"Kipling's Classic Tribute to the SoldierFirst collected in 1892, Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads relive the experiences of soldiers sent around the world to defend the Empire-all for little pay and less appreciation. An immediate success, they were unlike anything the public had seen before.."
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June 02, 2003
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Excerpt from Barrack-Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling
From the Peloponnesian War to the Gulf War, music and songs have been essential features of a soldier's world. Bugle calls, regimental marches, hymns, bawdy limericks and plaintive laments: whether in the heat of battle or the hierarchical world of the barracks, these provide simple, direct means of communication to maintain discipline, boost morale or simply let off steam -- in fact, to cope with all the stresses and strains of army life.
The British writer Rudyard Kipling recognized the powerful effect of song and incorporated its emotion, rhythm and sense of camaraderie into his Barrack-Room Ballads, the series of poems he wrote in the 1890s about the experience of military service in India and other parts of the British Empire.
Kipling was a complicated, brilliant man who wrote many things well -- not just poems, but stories, novels and journalism. Not for nothing was he awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. He was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in December 1865, the son of a teacher at the local art college and a spirited Irish-Scottish woman who was related to the well-known Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones.
At the age of five, Kipling was sent back to England to live with foster parents (an experience he loathed) and later to attend the United Services College, a school for officers who fought in often forgotten campaigns in all corners of the Empire.
Since young Kipling's aptitude was for literature rather than for battle, he returned to India at the age of sixteen and joined the staff of the daily newspaper, the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, the Punjab town where his parents had moved, after his father, Lockwood, was appointed keeper of the local museum.
Kipling slowly readjusted to living in colonial India. Initially he stuck to journalism, demonstrating his sharp eye for color and detail in his reports on corruption in municipal politics in Lahore or the decadence of princely courts. As he traveled more widely, he began to satirize the manipulativeness, self-interest and crass stupidity of his fellow "Anglo-Indians" in a series of poems he called Departmental Ditties and in his stories known as Plain Tales from the Hills.
At the same time, he grew to understand the nature of Empire. Despite his general cynicism, he came genuinely to admire the self-sacrifice of doctors, engineers and other administrators who devoted their lives to bringing sanitation, roads and other benefits of Western civilization to remote areas of India. He convinced himself this was a noble cause. As was clear throughout his life, the doers of Empire became his heroes.
Another body was also essential to getting things done in imperial India: the military. Five miles east of Lahore stood the Mian Mir military cantonment, where an infantry battalion and artillery battery were always stationed. Kipling frequently rode over to Mian Mir, where he made it his business to meet not only the officers in their messes but also the enlisted men in their dusty quarters.
Greatly admiring the humor and fortitude of the ordinary soldier in often appalling conditions, he embarked on a series of stories about their life in India. These tales, as collected in Soldiers Three, featured a trio of enlisted men: the Irishman Terence Mulvaney, the Cockney Stanley Ortheris and the Yorkshire-born Jock Learoyd. No one had previously given fictional voice in this way to lowly privates such as Mulvaney, who in "With the Main Guard" asks, "Mary, Mother av Mercy, fwat the divil possist us to take an' kape this melancholious counthry Answer me that, sorr."