Kipling’s Ballads of Army Life

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936), who won the seventh Nobel Prize for literature, is generally regarded as the praise singer of imperialism; and since imperialism went out of fashion, so has his poetry. But his ballads of army life seem to me considerably more nuanced than this would suggest.

For example in the poem Loot, first published in 1890, he speaks through the voice of a private soldier who is motivated in the imperial wars in which he serves by the prospect of loot; there is no suggestion that this is either laudable or glorious.

Perhaps the Tommy loots because he is so badly paid. A retiring sergeant-major who has seen action the world over is paid a pension of a Shillin’ a Day, and the poem ends ironically:

Think what ‘e’s been,
Think what ‘e’s seen,
Think of his pension an’ –

In the most famous of all the ballads, The Road to Mandalay, the British soldier, now returned to London, has no doubts about the superiority of the East and its inhabitants:

Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand…
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

In Danny Deever a soldier is hanged in front of the regiment for having killed a fellow soldier in an argument; it is as great a poem as The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Among the hazards of soldiering in Kipling’s day was cholera. In The Young British Soldier, an older man gives advice to the recruits:

When the cholera comes – as it will past a doubt –
Keep out of the wet and don’t go on the shout,
For the sickness gets in as the liquor dies out,
An’ it crumples the young British soldier.

In Cholera Camp, a soldier describes the epidemic:

We’ve got the cholerer in camp — it’s worse than forty fights;
We’re dyin’ in the wilderness the same as Isrulites.
It’s before us, an’ be’ind us, an’ we cannot get away,
An’ the doctor’s just reported we’ve ten more to-day!

The sense of helplessness is conveyed in two lines:

We’ve got the cholerer in camp — we’ve got it ‘ot an’ sweet.
It ain’t no Christmas dinner, but it’s ‘elped an’ we must eat.

The only response is to strike camp and move on, but it is no use:

Since August, when it started, it’s been stickin’ to our tail,
Though they’ve ‘ad us out by marches an’ they’ve ‘ad us back by rail;
But it runs as fast as troop trains, and we cannot get away;
An’ the sick-list to the Colonel makes ten more to-day.

Kipling wrote the poem thirteen years after Koch discovered (or rediscovered) the cholera germ; are we to take it that the British army authorities took no notice of medical knowledge, or that Kipling was behind the times? In fact there was a lot of hostility towards Koch in India, as the scientific agent of German expansionism; attempts to disprove Koch’s theory continued in India until 1897.

One cannot help but recall Kipling’s general epitaph to those who died in the First World War (in which his own son was killed):

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

Not only in 1914, of course.

2 thoughts on “Kipling’s Ballads of Army Life

  1. Pingback: The superiority of the East and its inhabitants, especially its womenfolk | A dose of Theodore Dalrymple

  2. Pingback: Founder of modern bacteriology | A dose of Theodore Dalrymple

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