War history: Rudyard Kipling paid a terrible price for helping his son

Rudyard Kipling approached friend Lord Roberts, colonel of the Irish Guards, about his short-sighted

Rudyard Kipling approached friend Lord Roberts, colonel of the Irish Guards, about his short-sighted son - right. - Credit: Archant

Poet Rudyard Kipling was on holiday in Suffolk when he realised war was imminent. Military historian Jo Hook, a guide for Galloway Travel, tells the story of the price of patriotism.

I had the privilege to take myself away one sublime weekend last summer and visit a National Trust property in Burwash, Sussex. Batemans was the home of Rudyard Kipling: writer, poet, Times literary critic, staunch supporter of the British Empire and pro-war propagandist.

Upstairs, Kipling’s study ? full of the most wonderful books. But perhaps even more poignantly, I came across the bedroom of John Kipling, only son of Rudyard and Carrie. It was decorated as you might imagine: a football in one corner; a tennis racket, together with old wooden skis, in another; and perhaps the most moving object ? his last letter home, written on the eve of the Battle of Loos in September, 1915.

John Kipling would have been just another casualty in a war that wiped out thousands of young men, had it not been for his father’s fame, which was perhaps an added burden of expectation upon his young shoulders.

From a young age John had expressed a desire to join the Navy. However, prior to his entry into public school, John’s myopia was a growing cause of concern to his family. It was becoming obvious his ever-weakening eyesight would debar any career in the Navy.

Following family tradition, John attended Wellington College, Berkshire. His academic and sporting record appears undistinguished and during this time he is urged on by his father to do well.

In May, 1913, John announced to his parents that, despite his father’s ambition for him to join the Navy, he had decided to pursue a career in the Army. Wellington College was an Army-orientated school, John had joined the Officer Training Corps and, bearing in mind his poor eyesight, this would seem a more feasible route to follow.

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On May 15, Rudyard wrote to John confirming he had “applied to the War Office for a preliminary exam on you, which, they tell me, will take place at Aldershot before a Medical Board”. John’s eyesight, however, was found to be below the standard requirement and all the hopes Kipling had set upon his son for a career he himself had been incapable of pursuing seemed dashed.

Throughout the year John’s health deteriorated, possibly due to the pressure put upon him by his father, whose love and hopes for his son approached the obsessive and became stifling for the young John. On January 20, 1914, he returned to Wellington for his last term.

The year rolled on. Rudyard became more concerned with politics and was increasingly anxious about the lack of preparedness of the British Empire for a war he believed may happen.

In July they stayed for the summer at Kessingland Grange, on the Suffolk coast. It was here they became aware of the crisis unfolding in Europe when their guest, Helen Cecil, was sent for to join her father, Lord Edward Cecil, who had been recalled from leave. The announcement Britain was at war with Germany came on August 4, while they were still in Suffolk.

Like his public school peers, John would have been caught up in the euphoric mood sweeping the nation to join a war that would supposedly “be over by Christmas”.

On August 10 he left for London, intent on volunteering with Kitchener’s new army. His eyesight would not stand up to the required criteria and he failed to pass the medical board. A week later, he again tried to enlist, and once again his attempt was thwarted due to severe myopia. It was at this point his father intervened.

Kipling took the case to his friend, Lord Roberts, Victorian military hero and colonel of the Irish Guards, who volunteered to nominate John for a commission in the regiment. He was accepted and in September a delighted John began his military training at Warley Barracks in Essex.

John was now plunged into the training all raw young subalterns had to undergo. Drill, target practice, musketry and physical training were all par for the course as the nation watched the first year of the war unravel with vivid reports from the front.

It would be a growing concern for John’s mother, Carrie. In a letter to her own mother she writes fatalistically “there is no chance John will survive unless he is so maimed as to be unfit to fight... we know it and he does. We know it but we all must give and do what we can and live in the shadow of a hope that our boy will be the one to escape...”

Carrie noted in her diary that John was off to the front. “He looks very smart and straight and grave and young as he turns at the top of the stairs to say ‘Send my love to Daddo’.” It was the last time she would see her son.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem about the call to arms, For All We Have and Are, was published on September 1, 1914 ? a year before John was sent to the front. Ironically, and maybe prophetically, the poem ends:

No easy hope or lies

Shall bring us to our goal

But Iron Sacrifice

Of body, will and soul.

There is but one task for all –

One life for each to give.

What stands if Freedom fall?

Who dies if England live?

I wonder if Rudyard realised how significant the final line of the poem would become.

The final part of the story of Kipling and his only son continues next week.

Would you like to organise your own bespoke group visit to the Western Front? Visit www.travel-galloway.com/ww1centenary to find out more.

See more about the role Suffolk heroes played in the war, both here and in France, here