There’s an important story to remember as we recall the events of August 4, 1914. It’s an old story but largely ignored when stories of WW1 are told and re-told – and totally ignored when more recent battlefields are re-visited.
The hero, if that’s the right word, had celebrated his 18th birthday six weeks before a piece of shrapnel from a bursting shell struck him in the face during the second day of the 1915 Battle of Loos. A Second Lieutenant he had arrived at the front two days earlier as part of a reserve contingent fresh from England and only few weeks from training camp and just days in France.
He was just one of the many thousands who fell in the battle (75,000 in the first week) who were told they were about to participate in “the greatest battle in the history of the world”. It was later described, too late for the dead and gravely wounded, “a bloody great balls-up.”
Second Lieutenant John Kipling should never have been at the front. He had twice been turned down when trying to join up in England, rejected because his eyesight was appalling. It was said that even with strong eyeglasses he could barely read the second line on the eye test chart.
In a 2006 reporter Jonathan Brown of the English newspaper The Independent quoted Michael Smith, a vice-president of the Kipling Society, as saying:”He (John) went at the beginning to try and enlist on his own, but was rejected. Later he tried again, this time accompanied by his father, but again he was rejected”.
The father, as I’m sure readers have gathered by now, was Rudyard Kipling and John was the son for whom he had written his still world famous poem “IF”. Rudyard, master of patriotic jingoism and strong supporter of military action, told his son not to be dismayed at the local recruiting officer’s rejection. He had friends in high places, was proud of his sons desire to serve and would use his influence to break down some barriers.
And he did. Within weeks John was enlisted in the Irish Guards and undergoing training. And after an all too brief spell was off to France. The Independent article quotes his mother Carrie waving him off across the English Channel and writing in her diary: “There is nothing else to do. The world must be saved from the German….one can’t let one’s friends and neighbours’ sons be killed in order to save us and our son.”
Brave words, strong thoughts bravely spoken – but not really believed.
Rudyard and Carrie were both distraught when they got the word John had last been seen stumbling across No Man’s Land crying for help – and had then disappeared. The Kipling’s asked if he could possibly have been captured and be in a German hospital. They had leaflets dropped across the line. But to no avail.
Then in 1962 several previously unknown bodies from the Loos battle were rechecked. One was identified as John Kipling, aged 18 and promoted from Second to full Lieutenant on the stone that marks the grave. The Independent article of 2006 places the grave at Plot 7, Row D of St. Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery near Loos. While some still challenge the grave as that of Lieutenant John Kipling the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is convinced they’ve got it right.
Rudyard actually visited the cemetery but it was before identification and listed as “known only to God.”
But before he died in 1936 he did write an epitaph for his son. It’s one we should be thinking about on August the Fourth. It isn’t on John’s gravestone, but maybe it should be:
“IF ANY QUESTION WHY WE DIED, TELL THEM, BECAUSE OUR FATHERS LIED”