The Boer War 1899-1902 by Thomas Pakenham (1979)

16 July 2012

The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham seems to be the best one-volume history of the war, even though it was published in 1979. Pakenham taped interviews with Boer War veterans as long ago as 1970. Has nothing in Boer War studies changed since then, I wonder. (You can read the first half dozen chapters online.)

At nearly 600 pages of text ‘The Boer War’ is a long and thorough and absorbing read. From among the jungles of detail a few themes emerge:

1. The British caused the war Gladstone guaranteed the two Boer republics – the Transvaal and the Orange Free State – their independence in 1881, after the first Boer War. Let them farm their miles of featureless veld far in the interior.  But two things happened a) the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and gold at Witwatersrand led tens of thousands of Brits and other foreigners to flock to both places to get rich so that the so-called uitlanders soon far outnumbered native Boers. Understandably the Boers refused to give these fly-by-night diggers and prospectors political rights ie the vote since, at a stroke, they’d effectively take over the countries. b) The 1890s saw a rising tide of New Imperialism across Europe and the US but particularly in Britain. These New Imperialists had a vision of the white Anglo-Saxon races joining hands to bring civilisation to the entire world. Kipling’s A Song of the English gives a powerful vision of the farflung vastness of the British Empire, with colonies or coaling stations in every part of the world. His poem The White Man’s Burden (1899) is a request to the rising power of the USA (engaged in its own New Imperial war against Spain which would net it Cuba and the Philippines) to join hands with Britain in bringing peace and civilisation to the world. Like Churchill, Kipling could see the Americans had a growing role to play in spreading white man’s values.

2. Sir Alfred Milner Against this background it seemed absurd that two tiny republics of backwards farmers, notorious for their ill-treatment of the native Africans, should stand in the Empire’s way. The (first) villain of Pakenham’s book is Sir Alfred Milner, appointed governor of the Cape Colony in 1897, who saw that the Boers must be defeated and their republics brought into the Empire sooner or later – and so he conspired with the gold and diamond millionaires (Beit, Rhodes) to make it sooner. A conference was held with the Boers’ ageing leader, Paul Kruger, at which Milner insisted on the uitlanders getting voting rights much sooner than the 14 years settlement the Boers were insisting on. It was on this rock that negotiations foundered and the war, ultimately, was fought, much to Milner’s joy.

The Boers sent the Brits an ultimatum demanding we stop shipping troops out, on 9 October 1899. The British government rejected it. On 11 October the Boer republics declared war.

3. New technology Having recently read about World Wars 1 and 2, the Boer War rings a familiar theme – the generals didn’t understand the implications of new weapons technology, namely, smokeless magazine-fed rifles. a) Firing without smoke meant the firer was invisible. For most of the war the British couldn’t figure out where the Boers were even when they were firing at us. b) Magazines meant the rifles could lay down dense fields of fire, almost like machine guns. In encounter after encounter the British soldiers are mown down like hay. Fast-loading smokeless rifles and the Boers’ readiness to build trenches shifted the whole axis of war from Offence to Defence. Cavalry, the classic offensive arm for centuries, became redundant. Only heavy artillery bombarding co-ordinated with infantry attacks could shift defensive positions. The model for the Great War was established though nobody realised it at the time.

4. Incompetent British generals. Dear oh dear.  The foolishness of White who insisted on garrisoning Ladysmith against orders. The disaster at Colenso when Long took his field guns out too far and was decimated and Hart took his men into the completely the wrong place and got them all killed. (“Colenso is a remarkable battle; the British middle ranking command showing an incompetence that is hard to comprehend.”) Spion Kop where General Warren was criminally slow to attack and allowed the Brits to be pinned down and slaughtered on the plateau.

“The mistake constantly repeated by the British in the war was to launch frontal attacks against Boer riflemen in prepared entrenchments armed with modern Mauser magazine rifles.”

Major-General Sir Redvers Buller was head of the army for the first year and ended up carrying the can for the early setbacks, being sacked after his return to England in October 1901. Pakenham goes out of his way to reinstate Buller’s reputation and emphasises that the stupidity and incompetence stretched from the War Office down through acres of upper class nincompoops.

Spion Kop where 243 dead soldiers in the British trench – too shallow and built in the wrong place

5. Concentration camps Eventually the besieged outposts of Ladysmith (February 1900), Kimberley (February 1900) and Mafeking (May 1900) were relieved – in each case the relieving armies suffering significant losses trying to overcome the well-fortified Boer defences. Whereupon the Boers quickly melted away, falling back on impressive prepared positions though not really defending them and eventually abandoning their capitals, Blomfoentein (Orange free State) and Pretoria (Transvaal). The British generals thought the war was over – but it wasn’t. The Boers now concentrated on what they did best, dividing into small commando units and engaging in guerilla war, attacking the Brits wherever and whenever it suited them. To everyone’s amazement the war went on for 2 years after the relief of Mafeking, and a lot more people died.

Redvers Buller had been replaced as British commander-in-chef by Field Marshall Roberts in January 1900; in December 1900 General Kitchener (of Khartoum fame) replaced Roberts and intensified his policy of rounding up Boer women and children from their scattered farms, then burning the farms and killing the livestock, in a bid to force their menfolk to surrender. Pakenham emphasises that Kitchener wasn’t interested in detail with lamentable results – previously he had maladministered the troop hospital at Bloemfontein so badly that wounded soldiers died like flies.

Photo of Lizzie Van Zyl benefiting from her new membership of the British Empire in Bloemfontein concentration camp

Now he applied the same lack of interest to the 30 or so concentration camps which were set up near railheads across the veld. Conditions were dire, no hygiene and poor rations. Some 4,000 Boer women and 24,000 children died of preventable disease or malnutrition.

Information took a long time to leak out, but a heroic English woman called Emily Hobhouse raised the alarm, forcing a reluctant British government to institute a full enquiry, the Fawcett Commission, as a result of which reforms were eventually made ie improving rations, providing doctors and nurses, new camp superintendants charged with improving hygiene. Finally, the death rates fell. Typical British blundering.

6. Surrender In 1902 Kitchener, still plagued by the Boer guerillas, implemented a new policy of marking out the entire veld in barbed wire linked by blockhouses, and then systematically sweeping entire sections with overwhelming numbers of troops. Though the commando leaders remained at liberty, growing numbers of their followers were engaged, killed or captured. In addition, the policy of burning farmsteads had laid waste the Boer heartland. Boer women and children left on the devastated veld were in many ways worse off than those in the concentration camps. Reluctantly, in April, the Boer leaders sued for peace which, after some negotiation, was signed on 31 May 1902.

Aftermath

1. Military tactics The British had got used to fighting small and easy colonial wars against natives armed with spears (Zulus, Afghans, Sudanese) who were overwhelmed by our technology (rifles, artillery) and tactics (form squares, advance in close order, mop up with cavalry charges). All of this failed in South Africa. The Boers were highly intelligent, flexible soldiers who used defensive trenches and new smokeless fast-shooting Mauser rifles to decimate the British who advanced in nice, orderly, easy-to-destroy rows. On only a few occasions did British officers experiment with more flexible approaches and it was all forgotten and had to be learned again, the very hard way, on the fields of Flanders 12 years later.

2. The alliance system Most international opinion had been against Britain and, at moments, there’d been concern that other powers might either intervene or take advantage and attack elsewhere (Russia into Afghanistan). The Victorian policy of Splendid Isolation came to be seen as out of date. Britain began to engage in strategic alliances, with the Japanese, Russians, then the French. This new web of alliances determined the sides in the Great War.

3. The failure of Milnerism The Machiavellian Milner was as involved in the 1902 peace negotiations as he’d been in scuppering a compromise and triggering the war in 1899. He wanted unconditional surrender of the Boers, and a massive immigration of British colonists leading to complete British control over the diamond and gold mines. He tried to strike out the clause saying the republics would eventually revert to self-governing status, as per Canada or Australia, banking on immigrants swamping the Boers into insignificance. However, the immigration didn’t happen, and British policy tended to drive formerly patriotic Afrikaners into the arms of a revitalised Boer party. When a Liberal British government gave the two colonies (Cape, Natal) self-government in 1906 the election revealed the Nationalist (Boer) party in the majority and that’s how it stayed. The Nationalists consolidated power through the 1930s and 40s until they left the Commonwealth altogether in 1961 and instituded the apartheid policy. This was the exact opposite of the outcome for which Milner had stalled the 1899 negotiations and prompted the war.

4. The blacks Blacks, natives, Africans. Part of the reason for the Boers’ Great Trek north from the Cape back in the 1840s had been the British insistence on ending slavery. The Boers maintained a fiercely racist attitude to the Africans. There’s plenty of evidence that they simply murdered all the Africans they found supporting the British. One of the official British motives for the war was to get a better deal for the tens of thousands of Africans slaving away in the diamond and gold mines. As the war developed Africans were co-opted into both armies as drivers, porters etc and, in the British army, played an important role as scouts, and were eventually armed and ordered to police the vast network of blockhouses. And yet, when it came to the peace, Milner, backed up by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, deleted the clauses from the peace treaty which called for basic civil rights for Africans. The pass laws which gave the Africans helot or serf status were confirmed, and went onto become enshrined in subsequent South African law, leading to the policy of apartheid enacted by the Nationalist governments after World War Two. And in the short term, the wages of blacks slaving away on the Rand were forced down by the capitalists the war had put in charge of the mines. Hard not to see British policy to the South African blacks as a colossal betrayal.

5. Tommy Atkins The ordinary soldiers Pakenham interviewed for his book thought the war was a bloody waste of life, fought solely so the Empire could get its hands on the Boer gold and diamonds. Pakenham must be sitting on a treasure trove of interview material – I wonder if it was ever used eg in a radio documentary?

Writers in the Boer War

Rudyard Kipling (35 in 1900) offered his services to work on a pro-British newspaper set up by Kitchener, The Friend. Dr Arthur Conan Doyle (41 in 1900) volunteered to work in the field hospital at Blomfoentein and was knighted for his services; he also found time to write his history, The Great Boer War. The future thriller writer John Buchan (25 in 1900) served as assistant to Lord Milner. Winston Churchill (26 in 1900) worked as war correspondent for the Morning Post and was a witness to various historic events, as well as being captured and escaping from the Boers, all described in his memoir My Early Life.

Jameson’s Ride by Alfred Austin (1896)

10 July 2012

When Alfred Lord Tennyson died in 1892 there was no obvious replacement for the post of Poet Laureate. Of the two leading poets, Swinburne was disqualified by the immorality of his earlier poems, William Morris was a trenchant socialist and rejected the post when offered. Kipling, the young star, also refused it, not wanting to shackle his ‘Daemon’ as he referred to his muse, preferring to stay free to speak his mind.

After a hiatus the literary world was surprised when, in 1896, the Tory journalist Alfred Austin was appointed Poet Laureate by the Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, at least in part because of Austin’s journalistic record of supporting Tory causes. Austin held the post until his death in 1913.

Austin’s first poem as Laureate was an ode celebrating the Jameson Raid – the failed attempt to raise a British insurrection against the Boer government of the Transvaal, in South Africa. The uprising was to have been triggered by a raid into the territory by 600 or so British soldiers led by Cecil Rhodes’s fixer, Leander Starr Jameson.

