These Epitaphs were first published in The Years Between (1919); they are collected in:
Kipling modelled his Epitaphs of the War on The Greek Anthology - a collection of short poems, some written as far back as the sixth century BC. The earliest ones are epitaphs – memorial inscriptions for tombs. The most famous is Simonides’ contemporary epitaph for the 300 Spartans who fought and died at Thermopylae against the Persian invasion in 480 BC:
Go tell the Spartans, you who read:Some are also epigrams, with a sting in the tail, like this one by the female poet Anyte about 300 BC:
Manes, when living, was a slave: dead now,Kipling’s “BATTERIES OUT OF AMMUNITION” is similarly both an epitaph and an epigram. Kipling would only have known The Greek Anthology in translation. Though he studied Latin at school he did very little Greek: in a letter to Reverend Aubrey Neville St. John Mildmay, 22 June 1935, he wrote:
About my Greek, Monday morning Greek Testament for two terms was about the extent of it. [Letters, (Ed. Thomas Pinney) Vol. 6].See also Susan Treggiari's article on "Kipling and the Classical World"; and see the Notes below on V.A.D. (MEDITERRANEAN) for a direct borrowing from a translation.
Some Critical Opinions
J M S Tompkins writes of the Epitaphs (p. 189):
In these cases Kipling commits his work to the strict control of an ancient model - the epitaphs of the Greek Anthology - and borrows composure from it.Peter Keating also discusses the Epitaphs (p. 210):
The inscriptions that Kipling composed or selected for the Imperial War Graves Commission, and for governments and institutions throughout the world, should not be confused with his series of "Epitaphs", first published in The Years Between, and then, slightly expanded and with the more familiar title "Epitaphs of the War", in the Inclusive Edition of his poetry.Jan Montefiore, in another interesting analysis of the Epitaphs (pp. 156-159), makes the point that Kipling's use of archaisms in form and expression can make for fine poems, as in "A Drifter off Tarentum":
Combining the hexameter and pentameter of classical elegiac couplets with English rhyme, and evoking the sinuosities of Latin syntax in the delayed verb 'descended' and the inversion of 'many he found', this taut quatrain has the compressed energy of a classic Latin epigram. The archaic language with its compound adjectives 'wind-bitten and 'eye-pecking', and the ingenious allegory whereby underwater mines laid by submarines become legendary 'eggs of death spawned by invisible hulls', assimilate the steam- ships and exploding mines of modern industrialized warfare into classical elegy, so that the dead men become at once ancient warriors and modern heroes.My Boy Jack? by Tonie and Valmai Holt is a biography of Kipling’s son John, missing, believed killed, on 27 September 1915 in the Battle of Loos. His body was never found.
In spite of Kipling’s disclaimer, quoted above, that the Epitaphs 'have neither personal nor geographical basis', the Holts find (p. 163):
so many echoes of John, direct and indirect, in them. For instance, "An Only Son":Perhaps it was wishful thinking. Angus Wilson (p. 402) remarked that it is “grimly ironic” to place Rider Haggard’s discovery that John had last been seen “crying with pain from a mouth wound” against this epitaph.
“EQUALITY OF SACRIFICE”
a 'Have' is a person possessing wealth or resources, contrasted with a ‘have-not’, who has little wealth.
A SON and AN ONLY SON
See the comment by the Holts above..
HINDU SEPOY IN FRANCE
Sir Charles Wheeler, in his autobiography High Relief, describes the unveiling of the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle in 1927:
Everyone present was eager to see the poet, and became entranced – we all did – by the words of Rudyard who, though not on the Speech List, was called to his feet and spoke without notes briefly and movingly about the bravery of Indian soldiers fighting on European soil. His earnest words silenced the restless feet and impatient murmurings so that you could hear the proverbial pin drop till he sat down to tumultuous applause. (Quoted in Tonie and Valmai Holt p. 173)Charles Wheeler was the sculptor the Kiplings chose to make the bronze plaque to John’s memory in Burwash Church.
See the comment by Peter Keating quoted above..
In World War I, the executions of 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers took place for crimes such as desertion and cowardice. Their names were not put on war memorials after the war. Many of their nearest relatives were told that they had died in France but were never told how or why.
