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.)

We can guess what Kipling felt about the founding of the Irish Free State, always referred to by Honor Tracy, herself aggressively Irish, as that ‘cockeyed grace-and-favour republic’. Kipling’s Mulvaney might have coined the phrase, but Kipling had travelled a long way since his Soldiers Three days by the time he wrote The Irish Guards in the Great War. He was shaken and humbled, as the British Empire was to be. When his son John, aged barely 17, was rejected by the Navy because of poor eyesight, he wanted to go off and enlist in the ranks, but his father used his friendship with Lord Roberts to get him a commission in the Irish Guards. He disappeared the following year in the Battle of Loos, one of the bloodiest defeats in the history of the British Army, though a mere prelude to the Somme a year later. For the rest of the war his parents had no news of what had happened to John. They hoped he might be a prisoner, but no news was ever forthcoming, then or later, even though the Royal Flying Corps dropped leaflets over the German lines near Loos, asking whether anything had been seen or found of the Sohn des weltberühmten Schriftstellers. At last, in 1990, long after it could be any help to the Kiplings, a researcher on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, sifting data on the reburial of unknown soldiers from 1915, cross-checked a discrepant map reference and proved a hitherto anonymous body to be John Kipling’s.

He was one of the first in his regiment of very many. Some years after the war Kipling wrote a moving story called ‘The Gardener’, in which a single parent who has always disguised her son as an adopted nephew, goes on pilgrimage to the vast war cemetery in which he is buried. She cannot find his grave and the gardener shows her ‘where your son lies’. The tale was close to Kipling’s own experience. But at the beginning of the war he was at least as much of an armchair fire-eater as any other father of the time. There is something horribly pathetic about the enthusiastic letters he wrote to his son at the Front, urging him, among other things, to be sure to put a sufficiency of tennis-netting over the trench in which he slept, as a precaution against enemy grenades. Even in such a context the author who was always so knowing in what he wrote was unable to stop himself foisting that knowingness on a son who must already have experienced horrors the father had never dreamed of. We do not know whether John Kipling ever read the paternal advice, or was able to lay his hands on any tennis-netting, because in a few days the Battle of Loos had begun.

The whole Guards Brigade was heavily involved, John being killed with the Irish Second Battalion. Kipling describes the slaughter soberly and in meticulous detail, as he describes every regimental engagement of the war. The Irish Guards had been fortunate ‘to find as their historian the greatest living master of narrative’, John Buchan wrote in his review when the book appeared in April 1923. In an honourable sense that judgment needs qualifying. Kipling had no experience of writing such a narrative; he had never even written a normal novel. His preferred oblique technique, as shown in his brilliant handling of the short story, was as distant as could be from what was required. But he had volunteered, and now he subdued his hand to the work. Buchan was right when he went on to say that ‘no other book can ever have been written exactly like this ... and it seems likely to endure as the fullest document of the war-life of a British regiment, compiled by a man of genius.’ That was the point: the incongruity between the nature of the task, one usually performed by some conscientious amateur and ex-member of the regiment, and the weltberühmte Schriftsteller with an incomparable gift for suggestive description, who yet could have no first-hand knowledge of what he was writing about.

Not the most tactful man in the world where tongue or pen were concerned, Kipling might easily have got it wrong, but by sheer hard work and willpower he got it exactly right. There is no trace of ‘Kipling’ in the two volumes, and yet they could have been written in this way by nobody else. As Henry James noted, Kipling ‘made straight for the common and the characteristic’, the two in this context being the same, and one of the remarkable features of the record, not found in the war memoirs of actual participants like Sassoon and Blunden, is the way he lets details and events speak for themselves. Ironically, Kipling did not suffer here from the handicap of the personal, the over-insistence of the Writer: there is no need for him to comment on the murderous fatuousness of the staff mentality or on generals who planned attacks like Loos and the Somme. His occasional remarks are all the more damning for the restraint with which they are made, and their emphasis is on the dire professionalism of an all too frequently underrated enemy. ‘It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that direct infantry attacks on works begotten out of a generation of thought are not likely to find a fortunate issue.’ Kipling knew very well who was ultimately responsible; his hatred of the German establishment was deep and bitter; and yet here, most unusually for him, such feelings are never indulged, as they were in his wartime story ‘Mary Postgate’.

Gleams of his own kind of language light up the sober narrative from time to time, as when he describes the enemy’s Somme defences:

Some of these were studded with close woods, deadlier even than the fortified villages between them; some cut with narrowing valleys that drew machine-gun fire as chimneys draw draughts; some opening into broad, seemingly smooth slopes, whose every haunch and hollow covered sunk forts, carefully placed minefields, machine-gun pits, gigantic quarries enlarged in the chalk, connecting with systems of catacomb-like dugouts and subterranean works at all depths in which brigades could lie until the fitting moment.

Kipling had seen the country after the war, and his imagination could do the rest. What he saw and what he read in the numberless war diaries and reports he sifted through for the History stayed in his imagination for the rest of his life. After one tour of duty in the trenches two skeleton companies of the First Battalion were at last withdrawn into the sudden calm of a rest area.

The sun was shining; breakfast was ready for the officers and men near some trees. It struck their very tired apprehensions that there was an enormous amount of equipage and service for a very few men, and they noticed dully a sudden hustling off of unneeded plates and cups ... When the first stupor of exhaustion was satisfied their sleep began to be broken by dreams only less horrible than the memories to which they waked.

Like a good journalist Kipling has noted the details in some diary and drawn them out (that ‘hustling off’ of the crockery as if from some failed party where few guests have shown up), while himself more deeply impressed by the after-effects on men’s consciousness of what had been seen and done. These surface to echo eerily in his stories, and in poems like ‘Gethsemane’:

      The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup would pass.
It did not pass, it did not pass,
It did not pass from me.

Kipling was the first writer to explore in his own imaginative terms the recurrence of hideously compulsive war memories, driven to the surface of the mind like the dead from their shallow graves by a new barrage, ‘to be tossed and retossed in stale desolation’. The most memorable of these stories is ‘A Madonna of the Trenches’, which recalls a regimental diary’s observations on the layers and generations of corpses – French, English, German – encountered in grave-digging. To an amateur psychiatrist a shell-shocked casualty after the war pretends with instinctive cunning that these memories of the ancient and still-booted dead sandbagging the trenches are what haunt him: in fact they overlie a much darker, though less apparently grisly, obsession. Kipling was a pioneer, and in his own tormented way a connoisseur, of the hidden things which have since become a commonplace of war psychology.

Like everything Kipling wrote, this war history has his sleep-walker’s power of disturbing the present by evoking what must already have seemed like the past. After a trauma like that of the First or Second World War, no one wants to be reminded for a while – certainly not at the time when Kipling was already at his lonely, self-appointed task. This labour of love, which incidentally gave its author the stomach ulcers which were eventually to kill him, was not written for outsiders, but what it conveys most authentically is the hardest thing of all to convey to outsiders: why did the troops put up with it? Kipling, the non-combatant, knew the answer to that. They were not fighting for ‘king and country but for the honour of the platoon’. Localised male solidarity and loyalty, Zusammen-gehörigkeitsgefühl, as Remarque calls it, is not a fashionable subject today, but it was one that Kipling well understood.

The First Battalion Irish Guards were its regulars, composed almost entirely of Southern Irish Catholics, about whom Kipling, a staunch Unionist, had said some hard things before the war. In his History he praises without stint the men and the padres who gave them absolution under fire. Thanks to huge losses, the Second Battalion, mostly Irish when founded, was at the war’s end composed largely of young English conscripts (the Irish had all been volunteers). These English were as proud as their comrades of being Irish Guardsmen.