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The Young British Soldier -- Rudyard Kipling

Continuing the current war poems theme, a guest poem sent in by
Mark G. Ryan :

Here's another addition to the war poem series.  This one is much earthier
than the Andrew Motion poem [Poem #1143], and a lot more fun.  The last
stanza has a particular relevance to current events, and I've added some
history in the notes.
(Poem #1146) The Young British Soldier
 When the 'arf-made recruity goes out to the East
 'E acts like a babe an' 'e drinks like a beast,
 An' 'e wonders because 'e is frequent deceased
 Ere 'e's fit for to serve as a soldier.
       Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
       Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
       Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
          So-oldier _of_ the Queen!

 Now all you recruities what's drafted to-day,
 You shut up your rag-box an' 'ark to my lay,
 An' I'll sing you a soldier as far as I may:
 A soldier what's fit for a soldier.
       Fit, fit, fit for a soldier . . .

 First mind you steer clear o' the grog-sellers' huts,
 For they sell you Fixed Bay'nets that rots out your guts --
 Ay, drink that 'ud eat the live steel from your butts --
 An' it's bad for the young British soldier.
       Bad, bad, bad for the soldier . . .

 When the cholera comes -- as it will past a doubt --
 Keep out of the wet and don't go on the shout,
 For the sickness gets in as the liquor dies out,
 A' it crumples the young British soldier.
       Crum-, crum-, crumples the soldier . . .

 But the worst o' your foes is the sun over'ead:
 You must wear your 'elmet for all that is said:
 If 'e finds you uncovered 'e'll knock you down dead,
 An' you'll die like a fool of a soldier.
       Fool, fool, fool of a soldier . . .

 If you're cast for fatigue by a sergeant unkind,
 Don't grouse like a woman nor crack on nor blind;
 Be handy and civil, and then you will find
 That it's beer for the young British soldier.
       Beer, beer, beer for the soldier . . .

 Now, if you must marry, take care she is old --
 A troop-sergeant's widow's the nicest I'm told,
 For beauty won't help if your rations is cold,
 Nor love ain't enough for a soldier.
       'Nough, 'nough, 'nough for a soldier . . .

 If the wife should go wrong with a comrade, be loath
 To shoot when you catch 'em -- you'll swing, on my oath! --
 Make 'im take 'er and keep 'er:  that's Hell for them both,
 An' you're shut o' the curse of a soldier.
       Curse, curse, curse of a soldier . . .

 When first under fire an' you're wishful to duck,
 Don't look nor take 'eed at the man that is struck,
 Be thankful you're livin', and trust to your luck
 And march to your front like a soldier.
       Front, front, front like a soldier . . .

 When 'arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,
 Don't call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch;
 She's human as you are -- you treat her as sich,
 An' she'll fight for the young British soldier.
       Fight, fight, fight for the soldier . . .

 When shakin' their bustles like ladies so fine,
 The guns o' the enemy wheel into line,
 Shoot low at the limbers an' don't mind the shine,
 For noise never startles the soldier.
       Start-, start-, startles the soldier . . .

 If your officer's dead and the sergeants look white,
 Remember it's ruin to run from a fight:
 So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
 And wait for supports like a soldier.
       Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

 When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
 And the women come out to cut up what remains,
 Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
 An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
       Go, go, go like a soldier,
       Go, go, go like a soldier,
       Go, go, go like a soldier,
          So-oldier _of_ the Queen!
-- Rudyard Kipling
Here we have Kipling's view of what the ordinary soldier was likely
to encounter in "the East".   Anyone feel like volunteering?

The colorful advice he gives the soldier about how to treat his rifle
("Don't call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch") reminds me of of the
guest poem by General Rupertus [Poem #1115].  Unlike that poem, this one is
unlikely to win many new recruits, since it goes into some of the less
romantic aspects of the life of an Imperial soldier (e.g., sunstroke and
cholera).

While the Ruptertus poem was painfully sincere, this one is tinged by irony
(at least to my ears).  Poems in dialect aren't popular these days, but as a
dramatic device it does put some distance between the author and the
sentiment expressed in the poem.  Here it allows Kipling to write on two
levels at once, and no doubt contributed to his popularity, so that both an
infantryman and a liberal could find something to like in this poem.

Kipling also has an accurate ear for speech and a sense of humor -- not
common traits in poets of any age.

It has long been popular to regard Kipling as a jingoist, despite the
efforts of Randall Jarrell (in the 1960s) and other critics to rehabilitate
him.  Yet Kipling here shows compassion for his young soldier, and in other
poems and in his fiction he writes about people high and low, from Rajahs to
prostitutes.  His viewed colonial life was steady and he viewed it whole, as
the saying goes.  While today we can not abide Kipling's language (e.g.,
his poems about "Darkies" and "Fuzzy-Wuzzies"), we might do well to emulate
his sympathy for ordinary people and the knowledge of the cultures he writes
about, gained as both a journalist and a resident in India. (Kipling would
probably have found the American terms "freedom fighter" and "collateral
damage" equally distasteful.)

In the context of this poem, it is a bit sobering to reflect on the British
experience in Afghanistan, which they conquered three times but never held,
despite vast improvements in British equipment and use of successively
larger forces.  This is worth telling in some detail.

Britain had a fairly easy time taking Kabul during the first Afghan war of
1838, but by the end only a single man returned alive.  Their invasion force
consisted of 9,500 men of the East India Company and 6,000 men of Shah
Shajan's army, an individual who was deeply unpopular in Afghanistan, but
whom the British were trying to install on the Afghan throne.  This mixed
force was referred to as the Army of the Indus.

After a detour in order to settle an old score in the Sind, the army reached
the Bolan Pass.  The first difficulty encountered they encountered in
Afghanistan was the lack of food.  The army had been expected to live off
the land, but this proved not to be possible in the Afghan winter.
Fortunately, they were able to buy 10,000 sheep from the Baluchis, "albeit
at a grossly inflated price." [1]

On April 25, 1839, Kandahar was taken without resistance, its ruler having
fled to Kabul.  Women through flowers and cheered as the Army marched though
the streets.  However, when Shah Shajan decided to hold a ceremonial durban
in his own honor outside the city, with General Keene parading the British
troops, only about 100 Kandaharis turned out to watch the show.  This should
have been a clue to the British, who instead proclaimed the taking of
Kandahar a great victory.

The next town, Ghazni, was fortified with high stone walls and proved a
harder nut to crack.  The British had no siege guns, and weren't prepared to
wait for any to be brought up.  An ingenious plan and treachery inside the
city allowed British sappers to demolish the city gates.  At the crucial
moment a bugler became confused and blew retreat instead of advance.
Fortunately the mistake was soon rectified, and in less than an hour the
city was taken, the British losing only 17 men.

The army advanced to Kabul without meeting serious resistance, and took the
city in the first days of July without a shot being fired.  The British
installed Shah Shajan and quickly returned to business as usual.  The bulk
of the army withdrew and the British settled down a life not markedly
different from the Indian hill stations, which included race meetings,
amateur dramatics, polo and cricket.  Some of the men had brought their
families.  Among the others, liaisons between British men and afghan women
were common, many of which women already had Afghan husbands.  Meanwhile,
the cantonment was not well situated for defense and every move the British
made was watched from the surrounding hills.

For a year nothing happened.  Then on November 2, 1840, a mob gathered at
the residence of Alexander Burnes, the deputy British envoy and one of the
chief womanizers, who had foolishly chosen to live in the city rather than
in the cantonment. When the crowd could not be induced to disperse, Burnes
ordered his Sepoy guard to open fire.  Burnes, his Sepoys and his entire
household were killed.  One account says that Burnes tried to escape in
native disguise, but was discovered in the garden and hacked to pieces.  The
force sent by Shah Shajar to assist Burnes was forced to turn back.

In the cantonment, the firing could be heard, but senior envoy Sir William
Mcnaughten, perhaps concerned about his career, apparently could not decide
on a course of action.  Some troops were sent into the city, but not the
residence.  When the expected British retaliation did not occur, the riot
turned into a general uprising and a siege.

The British still had 4,500 men and considerable artillery in Kabul.  The
Afghans never directly assaulted the cantonment, preferring to snipe from a
hundred vantage points.  A British sortie to destroy two Afghan guns was
successful, but was soon surrounded when its own gun overheated, and forced
to fight its way back to cantonment, leaving 300 dead "on Afghanistan's
plains".

