The ‘Eathen

The fourth in my ongoing examinations of the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.  The other posts in the series may be read here, here and here.  Kipling was a passionate man in his likes and dislikes, and always wore his heart firmly attached to his sleeve.  Throughout his career he championed the rankers and non-commissioned officers in the British Army.  He rightly thought that the men who were at the sharp end of the stick in battle often got the short end of the stick outside of battle.  Kipling never forgot about them, and he made certain his readers never forgot about them, making them the subject of many of his poems, books and short stories, and constantly reminding the British that their nation and empire relied upon the raw courage of men too often regarded as scum by civilians.  Kipling didn’t romanticize them, he knew them too well for that, but he did recognize their virtues as well as their vices, and honored them for the courage and good humor with which most of them went about their dangerous tasks.  One of my favorite poems of Kipling is The ‘Eathen, written by Kipling in 1895, which is Kipling’s salute to the British non-com, and a searching look at how a slum recruit becomes a good one.

 The ‘eathen in ‘is blindness bows down to wood an’ stone;
‘E don’t obey no orders unless they is ‘is own;
‘E keeps ‘is side-arms awful: ‘e leaves ’em all about,
An’ then comes up the regiment an’ pokes the ‘eathen out.

Kipling uses the term ‘eathen not only to refer to the non-Christian enemies that the Royal Army was often sent against, but to the initially undisciplined recruits of the Army.

All along o’ dirtiness, all along o’ mess,
All along o’ doin’ things rather-more-or-less,
All along of abby-nay, kul, an’ hazar-ho, 
Mind you keep your rifle an’ yourself jus’ so!

Here Kipling describes the slip shod attitudes of many of the new recruits.  The third line has Army Hindustani slang which means:  abby-nay (not now), kul (tomorrow) and hazar-ho (wait a bit).

The young recruit is ‘aughty — ‘e draf’s from Gawd knows where;
They bid ‘im show ‘is stockin’s an’ lay ‘is mattress square;
‘E calls it bloomin’ nonsense — ‘e doesn’t know no more —
An’ then up comes ‘is Company an’ kicks ‘im round the floor!

New recruits to any military often scoff at what they regard as the absurdities required of them.  They soon realize it is safest to do their scoffing quietly and to learn the Army way (or Navy, Air Force or Marine way) of doing things.

The young recruit is ‘ammered — ‘e takes it very ‘ard;
‘E ‘angs ‘is ‘ead an’ mutters — ‘e sulks about the yard;
‘E talks o’ “cruel tyrants” ‘e’ll swing for by-an’-by,
An’ the others ‘ears an’ mocks ‘im, an’ the boy goes orf to cry.

Ah the first difficult days of military service!  There is nothing quite like standing in early morning darkness, having an apparently lunatic drill sergeant scream at you, to suddenly awake a bad case of homesickness!

The young recruit is silly — ‘e thinks o’ suicide;
‘E’s lost ‘is gutter-devil; ‘e ‘asn’t got ‘is pride;
But day by day they kicks ‘im, which ‘elps ‘im on a bit,
Till ‘e finds ‘isself one mornin’ with a full an’ proper kit.

The painful process of learning, usually literally so in the early stages of military life.  However, learn most do.

Gettin’ clear o’ dirtiness, gettin’ done with mess,
Gettin’ shut o’ doin’ things rather-more-or-less;
Not so fond of abby-nay, kul, nor hazar-ho,
Learns to keep ‘is rifle an’ ‘isself jus’ so!

Amazing how many people in the military find that they do like being neat, orderly and efficient, at least when they are not on leave.

The young recruit is ‘appy — ‘e throws a chest to suit;
You see ‘im grow mustaches; you ‘ear ‘im slap ‘is boot;
‘E learns to drop the “bloodies” from every word ‘e slings,
An’ ‘e shows an ‘ealthy brisket when ‘e strips for bars an’ rings.

Regular exercise can work wonders for many young people, and the military supplies plenty of that, especially at early morning hours!

