Rudyard Kipling is not a poet often read today. His reputation since the Great War has declined. Yet he is one of the finest writers of late Victorian England, and a recipient of the Nobel prize for Literature. His war poem, Gethsemane, is a telling example of his work’s quality. His decline in popularity is partially due to a perception of racism and imperialism, but he was a scorching critic of Britain’s leaders during the conflict.
Firstly, a racist he certainly was not. Whilst an admirer of Britain’s achievements in India, his writings are full of similar admiration for the Indian people and for Eastern culture. It is true that Kipling supported Britain’s entry into the war and had nothing but contempt for those who attempted to avoid serving at the front, but his outspoken criticism was reserved for those in high office who orchestrated the fighting, and for those politicians who had failed to learn the lessons of the Boer War, something he saw as a betrayal of the young men that gave their lives between 1914 – 18. Hence Gethsemane, published in 1919, with its title symbolising the bedrail. His admiration and sympathy for the ordinary British soldier was unstinting and tender.
With the war there would come to Kipling, as to so many others, terrible personal tragedy. One of the soldiers at the front was his 18 year old son, John, who volunteered for service in 1914. He wrote a letter to his father explaining his decision, of his need “to do his bit” like his contemporaries. With a heavy heart, Kipling encouraged the young man, even using his long-standing friendship with Lord Roberts to get John a commission in the Irish Guards.
In September 1915 John Kipling was killed at the battle of Loose. He was last seen staggering away from a German trench and died in a shell hole in no-man’s land. Kipling never got over his loss or his sense of guilt at letting his son go, searching endlessly for John’s last resting place whilst working for the Imperial War Graves Commission in the post-war years.
Kipling died in 1936. The answer he sought would eventually be found, but not for many years. In 1992 the Commonwealth Graves Commission reported that, after reviewing cemetary records, they had identified and marked Lt. John Kipling’s grave at Saint Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station Cemetary in Haisnes, France.