Hustling off the Crockery

John Bayley

  • The Irish Guards in the Great War: The First Battalion by Rudyard Kipling
    Spellmount, 320 pp, £24.95, January 1997, ISBN 1 873376 72 3
  • The Irish Guards in the Great War: The Second Battalion by Rudyard Kipling
    Spellmount, 223 pp, £24.95, January 1998, ISBN 1 873376 83 9

At the height of one of the IRA bombing campaigns, a sergeant in the Irish Guards, on duty outside the barracks, was asked by some British civilians what he thought about the campaign. He didn’t think about it: he had received orders about security but was indifferent to the cause of all the fuss. A professional soldier from Limerick, he got on with his job. A chastened Kipling, who had once held that everyone must have the strongest views about everything where race and nationhood were concerned, would none the less have respected the sergeant’s attitude. Time and again in this history he emphasises that ‘a battalion’s field is bounded by its own vision.’ Still more so, by implication, its views of the matter in hand.

Private Mulvaney, Kipling’s eminently bogus creation in Soldiers Three, and spokesman for some of Kipling’s own most tiresome exuberances, was wont to distinguish, although on mercifully rare occasions, between good and bad Irishmen: the latter, if they were soldiers in the British Army, holding uppity views on mutiny, sedition and the wearing of the green. They duly get their come-uppance in one story at the hands of the good Irishman Mulvaney. Kipling’s view was that the British Empire stood together, solid in all its parts, its model the Roman Empire, where the legions would take any barbarian who would join and turn him into a good Roman. As a good Kipling Irishman, Mulvaney was a West Briton, as mocked by Molly Ivors in Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’. In the same spirit the best troops on the Wall in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill are ‘North British’ auxiliaries, i.e. the Scots. Kipling’s parallel with the Roman Empire is misleading: the Huns, Germans and Sarmatians beyond the pale never had the intention of destroying the Empire – they wanted to join it, to become generals and emperors themselves. Something not so dissimilar occurred in the British Empire, with Kipling’s enthusiastic approval, but the idea received a blow after 1918 from which it never recovered.

Kipling’s change of heart is revealed by the poem he wrote at the end of the war, ‘The Irish Guards 1918’, in which he praises the Irish as hereditary soldiers of fortune, ‘the Wild Geese’:

We’re not so old in the Army List,
  But we’re not so young at our trade,
For we had the honour at Fontenoy
  Of meeting the Guards’ Brigade ...

The fashion’s all for khaki now,
  But once through France we went
Full-dressed in scarlet Army cloth
  The English – left at Ghent!
They’re fighting on our side today,
  But, before they changed their clothes,
The half of Europe knew our fame,
  As all of Ireland knows!

The tone, half-ironic and half-fawning, is unexpectedly complex, as often with Kipling. The Irish are a proud and independent nation who fought for France once and are doing so again, with England not their enemy this time but their ally. On both occasions, as a kind of proud private joke, they wore and are wearing English uniforms. (The Irish referred to the ‘English’ then rather than the ‘British’, a term favoured by James I but not by his English subjects, who in those days rejected it as firmly as the Scots, Welsh and Irish reject it today.)

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