Stephen Carver writes on Kipling and the Great War

Looking in to Hell. Kipling and the Great War.

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 was combatant, 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.

Driven by the loss of his son, Kipling joined Sir Fabian Ware’s Imperial War Graves Commission (founded in 1917), next writing a story not of hatred and revenge but of the possibility of healing. ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’ (written in 1917 but not published until December 1918), is Kipling’s first war story since ‘Mary Postgate’. Largely a series of character studies, the story, such as it is, introduces a masonic lodge – ‘Faith and Works 5937’ – established by a London tobacconist to serve brother-masons in the military hospitals and on leave because, he explains, ‘All ritual is fortifying’ (Kipling: 2009, 50). The implication is that the Craft can be as redemptive and nurturing as the Church, but at the end of the day it is the ends not the means that are important.

‘Faith and Works 5937’ subsequently becomes a framing narrative to which Kipling returns several times to explore the possibility of post-war rebirth, although in his celestial fantasy ‘On the Gate: A Tale of ’16’ (1926) we see no Germans enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The common theme is the psychological damage that continued to haunt soldiers long after they returned home, just as it did Kipling. His last two collections of short fiction – reflectively entitled Debits and Credits (1926) and Limits and Renewals (1932) – are dominated by the war and its aftermath, eleven stories dealing directly with the subject. ‘Hell’ becomes a controlling metaphor for both the trenches and the fracturing of identity that invariably followed, as described in the poem ‘The Mother’s Son’ that serves as a preface to the story of one shell-shocked veteran, ‘Fairy-Kist’ (1927):

And no one knows when he’ll get well –

So, there’ll he’ll have to be:

And, ’spite of the beard in the looking-glass,

I know that man is me! (Kipling: 1987, 123).

‘Fairy-Kist’ is one of a group of the ‘Faith and Works’ stories that follow a Freudian track in which a mentally ill survivor overcomes suicidal depression and/or neurotic compulsion through the discovery and recognition of the initial trauma. In ‘Fairy’Kist’, a man called Wollin, ‘his eyes readjustin’ ’emselves after looking into Hell’, hears voices compelling him to plant flowers by the wayside ‘for those that have no gardens’ (Kipling: 1987, 135). His voices are finally traced to a nurse reading him the Victorian children’s story Mary’s Meadow! in a field hospital. Similarly, in ‘The Woman in His Life’ (1928), a suicidal veteran of tunnel warfare struggling with ‘the horror, the blackness, the loss of the meaning of things’ faces his fears when he has to crawl into a badger’s set to save his dog (Kipling: 1987, 55). The last of ‘The Janeites’ (1924), a club of doomed artillerymen, finds solace in the novels of Jane Austen (as did Kipling after the loss of John); and in ‘The Tender Achilles’ (1929), a brilliant surgeon paralysed by guilt over the men he lost in his clearing station is saved when colleagues counterfeit a mistaken diagnosis to convince him that even peacetime doctors under none of the pressure he made mistakes. Finally, in ‘The Miracle of Saint Jubanus’ (1930), a French veteran haunted by the image of a soldier dancing with a skeleton in a trench is healed by laughter when a similarly weird tableau is accidentally recreated in church when some choirboys and an atheist become entangled in the priest’s umbrella.

Only ‘A Friend of the Family’ (1924) returns to Kipling’s earlier theme of hatred and revenge, presented thematically as ‘injustice’. In the story – another ‘Faith and Works’ anecdote – Bert Vigor’s family business is ruined by a commercial rival exempted from service by the same tribunal that had sent Bert to the Front. Although he does not survive the war, an enigmatic ANZAC friend visits Bert’s village and destroys the rival’s home and livelihood with Mills bombs, fabricating an air raid. (Apparently, men in ‘reserved occupations’ were no better than neutrals and Germans.) This is presented as a positive outcome, and the story is essentially comic: ‘Oh, there was fun in Hell those days, wasn’t there boys?’ says the storyteller, Bevin, a Gallipoli survivor, getting a laugh from his companions.

What’s most interesting, however, is the story that is hinted at but not told in the opening frame:

‘…’Member the hospital on the beach?’ asked Orton.

‘Yes. An’ the man without the face – preaching,’ said Bevin, sitting up a little.

‘Till he died,’ said the Australian, his voice lowered.

‘And afterwards,’ Bevin added, lower still.

‘Christ! Were you there that night?’

Bevin nodded. The Australian choked off something he was going to say, as a Brother on his left claimed him (Kipling: 2009, 249).