There were now 30,000 Afghan troops in Kabul, led by Akbar, the son of the
deposed leader, Dost Mohammed.  He gave an order to cut off all food to the
cantonment on pain of death.  Then, surprisingly, he proposed a truce if the
British would quit Kabul and take the hated Shah Shajar with them.

Instead, Mcnaughten negotiated a treated that would keep Shajar on
the throne and allow the British troops to remain until the spring and have
what we would call "peace with honor".  A meeting was arranged to cement
the new agreement.

Mcnaughten responded angrily when he was warned that this might be a trap.
Nonetheless he and three British political officers rode to the meeting and
to their deaths on December 23, 1840.  Later that day Mcnaughten's corpse,
with the head and limbs cut off, was hung from a pole in the bazaar.

The British military commander, Gen. Elphinstone, a 60 year-old veteran of
Waterloo, still did not feel able to retaliate.  As a result, surviving
deputy envoy Eldred Pottinger, who had tried to warn Mcnaughten of the
danger around Kabul, was forced to accept the Afghan terms with only a few
modifications.  These were that the British leave officers as hostages in
Kabul in return for safe passage to India.

Pottinger urged Gen. Elphinstone not to trust Akbar to move his force into
Bala Hissar which could be defended, but Elphinstone refused.  On January 6,
1842, the British contingent of 17,000 began their retreat to India.  About
700 of these were Europeans, soldiers and civilians.  The nearest British
garrison was in Jalalabad, over 90 miles away: not a huge distance, but
across snow-covered mountain passes.

There was no sign of Akbar's promised escort, and in the first hour of the
retreat the rear guard came under fire from snipers. During the first day,
Afghan horseman rushed the column again and again, driving off baggage
animals.  When the army made camp at the end of the first day, only 5 miles
had been made and only one tent remained from the baggage.

On the second day, the Afghans captured two of the five British field guns.
Akbar's representatives suggested that the British halt for the day while he
negotiate passage through the next stage, and amazingly, Elphinstone
complied.  Elphinstone also gave in to Akbar's demand that he surrender
three political officers (including Pottinger) as hostages.  Ironically, it
was to save their lives.

An ambush was waiting at the Koord-Cabool pass.  Withering fire poured down
from both sides.  A stream below the pass had to be forded some 13 times,
leaving the column totally exposed.  Perhaps 3000 were lost. Akbar himself
rode through the melee shouting in Persion (which many of the British knew)
to spare the British, and in Pushto (which the tribesmen knew) to kill
everyone.

On the third day, Akbar offered his protection to any families that would
surrender.  Elphinstone again trusted Akbar.  9 children, 8 women, and 2 men
accepted.  Though held captive many months, they too would survive.  The
attacks on the column continued.

By the forth day, on 700 soldiers and 4000 civilians remained alive.  Most
had fallen victim to the extreme cold, and any unable to march because of
frostbitten were left behind for the Afghans.

By the fifth day, when Elphinstone again rode into Akbar's camp to
negotiate, Akbar had lost whatever control he had had of the tribesmen.
Elphinstone was taken hostage, but managed to smuggle out a message to the
army to move on immediately.

That night the column found its path blocked by a barrier of thorns.  In the
darkness, the Red Coats attempted to cut an opening, but were discovered. In
the ensuing melee, all semblance of discipline broke down.  Dr. Brydan, an
army surgeon, was pulled off his horse by a knife-wealding Afghan, and only
an old copy of Blackwood's magazine, which he had thrust in his cap, saved
his life.  After managing to continue a way on foot, he met a mortally
wounded Indian soldier, who told him "Take my horse, and God send that you
get to Jahalabad in safety."

Only two groups survived the battle, one of one of 14 mounted men that Dr.
Brydan joined, and one of 45 soldiers and 20 officers.  The latter group got
as far as the village of Gandamak, only 30 miles from Jalalabad.  Surrounded
by Afghans and with only 40 rounds of ammunition left, all but 4 were slain.

Brydon's group did not get as far. In the village of Futtebad, apparently
friendly villages offered the British food.  This was another trap.  As the
British rested, scores of Afghan horsemen swarmed into the village.  all but
four were slain.  Three of the survivors were subsequently captured and
killed.

Brydan escaped on horseback.  He was pursued and repeatedly attacked. The
blade of his sword, his only weapon, was broken by a jezail bullet.  In the
last mile before Jalalabad, he threw the hilt of his sword into the face of
an Afghan attacker.  He thus became the only person to complete the
retreat-- the worst in British military history.

The Second Afghan War of 1878-1879 was less disastrous, but involved
setbacks that sound all too familiar today. Viceroy Lord Northbroke resigned
his post rather than follow orders from ministers "whose judgment he
believed to be disastrously distorted by Russaphobia." [3] Nevertheless, the
war begin Nov. 22, 1878 when a small British force of 37,500 invaded
Afghanistan.  The British fought their way through the high mountain passes
and were able to take Kabul, where they installed a government friendly to
Britain and signed a peace treaty.  But on September 2, 1879 the British
residency in Kabul was wiped out by a mob, with only a few able to escape.
British forces stationed in the Khyber Pass immediately set out to retake
Kabul, which they accomplished in October, removing the government they had
installed two months earlier and leaving the throne vacant.  A Holy War
(Jihad) was called for and c. 100,000 Afghans rallied to the cause." [3]
The British quickly found themselves trapped in Kabul.  They were forced to
leave Kabul and marched on Kandahar, which they took in the final action of
the war.  From a total force of 40,000, the British suffered 2,500
casualties, including 500 from cholera. [3]

(Interestingly, a recent report by the US Department of Defense concluded
that disease was a significant factor in Soviet losses in Afghanistan, which
led to Russia's decision to abandon its Afghan campaign.  So at least one
thing had not changed between 1878 and the 1980s.)

In 1901, the British instituted a policy of regular payments to the Afghan
tribes as a means to reduce border conflicts, although for the next decade
the British continued to fight against the Mahsud, Waziri, and Zakka Khel
Afridi tribesmen. [2]

There was yet a Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919.  It begin when Afghan
monarch Amanullah Khan decided to attack across the Indian border in May,
1919.  The attack, described as a "Jihad", was timed to take advantage of
the unrest in India (the massacre by the British at Amritsar had just taken
place). It took the British by surprise and managed to capture a few
towns.[4]  The British responded with a massive invasion of Afghanistan
through the Khyber Pass.  This ground down to a stalemate where Amanullah
was forced to sue for peace.

The British experience is worth relating because, as of this moment,
American troops are still conducting operations in Afghanistan.  Some people
have forgotten this because of the looming war in Iraqi and the crisis in
North Korea.  But as we have seen, there is really no "all quiet" in
Afghanistan.

As to the larger questions of whether all this past carnage or current
military adventures are justified or achieved any lasting purpose, I leave
that to the reader.

On-line sources:

First Anglo-Afghan War: [1]
[broken link] http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/Alley/5443/afopen.htm (great site with map
and pictures)

Second Anglo-Afghan War: [2]
[broken link] http://www.onwar.com/aced/data/alpha/afguk1978.htm [3]
[broken link] http://stabi.hs-bremerhaven.de/whkmla/military/19cen/afghanwar2.html

Third Anglo-Afghan War:
[4] [broken link] http://www.workmall.com/wfb2001/afghanistan/afghanistan_history_third_
        anglo_afghan_war_and_independence.html
[5] [broken link] http://www.regiments.org/milhist/wars/20thcent/19afghan.htm

43 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anonymous said...

I have been to Afghanistan and know the people. They are nice people, friendly and industrious.. They don't like to be told what to do by folks from halfway around the world.. And especially at gunpoint in their own country... Would you be any different if it was THEM that invaded HERE...???

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Wow! I thought your article would dwell on Kipling's poetry and how it drove the young British men away from joining the army. But you expanded our horizon by giving us a brief history of Afghanistan! True to what my history teacher had said, Kabul was the crossroads of invaders, from Alexander the Great to Akbar to the Seleucids and Seljuks. It's no wonder that when the British tried to pacify the region, they were driven out with tactics never before seen in modern military.

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