Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.


Stellenbosch was a sleepy town in the Cape, now famous as the seat of a distinguished university and the centre of the wine-making industry. During the Anglo-Boer War, however, its name took on a special meaning, as Kipling explained in a note he added when this poem was collected in the Sussex Edition

The more notoriously incompetent commanders used to be sent to the town of Stellenbosch, which name presently became a verb. ‘To be Stellenbosched’ meant to be demoted and sent back to base.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Title] Kipling’s original spelling in The Five Nations preserves the ordinary soldier’s slipshod pronunciation of ‘Stellenbosh’ but he amended it to the more correct “Stellenbosch” when it was collected in the Sussex Edition.

Composite columns: the combined military forces operating in sweeps against the Boers.

[Stanza 1] The Staff: the cadre of officers without regimental duties who make decisions, collect information, and plan on behalf of their comrades: traditionally accused of incompetence by the fighting soldiers.

And it all goes into the laundry/But it never comes out in the wash: this has passed into the language as shorthand for a cover-up.

Sugared about: euphemism for ‘sodded about’, ‘messed about’.

round the kopjes:  rocky outcrops, or small hills rising up from the veldt.

[Stanza 2] Drift: ford

Boojers: burghers, ie citizens of the Boer republics.

The last surviving bandolier and boot: Bandoliers are ammunition belts. In the later stages of the war, the hungry and ill-equipped Boers had no use for prisoners but would confiscate their arms and clothes for their own use before sending them, sometimes naked, on their way. Sometimes they offered a handful of tobacco in exchange to show there was no personal ill-feeling.

[Stanza 4] Stoep: veranda.

Tabernacle: a mocking choice of words to describe the General’s tent, as the tabernacle was a movable worship facility, that the Israelites used during the Exodus.

confluent pneumonia: a term not widely used today, but probably indicating the type of pneumonia characterised by the development of different sites of infection within the lung, which subsequently coalesce.

–‘s commando … through: Boer forces, divided into groups known as commandoes, knowing the country well, were adept at slipping through the lines of columns closing upon them. It is possible that De Wet is the missing name here. Christiaan de Wet (1854-1922) was a Boer general exceptionally talented in guerrilla warfare, who consistently evaded capture.

[Stanza 5] ‘elios: heliographs, instruments for catching and flashing sunlight to make signals. See “A Code of Morals“.

Pompom: These Maxim automatic guns, quick-firing one-pound shells were used first by the Boers and then adopted by the British. The nickname, derived from the sound of its report, came to be adopted for regular use.

Krantzes: steep hillsides.

K.C.B.:  Knight Commander of the Bath, a distinguished rank, much prized.

[Stanza 6] D.S.O.’s: Distinguished Service Orders, another decoration for military merit. The cynical suggested it stood for Dukes’ Sons Only.



©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved