Skip to main content

Rudyard Kipling – author, poet and quintessential Englishman

Of the many First World War writers and poets who changed their opinion and style of writing as the war progressed, it could be argued that none did so more markedly or with greater justification than Rudyard Kipling, whose only son, John, was killed on September 27th 1915 at the Battle of Loos. This event and its consequences would forever change Rudyard Kipling’s view of the war and his role in it, and more especially, his part in John’s death…

Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay on 30th December 1865, the oldest child of John Lockwood Kipling, an artist and professor of architectural sculpture, and his wife, Alice. A daughter, also called Alice, but known to the family as ‘Trix’, was born in 1868, followed by another son, John in 1870, although he died very shortly after his birth.

The first six years of Rudyard’s life were extremely happy and he was, therefore, devastated when, in 1871, he and Trix were sent back to England for their education, without any real explanation from their parents. This was, in fact, standard behaviour amongst English families in India at the time, although normally parents would have spent time explaining this and preparing their offspring for the enforced change and absence of everything they had come to know and love.

So it was that in December 1871, Rudyard and Trix were whisked away from India, to stay with Captain and Mrs Holloway at their home, Lorne Lodge in Southsea. Trix was treated with relative kindness, when compared to the neglect and bullying which Rudyard suffered at the hands of his hostess. His only solace was the contact which was maintained between himself and his mother’s sister, Georgiana and her husband, the painter Edward Burne-Jones. Their home became a refuge from the hardships of Lorne Lodge and, noticing that Rudyard was unhappy and unwell, it was Georgiana who sent for Rudyard’s mother to return from India and rescue him. At around this time, it was also noticed that Rudyard could barely see and, once spectacles were ordered, a whole new world of literature was opened up to him.

In 1878, Kipling began attending the United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon. This was a relatively new establishment, founded by Cormell Price, and old friend of both the Kiplings and of Edward Burne-Jones. Its remit was to prepare young men for service in the armed forces. Initially, Rudyard Kipling was unhappy at the school, but eventually he found his feet, aided by Cormell Price, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. Most of the boys who attended the College either went straight into the military or onto University. However, neither of these options were available to Kipling, as he had no desire to join the army and his parents could not afford for him to attend University. Thus, in 1882, with the help of his father, Kipling secured a position as sub-editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore. Kipling sailed for India in September to begin his life as a newspaper man.

Once back in India, Kipling felt much happier, especially when Trix also returned at the end of the following year. Initially his work was editorial, but as time progressed, he began to write more, both in the form of prose and poetry, which would remain his favourite medium.

Within five years, Kipling had been given editorship of his own weekly periodical, the Week’s News, which featured a section on new fiction, to which Kipling regularly contributed. The stories that he wrote at this time quickly came to the attention of people in England and America and so it was that in 1889, he returned to London to pursue a literary career in earnest.

Carrie Kipling by Philip Burne-JonesOnce back in London, Kipling began to meet and befriend other literary figures, including Thomas Hardy, Henry James and Rider Haggard, together with American publisher, Wolcott Balestier. Kipling and Balestier began to collaborate on a novel entitled The Naulahka and Balestier’s sister Carrie moved in with her brother and acted as his housekeeper. In August 1891, Kipling began a long voyage to India, via New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and it was December before he reached Lahore to be greeted by a telegram from Carrie explaining that Wolcott had died. Kipling immediately left India and arrived in London on January 10th 1892. Eight days later, he and Carrie were married by special licence.

For their honeymoon, the couple travelled to Japan, but while there, they received news that Kipling’s bank had failed. They abandoned their honeymoon and travelled to Carrie’s home in Vermont, where they decided to settle, building themselves a house near Brattleboro. Their first child, Josephine was born on 29th December 1892, followed by Elsie on 2nd February 1896, by which time Kipling had completed the works which were to become his most famous: The Jungle Books. Later that year, a bitter argument erupted between the Kiplings and Carrie’s wayward brother, Beatty, which resulted in Rudyard deciding that the time had come to return to England.

Elsie John and Josephine KiplingInitially the family settled at Rottingdean in Sussex, where their third child, John was born on 17th August 1897. In 1899, the young family travelled to New York and while there, both Kipling and Josephine became extremely ill with pneumonia. Josephine died on 6th March, aged just six years, although Carrie decided that her husband was too weak to receive the news. By the time he was informed, Josephine’s funeral had already taken place, but the loss of his beloved and remarkably beautiful daughter, haunted Kipling for the rest of his life.

Once he was sufficiently recovered, the family returned to England, but were unable to settle at their old house, so in 1902, Kipling purchased Bateman’s – a house in Burwash, East Sussex. The first ten years of the twentieth century saw Kipling at the height of his literary powers. In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, although he declined many official honours, because he believed that they were too political.

