A Kipling Hoax

On May 27, 1918, this poem appeared in The Times:


I can hear the bugle calling
And it don’t want me
While the superannuation-chap
O’ Germany
‘S a fighting for the Kaiser in
His Fatherland:
But our order’s for the young-uns
Of the old Brass-Band.

We were ready in the ‘nineties
When the call rang clear
For the yeoman and the gentleman
To volunteer,
Awaiting for the enemy
On nine days’ drill:
But the army wants recruities,
Not the old Free-Will.

We can stay a long duration,
Though the doctor said
How “‘The Office’ would be worried when
You drop down dead;
But there’ll be a better judgment for
The Last Relay:
I shall hear the bugle calling,
And I’ll march that Day.


Burwash, Sussex.

The next day the paper printed an apology:

Mr Rudyard Kipling informs us that he did not write the verses entitled “The Old Volunteer” which appeared in The Times of yesterday.
The lines reached us by post from Brighton, signed Rudyard Kipling by someone familiar with Mr Kipling’s signature, with which we compared the manuscript before publication.
We apologise to Mr Kipling, and to our readers, and we are investigating the forgery.

Rather astonishingly, their investigation involved employing Basil Thompson, head of the C.I.D. in a private capacity, to look into the matter. A private detective called Smale was also brought in – The Times did not like being fooled.

Mind you, it had only itself to blame. The poem uses some superficial features of Kipling’s early verse, but is nothing like the work he was producing in 1918. It is self-pitying, for a start, which was not Kipling’s style. What is more, it is very badly crafted. (What is meant by “the young-uns/ Of the old Brass-Band.”?) In the last verse, “relay” has to be said with the emphasis on the last syllable in order to rhyme. Kipling would never have offered something so inept for publication.

You understand why he was annoyed with The Times for accepting this as an example of his work. As he wrote in Something of Myself:

Many years later, during the War, The Times, with which I had had no dealings for a dozen years or so, was ‘landed’ with what purported to be some verses by me, headed ‘The Old Volunteer.’ They had been sent in by a Sunday mail with some sort of faked postmark and without any covering letter. They were stamped with a rubber-stamp from the village office, they were written on an absolutely straight margin, which is beyond my powers, and in an un-European fist. (I had never since typewriters began sent out press-work unless it was typed.) From my point of view the contribution should not have deceived a messenger-boy. Ninthly and lastly, they were wholly unintelligible.

Human nature being what it is, The Times was much more annoyed with me than anyone else, though goodness knows—this, remember, was in ’17—I did not worry them about it, beyond hinting that the usual week-end English slackness, when no one is in charge, had made the mess. They took the matter up with the pomp of the Public Institution which they were, and submitted the MS. to experts, who proved that it must be the work of a man who had all but ‘spoofed’ The Times about some fragments of Keats. He happened to be an old friend of mine, and when I told him of his magnified ‘characteristic’ letters, and the betraying slopes at which they lay—his, as I pointed out, ‘very C’s and U’s and T’s,’ he was wrath and, being a poet, swore a good deal that if he could not have done a better parody of my ‘stuff’ with his left hand he would retire from business. This I believed, for, on the heels of my modest disclaimer which appeared, none too conspicuously, in The Times, I had had a letter in a chaffing vein about ‘The Old Volunteer’ from a non-Aryan who never much appreciated me; and the handwriting of it, coupled with the subtlety of choosing a week-end (as the Hun had chosen August Bank Holiday of ’14) for the work, plus the Oriental detachedness and insensitiveness of playing that sort of game in the heart of a life-and-death struggle, made me suspect him more than a little. He is now in Abraham’s bosom, so I shall never know. But The Times seemed very happy with its enlarged letters, and measurements of the alphabet, and—there really was a war on which filled my days and nights. Then The Times sent down a detective to my home. I didn’t see the drift of this, but naturally was interested. And It was a Detective out of a book, down to the very creaks of Its boots. (On the human side at lunch It knew a lot about second-hand furniture.) Officially, It behaved like all the detectives in the literature of that period. Finally, It settled Itself, back to the light, facing me at my work-table, and told me a long yarn about a man who worried the Police with complaints of anonymous letters addressed to him from unknown sources, all of which, through the perspicacity of the Police, turned out to have been written by himself to himself for the purpose of attracting notoriety. As in the case of the young man on the Canadian train, that tale felt as though it had come out of a magazine of the ’sixties; and I was so interested in its laborious evolution that I missed its implication till quite the end. Then I got to thinking of the psychology of the detective, and what a gay life of plots It must tramp through; and of the psychology of The Times-in-a-hole, which is where no one shows to advantage; and of how Moberly Bell, whose bows I had crossed in the old days, would have tackled the matter; what Buckle, whom I loved for his sincerity and gentlehood, would have thought of it all. Thus I forgot to defend my ‘injured honour.’ The thing had passed out of reason into the Higher Hysterics. What could I do but offer It some more sherry and thank It for a pleasant interview?

I have told this at length because Institutions of idealistic tendencies sometimes wait till a man is dead, and then furnish their own evidence. Should this happen, try to believe that in the deepest trough of the War I did not step aside to play with The Times, Printing House Square, London, E.C.

The “man who had all but ‘spoofed’ The Times about some fragments of Keats” was, according to a good article by Gordon Philips in The Times of 1977, Ian Colvin. The Keats forgeries were meticulously done, and hidden in an old book where a credulous researcher was likely to find them – just as in Dayspring Mishandled, the forgery story Kipling wrote decades later. Colvin – and other literary suspects, such as E.V.Knox, would definitely have been capable of a cleverer pastiche. The “non-Aryan” that Kipling still suspected years later was Israel Zangwill. The “chaffing letter” was another forgery, though. Its signature looks like Zangwill’s, but the handwriting of the body of the letter is very different.

So the mystery remains unsolved. My bet is that a sincere amateur poet wrote the verses, in a style that paid clumsy tribute to Kipling. When his work was rejected by the paper he sent it to, he said to himself, “I bet that if this had been my someone famous, it would have been published.” So he sent it to The Times, and was proved right.


  1. Manfred Phesto
    Posted April 7, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    George:- Not sure if you’ll read this as this post is quite old now. BUT – thank you. You have just won your self a follower. Keep up the good work.

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