Notes on the text

(by Roger Ayers)


[Subtitle] Old English Army in the East: When the poem first appeared in 1888 it was without a subtitle but when collected in 1890 and 1892 it was given the subtitle ‘OUR ARMY IN THE EAST’. This was amended to Old English Army in the East in Inclusive Verse 1885-1918 and subsequent collections.

Stanza 1

[Line 1] …troopin’ to the sea: Although the troopships going back to England when Kipling was writing sailed from Bombay, the journey to Bombay may have been many hundreds of miles, involving several days’ march and, if lucky, a train journey. From some Stations the journey may have involved a coastal sea voyage from a minor port to Bombay.

[Line 2] ‘Ere’s September come again:  In order to give fresh units or drafts of recruits the maximum possible time to acclimatise, the first two or three troopships from England arrived in September at the end of the hot weather. As it took these ships 6 weeks to return to England and 6 weeks back to Bombay, a second wave left Bombay in January.

the six-year men: those who have completed or are about to complete their six years service. With most having to wait for winter sailings, a number of men only got back to England after their six years was up.

[Line 3] O leave the dead behind us:  The mortality rate of British soldiers in India in the late 1880s was approximately 1.5% per year, so a battalion maintained at 900 to 950 men could expect to lose some 70 men in the 5 years India service of a six-year man. Not all those that would die before reaching Home were left behind. There were always soldiers reaching the end of their service whose health had broken down and were convalescing in military sanatoria in hill stations, who had to make the journey. A number of deaths during the trooping journey was inevitable and burials at sea were not unusual.

[Line 4] … where the ship is coaling up: The transports were single screw coal-burning steamers, rigged for sail as well.


[Line 7] … on a fourp’ny bit: the fourpence a day retainer paid to an ex-soldier during his six years reserve liability. A fourpenny bit was a silver coin that was first issued in 1836, replacing the earlier groat, also worth fourpence. It was withdrawn in its turn in 1855 because it was frequently confused with the silver threepenny bit but a jubilee issue was made in 1887, just before this poem was written.

Stanza 2

[Line 1] The Malabar‘s in harbour and the Jumner‘s at her tail: Malabar had been trooping to India from 1870, a year after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and continued to run until the winter of 1894/95. Jumna (sic) was taken out of service in 1890. She had had a history of engine trouble.

[Line 2] … the time-expired: the soldier on a six-year engagement whose period of service is ending.

[Line 3] … Khyber ‘ills …: the mountainous region around the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan.

Stanza 3

[Line 1] … turn us out at Portsmouth wharf: The troopships discharged the troops at Portsmouth Dockyard from where the time-expired men would be taken by train to the Military Hospital at Netley. Here they were examined by a medical board. Those found fit to travel would be sent on to their Depot to be discharged. Those unfit to travel were retained in the Convalescent Division of the Hospital until fit enough to pass the board.

in cold an’ wet and rain: The September sailings from Bombay arrived at Portsmouth at the beginning of November and the January sailings arrived at the end of February, frequently in bad weather and, in the 1890s, often in snow.

[Line 2] All wearing Injian cotton kit …:  wearing Indian cotton clothing. Men taking the train to Netley were issued with blankets for the journey.

Stanza 4

[Line 2] See the new draf ‘s pouring in …: ‘See the new drafts pouring in’. By the late 1880s, the recruiting system was supposed to ensure that recruits had sufficient time with a Home (UK-based) Depôt battalion to have undergone full basic training and gained some experience of life in a unit. Unfortunately, recruiting never brought in enough recruits to meet the demand and if there was a major campaign then the drafts were made up of what was available, trained or not.

This provided Kipling with the setting for the story “His Private Honour” (Many Inventions) which opened with:

The autumn batch of recruits for the Old Regiment had just been uncarted. As usual they were said to have been the worst batch of recruits that had ever come from the Depôt.

[Line 4] What’s the last from Lunnon, lads?:  ‘What is the latest news from London ?’ Although by this time it would have been at least six weeks old.

Stanza 5

[Line 2] a quart of English beer:  Two pints. Pewter quart mugs were a regular feature in English public houses.

[Line 4] Gawd’s mercy strike ’em gentle: ‘God’s mercy deal gently with them’. No direct source for this as a quotation has been located but it may have been influenced by the first lines of Portia’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Act IV Scene 1::

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven ”


Identical to the refrain after the first stanza.


©Roger Ayers 2008 All rights reserved