First published in January 1915 in The Century Magazine with illustrations by John a Williams, and in Nash's and Pall Mall Magazine with an illustration by Fortunino Matania. Collected in A Diversity of Creatures in 1917.
Also collected in:
It is the Autumn of 1914, in the early months of the Great War. Frau Ebermann, a well to do elderly woman, in her well appointed Berlin flat, has a touch of influenza. Hot and feverish, she takes to her bed. She takes great pleasure in the spotlessness of her surroundings, the green plush sofa, the yellow cut-glass handles of the chest of drawers, the mauve enamel finger plates on the doors, all in order. Her maid makes her comfortable, and reports on the latest news from the Western Front in Belgium; 'another victory, many more prisoners and guns'.
Suddenly she sees a young child in the room, and soon after, four more. She tells them to go home, but they tell her they have no homes to go to; 'there isn't anything left'. They have been told to wait until their people come for them. They are from two villages whose names Frau Ebermann knows, because she had read in the papers that those villages had been punished, 'wiped out, stamped flat.' Her son had sent letters from the front, saying that some children had been hurt by the horses and guns. The little visitors tell her that there are hundreds and thousands of them. One little boy is badly hurt, with an empty sleeve where he may have lost his arm. They show her their wounds, and leave, saying au revoir.
Frau Ebermann is found on her knees by the maid, mopping the floor because it was spotted with blood.
The Great War, involving all the major countries of Europe, which Kipling had long anticipated, broke out in the early days of August 1914. Belgium's neutrality had been guaranteed by the European powers, and the Belgian frontier, unlike the French, was not fortified. The German high command's Schlieffen Plan provided for a swift thrust through undefended Belgium, to break through towards Paris. As Hugh Brogan has described, in a paper to the Kipling Society reprinted in KJ 286 for June 1998 :
On 4 August 1914, in breach of international law, her own treaty obligations, common sense and common human decency, Germany sent her armies across the frontier into Belgium and laid siege to Liège. The policy of Schrecklichkeit, or frightfulness, was immediately activated. The people of Belgium were to be terrorised into offering no resistance, for the Schlieffen Plan did not permit of delays for any cause. Paris must be entered not more than six weeks after German mobilisation. The Germans persuaded themselves besides that any Belgian resistance, apart from that offered, to their astonishment, by the Belgian army, was illegal, and might be punished by the severest methods.On Tuesday, 1 September, in The Times, Kipling spoke:
For all we have and are,As Charles Carrington, who himself fought through the war as an infantry officer, notes:
... the ferocity of the German war machine grew more apparent. In January 1915 the first air-raids were made on undefended English towns; and in February the German Admiralty announced its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Rudyard's reaction took the form of three short stories written that winter, "Swept and Garnished" written in October, "Sea Constables" in February, and "Mary Postgate" in March.Critical responses
There is little doubt that this savage story expressed the repugnance of the British people at what had been happening in Belgium, and that it was read with approval. Angus Wilson, born in 1913 and writing in the mid-1970s, could remember the effect on his parents of these events:
...as a final horror,something that may not come across to the modern reader, but reminds me of how I was told again and again as a small child, that the Germans had cut off the little Belgian boys' right arms so that they could never serve their country. In the story it is implied very quietly. The sister plucks at the little boy's sleeve to take him away, and he cries out in pain. '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.
In 1915 this story must have been very satisfying or disgusting, depending on one's attitude to war propaganda. Now I think it is a masterly parable of cosiness brutally dispersed. And J M S Tompkins (pp. 134-5), writing of A Diversity of Creatures in her chapter on 'Hatred and Revenge', notes:
When Kipling assembled these tales in 1917, the world had changed, and the last two tales in the book, "Swept and Garnished" and "Mary Postgate", bear witness to it. These two dreadful tales assault the mind. They are the utterances of deep outrage. Both have, at times, if read quickly, the quality of a hardly suppressed scream. This, though painful, is integral to both, since both describe a repressed horror that in the end breaks out. "Swept and Garnished", first published in January 1915, has the nature of an immediate - almost a headlong - act of reprisal...See also Mary Hamer's essay "Kipling and Dreams".
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