Rudyard Kipling, British anti-World War I poet

This video says about itself:

My Boy Jack by Rudyard Kipling – Poetry Reading

About the poem – This poem is an emotional piece, about an old man waiting for his young son to return home from war, and is devastated by the news that he won’t be coming back. Rudyard Kipling wrote this poem after his son John (called Jack) went missing in September 1915 during the Battle of Loos, in the first world war.

About the poet – Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was an English poet, short-story writer, and novelist. He was born in Bombay, in the Bombay Presidency of British India. He is chiefly remembered for his celebration of British imperialism, tales and poems of British soldiers in India, and his tales for children. Kipling received the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

More to Kipling than meets the eye

Wednesday 22nd January 2014

Recent stories about World War I have sent PETER FROST to his bookshelf in search of an unlikely poet

A number of recent stories in the Morning Star have made me think. Don’t they always? That’s why I read the paper.

Perhaps more unexpectedly, a few of them have made me think of Rudyard Kipling.

The jingoism of the official celebration centenary of the first world war, alongside the reports of casualties of the current Afghan war, reminded me of one of the poet’s greatest verses.

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Kipling wrote that about his 18-year-old son John who died in the first world war.

Kipling had pulled strings to get his son into the army despite his poor eyesight. John’s death, in 1915 at the battle of Loos, wiped away the last shreds of jingoism in the poet’s work.

Those lines were, of course, also a perfect epitaph for all those who died in the Iraq war – on either side.

Every time I read those lines I see Tony Blair and George Bush, or David Cameron and Nick Clegg lying through their teeth.

When Blair, Cameron and Clegg are finally laid to rest, I for one would like to propose a bit more Kipling. Some lines from his poem A Dead Statesman would do the job perfectly.

I could not dig: I dared not rob:

Therefore I lied to please the mob.

Now all my lies are proved untrue

And I must face the men I slew.

Perhaps you begin to see why I like Kipling and his writing?

Those of us on the left have often had a real problem with Kipling and his poems written in what he saw as the glory days of the British empire.

Despite all the people who tell me I shouldn’t, I really like him. I still enjoy his stories and poems.

Nobody has captured the English countryside and the rich history of the far from ordinary people of England like Kipling.

I do love England. Not in that awful jingoistic way that assumes we are better than the rest of the world but in the same way that the Vietnamese, Scots, Iraqis, Palestinians, Cubans, South Africans, all the nations on the globe in fact, can love their own countries, their cultures, their landscape and their histories without embarrassment or guilt.

Sadly England’s far from noble history of imperialism and racist wars seems to have undermined, in my mind at least, the right to be proud of the country of our birth.

A myriad of organisations from Oswald Mosley‘s blackshirts in the 1930s to today’s English Defence League seem to have stolen away the right to be English and proud without being racist and hateful.

Billy Bragg wrestled with some of the same issues in his book The Progressive Patriot. Bragg loves, and sings, Kipling too.

I’ve never hidden my love of the poet. Indeed when his copyright ran out in 2006, a publisher who was considering publishing some of his work told me: “I’m amazed that an old commie like you still reads Kipling.”

I had to tell him I wasn’t the only old commie either. Bertolt Brecht loved the man and his poetry and even translated some of his poems and used them as songs in his plays.

True, Kipling was in many ways the spin doctor for a British empire on which the sun never set.

Anti-imperialists at the time quipped that the reason was God didn’t trust the British in the dark.

Another reason I still read Kipling is because no-one has ever been as good at capturing the voices of ordinary English working people speaking to us down through the centuries.

No-one, either, was better at capturing the essence of the English countryside in which they lived.

He never tired of listening to ordinary people, in the London music halls he loved to visit, with the foot soldiers in the British army in India, in the trenches of the first world war and with the country folk in the fields around his final home – a yeoman’s house – in the Sussex Weald.

Take his poem The Land. It’s about that very house, Bateman’s, near Burwash in East Sussex.

The poem looks at the house and the land it stands in through the eyes of two groups of inhabitants.

First we meet the so-called important people who owned the land and the house over the centuries. And then the common folk from round about who know the land well and usually get the better of the owner.

The first owner is Julius Fabriciusa, Roman Sub-Prefect. Sixteen-hundred years ago he is having trouble with the same level of flooding that is making the headlines in the Morning Star today. The sub-prefect takes advice from Hobdenius. The aged local tells him:

I remember as a lad,

My father told your father that she wanted dreenin’ bad.

They still find bits of roman clay pipe from the draining on the estate today.

Then came Ogier the Dane. His Hobden advises adding lime to the land. Chalk and flints still turn up in the ditches from time to time.

Anglo-Saxons then held sway until William landed at nearby Hastings.

The little brook floods the Norman’s land and Hob the local bailiff offers his advice. The remains of his elm plank channels, hard as iron, are still in the ground today.

More history and then it’s 1915, the first world war, and Kipling buys Bateman’s.

