Rudyard Kipling: how the great writer’s son Jack died in the WWI trenches

By , June 22, 2009 5:29 am

Rudyard Kipling was one of the great Victorian and Edwardian writers. With a fluent voice, keen social eye and gift for story-telling, generations have enjoyed his Just So Stories, The Jungle Book, Kim, and poems such as If, Tommy, Mandalay and Gunga Din.

His career soared high, and he became the first English-speaker to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1907, and the youngest person yet to be awarded it.

He was offered both a Knighthood and the post of Poet Laureate, and turned both down.

Rudyard Kipling in 1914

Rudyard Kipling in 1914

And then came the horrors of the First World War, the trenches, the vast numbers of casualties, the slaughter of a generation of young men in the new era of machine guns, shells, poison gas and grenades.

And among the dead of the War was Kipling’s only son, Jack, killed in the Battle of Loos at the age of 18.

This article is about Rudyard Kipling’s life, and about “My Son Jack”, the teenager who wasn’t fit for military service, but nevertheless died young in the trenches of the First World War. At the end of the article, you will find links to free versions of Kipling’s work online and for Kindle.

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Kipling’s early life

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay, India, in 1865, and lived there until he was 6 years old. As a young child, his Hindi was more fluent than his English, and the influence of India on his life and writings is very clear.

Malabar Point, Bombay. This photograph was taken in 1865, the year Rudyard Kipling was born

Malabar Point, Bombay. This photograph was taken in 1865, the year Rudyard Kipling was born

At the age of 6, Rudyard and his sister were sent to live in England, while their parents remained in India. He went to school in England.

At the age of 16, Kipling returned by ship to Bombay, and travelled by train to Lahore (now in Pakistan) where his parents had moved to. The importance of his return to the city of his birth is made clear by his later statement,

There were yet three or four days’ rail to Lahore, where my people lived. After these, my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.

Kipling worked in Lahore, and then Allahabad, from 1882 until 1889, when he returned to London.

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Kipling’s marriage and family

Josephine Kipling, in 1895

Josephine Kipling, in 1895

In 1892, Kipling, then 26, married Carrie Balestier, who was 3 years his elder.

They moved to Vermont, in the United States of America, and lived there for 4 years, before returning to England to live in Devon.

The couple had 3 children, Josephine, born in 1892, Elsie, born in 1896, and John (known as Jack) born in 1897.

Josephine died of pneumonia in 1899, aged 6.

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Kipling’s Writing – a very brief summary

Kipling wrote for children and adults, and composed a huge variety of prose, poetry, and non-fiction history and literary analysis. Among his best-known works are:

For children:

  • The Just So Stories
  • The Jungle Book

Fiction:

  • Kim
  • Stalkey & Co

Poems:

  • Tommy
  • My Boy Jack
  • The White Man’s Burden
  • If-
  • Mandalay
  • Gunga Din
  • The Female of the Species
  • The Last of the Light Brigade
  • For All We Have and Are

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Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack

Rudyard Kipling in his study, in about 1895

Rudyard Kipling in his study, in about 1895

Jack Kipling seems to have been an amiable, sociable, like-able boy, but not to have taken after his father in intellectual or cultural terms. He had to have a lot of coaching in order to pass the entrance exams for secondary school.

At the age of 14, Jack hadn’t read any of his father’s work himself, although books such as the Just So Stories had been written for, and read to, Kipling’s children.

It wasn’t teenage rebellion, though. Father and son had a very close relationship, and the letters which survive between them show a real affection and closeness.

There are quite a lot of letters, as Jack (typically for boys from his type of family at the time) was at boarding school, and therefore away from his parents a lot of the time.

Kipling’s best known poem, If- was written for Jack when the boy was about 12 years old, to instruct him in what being a man was all about.

Jack suffered from very poor eye-sight, and had to wear very thick glasses to be able to see anything at all.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Jack (then only aged 17) was desperate to join up and “thrash the Hun”. But when he tried to volunteer, he was turned down because of his poor vision.

His eye-sight was terrible; he couldn’t even read the second line on a standard optician’s chart without glasses.

He turned to his father for help, and Rudyard Kipling pulled strings among his military friends. Jack was enlisted as a trainee officer, still under age. Officers were supposed to be at least 18 years old, in order legally to join up.

He trained as a Subaltern in the Irish Guards, and on completion of his preliminary training, was then posted to France. Just after his arrival, he wrote to his father:

Dear F -
Just a hurried line as we start off tonight. The front line trenches are nine miles off from here so it won’t be a very long march. This is THE great effort to break through & end the war.


The guns have been going deafeningly all day, without a single stop. We have to push through at all costs so we won’t have much time in the trenches, which is great luck.


Funny to think one will be in the thick of it tomorrow.