The cruel-tyrant-sergeants they watch ‘im ‘arf a year;
They watch ‘im with ‘is comrades, they watch ‘im with ‘is beer;
They watch ‘im with the women at the regimental dance,
And the cruel-tyrant-sergeants send ‘is name along for “Lance”.

Lance corporal, equivalent to the rank of Private First Class, the first rung up the Army ladder.

An’ now ‘e’s ‘arf o’ nothin’, an’ all a private yet,
‘Is room they up an’ rags ‘im to see what they will get;
They rags ‘im low an’ cunnin’, each dirty trick they can,
But ‘e learns to sweat ‘is temper an’ ‘e learns to sweat ‘is man.

The informal testing process that anyone going up in any hierarchy encounters.

An’, last, a Colour-Sergeant, as such to be obeyed,
‘E schools ‘is men at cricket, ‘e tells ’em on parade;
They sees ’em quick an’ ‘andy, uncommon set an’ smart,
An’ so ‘e talks to orficers which ‘ave the Core at ‘eart.

A colour sergeant at the time of Kipling was the top non-commissioned rank.  They were addressed as colour sergeant or colour but never sergeant.  They were held in awe usually by the men under them and usually treated with respect by the officers over them.  The colour sergeant would largely determine if a unit was well run or poorly run by how he did his job.

‘E learns to do ‘is watchin’ without it showin’ plain;
‘E learns to save a dummy, an’ shove ‘im straight again;
‘E learns to check a ranker that’s buyin’ leave to shirk;
An’ ‘e learns to make men like ‘im so they’ll learn to like their work.

The last line is especially important.  People who have never been in the military I think often assume that it is all just a matter of barking orders.  That is not the case.  A military unit is only truly efficient if most of the members want it to be efficient.  Unit pride and cohesion are all important and it is much easier to do this if the members of a unit do not actively hate those above them.

An’ when it comes to marchin’ he’ll see their socks are right,
An’ when it comes to action ‘e shows ’em ‘ow to sight;
‘E knows their ways of thinkin’ and just what’s in their mind;
‘E knows when they are takin’ on an’ when they’ve fell be’ind.

All the thousand and one tasks that any good leader of a military unit will have to keep in mind.

‘E knows each talkin’ corpril that leads a squad astray;
‘E feels ‘is innards ‘eavin’, ‘is bowels givin’ way;
‘E sees the blue-white faces all tryin’ ‘ard to grin,
An’ ‘e stands an’ waits an’ suffers till it’s time to cap ’em in.

This aspect of military life, the hard truth that men you care about in your unit will die, is well brought out in this scene from the movie Gettysburg  (as an added bonus, note the mass absolution being given to the men of the Irish brigade at the beginning of the clip):

An’ now the hugly bullets come peckin’ through the dust,
An’ no one wants to face ’em, but every beggar must;
So, like a man in irons which isn’t glad to go,
They moves ’em off by companies uncommon stiff an’ slow.

An excellent description of the preliminary movements in a Victorian era battle.

Of all ‘is five years’ schoolin’ they don’t remember much
Excep’ the not retreatin’, the step an’ keepin’ touch.
It looks like teachin’ wasted when they duck an’ spread an’ ‘op,
But if ‘e ‘adn’t learned ’em they’d be all about the shop!

Battle is unrefined chaos and it is exceptionally hard for men in such a maelstrom, filled with adrenaline and fear, to remember much of their training.  That is why so much of military training relating to battle is endless repetition until it becomes second nature.

An’ now it’s “‘Oo goes backward?” an’ now it’s “‘Oo comes on?”
And now it’s “Get the doolies,” an’ now the captain’s gone;
An’ now it’s bloody murder, but all the while they ‘ear
‘Is voice, the same as barrick drill, a-shepherdin’ the rear.

A great deal of military life can seem outrageous to civilians, especially the rank structure.  However, in the hideous confusion of battle the rank structure can save lives if the people doing the commanding know what they are doing.  In battle the non-coms would often be at the rear of the formation serving as file closers, the better to give orders and insure steadiness in the ranks.

