The memorial at the Kohima War Cemetery, where lie dead of a World War II battle termed “Stalingrad of the East”, asks us: “When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today.” It’s no less true for soldiers now, but do we consider it in our attitudes to them in peace and to ex-servicemen? And it is an old poet, now deemed a standard-bearer of imperialism, who can draw our attention to our shortcomings.
The modern world may never be less hypocritical when it comes to war — we extol the profession of arms, we salute the practitioners’ contribution to preserving our liberty — and we ignore them when they are in need. Be it the plight of the Vietnam ‘vets’ (veterans) in America, the ‘Afgantsy’ in the Soviet Union, and for us, OROP and a few other issues, the record is not too exemplary.
But this trend is scarcely new — even for a country that was once the foremost global power on the strength of its military might, Britain was no better. And Rudyard Kipling pointed it out at least thrice.
We may argue over whether Kipling (1865-1936) exhibits imperial and racial attitudes, but even the most virulent critic cannot accuse him of elitism. For he also gave a voice, in all senses of the word, to those who made the Empire possible — the common British soldier.
Apart from the likes of “The Three Musketeers” or “The Taking of Lungtungpen” about the colourful exploits of privates Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris in his first short story anthology “Plain Tales from the Hills” (1888) (continued in next anthology “Soldiers Three”, 1888), Kipling also used verse for this purpose. “Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses” (1892), doesn’t only deal with soldiers’ lives but social attitudes towards them.
Take “Tommy”, common slang for a soldier, first published March 1, 1890, which begins with an unnamed soldier, turned away from a bar with ridicule, reflecting over his plight.
” ‘O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’;/But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play… and that: “Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep/Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap…”
The soldier stresses: “We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,/But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you..” and “You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:/We’ll wait for extra rations if you treat us rational” but warns: “For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’/But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country,” when the guns begin to shoot;/ Yes it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;/But Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!”
In “The Last of the Light Brigade”, published in April 1890, Kipling deals with the sad aftermath of a celebrated wartime action, immortalised by Lord Tennyson. “There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,/There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night./They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;/They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.”
They finally decide to approach “the man who writes/The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites'”, and in Tennyson’s presence: “‘Beggin’ your pardon,’ he (their spokesman) said,/’You wrote o’ the Light Brigade, sir. Here’s all that isn’t dead./An’ it’s all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin’ the mouth of hell;/For we’re all of us nigh to the workhouse, an’ we thought we’d call an’ tell.”
“No, thank you, we don’t want food, sir; but couldn’t you take an’ write/A sort of ‘to be continued’ and ‘see next page’ o’ the fight?/We think that someone has blundered, an’ couldn’t you tell ’em how?/You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now.”
And in a stanza, omitted in collections, we are told in response to Tennyson’s fiery appeal (in the poem, that is), “They (the British) sent a cheque to the felon that sprang from an Irish bog;/They healed the spavined cab-horse; they housed the homeless dog;/And they sent (you may call me a liar), when felon and beast were paid,/A cheque, for enough to live on, to the last of the Light Brigade.
Strikes a chord?
Then there is “The Absent-Minded Beggar” (1899), referring to a soldier, who is “an absent-minded beggar, but he heard his country’s call”, and beginning: “When you’ve shouted “Rule Britannia”: when you’ve sung “God Save the Queen”/When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth:/Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine/For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?”
Though the first two didn’t do much, this one, part of an appeal by the Daily Mail to raise money for soldiers fighting in the Boer War and their families, helped raise more than 250,000 pounds.
Maybe we need a poet like Kipling also to make us more aware?
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])