Kipling does not mince his words

Ever since the sentimental film My Boy Jack, a myth has grown that his son’s death at Loos made Rudyard Kipling less warlike, more pacific. The evidence mostly points the other way. Kipling was tremendously affected by John’s death, of course, but in ways that made him even more committed to the war effort, more hostile to Germans, and more convinced that the country had been let down by the politicians who had left the country insufficiently prepared for war.

In the splendid Cambridge edition of the poems there is a striking example of his intransigence. In 1932, Clifford Allen, stalwart of the Independent Labour Party and chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship was raised to the peerage by Ramsay Macdonald, as part of his programme to increase Labour representation in the House of Lords.

Only a few years earlier, Allen had been in prison as a conscientious objector, and now he was ennobled. Kipling reacted to the news with a poem in a letter to Lord Stanhope. Others may have let memories of the war slide into the past, but for Kipling what he saw as the treason of the conscientious objectors was still a live issue:

Oh belted Sons of Treason
Press onward to the Lords,
Where six safe months in prison,
Can win such great rewards!

From Jutland to Judæa
Bob up, ye Dead, and sing!
He’ll sit with wicked Beatty,
And Allenby and Byng!

Through toil and tribulation
And tumult of our war,
He sought the consummation
Of peace forever more.

A million fell beside him,
By land and air and sea,
In order to provide him
With breakfast, lunch and tea!

Kipling scornfully lashes Allen, yet he was a brave man. He served three sentences of hard labour for his beliefs, and this broke his health. He left prison with severely damaged lungs. He was an idealist, but often, I gather, not a man of good judgement. He was one of those who visited the Soviet Union in 1920, and came back impressed. In 1935 he met Hitler and reported:

I believe Herr Hitler’s position in the country is unassailable. His sincerity is tremendous…I am convinced he genuinely desires peace…Germany’s aggressive words and warlike phrases do not represent her intentions

Clifford Allen, 1st Baron Allen of Hurtwood

One thing that strikes me about Kipling’s poem is his emphasis on the Navy: Jutland and Beatty, and that last verse:

A million fell beside him,
By land and air and sea,
In order to provide him
With breakfast, lunch and tea!

In this poem (never intended for publication, so with no particular impetus to be original) he is surely harking back to his 1911 poem for children, ‘Big Steamers’.

“OH, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers,
With England’s own coal, up and down the salt seas? “
“We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter,
Your beef, pork, and mutton, eggs, apples, and cheese.”

“And where will you fetch it from, all you Big Steamers,
And where shall I write you when you are away? “
“We fetch it from Melbourne, Quebec, and Vancouver.
Address us at Hobart, Hong-kong, and Bombay.”

“But if anything happened to all you Big Steamers,
And suppose you were wrecked up and down the salt sea?”
“Why, you’d have no coffee or bacon for breakfast,
And you’d have no muffins or toast for your tea.”

“Then I’ll pray for fine weather for all you Big Steamers
For little blue billows and breezes so soft.”
“Oh, billows and breezes don’t bother Big Steamers:
We’re iron below and steel-rigging aloft.”

“Then I’ll build a new lighthouse for all you Big Steamers,
With plenty wise pilots to pilot you through.”
“Oh, the Channel’s as bright as a ball-room already,
And pilots are thicker than pilchards at Looe.”

“Then what can I do for you, all you Big Steamers,
Oh, what can I do for your comfort and good?”
“Send out your big warships to watch your big waters,
That no one may stop us from bringing you food.”

For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble,
The sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve,
They are brought to you daily by All Us Big Steamers
And if any one hinders our coming you’ll starve!”

For Kipling, the ultimate impossibility of Allen’s pacifist position was that he, like everyone else in the country, ultimately depended on the Armed Forces, and the Navy especially, for the food he eats. The accusation of ‘Treason’ is pitching it strongly, but then Kipling was never a words-mincer.


  1. janevsw
    Posted July 15, 2020 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    The “trial and tribulation” line identifies the poem as sharing rhyme and metre with ‘The Church’s One Foundation’ – “‘Mid toil and tribulation, And tumult of her war”…

    • Posted July 15, 2020 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Well spotted.
      The Hymn’s verse goes:

      Mid toil and tribulation,
      and tumult of her war,
      she waits the consummation
      of peace forevermore;

      Kipling was always sceptical about the prospect of ‘peace forever more’ (which was why he thought sensible nations should build their defences).
      Back in 1896 he had used this hymn as a model for the poem ‘Hymn Before Action‘.

  2. Susie
    Posted July 15, 2020 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Terrific post. Fascinating information as always. Thanks.

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: