“The Song of the Lathes”


(notes by Mary Hamer)

the poem
[January 28th 2015]

Publication history

First appeared in the London Illustrated Sunday Herald 24 February 1918. An American copyright pamphlet was issued 25 February 1918. Next published in the Philadelphia Ledger 17 March 1918 and the Boston Sunday Advertiser, plus other American magazines 20 March 1918. Collected in:
  • The Years Between (1919)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol 33 p. 405
  • Burwash Edition vol 26
  • Cambridge Edition (Pinney 2013) p. 1110.

Though by 1914 Kipling had won fame as a literary writer, the first English one to receive the Nobel Prize, he had been a campaigning journalist as a young man, eager to name ‘whole hosts of abuses oppressions and unthinking wrongs that may one of these days be set right if you hammer long enough’. (Pinney Letters i 91).

From the start of WW1 he went back to campaigning. The country at large was not enthusiastic for war. As a man confident of a wide readership, Kipling took on responsibility for writing pieces that would inspire and inform the public. (See for example the newspaper columns of 1916 later collected in Sea Warfare )

There was no official organ of propaganda in Britain before 1917, when a Department of Information was created. This led in 1918 to the establishment of a Ministry of Information, headed by Sir Roderick Jones. On January 10 1918 Jones wrote to Kipling asking if he would ‘do for the Munitions and the Army what you have so finely done for the Fleet.(quoted Andrew Lycett p. 649). A version of "The Song of the Lathes" in the British Library is dated 18 January 1918: it appears to be a direct response to that letter.

Kipling also made notes for Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook the First Minister of Information, and proprietor of the Daily Express newspaper. These have every appearance of having been based on personal experience of visiting factories and conversing with the people working there. His notes concerned the need to target those in factories producing war materiel, above all munitions workers, in order to make them understand the greater scheme into which their labour fed:
...the operatives have astonishingly small knowledge either of how one factory uses the goods turned out by another or what is done with the material ... As far as I can make out it is more important just now to feed munition-works with steadying propaganda than any other class. [see Roads to the Great War]
When he published ‘The Song of the Lathes’ in early 1918, it was in organs of the popular press, where the workers he was aiming at would find it, rather than in The Times or the Morning Post.

What is more, when the poem came out, newspapers had been reporting almost daily for many weeks on the munitions’ workers demands for a bonus. Already by June 1917 about 80% of arms and munitions were being produced by women, or ‘munitionettes’ as they were called. The Ministry of Munitions, formed in response to the Shell Crisis of 1915, had forced factories to employ more women, since there were fewer men available to do the work. It also regulated wages in munitions factories: women were paid on average less that half of what the men were paid.

In a letter of 18 March 1919 to his American publisher, F.N. Doubleday, Kipling offered the following note:
The employment on an immense scale and for a long time of female labour in the munitions factories of Great Britain evolved, among other things, a type of grim, resolute and enthusiastic women most of whom owed a debt of blood to the Hun, who worked with a sustained energy that was almost terrifying. Mrs Embsay may be taken as a fair type of that class who turned, gauged, filled or fuzed (sic)the millions of shells that were monthly turned out. The quiet heroism and sang froid of the women, all among the explosives, when air-raids were in full swing above them, was beyond all praise. The last verse but one ”Man’s hate passes etc.” contains the hub of the whole proposition, and woman’s attitude toward the Hun in the future. [Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters vol 4 p. 543.]

This note implies pretty clearly that Kipling had observed women working in munitions, just as his detailed evocation of factory layout in the poem itself seems to draw on direct experience. The poem’s reference to ‘bays’, ‘galleries’ and a ‘quarter mile of pillars growing little in the distance’ (ll.10-12) corresponds precisely with contemporary photographs.

A reader who is unaware of this wider context could not be blamed for finding ‘The Song of the Lathes’ merely distasteful, even a self-indulgent rant on the poet’s part. Instead, it might be more intelligent to note the differing registers in which the poem works. It does indeed do its job of supporting and informing munitions workers. But in the course of doing so Kipling unleashes his imagination, to identify with the experience of an individual woman, ‘grim and resolute’ her voice and person tuned to the thrum of machinery yet not too dehumanized to observe the change in the light during her shifts.

Notes on the text

Title ‘The Song of the Lathes’ is surely intended to echo the title of Thomas Hood’s poem of 1843, ‘The Song of the Shirt’, where a seamstress laments over her life of unremitting underpaid toil. The contrast in attitude and opportunity is striking.

Epigraph The date ‘1918’ was added below the title when the poem was collected in The Years Between.

Mrs L. Embsay, widow a fictional character framed to represent the kind of woman Kipling writes of above. The fact that he give her the name of a village in North Yorkshire may reflect the fact that to build these factories the Ministry of Munitions had acquired a series of large sites in semi-rural locations.

line 1 the fans and the beltings fans prevent the machinery from overheating and perhaps also cool the workers; beltings: belts connect the lathes to the overhead machinery which drive them.

line 2 the power the force driving the movement of the machines ie electricity. The onsite buildings housing the generators were known as the power-houses.

line 3 lathes machines for turning or grinding the interior of the metal shell cases smooth. Any roughness or irregularity could have caused the powder they contained to blow up on the soldiers firing them rather than on their distant target.

pick up their duty get going, start performing their function. ‘Duty’ is also a technical term used to measure the efficiency of an engine, so a pun may be intended.

midnight shift the factory works twenty-four hours a day, such is the demand for munitions.

line 5 Flanders a shorthand term for the Front where the war was being waged. In fact an ancient name for an area now divided between Belgium France and Holland.

line 6 shells metal cases to be filled with powder and shot to be used as a projectile or bomb.

line 10 the carriers parts of a machine that act as bearers or transmittors. Here the piece of iron in a lathe by which the shell being turned was carried round.

line 11 The bays and the galleries the spaces between the pillars and the platforms supported by those pillars.

line 12 their quarter-mile of pillars contemporary images do suggest that the work sheds could be of great length.

line 14 the Zeppelins and Gothas both were used for air attacks by the Imperial German Air Command. Invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, zeppelins were rigid airships used as bombers and scouts. They carried five machine guns and 2000 kg of bombs. Gothas, heavy twin-engined bombers, were designed for attacks across the Channel. Because British air defences improved, by 1918 Gothas were being employed for night raids.

line 23 six hundred mornings she has been working there for at least two years.

line 24 the bit that isn’t painted this very particular detail suggests Kipling has visited such a factory and is drawing on his own direct observation.

line 27 sidings short pieces off track off the main railway line. To build these factories the Ministry of Munitions had acquired a series of large sites in semi-rural locations, ideally quite level, which were close to nearby railway lines for both transportation of product and workers

line 28 blanks empty shells.

line 38 His Judgments the speaker believes that the destruction caused by each shell her factory sends out is an act of divine retribution, in which she is playing a part. .


©Mary Hamer 2015 All rights reserved