The Soul of a Battalion

by Rudyard Kipling

THE MOST USEFUL THING that a civilian can do in these busy days is to speak as little as possible, and, if he feels moved to write, to confine his efforts to his cheque-book. But this is an exception to that very good rule. We do not know the present strength of our New Armies. Even if we did, it would not be necessary to make it public.

We may assume that there are now several battalions in Great Britain which did not exist at the end of last July, and some of these battalions are in London. Nor is it any part of our national scheme of things to explain how far they are prepared for the work ahead of them. They were quite rightly born in silence, but that is no reason why they should walk in silence for the rest of their lives. At present, unfortunately, most of them are obliged to walk in silence, or to no better accompaniment than whistles, concertinas, and other meritorious but inadequate instruments of music which they provide for themselves.

In the beginning this did not matter so much. There were more urgent needs to be met; but now that the New Armies are what they are, those who cannot assist them by joining their ranks, owe it to them to provide them with more worthy music for their help, and comfort, and honour. I am not a musician, so if I speak as a barbarian forgive me. From the lowest point of view, a few drums and fifes in a battalion are worth five extra miles on a route-march — quite apart from the fact that they swing the battalion back to quarters composed and happy in its mind no matter how wet and tired its body may be. And even where there is no route-marching, the mere come-and-go, the roll and flourish of the drums and fifes round barracks is as warming and cheering as the sight of a fire in a room.

Or a band, not necessarily a full band, but a band of a few brasses and wood winds is immensely valuable in districts where troops are billeted. It revives memories; it quickens associations; it opens and unites the hearts of men more surely than any other appeal. In that respect it assists recruiting perhaps more than any other agency. The tunes that it employs and the words that go with them may seem very far removed from heroism or devotion; but the magic and the compelling power are there to make men’s souls realise certain truths which their minds might doubt.

More than that. No one — not even the Adjutant — can say for certain where the soul of a battalion lives; but the expression of that soul is most often found in the Band. It stands to reason that a body of twelve hundred men whose lives are pledged to each other’s keeping must have some common means of expressing their thoughts and moods to themselves and to their world. The Band can feel the mood and interpret the thought. A wise and sympathetic bandmaster — and most that I have known have been that — can lift a battalion out of depression, cheer its sickness, and steady and recall it to itself in times of almost unendurable strain. You will remember a beautiful poem by Sir Henry Newbolt describing how a squadron of ‘weary big Dragoons’ were led on to renewed effort by the strains of a penny whistle and a child’s drum taken from a toyshop in a wrecked French town. And I remember in a cholera camp in India, where the men were suffering very badly, the Band of the 10th Lincolns started a Regimental sing-song one night with that queer defiant tune, ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher.’

You know the words. It was merely their Regimental march, which the men had heard a thousand times. There was nothing in it except — except all England – all the East Coast — all the fun and daring and horseplay of young men bucketing about the big pastures by moonlight. But, as it was given, very softly, at that bad time in that terrible camp of death, it was the one thing in the world which could have restored — as it did — shaken men to pride, humour, and self control. This is, perhaps, as extreme case, but by no means an exceptional one. A man who has had any experience of the Service can testify that a battalion is better for music at every turn — happier, easier to handle, and with greater zest for its daily routine if that routine is sweetened by melody and rhythm, melody for the mind and rhythm for the body.

Our New Armies, as we know, have not been well served in this essential. Of all the admirable qualities they have shown none is more wonderful than the spirit which has carried them through the laborious and distasteful groundwork of their calling without a note of music except what that same indomitable spirit supplied — out of its own head. We have all seen them marching through the country or through London streets in absolute silence, and the crowd through which they pass as silent as themselves for lack of the one medium that could convey and glorify the thoughts which are in all men’s minds today.

We are a tongue-tied breed at the best. The Band can declare on our behalf, without shame or shyness, something of what we feel, and so help us to reach a hand towards the men who have risen up to save us.

In the beginning, as I have said, the elementary needs of the Armies over-rode every other consideration; but now we can get to work on other essentials. The War Office has authorised the formation of bands for some of the London Battalions, and we may hope to see that permission presently extended throughout Great Britain. Of course we must not cherish unbridled musical ambition, because a full band means forty pieces, and on that establishment we should require even now a very large number of bandsmen. But I think it might be possible to provide drums and fifes for every battalion, fife bands at depots, and a proportion of battalion bands at half or even one-third establishment. But this is not a matter to be settled by laymen. It must be seriously discussed between bandsmen and musicians present, past, and dug-up — who may be trusted to give their services with enthusiasm.

We have had many proofs in the last six months that people only want to be told what the New Armies require, and it will be freely and gladly given. The Army needs music — its own music, for, more than any calling, soldiers do not live by bread alone. From time immemorial the man who offers his life for his land has been compassed at every turn of his services by elaborate ceremonial and observance, of which music is no small part — carefully designed to prepare and uphold him. It is not expedient nor seemly that any portion of that ritual should be slurred or omitted now.