Sir Alfred Austin, Poet Laureate 1896-1913

The planned insurrection in Johannesberg never materialised. Jameson and his men were easily surrounded and captured by the Boers. The Jameson Raid was a fiasco, an embarrassment to the British government, and marked the end of Cecil Rhodes’ political career as he was forced to step down as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Britain’s shame, however, was reversed when the Kaiser made the blunder of sending a telegram to the Boers congratulating them on repelling the raid, and hinting that Germany might have come to their aid. Public opinion was outraged and, in a very British manoeuvre, managed to turn an illegal incursion into a foreign country into a heroic rescue mission by plucky heroes. The flagrant untruth that British women and children in the Transvaal were somehow at risk from the beastly Boers was widely disseminated.

Austin’s poem successfully captures the devil-may-care illegality of much Imperial enterprise. It echoes the contempt felt by Kipling and other Imperialists for the lawyers and politicians back in Blighty who prattled on pointlessly while the pressing issues of Empire required urgent action, on the ground, now!

Austin is regularly cited as the being the worst Poet Laureate in our history. The poem’s point of view is certainly shallow and schoolboyish. The rhythm seems to falter regularly, and some rhyme words don’t work. But I don’t think it’s a complete disaster, and anyway it’s an interesting and vivid snapshot of the mindset of the day.

Jameson’s Ride

Wrong! Is it wrong? well, may be;
But I’m going, boys, all the same.
Do they think me a Burgher’s baby,
To be scared by a scolding name?
They may argue, and prate, and order;
Go, tell them to save their breath:
Then, over the Transvaal border,
And gallop for life or death!

Let lawyers and statesmen addle
Their pates over points of law:
If sound be our sword, and saddle,
And gun-gear, who cares one straw?
When men of our own blood pray us
To ride to their kinsfolk’s aid,
Not Heaven itself shall stay us
From the rescue they call a raid.

There are girls in the gold-reef city,
There are mothers and children too!
And they cry, “Hurry up! For pity!”
So what can a brave man do?
If even we win they’ll blame us:
If we fail, they will howl and hiss.
But there’s many a man lives famous
For daring a wrong like this!

So we forded and galloped forward
As hard as our beasts could pelt,
First eastward, then trending nor’ward.
Eight over the rolling veldt;
Till we came to the Burghers lying
In a hollow with hill behind,
And their bullets came hissing, flying,
Like hail on an Arctic wind.

Right sweet is the marksman’s rattle,
And sweeter the cannon’s roar;
But ’tis bitterly bad to battle,
Beleaguered, and one to four.
I can tell you it wasn’t a trifle
To swarm over Krugersdorp Glen,
As they plied us with round and rifle,
And ploughed us again — and again.

Then we made for the gold-reef city,
Retreating, but not in rout.
They had called to us, “Quick! For pity!”
And he said, “They will sally out —
They will hear us come. Who doubts it?”
But how if they don’t — what then?
“Well, worry no more about it,
But fight to the death like men.”

Not a soul had supped or slumbered
Since the Borderland stream was cleft;
But we fought, even more outnumbered,
Till we had not a cartridge left.
We’re not very soft or tender,
Or given to weep for woe,
But it breaks one to have to render
One’s sword to the strongest foe.

I suppose we were wrong, were madmen,
Still I think at the Judgment Day,
When God sifts the good from the bad men,
There’ll be something more to say.
We were wrong, but we aren’t half sorry;
And as one of the baffled band,
I would rather have had that foray
Than the crushing of all the Rand.

Swinford Old Manor, January 9, 1896

P.S. It was, apparently, the same incident, the Jameson Raid, which inspired Kipling’s most enduring poem, If-, regularly voted the nation’s favourite poem. ‘Jameson’s Ride’ is, if you fancy, the Other If-, what If- looks in the hands of a much smaller talent. And highlights the real depth of Kipling’s genius.

The Absent-Minded Beggar by Rudyard Kipling (1899)

Kipling’s response to the outbreak of the Boer War on 11 October 1899 was characteristically practical. Within days he had written what was to become one of his most successful poems, The Absent-Minded Beggar, designed to raise funds for the families of soldiers fighting in the Boer War.

Once set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan and illustrated by artist Richard Caton Woodville, it became a popular sensation, the ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ of its time, raising the unheard-of sum of £250,000.

Richard Caton Woodville's illustration of The Absent-Minded Beggar

Richard Caton Woodville’s illustration of The Absent-Minded Beggar

As soon as the war broke out the Government started mobilising its Reservists, mostly ex-soldiers. For many poor families this meant disaster as they lost their sole breadwinner, who would probably be replaced at his job when he went off to war, with no guarantee of getting it back when he returned. As a wave of patriotism swept the country, many newspapers launched charitable fundraising efforts to benefit the Reservists and their dependents, including the popular and jingoistic Daily Mail.

This caught the attention of Rudyard Kipling who wrote The Absent-Minded Beggar on 16 October 1899 and sent the poem to the Mail’s proprietor, Alfred Harmsworth on 22 October, telling him to use it as he saw fit to raise money.

By 25 October Kipling was corresponding with Harmsworth about how to maximise revenue from the poem by having it recited at music halls. The poem was published in The Daily Mail on 31 October 1899 and was an immediate success. Maud Tree, the wife of actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, recited it at the Palace Theatre every night before the main performance for fourteen months. Other performers recited it at music halls and elsewhere up and down the land, giving all the profits to the fund.

The country’s premier composer, Sir Arthur Sullivan, was asked to set the poem to music. (In 1897 Sullivan had agreed to compose music for Kipling’s poem Recessional, but never completed the setting.) Both Kipling and Sullivan gave all their fees go the charity. Within a few days leading graphic artist Richard Caton Woodville provided an illustration, titled ‘A Gentleman in Kharki’, showing a wounded but defiant British Tommy in battle, and this illustration was included in ‘art editions’ of the poem and song.

