The ‘New Yorker’ gets Kipling wrong

A hundred years ago today, John Kipling died at Loos. The New Yorker has marked the anniversary with an article by Nina Martyris which is not bad till it gets near the end, when she gives us a paragraph that repeats some standard myths, and therefore gets a great deal wrong:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

The lies that Kipling had in mind were the half-truths and distortions that the country’s politicians and opinion-makers had resorted to at a time of war, in order to stir up a blood-and-khaki belligerence. Kipling himself had slyly fanned the worst rumors of German atrocities in Belgium. But the ulcerating guilt captured in that brutal couplet calls to mind something else that Kipling did: pull strings to get John a commission, after John had twice been rejected on account of weak eyesight. In doing so, Kipling had oiled open the backdoor to the slaughterhouse that was the Western Front and sneaked in his only son.

To unpick this paragraph’s assumptions:
The couplet almost certainly does not say what Ms Martyris wants it to say. For Kipling, men like John were dying in this war because pre-war politicians had not worked hard to prevent it. In his view, if Britain had built up a large army before the war, and let the Germans know that it would be used in case of conflict, the Kaiser would not have sought war. For Kipling, the pre-war Liberal government had shamefully avoided spending enough on the Armed Forces, preferring to finance Lloyd George’s social reforms instead.
Kipling satirised what he saw as the blindness of the Liberals to the national interest again, in ‘ Natural Theology’, a poem of 1919 in which a ‘Progressive’ is made to say:

Money spent on an Army or Fleet
Is homicidal lunacy…
My son has been killed in the Mons retreat,
Why is the Lord afflicting me?

Kipling’s relationship with government propaganda was complex. As I pointed out in my recent Kipling Journal article, Masterman, who ran the Wellington House propaganda organisation at the start of the war, distrusted Kipling as a wild card, liable to be too vociferous; the gentlemanly Masterman preferred to keep his propaganda high-minded and civilised (things changed later in the war when Northcliffe took over).
As for lying in his propagandist writing, Kipling, like many others, had to consider how far he should dissemble for the sake of his country. In ‘The Fringes of the Fleet’ he changed operational details whose revelation might have assisted the enemy (For example, his account situated certain ships in a harbour different from the one where they were actually based.) In December 1915, though, when he was asked to write about cruisers engaged on blockade work, he felt that the task would have forced him to write dishonestly, and he refused the assignment, writing to Admiral Slade:

When I wrote the Fringes of the Fleet I did no disservice by not telling things that the censor would not have passed. With the Cruiser Patrol it is otherwise. The public has been so fogged and fooled over the conduct of the War, that I cannot use my pen to add to their confusion, by telling them the partial truths which are all that the Government intends them to know.

So he was no unthinking propagandist, nor a push-over for the authorities.
As for atrocities – well, the Germans actually did commit atrocities against civilians in Belgium and Northern France, and as a matter of policy. (These have been reassessed by such historians as Alan Kramer and Larry Zuckerman). Like many others in Britain, Kipling was made angry and indignant by reports of these. We now know that some of the early reports were exaggerated, but this is usual in wars. Most of us today are horrified by recent reports of atrocities by ISIS and Boko Haram. Are all the reports we hear true? Some are based on rumour, and others are spread by people with an axe to grind. Possibly future historians will determine that some of the stories we now believe are less than completely accurate. But that does not mean that horrors have not taken place, or that it is not right to oppose these foul organisations. Today we might be uncomfortable with Kipling’s assumption that Germans committed atrocities because they were Germans, and we might be disturbed by the intensity of his dislike. But was his indignation totally misplaced?
Then there is the allegation that when Kipling wangled his son into the Irish Guards he wangled his death. I wrote about this a long while ago, when I commented on Helen Dunmore’s complacent poem blaming Kipling for his son’s death.
Evidence suggests that John was a strong-willed young man, unlikely to be steamrollered into anything by his father (In a letter of early 1914, Kipling had written: ‘You are quite right in what you say about his being old for his years, but what can one do?’). When his application for a commission was initially turned down by other regiments because of his eyesight (the Army became much less choosy later in the war) might the alternative to his father’s seeking a commission for him have been enlistment as a private (where standards were less stringent)?
A month after John’s death, Kipling wrote to his cousin Stanley Baldwin about a visit from Stanley’s son, Oliver, who was ‘very keen to join the Irish Guards “as John did”.’ Kipling says he said ‘nothing to persuade him that way.’ but pointed out that if Oliver underwent officer’s training, there would be no likelihood of him being sent out before 1918, ‘and that ought to mean the army of occupation’. Was some similar hope in Kipling’s mind when he got John into the Irish Guards in 1914? He might not have believed those who said the whole thing would be over by Christmas, but he might have hoped.
Oliver Baldwin’s reaction when he was ordered to France with the Irish Guards in 1918 is worth recording:

One afternoon when I was paddling in the pond and the sun was shining its happiest, the telegram arrived. I capered round the lawn with joy, for at last the great adventure had begun, One of the family had fallen. I was the avenger. I never thought for a minute of being killed.

