Half-Ballade of Waterval

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

One of the suite of ‘Service Songs’ which close The Five Nations. Possibly written specifically for The Five Nations but see Background note for “M.I.” Collected in I.V. 1919, and in D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition vol. 26.


The British resolved the logistical problems and political risks that housing large numbers of Boer prisoners would have posed by deporting many to camps overseas; the problem had become acute early in 1900 after Paardeburg when 4,000 prisoners surrendered. Over the whole war, an approximate total of 26,000 Boers were sent as prisoners of war to camps, forts and gaols in Natal, the Cape coast, and St. Helena, where there were two camps, Bermuda (six) Ceylon (Sri Lanka) (five) and India (thirteen).

The Boers had also taken prisoners. Officers who had been taken prisoner in the early part of the war were held in a Pretoria school-building; it is reported that the insulting remarks they made to Boer women who passed by caused great offence. Meanwhile, an immense camp of 4,000 men was created for other ranks at the village of Waterval, fifteen miles to the north. Here they were placed in compounds surrounded by tall fences of barbed wire, strongly guarded and lit at night by electricity.

When Lord Roberts surprised the Boers by entering Pretoria on June 5th 1900 they were only able to take a quarter of these Waterval prisoners with them as they retreated east. A number liberated themselves from the camp that day before the arrival of their deliverers and suffered only one casualty from Boer shelling before being picked up by a special train. These events explain how there could be British NCOs in charge of packing Boer transports who themselves had experience of captivity, and that at Waterval.

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] For the Definitive Version (1940) and after, Kipling added an ‘e’, to read ‘Ballade’, the more correct spelling of the particular poetic form he was exploring here. A ballade is defined as one or more terms or triplets made up of stanzas of seven or eight lines, each ending in the repetition of a refrain. Here Kipling plays, not only with the form, but with the reader, in whimsically identifying his poem as a ‘half-ballade’.

At the same time as he corrected the spelling of his title, he added the subscript ‘(NCOs in Charge of Prisoners)’ plus the following note: ‘Waterval, where the majority of English prisoners were kept by the Boers’.

[Stanza 1] The labour of my hands: cf Genesis 31:42: ‘God hath seen mine affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked thee yesternight.’

Transport: vessel to carry those being transported, exiled overseas.

[Stanza 3] The mockin’ from the sentry guards, the women’s laugh, the gaoler’s spite: how much of this derives from Kipling’s animus against the Boers and how much truth there is in these assertions it is difficult to judge. His references to Boer habits in letters and evidence to the South African Hospitals Commission are so disquieting in their bitterness that they raise questions in the reader’s mind.

Insulting enemy women is a vicious commonplace of war (see Background note above) but there may have been something personal in Kipling’s response. The strong link he so often made between the Boers – especially Boer women – and shame, suggests that a nerve was struck by something about them, perhaps their fundamentalist outlook and Biblical piety. As a child he had been traumatized in the name of Christian teaching, while as a grown man and a poet, not necessarily a believer, he deployed Biblical language strategically, in order to engage his readers in depth.

[Stanza 4] the gold o’ twenty rands:  The Rand is the great gold mining district south of Pretoria.



©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved