Champion of Empire - and National Service

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The Independent Culture
RUDYARD KIPLING may have been an imperialist but he was not always a lackey of the Establishment. He emerged from the Boer War (the centenary of whose start falls next month) seething at the British army's poor performance. He railed against not just ineffective officers in the field but also lacklustre political leaders at home, notably Arthur Balfour who succeeded Lord Salisbury as Conservative prime minister in July 1902, shortly after the Boers' final surrender.

Kipling had started the war in a different frame of mind. Returning to England from the United States in September 1896, he needed an outlet for his energies. Over the years he had become a supporter of the political imperialism of Joseph Chamberlain, complete with its programme of "tariff reform" or economic protectionism in favour of Empire goods.

In February 1897 Kipling was introduced to the Cape Premier Cecil Rhodes, who was in London for the parliamentary inquiry into the bungled Jameson Raid. Inspired by Rhodes's vision of a vast Anglo-Saxon commonwealth, he readily took up an invitation to South Africa in early 1898. Kipling saw the country moving towards war between English-speakers and Boers, ostensibly over the Jameson Raid issue - foreigners' rights in the Transvaal - and he welcomed this. Asked his dream by Rhodes, Kipling replied, "You are part of it." Immediately the Boer War started in October 1899, Kipling wrote a fund-raising poem, "The Absent-Minded Beggar", calling on the British public to support the "gentleman in khaki ordered south".

In February he joined the media circus at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. Already the British had suffered reverses, and Kipling was pleased the new Commander was Field Marshal Lord Roberts, whom he had known in India. He happily took up Roberts's suggestion to contribute to The Friend, a propaganda newspaper published in Bloemfontein. He was less amused when he casually went to view the war and was caught in a fierce battle at Karee Siding.

When Kipling returned to South Africa the following winter, the war had entered a nasty guerrilla phase. Kipling was shocked at the Army's failure to quell Boer resistance. Back home that summer, he penned a poem, "The Lesson", which attacked Britain's lack of preparation for war and raised its sights, with the memorable line, "We have had an Imperial lesson. It may make us an Empire yet!"

He continued this theme in two more poems, "The Reformers", calling for National Service, and "The Islanders", attacking the Establishment - mainly the landed gentry who, with their "witless learning" and "beasts of warren and chase", grudged their sons to military service and refused to allow their estates to be used for army training.

Two years earlier his book Stalky & Co had praised the plucky pupils produced by his own public school, Westward Ho! Now he attacked such types in his story "The Outsider". In June 1902 he moved into a new house, Bateman's in Sussex, where he was struck by evidence of history around him - a theme he was to explore in Puck of Pook's Hill tales. More immediately, his house had an ancient mill, the inspiration for his story "Below the Mill Dam". The cosy guardianship of the mill - symbol of a pre-industrial economy - by a black rat and grey cat is disturbed by new technology in the form of turbines, Kipling's metaphor for the need for radical change in British society and politics.

However Balfour had taken over the Conservative Party instead of Kipling's favoured Chamberlain. The writer rightly forecast that Balfour's fence- sitting on tariff reform would split the Conservatives, letting in the Liberals and, as far as he was concerned, the wrong sort of change. Fearing the future, he became obsessed with the need for National Service. He saw Germany preparing for war and cast the recent Boer War as a dress rehearsal for a future conflict.

Andrew Lycett is the author of `Rudyard Kipling' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25)