A new law passed in 2006 as part of the Armed Forces Act pardoned men in the British and Commonwealth armies who were executed in World War One. The law removes the stain of dishonour on war records with regards to executions. Defence Secretary Des Browne said:
I believe it is better to acknowledge that injustices were clearly done in some cases - even if we cannot say which - and to acknowledge that all these men were victims of war. I hope that pardoning these men will finally remove the stigma with which their families have lived for years. See this web-site.SHOCK
This is another of Kipling’s many tributes to mother-love – see his poem "Mother o' Mine" , and this passage from “The Knife and the Naked Chalk’ (Rewards and Fairies, p. 138 line 11):
When my spirit came back I heard her whisper in my ear, ' Whether you live or die, or are made different, I am your Mother’. I was very glad. She was glad too. Neither of us wished to lose the other. There is only the one Mother for the one son.TWO CANADIAN MEMORIALS
Col. C. H. Milburn writes on 'Kipling’s Epitaphs' in KJ 39 for September 1936:
On April 3rd, 1924, the citizens of Saulte St. Marie, Ontario, Canada, wrote to Mr. Kipling stating that they were erecting a Monument to the 350 men of their town who died in the Great War; also saying:The last line of the Epitaph is echoed in the last verse of "The King’s Pilgrimage” (1922). Col. Milburn’s article continues:
Now, my last Epitaph collected, is one specially written, but which was not used, and it is interesting from more than one point of view. In a letter from Mr. Kipling during the correspondence I had with him in November last, (1935) he stated:THE FAVOUR
well knowing I could not endure The speaker feared that if he had to serve for long in the trenches he would be shown up as a coward. Early death was a favour.
Thy line is at end no-one is left alive in his family
I have saved its name he did not live long enough to disgrace it by cowardice.
See the comment by Peter Keating quoted above..
NATIVE WATER-CARRIER (M.E.F.)
Water-Carrier In the blazing sunlight of India water was a necessity, and the bhisti, the native water-carrier, who went into action with the soldiers, a lifeline. See Kipling’s much earlier poem “Gunga Din”.
M.E.F. Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force. A large contingent of Indian troops served in Mesopotamia, which was one of the worst Allied disasters of the War. See Kipling’s bitter poem of that name.
Prometheus brought down fire In Greek myth. He stole fire for men from the Gods, and they punished him by chaining him to a mountain-top where an eagle tore at his liver. They punished this water-carrier with death.
BOMBED IN LONDON
See the comment by Peter Keating quoted above..
We tend to think of air raids and “the Blitz” as a feature of World War II. In fact German Zeppelins (airships) carried out more than 50 raids in the First World War, killing 557 people and causing damage estimated at £1.5 million. Later in the War, German aeroplanes also bombed London.
THE SLEEPY SENTINEL
Sleeping on sentry duty was another military crime punishable by death. See above.
BATTERIES OUT OF AMMUNITION
This is a biting example of an epitaph which is also an epigram. If the workers had kept on making shells instead of taking a holiday, the speakers might not have been killed.
a Shift is a group who work together in a workshop or factory.
Andrew Lycett (p, 639) describes this as “The nearest to self-recrimination in which he [Kipling] indulged”.
Tonie and Valmai Holt discuss this Epitaph (p. 163):
The accepted meaning of 'fathers' is in the general, Establishment/ Government sense of the mismanagement of the conduct of the war. If Kipling did indeed feel that he had, at the least, been economical with the truth about the seriousness of John's myopia, and thus eventually was responsible for his death, this could be a public admission of guilt.A DEAD STATESMAN
This epitaph goes with the previous one. Now one of the “fathers” admits he lied.
I could not dig an echo of Luke 16, 3, where the unjust steward says 'I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.'
What tale shall serve me ?' Even now he is looking for a way to lie himself out of trouble
A DRIFTER OFF TARENTUM
See the comment on this by Jan Montefiore quoted above.
a Drifter is a type of fishing-boat mainly for catching herring.
Tarentum is now Taranto, a port and naval base between the heel and toe of Italy, founded as a Greek colony in 706 BC. In keeping with the Greek theme of the Epitaphs, Kipling uses its original name.
from the wind-bitten North the east coast of Scotland, where the largest herring fleet was based
Searching for eggs of death working as a minesweeper. See Kipling's poem "Minesweepers".
spawned laid by a fish – Kipling uses the perfect word for the context
invisible hulls mines can be laid by submarines
the fishery ended In flame the minesweeper itself struck a mine.
known to the eye-pecking gulls the gulls have learnt that after an explosion food comes to the surface – dead fish, and in this instance dead sailors
RAPED AND REVENGED
for which thing an hundred died this recalls Kipling’s 1888 poem “The Grave of the Hundred Head”, in which a subaltern is shot from ambush and his regiment slaughter 100 Burmans in revenge – “The price of a white man slain.”
An Allied force was sent to Salonica in northern Greece in 1915 to support Serbia. There was very little active fighting until a final push in September 1918 but malaria was rife and deadly. Hospital admissions in 1917 alone were 63,396 out of a strength of about 100,000 men.
An echo, not of the Greek Anthology, but of Richard Lovelace’s poem “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars”:
Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind,This more ancient bride Death
Was constant at my side/ Before I saw thy face the speaker has been out in the trenches, and constantly at risk of death, before he met his bride, presumably on his last leave.
Our marriage, often set – By miracle delayed he was likely to be killed at any time and it is a miracle he lived so long
Life shall cure,/ Almost, of Memory His bride, living on, may almost forget him.
And leave us to endure/ Its immortality Memory lasts forever in the grave.
Ah, would swift ships had never been, for then we ne’er had found In a letter to Reverend Aubrey Neville St. John Mildmay, 22 June 1935, Kipling wrote:
I’ve done epitaphs of sorts, for the war in my book of verse – some of which are naked cribs from the Greek anthologies. [Letters, (Ed. Thomas Pinney) Vol. 6].This Epitaph is just such a “naked crib” [direct copy]. John Symonds’ book Studies of the Greek Poets (1902) has a translation of an epitaph by Callimachus (310 – 240 BC):
Would that swift ships had never been, for so
V.A.D.s were Voluntary Aid Detachment. Auxiliary Nurses, ('men she nursed through pain', line 3) serving for the duration of the War. See for instance Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.
certain keels for whose return the heathen look in vain she has been avenged by the sinking of a number of enemy ('heathen') ships
More from Col. C. H. Milburn’s article on 'Kipling’s Epitaphs' in KJ 39 for September 1936:
In St. Peter's Chapel of the Collegiate Church at Stratford-on- Avon, there is a grey marble tablet, specially designed by Sir George Frampton, called " The Actors' Memorial," and there is on it, the following Epitaph:JOURNALISTS
Again Col. C. H. Milburn’s article on 'Kipling’s Epitaphs':
On November 10th, 1928, Major-General Sir Fabian Ware, Permanent Vice-Chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission, unveiled a panel in the Hall of the Institute of Journalists, 2-4, Tudor Street, London, E.C.4. as a memorial to journalists of the British Empire who fell in the Great War. The bronze panel is let into the oak mantelpiece of the Hall, and inset in this is a wooden cross, from the grave of an unknown soldier. The usual method of disposing of these crosses, when they are replaced by headstones, is to burn them and scatter the ashes upon the graves. Exceptions to this rule are few, but the Imperial War Graves Commission considered the Institute's application for a cross could be entertained, subject to the general suitability of the design for the memorial. Mr. Rudyard Kipling was asked for a short phrase for inscription in the panel, which was only revealed at the unveiling ceremony - and nothing more appropriate could have been given than this Epitaph:Kipling and Other Epitaphs
Apart from the many inscriptions for the great memorials which he composed, you may like to know that there is to this day a certain type of memorial headstone for which he made the general inscription and which is known as a "Kipling Memorial". It commemorates men who were originally buried in a known cemetery but whose graves were later lost. At the foot of this stone are carved the words:
[letter from W. Chambers, Director-General Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 14 July1960, quoted Tonie and Valmai Holt p.142]
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