Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Happy Birthday Rudyard: Kipling and the Imperial War Graves Commission

Today is the anniversary of Rudyard Kipling's birth in 1865.  Kipling wrote much about the Great War and, of course, suffered until the end of his life over the loss of his son John at Loos in 1915. However, his contributions to the Imperial War Graves Commission will live on as long as we remember the fallen of the war.  Here is a summary of his contributions I discovered from the Kipling Journal of the Kipling Society, March 2005 issue.

By Dr. Deborah E. Wiggins

A Contribution of Rudyard Kipling

Membership on the Imperial War Graves Commission was the first office Kipling ever assumed. He did have some involvement with the Boy Scout movement, including allowing Lord Baden-Powell to use the Jungle Book for preparation of The Wolf Cubs' Handbook. But he had refused the laureateship in 1895 and declined the Order of Merit three times on the grounds that whatever services he might perform for empire or king would be most effective out of the public eye.

The Imperial War Graves Commission was born of the need for proper burial for the thousands of dead in France and other theaters of war. In the first months of the war, the dead had been buried in the trenches, but the British stopped this practice by 1915. The British Army created a Graves Registration Unit in 1914. This group took over work that had been done up until that time by the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. In 1916 this unit was renamed the Directorate of the Graves Registration and Enquiries and worked with the National Committee for the Care of Soldiers Graves (whose president was the Prince of Wales). Eventually there were calls for a larger committee to look after all the graves of the empire, and the Imperial War Graves Commission was created in 1917.

Typical Memorial Panel Found in
Cathedrals in France and Flanders
While the Army recognized the necessity of handling burials, the early view was that the Graves Registration workers were simply a requirement that might detract from more important activities. In a letter from March of 1916, General Sir Douglas Haig discussed the request for more motor transports for use by this unit:

It is fully recognized that the work of this organisation is of purely sentimental value, and that it does not directly contribute to the successful termination of the War. It has, however, an extraordinary moral value to the Troops in the Field as well as to the relatives and friends of the dead, at home. . . Further, it should be borne in mind that on the termination of hostilities the nation will demand an account from the Government as to the steps which have been taken to make and classify the burial places of the dead, steps which can only be effectively taken at, or soon after burial. 

The first members of the commission included the Prince of Wales as president. The chairman was Secretary of State for War Lord Derby, who had recently lost his son-in-law in the war. Other members included the vice-chairman, Fabian Ware, who had spearheaded the British Red Cross involvement with registration of graves; General Sir Nevil Macready; Admiral Poe; Sir William Garstin of the Red Cross; Harry Gosling of the Transport and General Workers' Union; and Rudyard Kipling. Both Garstin and Kipling had lost sons in the war. 

At the start of the commission, the members decided that there would be three general concepts that would guide the development of all the cemeteries. All memorials would be permanent, the headstones would be uniform, and there would be no distinction as to rank. As Frederic Kenyon, Director of the British Museum, noted, "where the sacrifice had been common, the memorial should be common also." This was a departure from past practices, but the members of the commission decided that the task ahead of them required both innovation and precise planning. Seven architects were appointed to plan the cemeteries. Kenyon was also consulted as to design. The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew were in charge of the horticultural features.

To Kipling went the job of inscriptions for the memorials. It was his feeling that this was not the occasion for the invention of some new form of words, but that the idea which the stone intended to convey could be best expressed by the choice of some familiar phrase from the Bible. 

The commission considered several possibilities, including "You live and die, and die and live," and "All's Well" from J. M. Barrie.  Other suggestions included "To the Brave" and "Peace be with you." One of the architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens, suggested simply "Amen." But the choice was really Kipling's, for as Lutyens complained, "the question is coming to a head and if Kipling says the ukase, the Royal Commission will say yes." Kipling took his choice from the Apocrypha in Ecclesiasticus 44, verse 14, "Their name liveth for evermore."

Kipling was responsible for the composition of most of the inscriptions used in the British memorials located in French cathedrals, including the words placed on the headstones of unmarked graves, "A soldier of the Great War. . . Known unto God." He is also given credit for beginning the evening ceremony of playing of "The Last Post" at the Menin Gate Memorial. Kipling is also mentioned as being one of the originators of the idea of the Unknown British Soldier whose body was interred in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920. 

