First published in January 1915 in The Century Magazine with illustrations by John a Williams, and in Nash’s and Pall Mall Magazine with an illustration by Fortunino Matania. Collected in A Diversity of Creatures in 1917.
Also collected in:
- Scribner’s Edition vol. 26
- Burwash Edition vol. 9
- Sussex Edition vol. 9, p. 407
It is the Autumn of 1914, in the early months of the Great War. Frau Ebermann, a well to do elderly woman, in her well appointed Berlin flat, has a touch of influenza. Hot and feverish, she takes to her bed. She takes great pleasure in the spotlessness of her surroundings, the green plush sofa, the yellow cut-glass handles of the chest of drawers, the mauve enamel finger plates on the doors, all in order. Her maid makes her comfortable, and reports on the latest news from the Western Front in Belgium; ‘another victory, many more prisoners and guns’.
Suddenly she sees a young child in the room, and soon after, four more. She tells them to go home, but they tell her they have no homes to go to; ‘there isn’t anything left’. They have been told to wait until their people come for them. They are from two villages whose names Frau Ebermann knows, because she had read in the papers that those villages had been punished, ‘wiped out, stamped flat.’ Her son had sent letters from the front, saying that some children had been hurt by the horses and guns. The little visitors tell her that there are hundreds and thousands of them. One little boy is badly hurt, with an empty sleeve where he may have lost his arm. They show her their wounds, and leave, saying au revoir.
The Great War, involving all the major countries of Europe, which Kipling had long anticipated, broke out in the early days of August 1914. Belgium’s
neutrality had been guaranteed by the European powers, and the Belgian frontier, unlike the French, was not fortified. The German high command’s Schlieffen Plan provided for a swift thrust through undefended Belgium, to break through towards Paris. As Hugh Brogan has described, in a paper to the Kipling Society reprinted in KJ 286 for June 1998 :
On 4 August 1914, in breach of international law, her own treaty obligations, common sense and common human decency, Germany sent her armies across the frontier into Belgium and laid siege to Liège. The policy of Schrecklichkeit, or frightfulness, was immediately activated. The people of Belgium were to be terrorised into offering no resistance, for the Schlieffen Plan did not permit of delays for any cause. Paris must be entered not more than six weeks after German mobilisation. The Germans persuaded themselves besides that any Belgian resistance,
apart from that offered, to their astonishment, by the Belgian army, was
illegal, and might be punished by the severest methods.
So hostages were taken to secure good civilian behaviour, and when
that did not work, were shot: six at Warsage on the first day of the invasion. Simultaneously the village of Battice was burned to the
ground, “as an example”. [See Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, New York: Dell 1963, pp. 198-359] On 5 August some Belgian priests were
shot out of hand on the pretext that they had been organising
sharpshooters. On 6 August Zeppelins bombed Liège, thus
inaugurating a standard twentieth-century practice, as Barbara
Tuchman points out. On 16 August Liège fell, after a defence which
excited the world’s admiration. On 19 August, at a place called
Aerschot, 150 civilians were killed. On 20 August Brussels was
That day and the next, massacres occurred at Andenne (211 shot),
Seille (50) and Tamines (384). The Germans indulged themselves in an
orgy of burning and looting. On 23 August Dinant was sacked, and 644
men, women and children were lined up and shot in the public square:
included was a baby three weeks old. The roads south and west were
by now choked with refugees. Namur fell to the Germans, and there
was another massacre at Visé: all those spared fled across the frontier
into Holland, except for 700 boys who, in another innovation with a
long future, were deported to help with the harvest in Germany. The
French fought heroically at the battle of Charleroi, but were
nevertheless forced to retreat. The Germans entered Louvain.
Two days later they began their sack of Louvain, which went on for
nearly a week and was soon the most notorious of their crimes. The
town was looted and burned, the inhabitants driven off or massacred,
and the great university library, one of the greatest treasures of its kind
in Europe, was utterly destroyed. All these incidents were faithfully
reported by American newspapermen, and quickly found their way into
the British press. The horrified condemnations of the neutral, perhaps
even of the Allied, press, seem to have startled the German high
command: the sack ended suddenly on Sunday, 30 August.
On Tuesday, 1 September, in The Times, Kipling spoke:
For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and take the war.
The Hun is at the gate!
Our world has passed away,
In wantonness o’erthrown.
There is nothing left to-day
But steel and fire and stone!
Though all we knew depart,
The old Commandments stand:—
“In courage keep your heart,
In strength lift up your hand.”
Once more we hear the word
That sickened earth of old:—
“No law except the Sword
Unsheathed and uncontrolled.”
Once more it knits mankind,
Once more the nations go
To meet and break and bind
A crazed and driven foe…
As Charles Carrington, who himself fought through the war as an infantry officer, notes:
… the ferocity of the German war machine grew more apparent. In January 1915 the first air-raids were made on undefended English towns; and in February the German Admiralty announced its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Rudyard’s reaction took the form of three short stories written that winter, “Swept and Garnished” written in October, “Sea Constables” in February, and “Mary Postgate” in March.
There is little doubt that this savage story expressed the repugnance of the British people at what had been happening in Belgium, and that it was read with approval. Angus Wilson, born in 1913 and writing in the mid-1970s, could remember the effect on his parents of these events:
…as a final horror,
something that may not come across to the modern reader, but reminds me of how I was told again and again as a small child, that the Germans had cut off the little Belgian boys’ right arms so that they could never serve their country. In the story it is implied very quietly. The sister plucks at the little boy’s sleeve to take him away, and he cries out in pain. ‘What is that for?’, said Frau Ebermann., ‘To cry in a room where a poor lady is sick is very inconsiderate. ‘Oh, but look, lady!’ said the elder girl. Frau Ebermann looked and saw.
In 1915 this story must have been very satisfying or disgusting, depending on one’s attitude to war propaganda. Now I think it is a masterly parable of cosiness brutally dispersed.
And J M S Tompkins (pp. 134-5), writing of A Diversity of Creatures in her chapter on ‘Hatred and Revenge’, notes:
When Kipling assembled these tales in 1917, the world had changed, and the last two tales in the book, “Swept and Garnished” and “Mary Postgate”, bear witness to it. These two dreadful tales assault the mind. They are the utterances of deep outrage. Both have, at times, if read quickly, the quality of a hardly suppressed scream. This, though painful, is integral to both, since both describe a repressed horror that in the end breaks out. “Swept and Garnished”, first published in January 1915, has the nature of an immediate – almost a headlong – act of reprisal…
We can dismiss any suggestion that this was meant to be a supernatural story. The public missile should vibrate with the public conviction. Moreover, those of his characters who touch the supernatural, with the not very significant exception of Hummil in “At the End of the Passage”, do so in health and in their right minds. But the suffering of children was a dangerous incentive to Kipling, and at times it looks as if the ghostly company, who are waiting in the enemy’s capital city till their people come for them, were rather an inflamed vision of his own than a likely hallucination of the old lady.
See also Mary Hamer’s essay
“Kipling and Dreams”.
©John Radcliffe 2008 All rights reserved