One’s first experience of shell fire not in the trenches but in the open.  This is one of the advantages of a Flying Division, you have to keep moving.  We marched 18 miles last night in the pouring wet.  It came down in sheets steadily.  They are staking a tremendous lot on this great advancing movement as if it succeeds the war won’t go on for long.  You have no idea what enormous issues depend on the next few days.


This will be my last letter most likely for some time as we won’t get any time for writing this next week, but I will try & send Field post cards.

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The Battle of Loos

This was the eve of the Battle of Loos. The Battle was fought over 3 days in September 1915, and represented a victory for the Allied Forces – but one bought at a terrible cost, and paid for in blood. The British Army suffered 50,000 casualties. Jack’s regiment of the Irish Guards suffered particularly badly, with an 80% casualty rate from just this one short battle.

And the victory didn’t last, either, as a few weeks later the Germans counter-attacked and drove the British Army back to where they had started.

Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother of the future Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, died at Loos.

And so did John Kipling. The letter above was his last, as he was killed on the third day, 27th September 1915.

Accounts of how he died varied; Rudyard Kipling spend years investigating after the war, and interviewed hundreds of other soldiers. He was either shot by a machine gun, or had the side of his head blown away by a shell. Either way, he was dead, and his body was never definitely recovered. He had just turned 18 at the time of his death.

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Rudyard Kipling’s guilt

Had it not been for his intervention, Kipling’s son Jack would not have been in the trenches in the first place. And Kipling knew it, writing in a poem after the end of the First World War, ”

If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied

He wrote a much-admired two-volume history of the Irish Guards, his son’s regiments; he also wrote the almost unbearably poignant poem, My Boy Jack. The final verse of this poem:

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!


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Kipling’s work with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Duhallow Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. The series of crosses, with one Jewish Star of David, can be seen.

Duhallow Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. The series of crosses, with one Jewish Star of David, can be seen.

Kipling became an influential member of the Commission (then called the Imperial War Graves Commission, later renamed), which established the standard gravestone of Portland stone, seen all over northern France and Belgium.

He was particularly concerned that Hindu, Jewish and Muslim troops were remembered in ways suitable and compatible with their religion and culture.

It was Kipling who came up with the phrase “”Their Name Liveth For Evermore” for memorial stones, and “Known unto God”, for the graves of those soldiers who bodies couldn’t be identified.

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Later Life

Kipling died in London in 1936, and has no descendants today.  The only one of his children who made it past the age of 18, Elsie, died childless in 1970.

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Accessing Rudyard Kipling’s poetry and prose

Because Kipling’s work is now out of copyright, it is possible to find free versions of both his poetry and his stories online. There are also Kindle versions.

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There are many versions of Kipling’s work available free online, as well. Here are a few examples:

The wonderful novel Kim, available from Bibliomania CLICK HERE

The charming, whimsical Just So Stories, with MP3 versions available for streaming CLICK HERE

The 1911 novel Puck of Pook’s Hill CLICK HERE

And a selection of poetry, Departmental Ditties and Other Verses CLICK HERE

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There is a great selection of books, DVDs etc also on Amazon (this lot is sadly not free).

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11 Responses to “Rudyard Kipling: how the great writer’s son Jack died in the WWI trenches”

  1. hels says:

    I love the notion of a person’s life and times affecting the content and style of his/her literature eg the happiness of the marriage, politics, religion, location of the family home, financial success or otherwise. This would be as true for Kipling as it would be, for example, for Austen or Defoe or Joyce.

    You have plenty of useful stuff to say about Kipling, for which I am grateful. Could I ask you just one favour – allow more space between posts so the reader can see where one post ends and the next post begins.

    best wishes
    Hels
    Art and Architecture, mainly

  2. hels says:

    avjones, I liked the topic so much that I came back to it this semester with my students. In my blog, I wrote up his Mumbai house becoming a museum: (http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2009/11/rudyard-kiplings-home-in-mumbai.html) and want to thank you for the link.

    Hels

  3. [...] Rudyard Kipling: how the great writer's son Jack died in the WWI Jun 22, 2009. Books about Elizabethan History – General, Political, Historical. As a young child, his Hindi was more fluent than his English, and the Rudyard Kipling: how the great writer's son Jack died in the WWI [...]

  4. [...] This link provides the story behind Rudyard Kipling’s son, and his death in WWI. [...]

  5. eljacko says:

    thaaaanks; really helpful stuff here (with history homework haha)

  6. Poetry Lover says:

    Im kinda confused. John? or Jack?

    • Blog author says:

      Both. John was his official name, Jack what he was always called. Most people historically that you come across called “Jack” will have “John” as their real names. It’s only recently that “Jack” had become a name, rather than a nickname.

  7. kate tarvin says:

    I have several books of short stories by Kipling, as well as a book called The Light That Failed. Apparently, none of them made the list you mention. Do you have any information on just how prolific he was?

    • Blog author says:

      Very prolific indeed. I don’t have to hand a complete list, but his poetry alone takes up 2 large volumes.

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