Magazine article The Spectator

The Spirit Imbuing a Regiment

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spirit Imbuing a Regiment

Article excerpt

Juliet Townsend

THE IRISH GUARDS IN THE GREAT WAR by Rudyard Kipling, edited by George Webb Spellmount, 24.95, pp. 320

On 4 August, 1914, Carrie Kipling wrote in her diary, `My cold possesses me', to which her husband added, `Incidentally, Armageddon begins.' Their son, John, just short of his 17th birthday, rushed to enlist, but was turned down because of his age and poor eyesight. The personal intervention of Lord Roberts, Colonel-in-Chief of the Irish Guards, secured him a commission in the Regiment. He was still not 17 when he reported for duty. A year later he was sent to France. His mother records:

He looked very straight and smart and young as he turned at the top of the stairs to say, `Send my love to Dad'.

Six weeks later he was posted missing at Loos, and after months of agonising false hopes his parents had to accept that he was dead. 'I don't suppose there is much hope for my boy', Kipling wrote with grim self control to his friend Dunsterville (Stalky), `however, I hear that he finished well'.

John's death reinforced his father's hatred of the `muddy-faced Hun-folk', already chillingly expressed in stories like `Mary Postgate' and `Swept and Garnished'. He was haunted by the fact that his son had no known grave, and this contributed to his devoted work on the Imperial War Graves Commission, for which he chose all the official inscriptions, including that on the headstone of every unidentified soldier, `Known unto God'. Kipling's other tribute to his dead son was to accept, early in 1917, the commission to write the official regimental history. It was a labour of love, accomplished, as he said himself, `with agony and bloody sweat over five and a half years of meticulous and laborious toil'. Long out of print, the first volume, The Irish Guards in the Great War: The First Battalion, has been reissued, embellished by excellent contemporary photographs and an interesting foreword by George Webb. The Second Battalion is to follow in the autumn.

This has certainly been a worthwhile exercise. The Observer review in 1923 said that `Mr Kipling has accepted an unwonted servitude ... and ennobled a type of composition which literature has scarcely hitherto made its own.' The truth is that the regimental history as a literary form, with its meticulous attention to detail, its concentration on one tiny sector of the Front ('a battalion's field is bounded by its own vision'), its chronicling of every march and counter-march and its bleakly eloquent casualty lists, was peculiarly suited to Kipling's genius. The discipline of the form and the fact that his own emotions were engaged but held under rigid control, gives this account of one regiment's war exceptional force. Kipling's son had been in the Second Battalion, so his loss is not described here, although we catch a glimpse of the whole Regiment dining together as the 2nd Battalion made its way to Loos:

There are few records of this historic meeting, for the youth and the strength that gathered by the cookers in that open sunlit field has been several times wiped out and replaced.

We learn in George Webb's introduction that John's body was discovered, identified and re-interred in 1992, too late to console his parents.

Field-Marshal Templar said of this book, `What he recorded, with such infinite love and labour, was the spirit imbuing a regiment.' We see here the distinctive ethos of the Irish Guards, their heroic Catholic Chaplains, of whom only one came through the war unscathed; their often macabre sense of humour; the distinctive relationship between officers and men and their fighting qualities, `The Irish move to the sound of the guns/Like salmon to the sea. …

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