Gary Lehmann - Author

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Kipling’s Private War

George Orwell called Rudyard Kipling a “prophet of British imperialism,” and so he was. Kipling was born in India and believed deeply in the British Empire and the soldiers who made it stand strong. He implicitly believed in the superiority of the culture of white Europeans and saw first hand the need for British militarism to retain the shape of the British Empire worldwide.

In his day, the Brits had control not only of India, but of South Africa, Kenya, Rhodesia, Australia, Burma and Egypt, with smaller enclaves in Bermuda, Gibraltar, Turks and Cacaos, the Falkland Islands, the Ascension Islands, even the British Antarctic Territory. The British Empire was a vast network asserting global British domination which resulted for many years in a kind of Pax Britannica. It was a global cultural giant, not hard to believe in and easy to love – especially if you were British-born and white.

But when Kipling’s only son Jack was lost in action during the Battle of Loos in September of 1915, Kipling began to question his lifelong beliefs. The First World War was another sort of conflict altogether. It was a defensive action for the Brits who were vastly out-numbered. In early outings they were out-smarted and had their backs thrown to the sea. This was a grinding conflict for mere survival.

Rudyard Kipling used his pull in the government to make special exemptions possible so Jack could join the British military even though he was underage. He got him a commission and made sure he went to the war at the first opportunity. Jack went willingly, claiming to his sister that he was only doing it to get out of the house, but claiming to his father that it was the only right response to German aggression in Europe. Jack’s body was never recovered during Kipling’s lifetime, and the crushing loss of his only son caused Kipling to become more introspective about his earlier militarism.

It is unfair to characterize this shift as unprecedented however. In his earlier war poems “Tommy and “Gunga Din,” Kipling portrays the impulse to fight wars neither as noble nor as nightmares of unspeakable carnage, but as sad affairs set in tragic circumstances that bring out the heroic in simple men. Kipling saw the ironies of war, the uncomfortable truths that got buried with the dead. His stories and poems told the story of the lost men who were either ground up in the steam-roller of war or made heroic by circumstances they never could have foreseen.

Here is a fine example:

The Last of the Light Brigade
by Rudyard Kipling (1891)

There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four !

They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, "Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites."

They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
And, waiting his servant's order, by the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.

They strove to stand to attention, to straighen the toil-bowed back;
They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack;
With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed,
They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.

The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and "Beggin' your pardon," he said,
"You wrote o' the Light Brigade, sir. Here's all that isn't dead.
An' it's all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin' the mouth of hell;
For we're all of us nigh to the workhouse, an' we thought we'd call an' tell.

"No, thank you, we don't want food, sir; but couldn't you take an' write
A sort of 'to be continued' and 'see next page' o' the fight?
We think that someone has blundered, an' couldn't you tell 'em how?
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now."

The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn.
And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with "the scorn of scorn."
And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame,
Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.

O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made - "
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!

This poem is, of course, based on the immense popularity of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” that glorified the heroic deeds of these same men some 40 years earlier. Of course, while Tennyson glorified their charge, real military authorities doubt the strategic value of this heroic action. French Marshall Pierre Bosquet said of the decision to charge, “It was magnificent, but it is not war,” and even Tennyson acknowledges the foolishness of the decision to charge into such a hale of gunfire when he wrote "Not tho' the soldier knew/ Some one had blunder'd: / Their's not to make reply, / Their's not to reason why, / Their's but to do and die:" and this is the exact tone that Kipling was trying to pick up on in his poem. Now compare the public tone of “The Last of the Light Brigade” with the immensely personal lament in “My Boy Jack.”

My Boy Jack
by Rudyard Kipling (1916)

'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.
'Has any one else had word of him?'
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
'Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?'
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind -
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Children have a natural, untutored way of bringing into question all of the most cherished beliefs of their parents. They don’t intend to do it, usually, but they manage to do it nonetheless with remarkable and painful regularity. Most people can think of other people’s children who have proved this point. Many of us have our own children to make the point closer to home.

After Jack’s death, Kipling naturally questioned whether Jack entered the Army of his own free will or because he was being compelled by his father’s outspoken, public stand that the war had to be fought immediately.

Did Rudyard Kipling kill his own child? What question could weigh more heavily on any parent’s mind? In Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” bravery is brought to the service of stupidity. In “My Boy Jack,” Kipling is basically asking himself if he has taken the place of the commander of the Light Brigade and charged his son in a company of but one soldier into the stupid mouth of war. Has he acted as unfeelingly as his nation does in “The Last of the Light Brigade” in regard to the life of his own child?