Rudyard Kipling’s first World War tragedy
The Nobel laureate and staunch imperialist was one of hundreds of thousands of British and Irish parents to lose a son to the war
British author Rudyard Kipling. Photograph: EO Hoppe/MansellGetty Images
For all their money, fame and connections, the Kiplings never found the body of their son, John, who was killed in action at the age of 18
When the first World War broke out in August 1914, Rudyard Kipling felt horribly vindicated. The poet of Empire believed Britain’s army was pitifully small for the continental war he had warned was coming.
Though he was Britain’s most famous writer, few paid much attention. Kipling was regarded by the Liberal Party in power and the liberal establishment as a reactionary. With characteristic verve, he threw himself into the recruitment effort. He had an abiding loathing of the Germans, which survived the war. “There are only two divisions in the world,” he once wrote, “human beings and Germans”.
In September 1914, as the first reports of German atrocities in Belgium filtered back to Britain, Kipling’s poem All That We Have And Are was published in The Times.
For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and take the war,
The Hun is at the gate!
The poem ends: “What stands if Freedom fall?/Who dies if England live?”
By Kipling’s standards, this was a piece of doggerel, but even here his genius for phrasemaking is apparent. The poem’s closing lines would find themselves on innumerable memorials and Kipling would know the painful reality of those words.
His only son John Kipling was 16 when war broke out, soon to turn 17. He was at Wellington College, a feeder school for the officer corps.
Father and son had originally set store on a career in the Royal Navy, but John had inherited his father’s bad eyesight. It was so bad that he could not even read the second line of an eye chart. An officer with such bad eyesight was a danger to himself and the men under his command.
Rudyard Kipling was undeterred. He was not only Britain’s most famous writer, but also its best connected. He used his contacts with old friend, Lord ‘Bobs’ Roberts, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, to get his son a commission in the Irish Guards.
The irony of this was not lost on Kipling’s friends. Kipling was an avowed unionist. He could neither understand nor accept the Irish desire for home rule. In his poem Ulster 1912, Kipling wrote:
Before an Empire’s eyes The traitor claims his price. What need of further lies? We are the sacrifice.
This poem confirmed to his critics that Kipling was a demented rabble-rouser. “This crazy outburst marked the lowest point yet reached by Kipling’s sagging reputation,” wrote Lord Beaverbrook.
In August 1915 John Kipling was given charge of a platoon in the 2nd battalion of the Irish Guards. In March 1915 he went to Dublin to pick up 36 recruits and was unimpressed with the city, dismissing it as a “frowsy hole, all slums and stinks”.
The Irish Guards was part of the Guards Division held in reserve during the Battle of Loos which began on September 25th, 1915. This was to be the “biggest battle in the history of the world”, according to the Guards Division General Richard Haking. Like so many British battles of 1915, it was a disaster.
Second Lieut John Kipling was in charge of a platoon with the Irish Guards. He died during an assault on Chalk-Pit Wood at the apex of the German front line.
At first he was reported missing. This gave his parents false hope. Most families lacked the means or contacts to go searching for their missing relatives on the battlefields. Most families weren’t the Kiplings.
Rudyard and his American wife Carrie toured the Western Front and searched hospitals. They dropped fliers over German lines. They beseeched the royal families of neutral Holland and Sweden to intervene with the Germans and find out if John was being held as a prisoner-of-war.
One by one the Kiplings interviewed their son’s comrades-in-arms. Hope was extinguished when a Sergeant Kinneally reported that John Kipling had been shot through the head. His body was placed in a shell hole where it was pulverised by shellfire. All hope being gone, Kipling wrote one of his most heartfelt poems My Boy Jack.
Have you news of my boy Jack? Not this tide When d’you think that he’ll come back? Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
Kipling sublimated his grief into two great endeavours. One was his involvement in the Imperial War Graves Commission (later to become the Commonwealth War Graves Commission). It was Kipling who came up with the phrase from the Book of Ecclesiasticus for the Stone of Remembrance in each war cemetery, “Their Names Liveth for Ever More”. The other was as official historian to the Irish Guards.
Kipling was approached in 1917 to write a history of the Irish Guards. He bent himself to the task with a thoroughness and energy which belied his advancing years. He wrote again and again to protagonists to build up an accurate picture of troop deployments and manoeuvres. The Irish Guards in the Great War was published in 1923.
John Buchan, the author of The 39 Steps and an even more zealous imperialist, wrote of Kipling’s history: “It seems likely to endure as the fullest document of the war life of a British regiment completed by a man of genius.”
Kipling came to a greater understanding of Ireland and the Irish through the experiences of his son.
In 1918 he wrote admiring verse about the Irish with a keen eye to history. Referencing the Battle of Fontenoy when the Wild Geese fought with the French against the British, he reminded readers that the Irish were once again coming to the rescue of the French.
After the war, Kipling wrote the stark lines: “If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.”
This has often been wrongly interpreted as Kipling believing that his son’s death was in vain. He never believed the first World War was unnecessary. He believed it was badly prosecuted. On a more general level this couplet is about the lies the older generations tell that compels the younger to fight. It could also allude to his own lies in getting his son a commission when he was physically unfit to fight.
In 1992 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission announced that it had identified an Irish Guards lieutenant’s body in St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) near Loos as that of John Kipling.
Seven years later authors Tonie and Valmai Holt published a book My Boy Jack which disputed that the body in St Mary’s ADS is that of John Kipling. They based their case on two separate arguments: John Kipling was a 2nd lieutenant not a lieutenant when he died, and his body was found six kilometres away from where he fell.
In 1997 the actor David Haig wrote and starred as Kipling in the West End play My Boy Jack. Ten years later it was made into a €20 million lavish costume drama with funding from the Irish Film Board.
My Boy Jack is the story of a father in pursuit of his son whose body was never found. For all their money, fame and connections, the Kiplings were just another one of the 415,325 British and Irish families whose sons were killed during the first World War and were left with no place to grieve. Trust Kipling to could come up with the most apposite phrase – “known unto God”.
Ronan McGreevy visits John Kipling’s grave – www.irishtimes.com/century