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!
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."  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."  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."  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.  (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.  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. 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:  [broken link] http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/Alley/5443/afopen.htm (great site with map and pictures) Second Anglo-Afghan War:  [broken link] http://www.onwar.com/aced/data/alpha/afguk1978.htm  [broken link] http://stabi.hs-bremerhaven.de/whkmla/military/19cen/afghanwar2.html Third Anglo-Afghan War:  [broken link] http://www.workmall.com/wfb2001/afghanistan/afghanistan_history_third_ anglo_afghan_war_and_independence.html  [broken link] http://www.regiments.org/milhist/wars/20thcent/19afghan.htm