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Rudyard Kipling’s Son Killed in Action

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Deemed medically unfit for military service, Jack Kipling nonetheless secured a commission and went into the World War I trenches. He was one of thousands of junior officers who were sacrificed in a futile effort to overrun German trenches that were fortified and bristling with machine guns.

Jack (John) Kipling.

Jack (John) Kipling.

Six Weeks to Live

Writing in The Express, Christopher Silvester notes that British “junior officers, some as young as 17 and mostly volunteers from public schools, suffered a casualty rate twice that of other ranks and their average life expectancy at the front was just six weeks . . .”

The tactic in the early stages of the war was for junior officers, armed with a pistol, to lead their men out of the trenches and to advance toward enemy lines. Here’s how historian John Lewis-Stempel puts it: “The young officers died in their droves with a revolver in one hand a cigarette in the other; held for a desperate, affected nonchalance as they led their men into the hail of . . . lead.”

Such reckless gallantry was to be an example to the other ranks and inspire confidence; it also made the officers juicy targets for German marksmen.

For many of those junior officers they feared not being brave enough more than they feared walking across no-man’s-land at the head of their platoon. Captain Theodore Wilson of the Sherwood Foresters wrote to his mother in 1916: “Thank God I didn’t show any funk. That’s all a man dare ask I think. I don’t care a flip if I’m killed or not.” (He was killed in France in March 1918 and has no known grave).

There was a remedy for those who could not, through will, force their bodies to go over the top when every sinew of their minds was screaming to stay rooted in the trench; that was a court martial followed by a firing squad.

Boys from the elite Eton College, seen here drilling, paid a terrible price with 1,157 being killed; 20.5% of all from the school who enlisted.

Boys from the elite Eton College, seen here drilling, paid a terrible price with 1,157 being killed; 20.5% of all from the school who enlisted.

Jack Kipling not Fit for Active Duty

When Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914, Jack Kipling was just a few days past his seventeenth birthday. As with most young men of his generation and class, Jack was keen to enlist and fight for his country.

There was one enormous problem; Jack was severely myopic. The actor David Craig, who wrote a stage play and subsequent made-for-TV movie about Jack, observed in The Times that Kipling was “so shortsighted that the Army and the Navy rejected him out of hand as ‘a danger to himself and to his men.’ ”

Blackadder Satirizes the Insanity of World War One Tactics

Rudyard Kipling Gets his Son a Commission

The intensely patriotic Rudyard Kipling was one of Britain’s most influential cheerleaders for the war, fuelled by an intense hatred for Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm. Craig writes that he was “utterly determined that his son should fight, despite his impaired vision, for the values that he, Rudyard, so publicly espoused.”

The older Kipling was able to use his connections to get his son appointed Second Lieutenant in The Irish Guards. As such, Jack Kipling would lead his platoon of 50 men into battle, even though he was not yet 18 years old and required a letter from his father giving permission to go into combat.

Jack Kipling Goes over the Top

On his eighteenth birthday, August 17, 1915, Lieutenant Kipling shipped out to the front lines in France.

On September 25, 1915, the British launched an attack against German trenches outside the town of Loos. Two days into the fight it was the turn of Lieutenant Kipling and his Irish Guards to leave their trenches and advance into the German machine-gun fire.

The attack took place in a torrential downpour, which would have practically blinded the spectacle-wearing Kipling. Findagrave.com reports that “The death toll at Loos was greater than in any previous battle of the war. Eye-witnesses reported seeing Kipling fall with a neck wound, but intense machine gun and shellfire made retrieval impossible.”

British soldiers attack through gas outside Loos in September 2015.

British soldiers attack through gas outside Loos in September 2015.

Jack Kipling’s Body Was Never Found

Initially, Kipling was posted as wounded and missing and his family clung to the hope he would turn up.

Rudyard Kipling solicited the help of the Prince of Wales and other notables to search for Jack. He managed to get British pilots to drop pamphlets behind German lines seeking assistance in finding “der Sohn des weltberühmten Schriftstellers Rudyard Kipling”―“The son of the world famous writer Rudyard Kipling.”

He and his wife Carrie roamed through hospitals interviewing wounded soldiers for news of Jack. One man said he had seen Jack Kipling fall as a shell exploded above him. He said the blast had shattered Kipling’s jaw and left him whimpering in pain. The man declined to pass on this piece of information to the Kiplings as he thought it too cruel to do so.

The remains of a lieutenant were discovered in 1919 by a burial search party in the area where Jack Kipling fell and interred under a “Known unto God” marker that was the fate of so many casualties.

In 1992, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission identified the remains as belonging to Kipling and the previously unmarked headstone was inscribed “Lieutenant John Kipling, Irish Guards.”

Subsequent researchers have cast doubt on the identity of the body in Kipling’s grave.

The tombstone marking a grave that may or may not contain Jack Kipling’s remains.

The tombstone marking a grave that may or may not contain Jack Kipling’s remains.

Rudyard Kipling Shattered by his Son’s Death

In an article in The Observer, David Smith writes that “When his father learnt the news he was said to have cried a ‘curse like the cry of a dying man.’ ”

It was four years before his family finally accepted that Jack had been killed in his first and only action. While still holding onto the hope he had been captured and was an unidentified prisoner of war Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem My Boy Jack.

“Have you news of my boy Jack?

Not this tide.

When d’you think that he’ll come back?

Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Rudyard Kipling was too old to serve in World War I and never actually had battle experience. While he excoriated the idiot generals who kept using the same failed and suicidal tactics he also applauded the valour and sacrifice of the soldiers.
  • Rudyard Kipling admitted and regretted his culpability his cheerleading for war and recruiting work when he wrote this couplet:

“If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Sources

  • “Review: Six Weeks - The Short & Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War.” Christopher Silvester, The Express, October 22, 2010.
  • “War Letters of Fallen Englishmen.” Laurence Housman, University of Pennsylvania Press, July 2, 2002.
  • “Guns and Guilt.” David Haig, The Times, November 10, 2007.
  • “Lieut. John Kipling.” Findagrave.com, January 2, 2006.
  • “When Rudyard Kipling’s Son Went Missing.” Nina Martyris, New Yorker, September 25, 2015.
  • “ ‘Wrong Man’ in Kipling Son’s Grave.” David Smith, The Observer, November 4, 2007.
  • “Death of Our Best and Brightest: Eton Rifles May Have Been ‘Built for’ Slaughter.” John Lewis-Stempel, The Express, February 9, 2014.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 01, 2020:

Hi Fran

It's an incredibly sad story multiplied millions of times over and the whole premise of World War One was total futility unless you were an arms manufacturer.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on August 01, 2020:

Oh, what a sad but true story. I am sure the senior Kipling regrets ever insisting his son fight with his myopic problems. So many families lost brave loved ones in so many wars. Yet, honor is brave to fight for what you believe in.

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