Two Highlanders "Known Unto God"

On one occasion soon after he joined the commission, Kipling was asked to assist in drafting a revision of the letter sent from the King to the bereaved family on the death of a member of the military. Lord Derby felt that the original letter was too brusque. "I cannot myself think of the right words," Derby wrote, "but I am sure in this respect you could very much help me." Kipling wrote back immediately with several suggestions, although as he commented, "It's a bit hard to combine the impression of national thanks with a personal letter from the King." As it turned out, Derby did not use Kipling's suggestions, but basically stayed with his own first draft. 

In September 1920 Kipling urged the commission to establish local enquiry offices in Britain to assist families in their searches. Many family members planned trips to France to visit the graveyards; Thomas Cook was advertising tours to the battlefields. On Kipling's frequent visits to France, he had seen "many bereaved relatives wandering, confused, distressed and helpless." The commission eventually allotted a budget of £4,500 for these local offices. 

Kipling was a determined traveler to the various cemeteries, viewing this oversight as a part of his work for the commission. . .He wrote to his close friend H. Rider Haggard that

One never gets over the shock of this Dead Sea of arrested lives — from V.C.'s and Hospital Nurses to coolies of the Chinese Labour Corps. By one grave of a coolie some pious old Frenchwoman (bet she was an old maid) had deposited a yellow porcelain crucifix!! Somehow that almost drew tears. 

In 1922 King George V made a visit to Belgium and France to tour the cemeteries and meet with the workers of the commission. The coastal cemetery of Terlincthun was the last location visited by this convoy of dignitaries, and here the King spoke to the crowd and the world, but his words were written by Kipling.

In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.

Inscription on the Menin Gate, Ypres
In the last few years of his life Kipling was bothered more and more frequently by recurrent digestive tract illnesses, and his trips for the commission were fewer. However, he was present on 4 August 1930 in an official capacity for the unveiling of a war memorial to commemorate the Battle of Loos. The memorial was designed to honor all those who had fallen in the battle but especially those whose bodies were never found. General Sir Nevil Macready addressed those assembled, and the buglers of the Irish Guards sounded the "Last Post." Kipling was to have spoken at the ceremony, but according to reports, he was "completely overcome by emotion." His work for the Imperial War Graves Commission was a painful labor of love and a public demonstration by a very private man. Above all, it was duty fulfilled.

Sources: Kipling Society, Cyril Mazansky


  1. My paternal grandmother's brother, Paul Masem, 27th Infantry Division, AEF, was KIA 27 Sep 1918, just before the final Allied push. My grandmother died in 1943 while Dad was in Navy boot camp for WW II. My oldest brother Steve died 23 Dec 2007. While preparing for his funeral on Christmas Day, I found a letter written to my grandmother by a cook named "Fredrick". She had never mentioned Fredrick to any family member. The letter was dated 31 Aug 1918. Fredrick mentioned seeing Paul and said Paul looked as well as if he were at home with his family. There were no other clues to his identity, not even a last name. I though I found him while perusing the Hall of Valor site when I found Frederick William Schmelz who was killed 27 Oct 1918 while taking hot food to soldiers who had not had any hot food for three days. Frederick Schmelz was awarded the DSC for his heroism. He is buried in France. Paul's remains were returned to the US after the war and he is buried in a family cemetery in NY.

  2. I read in the foreword to Kipling's Second battalion Irish Guards that Jack Kipling's grave had been identified by some very good detective work and that his grave is properly marked

  3. I have a cigarette card set titled Builders of the Empire by the maker J Wix & Co. It contains a photo with a description of Kipling.
    Unfortunately there is no way for me to upload the image.

    1. Cyril, As you can see above, it's never too late to update things on the Internet. Thanks for the fine image of RK. It captures him much better than the image it replaced.

  4. On New Year's Eve 2015 and 100 years on another well written and so very enthralling piece of WW1 history that I had no idea about prior to today's blog. Thank you to you and to Rudyard Kipling and the War Graves Commission.

  5. "One never gets over the shock of this Dead Sea of arrested lives..." A great quote which I will use. Thanks for that and your fine articles!