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Rudyard Kipling: A Man of Letters

In this short film Dr Juliette Desplat, Head of Modern Collections at The National Archives, and Janet Montefiore, Professor Emerita from the University of Kent, tell the sad story of the loss of Rudyard Kipling’s only son, John, in the First World War. Our records show how after John’s death Kipling used his celebrity and literary talent to boost public morale in supporting the war effort.

Rudyard Kipling was a great writer. He was also a divisive character, both in his own lifetime and today. He was a passionate imperialist and his reputation remains inextricably bound to his ideas about the British Empire.

‘Literary Lives’ traces the footsteps, through the marks they left in our records, of some of our nation’s famous, and less famous, authors, spotlighting moments in their lives that shaped them into the characters we recognise today.


Literary Lives from the Archives

Rudyard Kipling: The Graves of the Fallen

[Specialist Interpretation: Janet Montefiore]

Rudyard Kipling was a storyteller, journalist, poet and father of three children. He was famous in his lifetime for his verse, but is now best known for The Jungle Books, Kim, his novel set in India, and his short stories. He achieved huge success during his literary career including winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 at the age of 41 – the youngest winner to date.

Kipling was a patriot. Often referred to as the ‘bard of empire’, he wrote public poems in support of imperialism and his reputation remains inextricably bound to his allegiance to and ideas about the British Empire. He believed in its defence and offered his words in its support during the First World War. The war would also see the loss of only son, John, who went missing in action at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

The National Archives hold documents that relate to this period in Kipling’s life.

Both Kipling’s pride and grief can be seen through records stored here, at Kew.

[Rudyard Kipling voice over]

“[They were] senselessly tossed and re-tossed in stale mutilation

From crater to crater. For this we shall take expiation.

But who shall return us our children?”

[Specialist Interpretation: Dr Juliette Desplat]

Rudyard Kipling’s only son, John, enlisted as a Second Lieutenant in the Irish Guards in September 1914 at the age of just 17. After training, he, along with many young men, was sent to France in 1915. On the 27th September, both John’s leg and head were injured during an advance on Chalk Pit Wood during the Battle of Loos. He was last reported to be injured and leaning against a well.  He was not seen again.

Hoping to find out what had happened to his son and suspecting that the Germans may have captured him, Kipling spent the following year tracing his last known footsteps.

[Rudyard Kipling voice over]

‘I have interviewed a great many people and heard from many others, and can find no one who saw him killed, and his wound being a leg wound would be more disabling than fatal’

[Specialist Interpretation: Dr Juliette Desplat]

Clearly hoping that John was still alive, Kipling appealed to the Army Council for John to be listed as ‘missing and wounded’ instead of deceased.

[Rudyard Kipling voice over]

‘I should be glad if you would postpone taking the course you suggested in regard to my son Lieutenant John Kipling. All the information I have gathered is to the effect that he was wounded and left behind.’

[Specialist Interpretation: Dr Juliette Desplat]

A few months later, in November 1916, Lord Derby, Secretary of State for War, approached Kipling to draft a new message of condolence to be sent on behalf of the King to relatives of fallen soldiers.  There was concern about anti-war feeling and Kipling was thought to be right for the task of shoring up the nation’s morale. Kipling agreed and produced a draft of a personalised message.

[Rudyard Kipling voice over]

‘The King knows/has heard/has been informed that your… has given his life for his country and joins with the Nation in pride and gratitude for the sacrifice he has made in the course of freedom/liberty and justice/rights. His Majesty commands me to send you his own and the Queen’s deep sympathy with you in your loss.’

[Specialist Interpretation: Dr Juliette Desplat]

Kipling suggested that the King issue personal medals and brooches to relatives of those who had been lost in the conflict as a means to counteract and discourage pro German feeling.

[Rudyard Kipling voice over]

‘a brooch is a sign of distinction and … entitles the wearer to look and talk with contempt at people who have not sent their sons’

[Specialist Interpretation: Dr Juliette Desplat]

The idea was not adopted and Derby rejected his draft message as impractical.

In 1917 Kipling became adviser to the Imperial War Graves Commission.  At the end of the war he wrote the pamphlet ‘The Graves of the Fallen’, a literary account of the commission’s work, honouring those that lost their lives or were presumed to have died.

[Rudyard Kipling voice over]

‘wherever our dead might be laid…that each cemetery and individual grave should be made as permanent as man’s art could devise’.

[Specialist Interpretation: Dr Juliette Desplat]

He sought to reassure bereaved families, like his, that their sacrifice had been for something, and had been respected.

Although a body was never found, the Army council officially listed John as ‘deceased’ in May 1919.


[Specialist Interpretation: Janet Montefiore]

Kipling never found out what happened to John, and mourned his loss for the rest of his life.

For Kipling, pride and grief were both personal and collective. He grieved for the loss of his own son and was proud that the King remembered all those who died in its defence. As a strong supporter of the British Empire, he held disdain for those who did not fight for it.

Kipling wrote a two-part history of his son’s regiment, The Irish Guards in the Great War and donated the proceeds to the regiment’s charity for war widows.

He was proud of his contribution to the Imperial War Graves Commission and worked tirelessly for it. He often visited the graves and made himself an unofficial inspector. It was he who chose the quotation “Their name liveth for evermore” for the war cemeteries, and ‘The glorious dead’ for the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

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