Sullivan wrote the music in four days and the first public performance was sung by John Coates, under Sullivan’s baton, at the Alhambra Theatre on 13 November 1899, to a ‘magnificent reception’. The song perfectly captured the jingoistic mood of the nation. The Daily Chronicle wrote that ‘It has not been often that the greatest of English writers and the greatest of English musicians have joined inspiring words and stirring melody in a song which expresses the heart feelings of the entire nation’. Can you think of any other time it has happened?

The poem, song and piano music sold in extraordinary numbers, as did all kinds of household items, postcards, memorabilia and other merchandise emblazoned, woven or engraved with the ‘Gentleman in Kharki’ figure, the poem itself, the sheet music, or humorous illustrations. 40 clerks were hired to answer 12,000 requests a day for copies of the poem, and it was included in 148,000 packets of cigarettes within two months of the first performance.

The Daily Mail‘s charitable fund was renamed the ‘Absent-Minded Beggar Fund’. Among other activities it met the soldiers on arrival in South Africa, welcomed them on their return to Britain and set up overseas centres to minister to the sick and wounded.

The poem’s success was not limited to Britain. Newspapers around the world published the poem, hundreds of thousands of copies were quickly sold internationally, and the song was sung widely in theatres and music halls abroad. Local ‘Absent Minded Beggar Relief Corps’ branches were opened in Trinidad, Cape Town, Ireland, New Zealand, China, India and numerous places throughout the world.

The fund eventually raised the unprecedented amount of more than £250,000. The Daily Mail asserted, ‘The history of the world can produce no parallel to the extraordinary record of this poem.’ In November Lord Salisbury had his secretary visit Kipling in Sussex to offer him a knighthood as a direct result of the song’s success, but he declined, as he declined all offers of State honours, which I find very admirable.

The Absent Minded Beggar

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?
He’s an absent-minded beggar and his weaknesses are great:
But we and Paul must take him as we find him:
He is out on active service wiping something off a slate:
And he’s left a lot of little things behind him!

Duke’s son – cook’s son – son of a hundred kings,
(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)
Each of ’em doing his country’s work (and who’s to look after the things?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay – pay – pay!

There are girls he married secret, asking no permission to,
For he knew he wouldn’t get it if he did.
There is gas and coal and vittles, and the house-rent falling due,
And it’s rather more than likely there’s a kid.
There are girls he walked with casual, they’ll be sorry now he’s gone,
For an absent-minded beggar they will find him,
But it ain’t the time for sermons with the winter coming on:
We must help the girl that Tommy’s left behind him!

Cook’s son – Duke’s son – son of a belted Earl,
Son of a Lambeth publican – it’s all the same to-day!
Each of ’em doing his country’s work (and who’s to look after the girl?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay – pay – pay!

There are families by the thousands, far too proud to beg or speak:
And they’ll put their sticks and bedding up the spout,
And they’ll live on half o’ nothing paid ’em punctual once a week,
‘Cause the man that earned the wage is ordered out.
He’s an absent-minded beggar, but he heard his country’s call,
And his reg’ment didn’t need to send to find him;
He chucked his job and joined it – so the task before us all
Is to help the home that Tommy’s left behind him!

Duke’s job – cook’s job – gardener, baronet, groom –
Mews or palace or paper-shop – there’s someone gone away!
Each of ’em doing his country’s work (and who’s to look after the room?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay – pay – pay!

Let us manage so as later we can look him in the face,
And tell him what he’d very much prefer:
That, while he saved the Empire his employer saved his place,
And his mates (that’s you and me) looked out for her.
He’s an absent-minded beggar, and he may forget it all,
But we do not want his kiddies to remind him
That we sent ’em to the workhouse while their daddy hammered Paul,
So we’ll help the homes that Tommy’s left behind him!

Cook’s home – Duke’s home – home of a millionaire –
(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)
Each of ’em doing his country’s work (and what have you got to spare?)
Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay – pay – pay!

The video

Other Kipling reviews

Stalky and Co by Rudyard Kipling (1899)

Stalky and Co is a collection of linked short stories about three boys – Stalky, Beetle, M’Turk – at a minor public school. The stories are closely based on Kipling’s own time at the United Services College at the picturesquely named village of Westward Ho! on the north Devon coast in the 1880s.

The school they attend is dedicated to preparing boys to take the Army Examinations for entry to Sandhurst and, ultimately, service in the British Empire.

The first edition of the book contained nine stories (listed in bold below). Over the years Kipling added more tales, initially published in scattered magazines and collected in  his regular short story collections, but eventually gathered into an expanded version of the book, The Complete Stalky and Co.

Initially I found this is the hardest Kipling book to read so far. The novels and short story collections are redeemed by spells of fine writing or uncanny elements of fantasy. But Stalky and Co sticks resolutely and stiflingly to its setting of nasty 5th and 6th formers at a minor public school, torturing each other, their teachers, and any animal which crosses their path. There is no fantasy or uncanny. There is little descriptive writing. Instead it is a large (300 pages) dose of concentrated public school japes described in a prose which echoes the schoolboy habits of quotation, slang, Latin tags and manly understatement. Some of the stories conveyed in such an elliptical style that they are quite hard to follow.

The three protagonists of Stalky and Co - Irish M'Turk, cunning Stalky, and bookish Beetle

The three protagonists of Stalky and Co – Irish M’Turk, cunning Stalky, and bookish Beetle

Sadism & brutality There is lots of fighting, shooting cats and sparrows, boys cutting and bloodying each other, tormenting cattle with catapults, and an entire story devoted to the systematic torturing of two older boys, accused of bullying a lower form ‘fag’.

Kipling takes a disturbing relish in the punishment of the ‘bullies’, as in all the other examples of pain and cruelty. Throughout the stories he flaunts the boys’ brutality, testing if not taunting the reader; and many readers have flinched; many famous critics have been disgusted, not only at the violent incidents but at the ‘sophisticated Philistinism, a deliberate brutality of speech’ (Andrew Rutherford) which Kipling uses to describe it all.