The horror and unreality of the Front make it a gothic space. As Sandra Kemp has argued, the paradox of modern, industrialised conflict was that the violent loss of coherence created irrational thoughts and weird associations: ‘In that, the Front assimilated life to death and destroyed any sense of individual agency, trench warfare took on an aspect of the uncanny – an experience of horrible enchantment whose rules were learned through paradox and shock … the collapse of categories and continuities encouraged the resurgence of liminal, archaic mentalities’ (Kemp: 1988, 73-74). This can be seen, for example, in the legend of the ‘Angels of Mons’ who supposedly protected members of the British Expeditionary Force in their first major engagement. The origin of this, in fact, was the popular short Story ‘The Bowmen’ (1914) by another British gothicist, Arthur Machen, in which phantom archers from the Battle of Agincourt were summoned by a soldier calling on St. George for aid. The idea was picked up by the Spiritualist magazine, and corroborative accounts and increasingly wild rumours were soon common cultural currency. In short, as the historian, Eric Leed wrote, ‘The circumstances of war produced a notion that the relationship between individuals and the forces that governed them was much closer to magic’ (Leed: 1979, 129).

Whereas the Gallipoli ghost story of ‘A Friend of the Family’ was cut short, the veil is fully lifted at ‘Faith and Works’ in the story ‘A Madonna of the Trenches’ (1924). Brother Strangwick, who had been a Runner, ‘went to bits’ in 1918, ending up under the care of Dr Keede, now a fellow lodge member and a regular character in the series. He goes into hysterics during a lecture when he hears a chair creak, babbling about ‘the frozen dead who creak in the frost’. ‘That’s not his real trouble – any more than ’twas last time’, whispers Keede (Kipling: 2009, 197). Beneath this horrific image of a French trench shored up with corpses, however, is a much more troubling vision which Keede, by degrees, uncovers ‘like a magazine detective’ (Kipling: 2009, 199). The real reason behind Strangwick’s neurasthenia is the mysterious death of the paternal Sergeant Godsoe. Strangwick was the last person to see him alive, in the deserted trench where the dead creaked ‘like leather’.

Godsoe was a friend of Strangwick’s family known affectionately as ‘Uncle John’. On leave, Strangwick’s Aunt Bella gives him a message to relay to Godsoe that, ‘I expect to be through with my little trouble by the twenty-first of next month, an’ I’m dyin’ to see him as soon as possible after that date’ (Kipling: 2009, 203-204). Her trouble is cancer, and she dies on the given date. That same night in the eerie trench, Strangwick witnesses her ghostly reunion with her secret lover, Godsoe:

‘…An’ e’ was lookin’ at ’er as though he could ’ave et er, an’ she was lookin’ at ’im the same way, out of ’er eyes. Then he says: “Why. Bella,” ’e says, “this must be only the second time we’ve been alone together in all these years.” An’ I saw ’er half hold out her arms to ’im in that perishin’ cold … The ’e made a snatch to unsling ’is rifle. The ’e cuts ’is handed away saying: “No! Don’t tempt me, Bella. We’ve all Eternity ahead of us. An hour or two won’t make any odds.” Then he picks up the braziers an’ goes on to the dug-out door … All that time Auntie Armine stood with ’er arms out – an’ a look in ’er face! I didn’t know such things were or could be! He comes out and says: “Come in, my dear”; an’ she stoops an’ goes into the dug-out with that look on her face … An’ then ’e shuts the door from inside an’ starts wedgin’ it up’ (Kipling: 2009, 208).

Godsoe is discovered the next morning asphyxiated and frozen stiff between two charcoal braziers. His suicide is covered up to protect his reputation, and Strangwick cracks up soon afterwards, although he admits to Keede that no Runner worth his salt would be bothered by a few dead bodies. His problem is much more metaphysical: ‘if the dead do rise,’ he laments, ‘why, what in ’ell becomes of me an’ all I’ve believed all me life?’ (Kipling: 2009, 203). This is a classic gothic move. Even though Strangwick himself cites the ‘Angel of Mons’ to initially dismiss what he says he saw as a ‘hallucination’ while Keede is coolly scientific, the alternative explanation remains. Fostered by the unreality of the trenches, something ancient, primal and supernatural has occupied the space vacated by civilised rationality.