In August 1914, when war was declared, Kipling’s Imperial traits came to the fore and he wrote, with great enthusiasm and patriotism. John, meanwhile, was desperate to enlist and on August 10th, still one week away from his seventeenth birthday, he travelled to London to volunteer. His eyesight, like his father’s, was very poor, and the army refused to accept him. He tried, unsuccessfully, twice more, before Rudyard decided to meet with his old friend, Lord Roberts, who was the Colonel in Chief of the Irish Guards, to ask for his help in the matter. Lord Roberts exerted his influence and John was duly commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.

After his training, John sailed for France on 12th August 1915, although his father had long preceded him, and was working as a war correspondent, returning to Bateman’s at the end of August. On September 27th 1915, John Kipling was killed during the battle of Loos. In the confusion of battle, his body was not found and on October 2nd, Rudyard and Carrie Kipling were notified that their only son was “missing, presumed killed”. Over the next few weeks and months, they tried desperately to ascertain whether John was wounded, or a prisoner of war, but despite the assistance of many figures of authority, as well as several of John’s fellow officers, nothing concrete could be discovered.

In 1917, Kipling became a member of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, and also was commissioned to write the official war history of the Irish Guards, which was published in 1923. No longer could he write poetry or prose which promoted the war, and indeed, his 1919 Epitaphs of War contained two telling verses:

A Son
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.

and perhaps the saddest of all:

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

His writing also revolved around inscriptions which were placed on memorials and gravestones, such as “Their Name Liveth for Evermore” and “Known Unto God”. John’s loss was commemorated at the Loos Memorial to the Missing at Dud Corner Cemetery. There was also a headstone erected at St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery, where the body of an unknown “Lieutenant of the Great War – Irish Guards” was buried. Rudyard and Carrie paid for a bugler to sound the Last Post at the Loos Memorial every evening, in tribute to the dead and missing.

Over the next few years, Kipling continued to write and to work for the Imperial War Graves Commission and he and Carrie often travelled in Europe, although Kipling was frequently laid low with digestive problems. Elsie, the Kipling’s only surviving child, was married to George Bambridge, a diplomat, on October 22nd 1924. After this, Carrie and Rudyard undertook a series of longer journeys, which included visits to the West Indies and Egypt. Ill-health, however, continued to plague Kipling and he died on 18th January 1936, following surgery as the result of a perforated ulcer. The date of his death would have been his 44th wedding anniversary. Following a cremation, Kipling’s ashes were buried in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Carrie was grief-stricken and, although others might have perceived her as domineering and harsh, there is no doubting the affection between her and her husband. That summer, she and Elsie would be greatly tested by an outburst from her estranged nephew, Oliver Baldwin, son of the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Oliver, in an official address, berated Kipling’s memory, his involvement with the war, his writing, his attitude towards Germany and his reaction to John’s death. Many rallied in support of Kipling’s memory, but this left a very sour taste.

Carrie and Elsie set about destroying any letters of Kipling’s which might harm his reputation and one has to wonder whether this came as a result of Oliver Baldwin’s assertions, thus denying future generations the possibility of forming an unbiased opinion of the man whom The Times summed up as “one of the most singular in English literature and English thought.”

The Search for John

Throughout his life, from October 1915 until his death in 1936, Kipling never gave up the hope of discovering John’s body and he often lamented – as did many in his position – that he had nowhere to grieve.

During and immediately after the war, the Kiplings used their influence to ascertain the facts surrounding John’s disappearance and, eventually reached the conclusion that as no body had been found and he had not been returned as a prisoner, he must be dead. They received numerous letters from people who had served with John, many of which gave conflicting accounts of his last moments and, thus, Kipling ended his life, over twenty years later, without ever really coming to understand the fate of his only son.

St Mary's Advanced Dressing Station, LoosIn 1992, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission discovered that the body that lay in St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery had, in all probability, been recovered from the exact location where John Kipling had last been seen, wounded. This had been the only battle at the time in which the Irish Guards had participated and John was the only Lieutenant of their ranks who remained unaccounted for. Therefore, the Commission took the unusual step of replacing the existing ‘Unknown’ headstone with one which bears his name.

The story of this loss and subsequent discovery, has been made into a play and a film by David Haig, entitled My Boy Jack, after the title of a poem, written by Kipling at the time.

There remains some question over whether the Commission was right in its assumption that the body really is John’s. This is mainly centred around the fact that he had only been promoted to a full Lieutenant in August 1915 and may not have been wearing the correct rank at the time of his death, but might still have appeared to be a Second Lieutenant, rather than a Lieutenant, as described on the original headstone. Either way, Rudyard Kipling would probably have been honoured that, nearly one hundred years later, there are still people who care enough to make the effort to discover the truth.

Special thanks to the National Trust for their kind assistance in the preparation of this article.