‘E’s just as sick as they are, ‘is ‘eart is like to split,
But ‘e works ’em, works ’em, works ’em till he feels ’em take the bit;
The rest is ‘oldin’ steady till the watchful bugles play,
An’ ‘e lifts ’em, lifts ’em, lifts ’em through the charge that wins the day!

No one ever gets used to being in a battle, but part of being a professional is doing your job under stress and that is what a good non-com does.

The ‘eathen in ‘is blindness bows down to wood an’ stone;
‘E don’t obey no orders unless they is ‘is own;
The ‘eathen in ‘is blindness must end where ‘e began,
But the backbone of the Army is the non-commissioned man!

I doubt if there are many non-coms in any English speaking army who are not familiar with that last line!

Keep away from dirtiness — keep away from mess.
Don’t get into doin’ things rather-more-or-less!
Let’s ha’ done with abby-nay, kul, an’ hazar-ho;
Mind you keep your rifle an’ yourself jus’ so!

Not bad advice for any walk of life.

The epitome of Kipling’s non-com is the colour sergeant featured in the video clip from the movie Zulu at the top of this post.  Frank Bourne was his name, and he died in 1945, the last known survivor of the battle of Rorke’s Drift.  At the age of 22 in 1876 he had earned the rank of colour sergeant, the youngest in the army, which earned him the nickname “The Kid”.

For his courage and leadership at the battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879, he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the second highest award for valor in the Royal Army.  He retired in 1907, re-enlisting in 1914 at the onset of World War I, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and retiring again in 1918 at the conclusion of the War.  The lines given to Colour Sergeant Bourne in the movie Zulu are right in character with the historical Frank Bourne:

A prayer’s as good as a bayonet on a day like this.

Colour Sergeant Bourne: [Quoting Psalm 46, v10-11 just before the battle] I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of Hosts is with us.
Cpl. William Allen: I hope so. As I live and die, I hope so.

Colour Sergeant Bourne: It’s a miracle.
Lieutenant John Chard: If it’s a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it’s a short chamber Boxer Henry point 45 caliber miracle.
Colour Sergeant Bourne: And a bayonet, sir, with some guts behind.


Color Sgt. Bourne: [doing roll call] Hughes!
Hughes: Excused duty!
[the soldiers begin to laugh]
Color Sgt. Bourne: No comedians, please. Hughes.
Hughes: Yes, Colour Sergeant.

More to explorer


  1. “Ye may talk o’ gin and beer
    When yer quartered safe out ‘ere.
    And, yer sent ta penny fights and Aldershot it.

    But when it comes ta slaughter
    Ye’ll do yer work on water
    And lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im what’s got it.”

  2. From Piet – Homage to Boer ‘Soldiers’”
    (Regular of the Line)

    “I DO not love my Empire’s foes,
    Nor call ’em angels; still,?
    What is the sense of ’atin’ those
    ’Oom you are paid to kill??
    So, barrin’ all that foreign lot
    Which only joined for spite,?
    Myself, I’d just as soon as not
    Respect the man I fight.”

    From “Fuzzy Wuzzy”

    “‘E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
    An’, before we know, ‘e’s ‘ackin’ at our ‘ead;
    ‘E’s all ‘ot sand an’ ginger when alive,
    An’ ‘e’s generally shammin’ when ‘e’s dead.
    ‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
    ‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
    ‘E’s the on’y thing that doesn’t give a damn
    For a Regiment o’ British Infantree!
    So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
    You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
    An’ ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air —
    You big black boundin’ beggar — for you broke a British square!”

  3. Don

    Reading Gunga Din, I could here are Vietnam veteran sergeants saying in effect

    Now in Nam’s sunny clime,
    Where I used to spend my time
    A-servin’ Lyndon Johnson,

    Undoubtedly his lyrics cleaned up for family hour but they are the authentic voice.

    Last December was \Kipling’s 150th Birthday.

  4. Hank, for those on the sharp end of the stick the military experience tends to resonate the same in many ways, no matter the time and place. When I was in Army ROTC in the Seventies, I heard many a war story about Vietnam from a Major who had served with the Rangers over there. He married a Vietnamese lady and fell in love with the people and their culture.

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