The roots of Kipling’s sadism Isabel Quigly speculates that the in-your-face style is wild over-compensation for Kipling’s anxiety at being an outsider at USC – a short-sighted poet destined for a career in journalism thrown into a school of toughs destined for the Army. No doubt.

I think it’s also part of Kipling’s taunting of liberals, the ignorant bourgeoisie and the English public generally, who he despises for failing to understand the sacrifices and the tough mind-set required to maintain the Empire which they so casually criticise, and from which they benefited so hugely.

In the final story old boys of the school remember the grown-up Stalky’s acts of derring-do on the North-West frontier, effectively redeeming all the previous tales of brutality by showing that is it necessary to be tough and hard if you’re going to run a damn Empire. It is no accident that the situation the grown-up Stalky and his men get into (getting surrounded by hostile natives) is caused by the ignorant civilian part of the Indian Administration, who foolishly declare the tribes in question to be ‘pacified’. it’s the poor bloody soldiers who have to clear up the resulting mess.

The ignorance of civilians – and especially MPs – is a standard theme throughout Kipling (see the short story One View of the Question or the poem Paget MP with its withering reference to ‘…the traveled idiots who misgovern the land…’).

Civilians ignorant of the reality of governing India are directly paralleled in Stalky by the parents who’ve sent their boys to this school and have no idea of the culture of permanent warfare, smoking, swearing and fighting which their poor babies endure (when small) and then perpetuate (when large).

Then there’s the psychological explanation, first mooted by Edmund Wilson in the 1940s, that Kipling never recovered from his horrifically miserable childhood, abandoned by his parents for 5 years to the beatings and bullying of a Portsmouth landlady and her violent son, all vividly depicted in his short story Baa Baa Black Sheep. That this childhood abuse led Kipling to a craven identification with power and authority at its most naked – if he’d suffered so much, then everyone else in his imaginative world had to put up with at least the same amount of torment and pain – a mindset which was then reinforced by the casual violence, the corporal punishment and the cult of manliness indoctrinated into him at his private school.

It’s a persuasive theory…

Humiliation Every one of the Stalky stories circles round the theme of humiliating locals, teachers or fellow pupils, then falling round laughing. It’s sometimes difficult to gauge: after all, Just William or St Trinians are about the same kind of thing – the endless war between pupils and teachers. But there’s something in the Kipling stories that pushes them just too far, makes them just too violent, just too sadistically humiliating to be funny…

Antinomianism For someone who obsesses about the Law of the Jungle which must be obeyed, his three schoolboy heroes devote their entire time to undermining the rules and regs of the school they attend. This is done in the name of some higher law but, to the outsider, this higher law looks like the sanctimonious bullying of a self-congratulatory elite. Since Kipling’s purpose is to show how these schoolboys go on to apply what they learned at school to the running of the British Empire, the corollary writes itself…

Honesty Well, at least Kipling doesn’t sugar coat it. This is what boys are like. It’s as discomfiting a vision as his very unofficial depictions of the life of the Imperial elite at Simla as recorded in Plain Tales from the Hills. What makes it such an uncomfortable read is the way he himself clearly has no qualms about the brutalities and humiliations dealt out by his heroes. He is very clearly on their side as they hurt and outwit their enemies.

Hero worship The other uncomfortable aspect is the schoolboys’ unquestioning hero-worship of the old boys who’ve gone on to become soldiers and serve the Empire and periodically return to the school to heroes’ welcomes. You could argue that the hero-worship – the whole school applauding their speeches then following them upstairs to dormitories to hear all about the exciting world of soldiery – is dramatically appropriate for boys in any era, and especially for a school preparing boys for the army. But there is no demarcation between characters and Kipling. Kipling slavishly worships his soldier heroes as avidly as any adolescent. To boys and military-minded men of the 1890s this must have seemed clean and virile.

But as the book went to press, the Boer War was just beginning (Stalky & Co was published on 6 October 1899; the Boers declared war on the British on 11 October). It was to be the biggest British military action between Waterloo and the Great War, one in which the British Army was humiliated and all but defeated, amid claims of incompetence and atrocity, very far from Kipling’s boyish ideals.

And beyond the Boers, hindsight casts a great shadow over Stalky because we know the boys, ‘ardent for some desperate glory’, who read the book in the early 1900s. were to have their ambitions more than met by the ‘awfully big adventure’ which was to break out in 1914…

Sense of humour It’s hard to enjoy the earlier stories: the level of sadism or humiliation is too extreme (and the style is often so clipped and jocose as to be impenetrable). But the tone of the book lifts a little as it proceeds. It becomes less harsh, more good-humoured. The japes in The Last Term are almost ‘innocent’ – the trio a) pay a local girl to kiss a prefect in the street and ‘rag’ the entire prefect class as a result b) reset the words of a Latin exam in order to humiliate their Latin teacher. Made me laugh out loud. This is what makes Kipling so difficult to draw a bead on. There is contemptible, sadistic or racist material scattered throughout his writings. But there’s plenty that’s funny, grotesque, fantastic, interesting or inspired, as well.

The poem A special note on the dedicatory poem, which takes its inspiration from a passage in the Biblical Wisdom of Sirach (44:1) that begins, ‘Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.’

It works, in my opinion. Its purity of diction, its seriousness, is the purity of line of late Victorian and Edwardian heroic statuary. The central three lines of each stanza which repeat the same phrase with slight variations and end with the same rhyme word –

For their work continueth,
And their work continueth,
Broad and deep continueth,

give the poem a statuesque dignity. And some of its sentiments are noble. It praises the teachers who slaved away turning out the boys who went on to become the men who slave away in obscure corners of the Empire. The fact that these men may not all have been as heroic as Kipling suggests, may not all have been exemplars of selfless devotion, doesn’t take away from the nobility of the statue or of the ideal of service.

Stalky and Co contents

Dedication (poem)
‘In Ambush’
Slaves of the Lamp – Part I
An Unsavoury Interlude
The Impressionists
The Moral Reformers
The United Idolaters (1926)
Regulus (1917)
A Little Prep.
The Flag of their Country
The Propagation of Knowledge (1926)
The Satisfaction of a Gentleman (1929)
The Last Term
Slaves of the Lamp – Part II

Other Kipling reviews

The Day’s Work by Rudyard Kipling (1898)

‘Perfect! Perfect! There’s no place like England – when you’ve done your work.’

‘That’s the proper way to look at it, my son.’

Kipling collected the short stories he’d published in various magazines in the mid-1890s into The Day’s Work, published in 1898, the year after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the year before the Boer War broke out.

A character in one story, William the Conqueror, about British officers working to relieve famine in India, remarks, ‘It’s all in the day’s work’, and this is the focus of the stories – work, men’s work and duties, generally carried out by pukka junior officers of the Empire on which the Sun Never Sets, or by Kipling’s favourite type of man, the engineer.

That said there’s another consistent thread – personification or ventriloquism. A Walking Delegate and The Maltese Cat are both about horses who talk and organise things. The Ship that Found Itself features not just a talking ship but a ship whose parts speak and argue among themselves. .007 features American steam locomotives who welcome a new recruit to the line.

And comedy. A lot of the stories are good-humoured or contain wry humour, but An Error and My Sunday at Home are both obviously meant to be comedies. (Both are about Americans misunderstanding the English; compare and contrast with the fictions on the same subject of Kipling’s friend, Henry James.)

I’d recommend the first and the last stories as highlighting Kipling’s strengths (powers of imagination and description) and weaknesses (lack of depth, oddness).

The Bridge-Builders (1893) India. Encapsulates two big features of Kipling’s style – masculine, technological accuracy, and disconcerting fantasy. Chief Engineer Findlayson sees the work of three years, a giant bridge across the Ganges, just reaching fulfilment when there is an early monsoon flood which requires a panic-stricken clearing of all the equipment by native coolies. This section crammed with technical descriptions of the bridge and bridge-building. Shivering in the rain, he is persuaded to take a pill of opium and, high as a kite, scrambles onto a boat which is washed downstream and crashes onto a sandbank where he hallucinates a meeting of river animals who stand in for the Hindu pantheon of Gods who discuss the past, present and future of mankind. In their perspective, the deep history of mystical India, all Findlayson’s efforts are transitory…

A Walking Delegate (1894) Vermont. Encapsulates two other features – talking animals (vide the Jungle Books) and right-wing politics. A group of horses in a pasture in New England are chatting in their various American accents, when they are interloped by a bolshie, badly-trained yellow horse from Kansas who encourages them to rise up against their human oppressors. Premonitions of Animal Farm. Some bitter repartee captures Kipling’s real hatred of trade unions, socialists and agitators who were a growing force in the States and Britain in the 1890s. In Kipling’s view they make the error of putting the individual before the group, failing to realise that we must all work and do our duty in order to keep society safe and peaceful.

The Ship That Found Herself (1895) The North Atlantic. Is this even a story, or a kind of fantasia of a technical diagram come to life? A new cargo steamer, built in Glasgow, steams across the Atlantic and all the parts of the ship are given voices and complain about the strain they’re under. Slowly, painfully, the parts realise that they all interlock and depend on each other to survive. By the time the ship arrives in New York, she is one co-operative unit, all the parts working together. Identical to how groups of raw recruits are knocked into shape in Kipling’s idealised army. But done with imagination and fantasy…

‘If you lay your ear to the side of the cabin, the next time you are in a steamer, you will hear hundreds of little voices in every direction, thrilling and buzzing, and whispering and popping, and gurgling and sobbing and squeaking exactly like a telephone in a thunder-storm. Wooden ships shriek and growl and grunt, but iron vessels throb and quiver through all their hundreds of ribs and thousands of rivets…’

The Tomb of His Ancestors (1897) India. Young John Chinn, from a Devonshire family of Imperial administrators, arrives with his family regiment. The local tribespeople are called Bhils, they are primitive and childlike and owe ancestral allegiance to previous Chinns who have ruled them. The story is how young Chinn rises to the responsibility of managing them, including hunting the tiger which has been terrorising the tribes and which they’re convinced the spirits of his ancestor rides by night. He does a man’s job, sir. Made into a BBC drama.

The Devil and the Deep Sea (1895) History of the Haliotis, a steamer with a disreputable history of smuggling, and other criminal activities. Finally, while stealing pearl oysters from government beds somewhere off Malaysia she is arrested by a local government warship, having been damaged by a big warning shell, and the local governor sentences the crew to serve in an inland war. At which point British public opinion is stirred and the British government contacts the governor’s government and pressurises him to release the crew and allow them to return, though still in captivity, to their ship. There they work day and night to rebuild the ruined engines under the instruction of the engineer Wardrop and, finally, manage to break their ropes and limp out of captivity. Along the way they commandeer ie steal a native vessel, towing it to a coaling harbour where they scuttle the Haliotis. Months later the gunship that attacked them runs aground the wreck and is sunk. A strangely immoral story. I think the engineer Wardrop, is the hero, and the crew are somehow redeemed from their obvious criminality by the intensity of their hard work together.

William the Conqueror, parts one and two. India. There’s a famine in southern India. Martyn and his sister, William, go to help. She does a man’s work, mainly because she is Kipling’s favourite type of woman – ie a man.

