A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: ‘It was a short life. I’m sorry all the years’ work ended in one afternoon’

Rudyard Kipling was one of the war’s great literary voices of patriotism. Then his own son went into battle, and was never seen again

“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.

 

“Has anyone else had word of him?”

Not this tide.

For what is sunk will hardly swim,

Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

 

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”

None this tide,

Nor any tide,

Except he did not shame his kind –

Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

 

Then hold your head up all the more,

This tide,

And every tide;

Because he was the son you bore,

And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Rudyard Kipling’s poignant elegy is not just for his own son John but for all the young men in the Army, Navy and Air Force who were “missing believed killed”, and for their bereaved parents.

John Kipling was one of thousands who died in the disastrous opening 48 hours of the Battle of Loos, in which British forces, commanded by Sir John French, aided Marshal Joffre’s plan to break through the German defences of Artois and Champagne, attempting to open up a war of movement.

 

On 25 September 1915, after a two-hour bombardment of German trenches, British forces moved to take the fortified ground between Bethune and Loos. Reinforcements did not arrive in time, and the 12 attacking battalions suffered 8,000 casualties out of 10,000 men in four hours.

“All along the line the attack spent itself among uncut wire and unsubdued machine gun positions. There were no more troops to follow at once on the heels of the first, nor was there time to dig in before counter-attacks were delivered,” Kipling wrote later.

On 27 September, the Second Battalion of the Irish Guards was ordered, after a 90-minute bombardment, to occupy “captured German trenches” and to take a small copse and quarry called Chalk Pit Wood in a rush during which two officers were “wounded and killed” and “2nd Lieutenant John Kipling was wounded and missing”. The attempted breakthrough became a bloody stalemate.

Contrary to current belief, both Rudyard Kipling and his wife, Carrie, knew very well when John (never known as “Jack”) joined the Army in 1914 that he would probably be killed, although they supported their son’s intense desire to join up. It seems to have been John’s talk on his 17th birthday of enlisting as a private soldier that prompted Kipling to talk to Lord Roberts, who nominated the boy for a commission in the Irish Guards (which at least gave him a year of training).

John was eager for battle. He consoled a younger cousin that: “You are bound to get a biff at the Teuton soon”, and when told, in July 1915, that he would be sent to the front when he was 18, responded: “So going in early was a damned good move after all.”

His father wrote to a friend how bitterly he resented that his children’s youth should be “blasted by this shadow; but they don’t, and that’s what’s so hard to realise.” Kipling’s friend, the novelist Rider Haggard, noted after a visit to Rudyard and Carrie that “one can see they are terrified lest he should be sent to the front and killed”. But they thought it right, above all else, to prevent a German victory.

Carrie told her mother: “One can’t let one’s friends’ and neighbours’ sons be killed in order to save us and our son. There is no chance John will survive unless he is so maimed from a wound as to be unfit to fight. We know it and he does – we all know it.”

After John was lost, the Kiplings hoped for months that he had been taken prisoner. His body was never found. (The body of an unknown Irish Guards officer buried in 1919 was identified in 1992 as that of John, but this identification has since been contested.) They never learnt how he died. Haggard found an account that John’s jaw was blown off and he took refuge in a crater which was promptly blown up by a shell, but he never passed on this information.

Devastated but stoical, Rudyard and Carrie Kipling acknowledged that their son was only one of millions of casualties. What had happened to them was happening to countless other families, so why should they expect to be spared? Kipling wrote to his schoolfriend Lionel Dunsterville: “I hear he finished well. It was a short life. I’m sorry that all the years’ work ended in that one afternoon, but – lots of people are in our position and it’s something to have bred a man.” The grieving parent in “My Boy Jack” is likewise offered the cold comfort that her son “did not shame his kind”.

Rudyard Kipling turned his creative energies into commemorating the war dead in his work for the Imperial War Graves Commission, in writing the History of the Irish Guards in the Great War (John’s regiment) and his Epitaphs of the War, including the famous “Common Form”:

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

He also arranged for the “Last Post” to be sounded every evening at the Loos Memorial, a custom that continued until 1940.

Tomorrow: The death of Edith Cavell

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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