Rudyard Kipling in the Great War

Kipling JohnAt the outset of the Great War, Rudyard Kipling devoted himself to the war effort. Most of this was by writing, of course. He published The New Army in Training (1915); France at War (1915), which he wrote after a fact-finding tour of France; The Fringes of the Fleet (1915), about naval auxiliaries and submarines; Sea Warfare (1916); and The Eyes of Asia (1918), which he wrote from the letters of Indian troops in England. He also wrote a series of reports from the Italian front, “The War in the Mountains” (1917), which never came out in book form.

He did not publish much fiction during the War. One story directly arises from his feelings about the war, however: “Mary Postgate” (1915), which Stanley Baldwin’s son Oliver called “the wickedest story ever written” (quoted on the Kipling Society’s page about “Mary Postgate”). Mary Postgate’s companion’s nephew is killed in the war; Mary sees a German bomb kill a neighbour’s daughter, when she goes to get paraffin for the bonfire on which to burn the dead nephew’s possessions. She comes across the dying German pilot, and as she sets the bonfire, she watches him die and apparently has an orgasm as she does so.

Kipling’s own memories of the war were wholly overshadowed by the death of his son John (pictured above). There may have been a strong element of guilt in this, since had it not been for Kipling himself, his son would never have been in the War. John was 17 in 1914, and had poor eyesight; he almost certainly would have been rejected by a recruiter. But Kipling wrote to Lord Roberts, the commander of the Irish Guards, as early as August 4 1914, asking him to intercede personally on his son’s behalf. He met with Lord Roberts on 10 September, and was granted his request; John’s commission was backdated to 16 August.

Kipling was himself acting as a war correspondent in France when his son was finally posted there, in August 1915. On October 27 1915, John was listed as “missing” in the battle of Loos. Leaflets were dropped over German lines by planes from the Royal Flying Corps, asking if anyone could report on this “son of a world famous author”. Even the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) tried to find out what had happened to John. Kipling got letters of condolence from all over the world, from people as varied as Theodore Roosevelt, Marie Corelli and Edward Carson.

Rudyard said “I hear he finished well. It was a short life. I’m sorry that all the years’ work ended in that one afternoon” (quoted p.7 in the introduction to the 1997 reissue of Kipling’s regimental history). Kipling arranged for a British gardener, employed by the War Graves Commission, to sound the Last Post every night at the Menin Gate in his son’s honour: this continued until the Germans overran Ypres in 1940.

Because of his son’s death, Kipling undertook two projects which occupied him still after the war: helping to create the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917, and undertaking to write the history of his son’s regiment. In the final text (reissued in 1997) John appears just twice in the course of the lengthy narrative. On p. 24, Kipling records that  “this rush reached a line beyond the Puits, well under machine-gun fire (out of the Bois Hugo across the Lens-La Bassée road). Here 2nd Lieutenant Clifford was shot and wounded or killed—the body was found later—and 2nd Lieutenant Kipling was wounded and missing”; in the appendix, p. 195, Lieutenant Kipling is listed as killed 27 September 1915.

Kipling took a lot of trouble during and after the war to find proof of his son’s death, and to locate the body, all to no avail. It was in 1992 that the War Graves Commission, now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, claimed to have established where John Kipling’s bones were, and reburied them. On this discovery, see Tonie and Valmai Holt, “My Boy Jack?” The Search for Kipling’s Only Son (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 3rd ed. 2007); they expressed their very natural doubts that the actual body had been found.

David Haig wrote a play about Kipling’s grief, My Boy Jack (1997) named after a Kipling poem of that name; in 2007 it was televised, with David Haig himself as Kipling and Daniel Radcliffe as John.

‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’
Not this tide.
When d’you think that he’ll come back?’
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide (from the collection The Years Between, 1919).

In 1919, Kipling wrote The Graves of the Fallen for the Imperial War Graves Commission, setting out how the cemeteries should look. “Their Name Liveth for Evermore”, an epitaph that stands at the entrance to each of the war cemeteries in France, was written by Kipling.

In that same year, near the end of The Years Between, Kipling published a whole set of poetic epitaphs, modelled on the ancient epitaphs recorded in The Greek Anthology: these are the first three:

Equality Of Sacrifice
A. ‘I was a “have.”‘ B.’I was a “have-not.”‘
(Together) ‘What hast thou given which I gave not?’

A Servant
We were together since the War began
He was my servant—and the better man.

A Son
My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.

When the armistice came he could not bear the rejoicing in London, and went to Bateman’s: ‘I … had my dark hour alone’ (letter of 18 November 1918; quoted by Pinney). Kipling’s first post-war book,  The Years Between (1919) was a collection which, as Pinney says,  “varied from savage to desolate. It is by far the darkest of all Kipling’s collections”.

My main information comes from Thomas Pinney’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I refer also to Rudyard Kipling, The Irish Guards in the Great War: The Second Battalion: edited and compiled from their Diaries and Papers (Staplehurst Kent: Spellmount, 1997). The chapter by David Bradshaw, on “Kipling and war” in Howard J. Booth, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Rudyard Kipling (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 80-94, is very interesting.


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