•007 ‘The Story of an American Locomotive’ (1897) America. Highly technical account of a new engine, inducted into the group of other engines in a company, and then its pulling and pushing adventures, the only notable one being helping rescue a big locomotive which has been derailed by a pig. Barely a story. Reminiscent of Thomas the Tank Engine. Despite its railway setting, the tale is essentially that of the new boy at school (or new subaltern in the army), who feels out of place, but is befriended by a more experienced boy/sergeant, and goes on to prove himself in a match/skirmish, and so earns the respect of his peers and takes his place in the hierarchy of the school/regiment.

The Maltese Cat India. An epic polo match told from the point of view of the horses who, whatever their human owners think, are actually planning and running the match.

Magazine illustration of The Maltese Cat

Magazine illustration of The Maltese Cat

Bread upon the Waters (1895) Comedy. British coastal waters. The old engineer we met in the story of ‘Brugglesmith‘ (in the 1893 collection, Many Inventions) is sacked from his marine company by unscrupulous directors. Later he points out the unseaworthiness of one of their ships and has the satisfaction of seeing it wrecked, and towing it for salvage, and making a fortune. This is a hard story to read, with tough Scotch accents and the plot is hard to follow. I think it’s meant to be a comedy but the tone is very badly spoilt for me by the anti-semitic references to the baddie of the story, the scheming Jewish director of the company who is brought low by his own greed. There are one or two other slighting references to Jews scattered through these stories. No thanks. Yuk.

An Error in the Fourth Dimension (1894) Comedy. A rich American, Wilton Sargent, comes to England to be Anglified, adopts all our customs and buys a country house with a railway line at the bottom of the grounds. He gets his man to flag down a train which runs through his land because he wants to pop up to London to check a collector’s piece. However, he is caught and restrained by train officials. Next day he’s charged with assault on the guard and pays the fine. But then the railway company threatens to bring further charges, and sends two officials down to visit while the narrator is providentially present. It becomes clear one’s a psychiatrist. They think Weston’s letters threatening to buy the railway line are the ravings of a maniac. At which point the narrator intervenes to point out that Wilton could buy their railway if he so wished. Embarrassment all round. Wilton sells up and returns to the States which, the implication is, he should never have left.

My Sunday at Home (1895) England. A straightforward comedy which made me laugh out loud. An American doctor on a train journey west, chatting to the narrator, misinterprets an announcement that a man has taken poison and leaves the train to administer an emetic, but mistakenly does so to a drunken navvy who then refuses to let go of him. Eventually he makes his escape in a horse and cart after the navvy’s passed out. What makes this Kiplingesque is the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the broad comedy with the narrator’s purple prose descriptions of the beauty of the English countryside.

Illustration for 'My Sunday at Home'

Illustration for ‘My Sunday at Home’

The Brushwood Boy (1895) England and India.  Again Kipling combines the banal with disconcerting fantasy. On one level the story briskly describes the extremely idealised childhood, school days and then heroic army career of a pukka Englishman, from a big country house, who serves in India, beloved of his men, worshiped by women of whom he is oblivious. On another very Kiplingesque level, a strange and eerie tale because this epitome has dreams, penetratingly lifelike dreams of another land, so consistent he can draw maps of it, and these dreams lead him on to a strange and momentous realisation… I won’t spoil the outcome!

‘My one theory in regard to my work is that writing to order means loss of power, loss of belief in the actuality of the tale and ultimately to loss of self-respect to the writer. If a man once deviates from this rule (I speak for myself alone) he mis-says himself at every turn and at the last ceases to be the author of what comes from his pen…’

Other Kipling reviews

Picasso and Modern British Art @ Tate Britain

To Tate Britain to see Picasso and Modern British Art before it closes (15 July). The exhibition comprises a few rooms of works Picasso exhibited in England before and after the Great War, before dedicating a room each to British artists he strongly influenced and/or met and knew – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, David Hockney. Lots to enjoy and have opinions about.

My son wasn’t impressed by Picasso. I agree: there’s very little of Picasso’s work that excites me. His scope and variety seem to me insidious, too farflung and overstretched. I don’t like the sentimentalism of the Blue period. I don’t like the hundreds of muddy brown cubist works. (I like fabrics and bits of everyday life stuck onto canvas, but done better by lots of others.) I don’t like the small-headed fat women running along beaches of his 1920s neo-classical period.

Pablo Picasso – Two Women Running on the Beach The Race (1922)

I don’t like Guernica. (I like the idea, I sympathise with the intent, I just don’t enjoy looking at it.) I quite like the line drawings from the 40s and 50s, the dove etc.

Picasso’s Three Dancers, one of his two favourite paintings

Picasso, through all his mutations of style, remains wedded to figurative art, to representation. This strikes me as immensely limiting, constraining. Compare and contrast him with the real revolutionaries, the spearheads of abstraction – Kandinsky, Malevich or Klee or Mondrian – who, to my mind, discovered and invented an abstract art suitable for the 20th century. (1)

In those early years around the Great War, Wyndham Lewis criticised Picasso for his passivity, for being so studio-bound, especially in the mud-brown cubist pictures. In his notorious avant-garde magazine, Blast, published on the eve of the Great War, Lewis lambasted Picasso for his limited subject matter and lack of formal energy. Does Picasso ever paint the city, trains and cars and planes, factories, crowds? No. Lewis attacks

‘… the exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive personality of Picasso.’

I agree. Whereas everything Wyndham Lewis ever did lights my candle! I am excited by the fierce angularity, the satirical bite of his Vorticist paintings (and writings). It may be less ambitious and he didn’t keep reinventing his style – but what he did do he did vividly and excitingly.

In contrast to this European avant-garde stuff, Graham Sutherland has always seemed to me to be dull. His religious works, various altarpieces from after the second war (he converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1920s) are sub-Francis Bacon. His twisted landscapes, well, are an acquired taste maybe. (2)

Workshop by Wyndham Lewis (1915)

Workshop by Wyndham Lewis (1915)

Ben Nicholson was more interesting than I remembered. I’ve always liked his small white reliefs from the 30s.

