First published in the London Daily Express of 12 and 13 June, 1900, the Dundee People’s Friend on 18 June the same year, and Cosmopolitan, New York in November 1900; the first of a group of four called “Stories of War” – the war in question being the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. In these newspapers the story was headed by two four-line stanzas: : ‘Put forth to watch, unschooled, alone …’ These are included in Definitive Verse (p. 571), as ‘collected’m and in Sussex vul xxxiv, and Burwash vol. 27.
Collected in the Sussex Edition, Volume 16, the Burwash Edition, Volume 14 and Land and Sea Tales; see the headnote to “Winning the Victoria Cross”, the first prose item in this volume.
Three other stories which also appeared in the Daily Express and The People’s Friend are :
- “Folly Bridge” Uncollected No. 231, ORG vol 5, p. 2555
- “The Outsider” Uncollected No.232 ORG vol 5, p. 2555
- “A Burgher of the Free State” Uncollected No. 233 ORG vol 5, p. 2555
They are also collected in the Sussex Edition, Volume 30 and the Burwash Edition, Volume 23.
The lines below were published at the head of the tale in the magazine publications, but not when the story was collected. It is, however, to be found in Inclusive Verse (1919), Definitive Verse (1940), the Sussex Edition vol xxxiv, the Burwash Edition vol. xxvii p. 224, the Wordsworth Edition (2001), and the Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 883.
Put forth to watch, unschooled, alone
‘Twixt hostile earth and sky;
The mottled lizard ‘neath the stone
Is wiser here than I
What stir across the haze of heat?
What omen down the wind?
The buck that break before my feet—
They know, but I am blind.
Philip Holberton writes: These two verses express the loneliness of a soldier fresh from England on guard in a completely strange land. Even when he sees something – The buck that break before my feet – he does not know what it means. See “Two Kopjes”, where Only some buck on the move are a sign, not understood by the Kensington draper, of the presence of Boers..
The verses are unfair to the (unnamed) Captain in the story, who is beginning to like the Karroo and has learnt enough to spot the Boer ambush. But his report is not believed by the Colonel, so there will be another British defeat. [P.H.]
During the South African War, a small British force is out on the high Karroo plateau, stalked by a commando of Boer sharp-shooters. The British aim to hold back the Boers. The commando, experienced guerrilla fighters and wise in the ways of the country, lays a trap, feigning a retreat and hiding a strong body of riflemen in the hills to ambush the British. The British send a scouting party out, led by a young Captain who sees the trap, and comes back to the main force along a circuitous route, avoiding the ambush. He remembers what a South African nurse, brought up in the Karroo, once said to him about the need always to avoid danger by coming home a different way. When his troop get back, he reports, but his Colonel, who has little experience of this kind of war, reprimands him and rejects his intelligence. Things don’t look good for the British.
Other South African stories
For other stories with a South African background see “The Captive”, “A Sahib’s War” “The Comprehension of Private Copper”, and “Mrs. Bathurst” (Traffics and Discoveries), and several of the Just So Stories.
For verse see “The Absent-Minded Beggar”, “Boots”, “Bridge-Guard in the Karroo”, “Dirge of Dead Sisters”, “Columns”, “General Joubert”, “Half-Ballade of Waterfval”, “The Hyænas”, “Lichtenberg”, “M.I.”, “The parting of the Columns” , “South Africa”, “Stellenbosch”, “Two Kopjes”, “The Voortrekker”, and “Wilful-Missing”.
See also Marghanita Laski, Chapter 10 and passim for Kipling in South Africa, and War’s Brighter Side by Julian Ralph (Pearson, 1901), for Kipling in Bloemfontein editing The Friend, a newspaper for the troops.
Harry Ricketts discusses this and the three uncollected items mentioned above, believing them to reflect Kipling’s attitude to the importance of flexibility and adaptation to modern conditions and the inability of some army men to realize this (p. 266).
See also Byron Farwell, The Great Boer War (Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1999) and
John H. Plumridge, Hospital Ships and Ambulance Trains (Seeley Service & Co., 1975.). Also
Aids To Scouting For N.-C.Os. & Men by Robert Baden-Powell (1899). See Chapter I. – “Pluck and Discretion”.
[J H McG]
©John McGivering 2007 All rights reserved