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arithmetic on the frontier

The twenty-seventh in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here , here , here and here.  Kipling was always concerned with the British Army.  Here in one of his earliest poems, Arithmetic on the Frontier, written in 1886 when he was 21, he bemoans the difficulty of fighting on the northwest frontier of India when it was so expensive to educate and train a British officer compared to the cheap in cost native troops they were fighting.  It is a striking poem filled with striking imagery, but it was a bad analysis of the military situation.  Comparatively few of the troops used by Britain were brought from the United Kindom.  Most were native troops, not much costlier than the foes they faced for the White Queen.  Add in the wide technology disparity, and as long as Britain was willing to pay the financial cost, it could hold its empire in India indefinitely.  The British Raj ended some 62 years after Kipling wrote the poem due to a rising political consciousness of the minute Indian middle and upper classes and because a bankrupt Britain was no longer willing to shoulder the cost.  The poem actually has more relevance for our time than Kipling’s, as America’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrates.  Oh well, it is still a marvelous poem!:


Arithmetic on the Frontier

A great and glorious thing it is  

To learn, for seven years or so,

The Lord knows what of that and this,  

Ere reckoned fit to face the foe —

The flying bullet down the Pass,

That whistles clear: “All flesh is grass.”

Three hundred pounds per annum spent  

On making brain and body meeter

For all the murderous intent  

Comprised in “villanous saltpetre!”

And after — ask the Yusufzaies

What comes of all our ‘ologies.

A scrimmage in a Border Station —  

A canter down some dark defile —

Two thousand pounds of education  

Drops to a ten-rupee jezail —

The Crammer’s boast,

the Squadron’s pride,

Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

No proposition Euclid wrote,  

No formulae the text-books know,

Will turn the bullet from your coat,

  Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow

Strike hard who cares — shoot straight who can —

The odds are on the cheaper man.

One sword-knot stolen from the camp  

Will pay for all the school expenses

Of any Kurrum Valley scamp  

Who knows no word of moods and tenses,

But, being blessed with perfect sight,

Picks off our messmates left and right.

With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,

  The troop-ships bring us one by one,

At vast expense of time and steam,

  To slay Afridis where they run.

The “captives of our bow and spear”

Are cheap — alas! as we are dear.

More to explorer

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  1. The purpose of “Game” was to keep out the Russians, right?

    Early on, the author of No Easy Day writes about combat soldiers’ quick realizations that that round that snapped past their ears could have blown out their brains.

    Some of Kipling’s short stories also echo the theme, e.g., “The Rout of the White Hussars” and “The Drums of the Fore and Aft.”

    Fear (Phobos) and Terror (Deimos) are yoked to Ares’ chariot.

  2. Don, I think you have somehow missed the point. Theoretically, the manpower reserves of the Indian army, coupled with naval supremacy, should have made Britain a superpower. However, the Indian army was basically for the defence of India. Although Sikh cavalry appeared on the Western Front as early as 1914, the crucial support for British military success in the Great War was from the white Dominions of the British Empire (and when Englishmen spoke of the Empire they were thinking more of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – the Indian Empire was a thing apart). Despite the romantic attitude of Curzon or Churchill it was clear that India was being prepared for self-government. If you want to keep a people in subjugation you don’t deliberately educate them and encourage them to be part of the administrative process. Modern India, with its political, educational, industrial, and transport infrastructure is a British creation. The Victorian engineers who built the Indian railways may not have realized it, but they were forging a new nation. Britain could not hold her Indian Empire indefinitely, and nor did she expect to. The Second World War and its aftermath certainly speeded things up, and the consequences were pretty dire. And thanks to the system of ‘sterling balances’ India was still a drain on the British taxpayer after independence.

  3. Don

    A good post. A few points.

    In terms of financial value of education and training, I would think the average Indian soldier as worth a bit more than his opponents. If I remember correctly the cost of an Indian battalion was a third iof the cost of British battalion, and as I am sure you remember from Kipling’s other poems Her Majesties government was not inclined to pay a lot for the health and well being of the British soldier.

    What Kipling is writing about to his English middle class audience is the officers, largely recruited from the middle class. Whose education was far more expensive the soldiers British, Indian, or Pathan.

    While Kipling generally supported the Imperial polices of HM’s Government, he saw the costs and ironies. Here is pointing them out, as usual more effectively than the diatribes of the opposition at home..

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

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