Henry Moore is an undoubted genius but I’m not the only one who wonders whether he didn’t produce too much and take too many public commissions with the result that his sculpture is too ubiquitous, making them strangely invisible (I wrote that before googling the idea and finding this Guardian article).

David Hockney (apparently) took from Picasso the imperative to paint, paint, paint, not to worry whether things were finished or perfect or whether he had a consistent ‘style’. Which explains Hockney’s huge output as captured in the recent Royal Academy exhibition, and his fearlessness in technical experiments, from his cubist montages of Polaroid photos to the latest ipad art. The colour and vibrancy and scope of Hockney’s work is so refreshing after the dingy pessimism of someone like Sutherland or the Home Counties tupperware-and-modernism of Ben Nicholson.

A few rooms were dedicated to Picasso’s reception in Britain. Suffice to say he was embraced by a tiny élite of Bloomsburyites and ridiculed by everyone else, including the so-called Art Establishment. Until well into the 1960s Picasso was being lampooned in newspapers and beyond. The British just don’t really get modern art. It’s not a modern country. It is dominated by people educated in private schools themselves designed to train people to run a Victorian Empire, with a bluff, no-nonsense, philistine attitude to anything which doesn’t involve hitting a ball. A superficial enthusiasm for the Young British Artists doesn’t mask the brute philistinism of the great mass of the population.

Every other country’s twentieth century involved revolution, invasion and devastation. Modernism in art and music expressed real, actual experiences of extremity, desolation, and the burning need to create new forms and new ways of thinking after the old ones were burned to the ground. Only England wasn’t invaded in either of the World Wars, allowing our elites and their subjects to go on thinking the old ways were best. The Germans had Mahler or Schoenberg; the French Debussy and Ravel; we had Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The continentals had Kandinsky and Malevich and Braques and Mondrian. We had Duncan Bell.


Related links

(1)  Picasso reminds me of Stravinsky (who he worked with and who dedicated his shortest piece to him). Stravinsky is the dominating figure of 20th music, as Picasso to art, and yet he, also, didn’t really break away from the western tradition and returned to it in his neo-classical period in the 20s and 30s exactly as Picasso did in art. Throughout all his stylistic twists and turns Stravinsky is at heart a conservative unlike the real revolutionaries Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and all who followed them. Schoenberg famously caricatured Igor as ‘Little Modernski’ and I think that nails him.

(2) “Sutherland is the hollow man of British art whose artistic integrity was subsumed in Picasso’s powerful personality.” – Richard Dorment

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Bauhaus: Art as Life @ the Barbican

1 July 2012

To the Barbican for their Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition, biggest one for a generation, apparently, including artefacts from the former East Germany. A detailed chronological account of the development of the institution from the amalgamation of pre-existing art schools in 1919 – ceramics, prints, painting, fabrics, photography, sculpture – to its last phase, 1930-33, when Mies van der Rohe turned it more or less into an architecture school. From Arts & Crafts to Modernism.

The German word Bau means building or construction, so the word Bauhaus literally means construction house, building house. More loosely, House of building, House of construction. You can see why it’s generally left in the original German.

The Bauhaus is famous and important because the principles it developed, its approach to design, went on to influence the design of almost everything in all industrialised countries, for the rest of the 20th century, having a particularly huge impact on modern architecture:

“The Bauhaus was based on the principles of the 19th-century English designer William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement that art should meet the needs of society and that no distinction should be made between fine arts and practical crafts. It also depended on the more forward-looking principles that

1. modern art and architecture must be responsive to the needs and influences of the modern industrial world and that

2. good designs must pass the test of both aesthetic standards and sound engineering.

(Iconic interiors)

All skyscrapers, all office furniture, all Habitat/Ikea style simplicity of design, with clean straight lines, all this derives from Bauhaus principles.

But the exhibition itself has nothing about Bauhaus’s impact, instead focusing in great detail on the actual artefacts produced by the classes through the years, and so is very small scale, with rooms dedicated to early woodcuts, experiments in typography, a room of puppets from the puppet theatre they built, and so on. My son thought a lot of it looked like the paintings and woodcuts and fabrics and pottery produced in his school art department, and it reminded me of school, too.

But a number of more finished things stood out. I liked the paintings by Kandinsky and Moholy-Nagy. I love geometric, abstract shapes, but with asymmetries, unexpectednesses. Kandinsky is a fascinating artist; his experiments with shape and colour directly mirror Schoenberg’s experiments with music and they knew each other and corresponded.

Circle in a Circle, Kandinsky

In 1925 the school moved from Weimar to Dessau where the mayor gave them land to build an institute based on their design principles. The strikingly modern result is captured in umpteen photos and films, along with recreations of the furniture they designed for themselves, and even a recreated view from the Director’s room.

Photo of the Bauhaus, Dessau, as it looks today

Most striking were the costumes students and staff made for their regular parties and theatre productions. The ‘Metal Party’ where all the outfits had to be entirely made of metal looked amazing. The theatrical productions were an opportunity to experiment with abstract design, costumes, movements combined with experimental light affects.

Contemporary photo of experimental Bauhaus dance costumes

But eventually the party had to end. The school had moved to Berlin in 1932 where, under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, it concentrated on revolutionary new architectural styles, but struggled for funding. The exhibition stops dead in its tracks on the July day in 1933 when the Bauhaus dissolved itself under pressure from the new Nazi regime. Most of its teachers and students made their way to America where they influenced a generation of graphic designers and architects.

Having reviewed in detail a lot of the output of the school, including a lot of juvenile or practice work, it would have been good to be given some sense of the final Impact or Influence of the Bauhaus. Doubtless that’s the subject of a trillion books and monographs, but it would have been handy to have it summarised or even referred to.

See this excellent review of the exhibition in the London Review of Books.

The exhibition ends 12 August.

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