Because Our Fathers Lied

Because Our Fathers Lied

This week’s selection of poems by Rudyard Kipling marks Remembrance Day.

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

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)

Poem 189. Epitaphs of the War

A. “I was a Have.” B. “I was a ‘have-not.’”
(Together.) “What hast thou given which I gave not?”
We were together since the War began.
He was my servant—and the better man.
My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.
I have slain none except my Mother.
She (Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.
Pity not! The Army gave
Freedom to a timid slave:
In which Freedom did he find
Strength of body, will, and mind:
By which strength he came to prove
Mirth, Companionship, and Love:
For which Love to Death he went:
In which Death he lies content.
Body and Spirit I surrendered whole
To harsh Instructors—and received a soul…
If mortal man could change me through and through
From all I was—what may The God not do?
This man in his own country prayed we know not to what Powers.
We pray Them to reward him for his bravery in ours.
I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.
My name, my speech, my self I had forgot.
My wife and children came—I knew them not.
I died. My Mother followed. At her call
And on her bosom I remembered all.
From little towns in a far land, we came
To save our honour, and a world aflame;
By little towns in a far land, we sleep
And trust those things we won, to you to keep.
We giving all, gained all. Neither lament us nor praise;
Only, in all things recall. It is fear, not death, that slays.
Gods of the Nile, should this stout fellow here
Get out—get out! He knows not shame nor fear.
(A Grave Near Halfa)
The blown sand heaps on me, that none may learn
Where I am laid for whom my children grieve…
O wings that beat at dawning, ye return
Out of the desert to your young at eve!
Death favoured me from the first, well knowing I could not endure
To wait on him day by day. He quitted my betters and came
Whistling over the fields, and, when he had made all sure,
“Thy line is at end,” he said, “but at least I have saved its name.”
On the first hour of my first day
In the front trench I fell.
(Children in boxes at a play
Stand up to watch it well.)
Laughing through clouds, his milk-teeth still unshed,
Cities and men he smote from overhead.
His deaths delivered, he returned to play
Childlike, with childish things now put away.
I was of delicate mind. I stepped aside for my needs,
Disdaining the common office. I was seen from afar and killed…
How is this matter for mirth? Let each man be judged by his deeds.
I have paid my price to live with myself on the terms that I willed.
Prometheus brought down fire to men.
This brought up water.
The Gods are jealous—now, as then,
Giving no quarter.
On land and sea I strove with anxious care
To escape conscription. It was in the air!
Faithless the watch that I kept: now I have none to keep.
I was slain because I slept: now I am slain I sleep.
Let no man reproach me again; whatever watch is unkept—
I sleep because I am slain. They slew me because I slept.
If any mourn us in the workshop, say
We died because the shift kept holiday.
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
If I had clamoured at Thy Gate
For gift of Life on Earth,
And, thrusting through the souls that wait,
Flung headlong into birth—
Even then, even then, for gin and snare
About my pathway spread,
Lord, I had mocked Thy thoughtful care
Before I joined the Dead!
But now? … I was beneath Thy Hand
Ere yet the Planets came.
And now—though Planets pass, I stand
The witness to Thy shame.
Daily, though no ears attended,
Did my prayers arise.
Daily, though no fire descended
Did I sacrifice.
Though my darkness did not lift,
Though I faced no lighter odds,
Though the Gods bestowed no gift,
None the less,
None the less, I served the Gods!
He from the wind-bitten north with ship and companions descended.
Searching for eggs of death spawned by invisible hulls.
Many he found and drew forth. Of a sudden the fishery ended
In flame and a clamorous breath not new to the eye-pecking gulls.
For Fog and Fate no charm is found
To lighten or amend.
I, hurrying to my bride, was drowned—
Cut down by my best friend.
I was a shepherd to fools
Causelessly bold or afraid.
They would not abide by my rules.
Yet they escaped. For I stayed.
Headless, lacking foot and hand,
Horrible I come to land.
I beseech all women’s sons
Know I was a mother once.
One used and butchered me: another spied
Me broken—for which thing an hundred died.
So it was learned among the heathen hosts
How much a freeborn woman’s favour costs.
I have watched a thousand days
Push out and crawl into night
Slowly as tortoises.
Now I, too, follow these.
It is fever, and not the fight—
Time, not battle—that slays.
Call me not false, beloved,
If, from thy scarce-known breast
So little time removed,
In other arms I rest.
For this more ancient bride
Whom coldly I embrace
Was constant at my side
Before I saw thy face.
Our marriage, often set—
By miracle delayed—
At last is consummate,
And cannot be unmade.
Live, then, whom Life shall cure.
Almost, of Memory,
And leave us to endure
Its immortality.
Ah, would swift ships had never been, for then we ne’er had found,
These harsh Ægean rocks between, this little virgin drowned,
Whom neither spouse nor child shall mourn, but men she nursed through pain
And—certain keels for whose return the heathen look in vain.
ACTORS (On a Memorial Tablet in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-on-Avon)
We counterfeited once for your disport
Men’s joy and sorrow: but our day has passed.
We pray you pardon all where we fell short
Seeing we were your servants to this last.
JOURNALISTS (On a Panel in the Hall of the Institute of Journalists)
We have served our day.

These short verses were written by Kipling, not as part of his work for the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission), but as a kind of addendum, a series of imaginary epitaphs modelled on a much older form: The Greek Anthology, a series of short poems, most of which are epitaphs. Kipling’s verses are generally presented as if spoken by the dead, reflecting on the manner of their death and the lessons of their lives.

“Equality of Sacrifice” and “A Servant” remind us that men of every class fought and died in the trenches; “A Servant” adds the realisation of the dead master that his servant was better than he.

“A Son” and “An Only Son” speak of the impact that losing so many young men had on the families left behind. “A Son” also suggests the arbitrary nature of the carnage, the young man literally dies laughing.

“Ex-Clerk” shows us an initially timid man who grew in confidence through his service in the army and having died in companionship and love, is content with his lot.

“The Wonder” asks whether, since the mortal instructors of the Army wrought a soul from the conscript’s body and spirit, what might God be capable of?

“Hindu Sepoy in France” reminds us that men of many countries and faiths served with bravery and distinction.

“The Coward” shows us the fate of those whose fragile mental state was misunderstood and condemned as cowardice. Over three hundred British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed by firing squads (“Men led me to him, blindfold and alone”), though many must have been living with the searing mental torture of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder, or shell shock as it was known at the time). The effects of PTSD are now much better known and those who were executed ignominiously have been pardoned and are now remembered equally with those who died in battle.

“Shock” likewise commemorates those who lived with PTSD for the remainder of their lives which were often shortened by physical injuries or suicide.

“Two Canadian Memorials” were written by Kipling for the communities of Saulte St. Marie, Ontario and Sudbury, Ontario.

“A Grave Near Cairo” honours an unidentified soldier whose boldness and courage might appal the Egyptian deities.

“Pelicans in the Wilderness” shows us a father, buried in the desert sands, envying the pelicans that fly into the desert at dawn, returning to their young at dusk: a return journey that he will never make.

“The Favour” tells the story of a soldier frightened that his cowardice will betray him if he is long at the front. Death favours him by rapidly arriving in the form of a bursting shell (“came whistling over the fields”) and reassures him that the honour of his family has been preserved although there is no one to perpetuate it.

“The Beginner” is the tale of an inexperienced soldier who is killed by a sniper after injudiciously putting his head above the parapet. Kipling uses the metaphor of a child who, wishing to see the action on stage, stands up to see over the edge of a theatre box, also neatly suggesting the inexperience of the soldier by the reference to childhood.

“R.A.F. (aged eighteen)” seems to be a regretful elegy from this airman’s parents, recalling his childhood play and contrasting it with his wartime activities: from the heights, the “cities and men he smote” would seem like children’s toys.

“The Refined Man” has a slightly comic note that is pricked by the solemnity of the closing lines: not wishing to share his ablutions with others, this soldier chose a place where an enemy sniper saw and shot him. The black humour suggested by this picture is counterpointed by the dignity of the man, who accepts his death as a necessary consequence of his refinement.

“Native Water-Carrier (M.E.F.)” marks the sacrifice of Indian water-carriers, who were a vital part of operations in the searing heat of India and other places. Kipling’s “Gunga Din” is a longer and more fulsome tribute to these brave men; this short verse reminds us of the fate of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods; similarly, the gods have punished this man for bringing water.

“Bombed in London” speaks of those who were victims of the raids conducted by airships and aeroplanes. Although air warfare was much less advanced, both sides employed aeroplanes for observation and occasional combat as well as operations against civilian targets.

“The Sleepy Sentinel” is the lament of a soldier discovered asleep on sentry duty. This was also punishable by death: the sleepy sentry is condemned to eternal sleep.

“Batteries Out of Ammunition” is a swipe at munitions workers taking a holiday instead of producing the vital shells that would have prevented the guns from being overrun and kept the soldiers from death.

“Common Form” is the general response of all these dead to the inevitable question why? Kipling admits his own culpability in the death of his son John, who gained a commission at the outbreak of war through his father’s influence and died aged 18 at the Battle of Loos in September 1915. Kipling and his wife were deeply grieved at his loss and it inspired Kipling to join the Imperial War Graves Commission. His poem “My Boy Jack” is not, however, about his son—it commemorates Jack Cornwell, the youngest sailor killed at the Battle of Jutland. The verse “A Son” above can also be seen as Kipling’s reflection on the fate of his son which was unknown until John Kipling’s grave was identified in 1992. David Haig’s play (and the film of the same name) conflate “My Boy Jack” with John Kipling for the purposes of dramatic license.

“A Dead Statesman” is one of Kipling’s excoriating denouncements of the politicians that had driven the nations to war. This individual would not contribute in any honest way, lying instead to claim the attention of the crowds. Now the reckoning has come, and he must face the accusing faces of the men he sent to their deaths, he still seeks a comfortable lie that will protect him from their wrath.

“The Rebel” is an angry spirit claiming that had it been born to life, it would have ridiculed and mocked God for the earthly traps bedevilling living men. Not having lived, he is no less vehement, accusing God of responsibility for the war and standing witness to His shame. This could be read as the assertions of the Devil, who was “beneath Thy Hand ere yet the planets came”—if so, it is undeniable that Satan would have felt a certain satisfaction in witnessing God’s shame in the violence and carnage wrought by His creations.

“The Obedient” is a quietly religious man: doubting that his prayers are heard, he nonetheless prays and makes sacrifices. Even though his lot is made no lighter as a result, he feels that he has served nonetheless.

“A Drifter off Tarentum”, “Destroyers in Collision” and “Convoy Escort” each tell of the fate of ships: a mine sweeper from the North “searching for eggs of death” and sinking after an explosion, a destroyer sunk in a collision with another (which Kipling likens to a husband hurrying home in the fog only to be killed accidentally by his friend) and a convoy ship that only succeeded in herding its careless charges by sacrificing itself.

“Unknown Female Corpse” and “Raped and Revenged” tell of unspeakable acts of violence committed against women in a theatre of war and the vengeance that Kipling viewed as the rightful counterstroke to such barbarism.

“Salonikan Grave” reminds us that casualties of war included those that suffered from diseases such as malaria (“It is fever, and not the fight”).

“The Bridegroom” is reminiscent of the poetry of the Cavalier Richard Lovelace; the bridegroom has forsaken his newly wedded bride for an older flame: Death, whom he has courted so long and now lies in its embrace.

“V.A.D. (Mediterranean)” is a young nurse of the Voluntary Aid Detachment who has drowned after the sinking of the ship carrying her. Kipling’s motif of vengeance against those that strike at women is continued by the last line, where he suggests that a number of the “heathen” enemy’s have been sunk in reprisal.

“Actors” commemorates those members of the acting profession that fell in the war and “Journalists” likewise commemorates that profession simply and fittingly.

A Kipling Memorial commemorates men whose burial location was previously known but is now lost. At the foot of this stone are carved the words: “THEIR GLORY SHALL NOT BE BLOTTED OUT” and I can’t think of a better sentiment to express our thankfulness to those who surrendered their lives and livelihoods for our benefit.

Comments (from original post)

  • Linda Willing: I really enjoyed reading these Matt. Good choices xxx