Kipling invents the soldier

From A Soldier’s Mamories by Major-General Sir George Younghusband K.C.M.G., K.C.I.E., F.R.G.S., etc. (1917)

And now for a curious thing. I myself had served for many years with soldiers, but had never once heard the words or expressions that Rudyard Kipling’s soldiers used. Many a time did I ask my brother Officers whether they had ever heard them. No, never. But sure enough, a few years after the soldiers thought, and talked, and expressed them-selves exactly like Rudyard Kipling had taught them in his stories! He would get a stray word here, or a stray expression there, and weave them into general soldier talk, in his priceless stories. Rudyard Kipling made the modern soldier.

Other writers have gone on with the good work, and they have between them manufactured the cheery, devil-may-care, lovable person enshrined in our hearts as Thomas Atkins. Before he had learnt from reading stories about himself that he, as an individual, also possessed the above attributes, he was mostly ignorant of the fact. My early recollections of the British soldier are of a bluff, rather surly person, never the least jocose or light-hearted, except perhaps when he had too much beer. He was brave always, but with a sullen, stubborn bravery. No Tipperary or kicking foot-balls about it.

To Rudyard Kipling and his fellow-writers the Army owes a great debt of gratitude for having produced the splendid type of soldier who now stands as the English type.

Or was it that Kipling really got to know the soldier, looked hard with understanding, and saw that he was neither the surly person he seemed nor the stock soldier of melodrama (returning home just in time to save his family from the workhouse and his sister from a life of shame). And when he had written what he saw, others were able to see beyond the stereotype.

It’s a bit like Oscar Wilde saying that people look at sunsets because of Turner, and that the sunsets they admire are often very second-rate Turners. I’m sure some actual soldiers were a disappointment in comparison with Ortheris or Mulvaney.

Alternatively, C.E. Montague thought that it was Shakespeare who had defined the eternal character of the English soldier precisely in the grousing, bloody-minded Williams of Henry V.

One Comment

  1. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted August 29, 2015 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Only imaginary soldiers are “invented,” and “invention” suggests little more than a stereotype.

    Kipling’s Soldiers Three, as you suggest, sprang from closer personal observation, but they came no less from the fashion of the times for colorful and sentimental fictional characters. The Tommies of “Barrack-Room Ballads” seem to express a more extensive and original range of feelings and attitudes.

    In other words, they seem rather more believable.

    As far as literature is concerned, Younghusband was certainly correct, at least in the sense that Shakespeare’s soldiers did not inspire much artistic imitation – at least not till Kipling enlarged on them himself.


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