The poet knows he owns the trout, but Hobden tickles them. The game birds are Kipling’s but they end up in Hobden’s pot. Kipling ends it much better than I.

His dead are in the churchyard – thirty generations laid.

Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made;

And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line

Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

A few years ago when I visited Bateman’s, the little brook that has powered the clacking water mill for centuries had just overtopped its banks and Kipling’s precious book-lined study was in danger of flooding.

National Trust staff were rolling up valuable carpets and hurriedly sandbagging the doors.

They’d called on some men from the village to help and thankfully they seemed to know just what to do.

Kipling would have loved it. I just wonder if any of the local tradesmen were named Hobden?

I’m following similar flood stories in the Morning Star today, the slashing of jobs and funding from the Environment Agency speak of exactly the same arrogance of ignorance Kipling describes in his landowners.

The waters are rising at Bateman’s, but sadly Kipling’s hero, the latest Hobden, will be signing on down at the jobcentre.

The First World War was a imperialist bloodbath—yet the establishment wants to rehabilitate it as a struggle for freedom. Adam Hochschild has written a book on the brutal reality of the conflict. In a recent talk he discussed people who rejected the call to war from the outset: here.

I must apologise to the Germans. They are about to suffer an avalanche of often sickening Great War memorabilia, largely at their expense. It will be the British at their worst: sanctimonious, self-congratulatory, worshipping at the tomb of the unknown, awful German. The centenary of the first world war is already flooding the television schedules before the date of its outbreak (in autumn 1914). History bestseller lists focus on little else: there are no fewer than 8,000 titles on the subject. War magazines cram newsstands. Churches will fill with candles for the fallen. Children carry flowers “of reflection and remembrance”. The horror, the mistakes, the cruelty, the crassness of war will be revived over and over again, “lest we forget”: here.

Abe sees World War One echoes in Japan-China tensions: here.

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15 thoughts on “Rudyard Kipling, British anti-World War I poet

  1. Well done, and as you said, Kipling did pull strings to get Jack into the army. But his wife also wrote to her mother, that they all, including Jack, their only son, knew that he wouldn’t return before he joined the army. That was his conception of duty, it was time to pay back, and he, and Jack, did willingly. I’m quite conservative to go with your liberalism but Kipling is something we agree on, I think he symbolized Britain better (for good and bad) than nearly anybody else.

    And thanks for the link, I love this post.


  2. Kipling, great poet that he was, was also a bit potty for war. I know that it crossed his fate, and it would be prized to imagine his repertoire with no mention of war (what would he have turned to?). I can’t understand why you’d highlight his sadness about war though. As you say, he was British Imperialist. He does not sit next to Wilfred Owen at all.


    • Hi, thanks for your comment! The main part of this blog post is, as the hyperlink and the italics show, quoted from Peter Frost; so, not written by me.

      Indeed, Kipling differs from Wilfred Owen, with his pro-war pro-imperialism previous history. However, the death of Kipling’s son confronted him horribly with the stark contrast between war, as depicted in war propaganda (including by himself); and war in reality.

      The two lines:

      If any question why we died,

      Tell them, because our fathers lied.

      is, as I wrote, a sharp self-criticism (plus a criticism of warmongering politicians etc.)


  3. LOved the references to the English countryside…Puck of Pook’s Hill was another little beauty…. and Gunda Din – ‘you’re a better man than I am Gunga Din’ – also puts another slant on his imperialism…My favourite story about Kipling was when an elephant killed his keeper and was running amok at the zoo, and a little dark man came out of the crowd and insisted on talking to the elephant. He spoke to him in Hindustani ( having grown up in India) and the poor bewildered creature calmed down when he heard familiar words…



    “Commémorer 14-18 ?… À quoi bon ?”

    Conférence débat avec Michel Collon et Paul Hermant. Maison de la Culture d’Arlon, Parc des Expositions 1. A 20 heures. Org. COLUPA (Coordination Luxembourgeoise pour la Paix). Entrée libre.

    Contact : Tél. 061-312570 / 063-422230.

    Question provocante, mais que la Colupa (Coalition luxembourgeoise pour la Paix) n’a pas craint de mettre à l’ordre du jour de sa campagne atypique des “Commémorations 14-18”. Si cette guerre désastreuse, qualifiée d’effroyable boucherie, a duré quatre années, elle mérite bien qu’on s’y attarde un peu… cent ans plus tard, une deuxième guerre mondiale de plus, et quantité d’autres passées, présentes (et à venir ?)…

    Deux questions devraient tout de suite nous venir à l’esprit : Pourquoi cette guerre a-t-elle eu lieu ? En quoi nous concerne-t-elle aujourd’hui ?? Dans le hall d’entrée, une exposition de photos, de documents et autres “PIÈCES A CONVICTION” illustrera la thématique de la soirée. Exposition inédite présentée par la Coordination nationale “Agir pour la Paix”.
    Organisé en collaboration avec la Province (département Culture, Enseignement et Formation), la Maison de la Culture d’Arlon et Agir pour la Paix.


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