The standard myth of the war says that young men had stopped being so enthusiastic by 1918. But some of them were. History does not always fit the nest patterns that enlightened twenty-first century people like Ms Martyris think they ought to.

I’ve written more about Kipling’s complex attitude to the war in my article in the current Kipling Journal.


  1. Mowgli
    Posted September 28, 2015 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Kipling did use his friendship with Lord Roberts to get John a commission in the Irish Guards. That is a fact.

    He did pull strings.

    He pulled them despite knowing his son had weak eyes, and that this disability could endanger not only his son but the men in his command. What kind of father does that? One who is as eager for his son to join the army as the son clearly was.

    It was natural for John to want to march off in uniform like the rest of his friends. No, his father did not coerce him or order him to do so. But he certainly enabled his military desires by pulling strings. And, subconsciously, John must have wanted to please his famous father who was out and about giving rousing recruitment speeches. To deny that subconscious motivation is to be dishonest or stupid.

    Kipling did oil open that backdoor. It left him guilty and embittered but also made him proud of his son. Kipling was a paradox. That’s what made him great. There’s really no need to tie yourself into knots to justify some of his less than honorable gestures.

    • Posted September 28, 2015 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Kipling pulled strings. Which didn’t mean that he forced John into the Army. There is no evidence that John was in any way unwilling; on the contrary there is evidence that he was very keen on the Army life.

      As for his eyesight, there is no evidence whatever that this contributed to John’s death. Shell fragments make no distinction between the myopic and those with twenty-twenty vision.

      The case of Wilfrid Ewart (author of the rather good war novel Way of Revelation, is an interesting comparison. His eyesight was very weak indeed. he persuaded his cousin, Lord Ruthven, to wangle him a commission in the Irish Guards. According to contemporary accounts, the only difference that his poor eyesight made was that he became very picky indeed during inspections, so that his men did not think he could get away with anything. He served at Neuve Chapelle, Ypres, the Somme, Arras and elsewhere, and survived the war.
      In previous wars, the physical attributes of individual soldiers made a huge difference to their chances of survival. In the Great War, this was less true. Most fatalities died in artillery bombardments that made no distinctions.
      It was a matter of luck. Ewart’s held out through the War. A couple of years later, though, he was in Mexico at the New Year. Some of the Mexicans celebrated by firing off rifle shots. One hit him as he stood at his window, and killed him.

      • Steve Paradis
        Posted September 29, 2015 at 1:32 am | Permalink

        Hugh Cecil’s chapter on Ewart in “Flowers of Battle” includes a quote from Ewart’s ranker friend Stephen Graham’s “A Private in the Guards”, in which he mentions the near non-existant physical standards for the right kind of gentleman to get a commission in the Guards.

    • Bill
      Posted September 29, 2015 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

      What often seems to be forgotten is that Kipling had been steering his son towards the armed forces throughout his school-days, long before the war broke out. The original intention was for him to go into the Navy, where poor eyesight would be more of a drawback. Then the ambition (more the father’s than the son’s) was switched towards Sandhurst. John’s poor health – which went beyond his eyesight – and his mediocre academic results continued to be obstacles. Hence the need for “cramming”. Whether Kipling’s hopes for a miltary career for his son would have been fulfilled had there never been a war must be doubtful. The outbreak of war obviously led to a lowering of the army’s standards for recruitment. And quite probably also overcame any residual lack of enthusiasm for a miltary career in John himself. Going to war was a quite different enterprise from becoming a professional soldier. Kipling was probably as guilty as many parents in trying to live vicariously through his son. The love of the armed forces was his, not his son’s. But the attempt to get John to be a soldier long predated the war itself.

  2. Bill
    Posted September 29, 2015 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Going to the right school seemed to matter rather more than physical fitness. I recall R C Sherriff was initially refused a commission because Kingston Grammar wasn’t a “public school”.

  3. Posted September 29, 2015 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    For a very interesting account of John Kipling, read this excellent article:

  4. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted September 29, 2015 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    A few years ago, the New Yorker printed a letter that asserted (in passing) that Joe Rosenthal’s famous Iwo Jima photo of 1945 was “staged.”

    A newsreel film of the event proves, however, that nothing in the photo was posed or “staged.” While not so famous, the film is also well known – as are all the details of the flag-raising.

    As a literary historian my understanding of his famous couplet matches yours – though the first time I read it, I (like most people) thought otherwise.

    Out of context, of course, Kipling’s lines are wholly ambiguous.

    So is Rosenthal’s beautifully composed photo.

  5. Roger
    Posted September 29, 2015 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Was there another Mons retreat after 1914? If there wasn’t – and I can’t find one – then the son of the “Progressive” in “Natural Theology” must have been a soldier in the Regular Army, which makes for more complications.

    • Posted September 29, 2015 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      So did Kipling choose Mons just for the ‘Fleet/retreat’ rhyme?
      I wouldn’t put it past him.
      Or is he imagining a Liberal M.P. or bigwig before the war, arguing for military cuts but not thinking what this would mean for his soldier son? That makes sense, too.

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: