The Young British Soldier

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


First published in the Scots Observer on June 28th, 1890. The poem is listed in ORG as No. 465.

It is collected in:

  • Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses (1892)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxii (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxv (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 204.

A version is sung by Peter Bellamy here.

The poem

This is one of the first group of Barrack Room Ballads, published after Kipling had returned to England in 1889. It is sung or recited by an experienced soldier giving good advice to young half-trained men who have just arrived in India and are misbehaving in a foolish and dangerous manner.

Watch what you drink, take care when the cholera is about, keep your sun helmet on, work willingly, if you must marry, marry a sensible older woman, look after your rifle, sit tight if your officer is killed, and if you are wounded and left on the battlefield, shoot yourself before the enemy’s womenfolk can come out and carve you up; wisdom that the young Kipling must have heard when chatting to privates and NCOs of the British regiments stationed in Lahore.

See “Kipling and the British Army in India” by Charles Carrington. In his biography of Kipling Carrington writes (p. 212):

No author in any literature has composed in verse or prose, so full and varied amd so relentlessly realistic a view of the soldier’s life, with its alterations of boredom and terror, its deadening routine, its characteristic vices and corruption, its rare glories and its irrational fascination…


Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

‘Arf made recruity: a young man who has had some basic training and has been posted to a regiment in the East. He is instructed in techniques that will not only save his life but also give him a more comfortable time.

[Verse 2]

rag-box: slang for ‘mouth’.

lay: song

[Verse 3]

grog: strictly a mixture of rum and water that used to be issued in the Royal Navy until 1970, but often applied to any kind of alcoholic drink.

Fixed Bay’nets: slang for a particularly dangerous alcoholic drink usually made in unhygienic surroundings and guaranteed to harm the drinker, if not kill him. ‘Bay’nets’ is short for ‘bayonets’, which are daggers that can be fixed to the barrel of a rifle to turn it into s spear – dangerous weapons.

butts: in this context, the wooden stock of the rifle with a metal plate on the end which hits the ground at “Order Arms.”

[Verse 4]

cholera: caused by a number of types of cholerae, with some producing more severe disease than others. It is spread mostly by food and water that has been contaminated with human excrement containing the bacterium. See Dr. Gillian Sheehan’s “Kipling and Medicine”, and “Cholera Camp”.

Keep out of the wet: perhaps the wet canteen where liquor is sold, perhaps just keep out of the rain if possible for fear of a chill leading to other complaints. There would be difficulty drying wet clothes as well.

grouse: grumble

crack on nor blind: curse and swear

[Verse 6]

cast for fatigue: nominated for various domestic and other jobs about the barracks or camp, cleaning, removing rubbish, carrying stores about, sometimes as a mild form of punishment.
‘cast’ in this case, means ‘chosen’, as when an actor is chosen for a part.

crack on nor blind:   argue or swear

[Verse 7]

Troop-sergeant: the senior non-commissioned officer in a troop of the Royal Artillery.

[Verse 8]

swing: hang. – see “Danny Deever”

[Verse 10]

Martini: The Martini–Henry was a breech-loading single-shot lever-actuated rifle used by the British Army from 1871 which combined the falling-block developed by Henry O. Peabody, improved by the Swiss Friedrich.von Martini, combined with the polygonal rifling designed by Alexander Henry.

[Verse 11]

Bustles: in this context, frameworks attached to the rear of women’s dresses so the garment drapes elegantly.

limbers: carts for carrying ammunition, the horses are attached to the front, the guns to the rear. The advice is to pick off the gunners who would be collecting ammunition from the limbers before they can open fire. See “The Jacket”. and “Ubique”.

the shine: the noise.

[Verse 12]

ruin to run from a fight: see “The Drums of the Fore and Aft, (Wee Willie Winkie. and “That Day”.

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved