Looking into Hell: Kipling and the Great War

Guest post for Wordsworth Editions…

During a visit in the winter of 1918, Rider Haggard – who believed in reincarnation – asked Rudyard Kipling if he thought the earth was one of the hells. His old friend replied that he did not think this, he was certain of it (qtd. in Wilson: 1994, 306). And hell it had been. The Great War was barely a month ended and for grieving families the Armistice brought no relief. Kipling’s only son, John, was killed during the Battle of Loos. Like his father, John’s eyesight was terrible, and he failed every medical he took. Kipling pulled some strings with his friend Lord Roberts, a colonel in the Irish Guards, getting John into the battalion as a subaltern. His body was not identified until 1992; all his parents ever knew was that he was reported injured and missing in action. He was eighteen years old.

Kipling’s response to the war was, therefore, complicated. Much as war poetry evolved from the romantic idealism of Rupert Brooke to the angry protest of Siegfried Sassoon and, finally, the haunting tragedy of Wilfred Owen, there is a definite progression in Kipling’s war stories that is both intellectual and spiritual. As an imperialist and a patriot, he was recruited by the Government to write propaganda in 1914, as he had done in the Boer War. His pamphlets and speeches did much to motivate volunteers and reassure the British public, with a focus on honour and glory over the horrors of trench warfare. Horror was reserved for accounts of German atrocities, such as the so-called ‘Rape of Belgium’, in which homes were looted and burned and civilians, including women and children, executed. To Kipling, the war was nothing less than a crusade against barbarism. This was the subject of ‘Swept and Garnished’, the first of a trio of savage war stories published between January and September 1915. Notably, Kipling chooses to make his point through the uncanny, essentially inverting his famous ghost story of 1904, ‘They’, a tale of spectral children who can only be seen by bereaved parents. In ‘Swept and Garnished’, the flat of a Berlin housewife, Frau Ebermann, is invaded by five accusatory child refugees from Belgium while she’s in bed with the flu. She initially disputes their version of events, arguing that anyone killed were combatants, then that the numbers were exaggerated and, finally, that any child deaths were accidents and the fault of the children themselves for running into the path of the German column. The climax plays upon a myth that German soldiers hacked off the right arms of little boys, so they could not grow up to fight back:

‘But now we will go away from here, the poor lady is tired,’ said the elder girl, plucking his sleeve.

‘Oh, you hurt, you hurt!’ he cried, and burst into tears.

‘What is that for?’ said Frau Ebermann. ‘To cry in a room where a poor lady is sick is very inconsiderate.’

‘Oh, but look, lady!’ said the elder girl.

Frau Ebermann looked and saw. (Kipling: 1987, 338).

When her maid returns, she finds Frau Ebermann on her knees trying to wash the blood only she can see off the floor.

After this assault on the complacency and denial of the German people and the brutality of their troops, Kipling then turned his ire on neutral countries. In ‘Sea Constables: A Tale of ’15’, a naval officer and three members of the Volunteer Reserve swap stories over dinner of a neutral blockade-runner each had encountered. Although not stated outright, the implication is that the man is American, and is supplying oil to German submarines. To avoid a diplomatic incident, the Admiralty had ordered him to be shadowed but unmolested. One of the men, Maddington, tells the group that the game finally ended when the ‘Newt’ came down with pneumonia. He had begged to be taken to England to receive medical attention, but Maddington had refused and the man had died. The evening and the story ends with the toast: ‘Damnation to all neutrals!’ (Kipling: 2009, 39).

‘Mary Postgate’ is even darker. The title character is a 44-year-old unmarried lady’s companion who becomes attached to her employer’s orphaned nephew, Wynn. He never misses a chance to insult and humiliate her, while she indulges him as a mother would, until he joins the Royal Flying Corps and is killed during training when he falls from his aircraft. After the funeral, as Mary walks to town to buy kerosene to burn Wynn’s childhood possessions, a child is killed close to her by what she believes to be a German bomb, although the attending physician tells her that it was just an unsafe outbuilding collapsing. When she gets home to light ‘the match that would burn her heart to ashes’ she finds a German airman in her garden (Kipling: 1987, 352). Like Wynn, he has fallen from his plane. She fetches Wynn’s revolver from the house, and calmly returns to watch the man die:

She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling. There could be no mistake. She closed her eyes and drank it in. Once it ceased abruptly.

‘Go on,’ she murmured, half aloud. ‘That isn’t the end.’

Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. ‘That’s all right,’ said she contentedly, and went up to the house, where she scandalized routine by taking a luxurious hot bath before tea, and came down looking, as Miss Fowler said when she saw her lying all relaxed on the other sofa, ‘Quite handsome!’ (Kipling: 1987, 355).

The sexual pleasure in the German’s death – the man described throughout as ‘It’ rather than ‘he’ – is blatant, and the story is framed by a poem called ‘The Beginings’ which documents the process whereby ‘the English began to hate’. The story may of course be more multi-layered than this. The German airman is clearly Wynn’s double, which raises the possibility that Mary is in fact symbolically punishing her ungrateful tormentor, but the beautiful line about the striking of the match would seem to overrule this interpretation. Propaganda is nothing if not direct; Like Maddington, she let a man she could have saved die, and she came when he breathed his last.

A month after ‘Sea Constables’ and ‘Mary Postgate’ were published, John Kipling was reported missing. Kipling’s war fiction promptly ceased for the duration, and in one of his final stories, ‘Uncovenanted Mercies’ (1932), he depicted hell as a crowd waiting on a railway platform for friends and family who never arrived…

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