The Children

“But who shall return us the children?”

Rudyard Kipling

The thirty-fourth in my on-going series on 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 , here , herehere, here , here here here  and here.  Kipling wrote many poems during his career.  This poem is manifestly not one of them.  The poem is a lament by a man who lost his only son in the Great War.  From first to last Kipling believed that Germany was a menace and had to be beaten.  After the War he called for a harsh peace to make certain that German could not wage a world war again.  Up to his death in 1936 Kipling warned that Germany was still a danger to the world.  This should be clearly understood since there has been an attempt to misinterpret, willfully or not, some of Kipling’s war poems as a turn towards pacifism, an interpretation that Kipling would have rejected with a snort of contempt.  No, in his poems Kipling blamed British governments for allowing Germany to grow strong enough to bring about the Great War and that his son, and a million other British and Empire men, had to die to correct the folly of British statesmanship.  When I read this poem I think of future generations and the price they will pay for the fashionable lies and follies of our day.  The heartbreaking question of “But who shall return us the children?” should be remembered by all who aspire to rule nations.

(“The Honours of War”—A Diversity of Creatures)
These were our children who died for our lands: they were dear in our sight.
    We have only the memory left of their home-treasured sayings and laughter.
    The price of our loss shall be paid to our hands, not another’s hereafter.
Neither the Alien nor Priest shall decide on it.    That is our right.
        But who shall return us the children?
At the hour the Barbarian chose to disclose his pretences,
    And raged against Man, they engaged, on the breasts that they bared for us,
    The first felon-stroke of the sword he had long-time prepared for us—
Their bodies were all our defence while we wrought our defences.
They bought us anew with their blood, forbearing to blame us,
Those hours which we had not made good when the Judgment o’ercame us.
They believed us and perished for it.    Our statecraft, our learning
Delivered them bound to the Pit and alive to the burning
Whither they mirthfully hastened as jostling for honour—
Nor since her birth has our Earth seen such worth loosed upon her.
Nor was their agony brief, or once only imposed on them.
    The wounded, the war-spent, the sick received no exemption:
    Being cured they returned and endured and achieved our redemption,
Hopeless themselves of relief, till Death, marveling, closed on them.
That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven—
By the heart-shaking jests of Decay where it lolled in the wires—
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes— to be cindered by fires—
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater.    For that we shall take expiation.
        But who shall return us our children?


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  1. While Britain and France could clearly have fought the war better, I’m not sure what Britain specifically could have done before 1914 to foreclose on German ambitions beyond what they did, like build and maintain naval supremacy (by which means they successfully if slowly straggled the German economy) and helped detach Italy from the Central Powers just before the war. The first shock was taken by France (and not well), but one can hardly blame Britain for French failures. What British statecraft failures before 1914 are alleged?

  2. Tom Byrne asks, “What British statecraft failures before 1914 are alleged?”

    For most of the 19th century, Britain had regarded Russia, not Prussia, as the chief threat to peace; indeed, she regarded Prussia as a bulwark against Russia. Britain believed that Russia could pose a threat to her Indian Empire and to the sea-route to India through the Suez Canal, a view that was strengthened during the Eastern Crisis of 1870-1878. As a popular music-hall song of 1878 has it:

    We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do,
    We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too,
    We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true,
    The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

    Hence her supine response, when Denmark lost two provinces and France lost to provinces to Prussian aggression, although, to her credit, the Princess of Wales did spit in the German Crown Prince’s face.

    Had Britain introduced universal conscription in 1870, the events of 1914 might have been very different.

  3. I can’t see any chance of persuading the British to accept universal conscription in 1870, after bad memories of press-ganging for the Navy and the lack of any tradition of the same for the Army. I don’t think they felt too bad for Napoleon’s grand-nephew at Sedan and the two Danish provinces were German-speaking and never asked to rejoin Denmark (unlike the Alsace-Lorraine). Bismarck before his sacking by William II wanted Germany to dominate Europe through its economy, not its military. After Bismarck’s dismissal, someone in the Foreign Office might have seen ill omens ahead, but hardly before then. Russian hostility, on the other hand, was active that whole period.

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