First published in the Pall Mall Gazette April 25th 1895, and the Pall Mall Budget on May 2nd. Listed in ORG as No. 633A.
- The Seven Seas (1896)
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 140
- Burwash Edition Vol. 26
- Wordsworth Edition Poems of Rudyard Kipling (2001)
- Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 433
A musical rendition by Peter Bellamy can be found here.
The poem describes the horrors of soldiers on the battlefield in defeat: the fear, the confusion, the knives of the enemy, the screams of terror, the despair of the officers, the disgrace that followed. Like many of these Barrack-room Ballads it is written from the viewpoint of a private in the ranks.
This whole poem is, in a sense, a fleshing out of Horace’s narrative of leaving his shield on the battlefield at Odes 2.7.10 See our note on Stanza 3 of ‘A Recantation’ . [D.H.]
At Maiwand, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, on 27 July 1880, the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment fought a terrible battle on the dusty plains of Afghanistan. It effectively wiped out a wing of the regiment. British and Indian forces suffered 969 soldiers killed and 177 wounded. Between 2,050 and 2,750 Afghan Pashtun warriors were killed, and probably about 1,500 wounded.
As Charles Carrington recounts (p. 214) in 1894, on holiday in Bermuda, Kipling chanced to meet a sergeant in the Royal Berkshire Regiment who carried him off to the sergeant’s mess. He heard at first hand of the battle, fourteen years before, and soon after wrote this grim piece.
The disaster at Maiwand remained a vivid memory for the army. Robert Baden-Powell wrote in his Aids to Scouting for NCOs and men (1899, p. 34):
The enemy were expected to be advancimng across a desert bit of country towards Maiwand; there was a road across the desert by which they would come, and a village was on this road about15 miles away from our force. A cavalry patrol was sent to
reconnoitre the village, and they reported it as all clear. The general therefore considered that there was no immediate danger of the enemy turning up. But early next morning the enemy attacked him. The patrol had either gone to the wrong village or had not troubled to go out so far as the one they were intended to visit, and then sent in a negative report saying “no enemy were there.”
The Brigade was consequently surprised and cut up.
See also “The Way that he Took”.
Some critical comments
This poem was written in Vermont, some five years after Kipling had left India, as Angus Wilson notes:
The Vermont years … produced some fine verses, especially the continuation of the army poems in the second group of Barrack Room Ballads.
Kipling’s radicalism was still strongest when it came to civilian treatment of the army. And so was his sense of man’s desolate lot. There is no doubt of Kipling’s personal happiness in those first Naulakha years (1893-94) in his wife, in his baby girl, in the affairs of the farm, in the unfamiliar wild flowers and birds, in physical exercise – driving and snow golf and fishing – in his growing but happily distantly heard fame. Yet two of the best of these late Barrack Room Ballads offer sad alternatives to men.
Charles Carrington is in no doubt as to the quality of the ballads of this period:
No author, in any literature, has composed in verse or prose, so full and varied, and so relentlessly realistic, a view of the soldier’s life, with its alternations of boredom and terror, its deadening routine, its characteristic vices and corruptions, its rare glories and irrational fascination…
See also Maiwand: The Last Stand of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment, by Richard J. Stacpoole-Ryding, 2008
Notes on the Text
‘ook it: clear off, get out.
sove-ki-poo: A British soldier’s rendering of the French “sauve qui peut !“, “save yourself if you can”.
©John Radcliffe and John McGivering 2017 All rights reserved