Such were the demands on many young men, not motivated by any political ideal, or heroic pressure, to fight for their king and country in 1914, but were driven by the sense of advtenture and excitement, that war often evokes in the hearts of young men, that they queued in their thousands to answer the call to arms. If unsuccessful, due to some physical deficiency (although medical check-ups were usually just a formality ), family often used its influence to gain admission to the armed forces.
There was an urgency about it that clouded rational judgment. The belief that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’, and that it was an excellent opportunity for rapid promotion, was widespread. Better get in quick before it was all over. There was a festive atmosphere at many recruitment rallies, music, songs, and heartbroken girls waving good bye.
Few families were caught up in this moment more than the Kiplings. Their son John, known as Jack, suffering from severe shortsightedness, was repeatedly turned down for the navy, and army.
His farther Rudyard Kipling was the most successful and widely read author of his day delighting readers with his stories of India (where he grew up ), enforcing Victorian attitudes upon native populations, and British greatness.* He and his wife Carrie had two children, Josephine and John. Josephine sadly died at the age of six, leaving her parents inconsolable.
But Jack and his father grew close. Moved by his son’s ambitions to fight for his country, he shared in his son’s upset of being repeatedly turned down for service. Kipling appealed directly to his friend Lord Roberts, commander-in-chief of the British army, and colonel of the Irish Guards. Jack, despite his eyesight deficiency, was immediately accepted into the Guards as a young officer.
On August 26 1915, nearly six weeks after his 18th birthday, Jack was sent to France and to the front line at Loos. The next day, in a hopeless exchange with the enemy, Jack was last seen stumbling through the mud blindly. A shell blast had apparently ripped off his face. His body was never found.**
The Kiplings were deeply traumatised by the loss of their son. At first it was not known whether Jack was dead, wounded or taken prisoner. As the weeks turned into months and there was still no sign of him, the Kiplings refused to give up hope. Instead they embarked on a fruitless and heartbreaking campaign to find him. They went to France. They interviewed witnesses, made impassioned appeals for anyone with any infromation to come forward. They even arranged leaflet drops over enemy lines in an attempt to find news of their Jack. A notice was published in The Times on October 7 1915 confirming the known facts that he was wounded and missing. Did anyone have further news?
It was not until 1919 that the Kiplings accepted that they had lost their only son. He bitterly wrote, perhaps admitting his feelings of guilt at his role in getting Jack a commission in the Irish Guards:
“ If any question why we died
Tell them, because their fathers lied.”
After the war Kipling became a founding member of the War Graves Commission, setting in motion a vast unprecedented act of national remembrance in which every fallen soldier was to be reburied in a marked grave, each with his own headstone. Visitors today to north-eastern France can only be moved by these immaculately kept, garden-like, British, Canadian, Newfoundland, Australian and New Zealand war graves, over which powerful monuments overlook the landscape in sad but hopeful memory. Kipling’s most significant contribution to the project was his selection of the bibical phrase ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore‘ ( Ecclesiasticus 44.14 KJV ) found on the Stones of Remembrance in larger war cemeteries, and his suggestion ‘Known Unto God‘ for the gravestones of unidentified servicemen. He chose the inscription ‘The Glorious Dead’ for the cenotaph, Whitehall, London.
But there was to be no gravestone for his own son. Instead Jack’s name is engraved on the Loos Memorial Wall in the Dud Corner Cemetery, in Loos-en-Gohelle. In a final tribute Kipling paid the head gardner, Mr Prynn, to have the last post sounded every evening in honour of his son. This continued until Kipling’s death January 18 1936.
Next week: How the brilliant artist/architect Edwin Lutyens created the Thiepval Memorial to ‘the Missing’ at the Somme.
NOTES: * Rudyard Kipling is rarely read today, maily because of his extreme imperialistic views. But in the early 20th century he was lionised as Britain’s greatest author, famous for his The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, Kim, Captains Courageous, IF - , Gunga Din and The White Man’s Burden. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1907. After the war, he wrote a two-volume history of his son’s regiment The Irish Guards, published in 1923, and considered one of the finest examples of regimental history.
**Of course there were thousands and thousands of missing young men, vaporised by high explosive, or lost and drowned in the mud. It was thought that Jack’s body was found as recently as 1992, but that identification has been challenged.
During a recent visit I came across the headstone of Patrick Canavan, Lancashire Fusiliers, at the Connaught Cemetery, Thiepval, killed July 1 1916. Additional information supplied said: Husband of Bridget Canavan of Cellar, Rosmuck, Co Galway.
Also the headstone of Patrick Carrick, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, also killed on the first day of the Somme, at the Y Ravine Cemetery. It says, simply, ‘born in Galway.’
In this moving poem Kipling, having exhausted the land in his search for his son, appeals to the
sea for help:
‘My Boy Jack’
“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 any one 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.