This is doubly transgressive because of the overt sexuality of Godsoe and Bella. Strangwick’s response to this unsought insight into sex and death is to abandon his fiancée because ‘She don’t know what reel things mean’. Having witnessed the spiritually and sexually transcendent, he cannot commit himself to any sort of courtship ‘till I see that look on a face’. This, then, is the root of his ‘nerves’, and Dr Keede’s conclusion that, ‘now he’s got it off his mind he’ll sleep’ fails to contain the revelation (Kipling: 2009, 210). For all the biblical allusion (St. Agnes’ Day, the implied link between Bella and the Virgin Mary, the reference to 1 Corinthians 15:32), the vision has been thanatic and destructive.

A more positive depiction of resurrection comes a year later in ‘The Gardener’ (1925), a sad and beautiful story that represents the creative and conceptual zenith of Kipling’s war stories. Although it lacks the overly optimistic closure of the ‘Faith and Works’ stories that surround it, it is, perhaps, the most profound. ‘The Gardener’ is ‘Mary Postgate’ redeemed; not exactly supernatural, but Christian, set partly on the Home Front but turning full circle by returning to Belgium and the ‘merciless sea of black crosses’ that are the graves of the young men who fought there. Like Mary, Helen Turrell has raised an orphan boy since infancy who, like John Kipling, has gone missing in action. Michael was her dissolute brother’s son, we are told, aware but untroubled by his illegitimacy and allowed to call his aunt ‘Mummy’ in private. Like Kipling and his wife Carrie, Helen goes through the agony of not knowing and the ‘ritual’ that the English had ‘evolved’ to meet the ‘experience of war’, observing to herself that, ‘I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin’. She sleepwalks through the Armistice and ‘moving at an immense distance, she sat on various relief committees and held strong views – she heard herself delivering them – about the site of the proposed village War Memorial’ (Kipling: 2009, 325 – 327). Eventually, Helen is notified that Michael’s remains have been identified and buried in a military cemetery. She decides to visit the grave.

As she travels ‘further into the nightmare’, Helen meets a notionally rather crass woman called Mrs Scarsworth who visits and photographs graves for grieving families. Although Mrs Scarsworth claims to have lost no one herself, she later breaks down and confesses that it is the grave of her secret lover she visits. Echoing Strangwick’s definition of ‘reel things’ and the unalloyed passion of Bella and Godsoe, she bares her soul to Helen in a tragic and crafty piece of foreshadowing:

‘…He was everything to me that he oughtn’t to have been – the one real thing – the only thing that ever happened to me in all my life; and I’ve had to pretend he wasn’t. I’ve had to watch every word I said, and think out what lie I’d tell next, for years and years! … I can’t go to him again with nobody in the world knowing.’ (Kipling: 2009, 330 – 331).

When Helen arrives at the cemetery she cannot find Michael’s grave. She approaches a man tending the graves and he asks who she’s looking for:

‘Lieutenant Michael Turrell – my nephew,’ said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.

The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.

‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you where your son lies.’

Helen looks back at the man as she leaves – the one person in the world knowing – ‘supposing him to be the gardener’ (Kipling: 2009, 332). This alludes to John 20:15 when Christ appears to Mary Magdalen after she discovers his tomb is empty: ‘Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away’.

Edmund Wilson wrote ‘The self-repression and the hopeless grief of the unmarried mother in The Gardener speak for the real Kipling’ (Wilson: 1941, 180 – 181). Helen is a much more emotionally deep character than either Mary Postgate or Frau Ebermann because her journey was also her author’s. His other memorial to his son was a two-volume history of the Irish Guards, while through the War Graves Commission he chose as an epitaph for Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Stones of Remembrance Ecclesiasticus 44:14, ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’, the phrase ‘Known unto God’ for the graves of unidentified soldiers and the inscription on the Cenotaph, ‘The Glorious Dead’. His war poetry was collected in The Years Between in 1919. Like Helen Turrell’s private pilgrimage and, indeed, the odyssey of the country itself, Kipling’s war writing collectively represents a journey away from the lies of propaganda toward the terrible reality of violence, grief and the struggle to heal. And in this often very dark, by turns honest and surreal exploration he becomes one of the truly great chroniclers of the price the British paid for their part in Armageddon and its aftermath.


Kemp, Sandra. (1988). Kipling’s Hidden Narratives. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Kipling, Rudyard. (1987). A Diversity of Creatures. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1917).

Kipling, Rudyard. (1987). Limits and Renewals. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1932).

Kipling, Rudyard. (2009). Debits and Credits. Looe: House of Stratus. (Original work published 1926).

Leed, Eric J. (1979). No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, Angus. (1994). The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. London: Pimlico.

Wilson, Edmund. (1941). The Wound and the Bow. Cambridge: Houghton

Steven Carver is the author of ‘Shark Alley’ and ‘The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy and Corruption.