Kipling the Man
Rudyard Kipling was the bard of the British Empire in the late 19th Century. He was born in 1865 at the height of British Victorian Power. He was the Indian-born, English-educated Anglo-Indian who gave voice to the British experience. He was a newspaper reporter and editor who won the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature.
He was one of the most popular writers in Victorian England. He was as popular as Stephen King is today. He was known for his poems and short stories. He knew all the important men of his day and was of the few men to have refused knighthood.
He was a chronicler of Britain’s late 19th Century and early 20th Century wars. He lost his son in the First World War. This had a profound impact on his usually imperialist writing.
Kipling’s poetry about Great Britain fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier serve as a reminder of grief and anguish. The British fought three wars in Afghanistan beginning in 1839 and ending in 1919.
They were trying to block Russian expansion in the area in what is known as the “Great Game.” It was the first global Cold War with small wars being fought by super powers through proxy nations for political and territorial gain. The Russians would return 60 years later.
The 80 years that British fought there the strategy changed from one of occupation to punitive expeditions. We would now call this strategy “Preemptive Strikes” or a “Forward Policy.”
A young lieutenant named Winston Churchill fought as a Cavalry Officer in one such expedition into Northwest Frontier. He wrote his first book about the experience. It was called The Story of the Malakand Field Force: an Episode of Frontier War (1898).
He wrote it in a series of serials for the Daily Telegraph. It is a cracking read. Winston is a great writer- we will look at this next week!
In the United Kingdom, Queen Victoria, Empress of India, was on the throne. Her Diamond Jubilee was to be held in 1897. At that time the British Empire covered one-quarter of the earth’s land surface, its 380 millions of inhabitants lived on every continent and on the islands of every ocean. The sun truly never set on the Union Flag of Britain.
It was a time when soldiering was romantic, casualties were few and the British felt that God had ordained them to rule the world. Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden” talks all about the glory of being ruled by the British.
Kipling should be forgiven. The horrific carnage of World War I would change all that. Kipling the Writer
Kipling was a prolific writer who covered several genres in his work. He wrote short stories, novels, poetry, science fiction and historical fiction. Kipling knew firsthand all about violent death on the plains of Afghanistan. This is where his writing exceled.
Kipling’s voice in his poetry was always in the barracks language of the soldier. This is why he had such wide appeal. In one of his most famous poems called “Arithmetic on the Frontier” he tells the story of what happens when simple Afghan tribesmen use modern weapons against a modern, elite British force:
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail-
Strike hard who cares-shoot straight who can –
The odds are on the cheaper man.
Kipling’s Poem “That Day”
In “That Day” recalled the bloody disaster sustained by British forces in the 1880 Battle of Maiwand. The Battle of Maiwand on 27 July 1880 was one of the principal battles of the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
The Afghans defeated two brigades of British and Indian troops. The British gave a good showing but were forced to retreat.
The numbers are all rounded but between 2,050 and 2,750 Afghan warriors were killed, and probably about 1,500 wounded. British and Indian forces suffered 969 soldiers killed and 177 wounded.
The Queen’s Colors and Regimental Colors of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot were lost at the Battle of Maiwand. This is resulted in the British Army no longer taking their regimental colors (guide-ons) on active campaigns.
Maiwand was one of the major military disasters of the Victorian era. It demoralized the British and had much the same impact as the 7th Cavalry’s 1876 defeat at Little Big Horn where 244 US soldiers lost their lives at Custer’s last stand.
The British realized there was no military solution for their political objectives in Afghanistan. Shortly after the victory, the British army withdrew from Afghanistan back into British India. Afghanistan was reunited and independent again.
The Brits would return for a brief period in 1919 but this battle would mark the end for British expansion into Afghanistan.
Maiwand is a district (county in America) that lies in the province of Kandahar. It is located 50 miles northwest of Kandahar. It borders Helmand Province to the west.
September 20, 2008
I was driving a MRAP truck on the morning of September 20, 2008. The truck hit a 500 pound IED killing my friend and gunner, Captain Bruno de Solenni and two Afghan interpreters Hanif and Ramin.
The site of the Battle of Maiwand is only 10 kilometers from where the explosion occurred. The two events are separated by 128 years show us the relevance of history. The ideals and reasons for being in Afghanistan are different. The nationality of the western army is different. The enemy and his motives remain the same while his methodology and tactics are different.
Maiwand illustrated the knife edged nature of the battles in Afghanistan. Heavily outnumbered British and Indian forces winning against much larger forces of Afghans. Providing they were experienced troops led by competent commanders.
The Last Verse of “That Day”
An’ there ain’t no chorus ‘ere to give,
Nor there ain’t no band to play;
But I wish I was dead ‘fore I done what I did,
Or seen what I seed that day!
A fitting reminder to a tragic day where several brave men died.
Sorry for the somber tone of this piece. I just wanted to point out some history and why it was so deeply personally to me. Afghanistan is an ancient land with lots of history and has been the last stop for three world empires- Alex the Great, the British and the Russians.
I don’t know what will happen but this is a subject I know a lot about and have given great thought to. All of us have served there. Most of us have lost friends there. Explaining the why and how we are there is important to define our reasons for continuing to be there.