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

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Kipling Welcomes the Doughboys

Kipling Was Originally Invited to an Army Camp
to Help Dedicate a YMCA Hut 

Rudyard Kipling—poet, short story writer, novelist, and children's author—spoke frequently and passionately about the need to defeat the Germans during World War I. He was a strong supporter of all the soldiers fighting for the Allied powers. His only son, John, was killed in action in the Battle of Loos in 1915. 

Kipling was asked to speak at the opening of a YMCA “hut” for officers on 20 July 1918 at the Winnall Down army base, near Winchester. When he got there he was asked to make a speech to the 7,000 American Doughboys, who were in transit to the Western Front, in the open air, so he set to and made a short speech. For an off-the-cuff presentation, it was quite a sophisticated bit of oratory considering that his audience consisted mainly of young soldiers.

Kipling wrote to his friend Moreton Frewen, who had traveled throughout America: “If you’d been to Winchester and seen the boys pouring in and out, and heard ’em and watched ’em, it would have sent you home singing and dancing till the Police locked you up. They are marvellous simple and modest, and they say, quite sincerely, that their desire is to ‘kill Germans.’ Now we’ve been at war four years and it isn’t good form to say that yet. By which you may judge the essential differences."

Kipling Speaking to the American Troops

Here is the speech Rudyard Kipling delivered that day:

You have done me great honour in asking me to open this hut. At the same time, I should like to point out that you have brought me here under false pretences. I do not pretend to be an expert on huts. (Laughter.) But I have lived in houses, and I know that this is not a hut, nor anything like a hut. (Laughter.) This is a house—a solid building intended for permanent occupation.

Several years have passed since England was permanently occupied by the armed forces of a foreign nation. On the last occasion, 800 years ago, our people did not take kindly to the invaders. 1 know they did not, because I live a few miles from where the Battle of Hastings was fought, where all the trouble began, and I assure you we are still talking about it. (Laughter.) But conditions have changed. They will, after 853 years; even in England. (Laughter.)You may have noticed that we do not resent either the presence of your armed forces on our soil or your buildings such as these, which are one of the visible signs of your occupation.

As far as you are concerned, we are a placid, not to say pacifist, community. You could not annoy us if you started in to build pyramids. (Laughter.) On the contrary, we should be pleased. We should say: “This looks like business; this looks as if the United States meant to stay till they had done their share of the job thoroughly.” We have been a long time over our present job, and we may be a long time yet. It has been a little bigger than we expected, because this is the first time since the Creation that all the world has been obliged to unite to crush the devil. You remember that before the war one of our easy theories was that the devil was almost extinct, that he was only the child of misfortune or accident, and that we should soon abolish him by passing ringing resolutions against him. That has proved an expensive miscalculation. We find now that the devil is very much alive, and very much what he always was—immensely industrious, a born organizer, and better at quoting Scripture for his own ends than most honest men. (Laughter.)

His industry and organization we can all deal with, but more difficult to handle is his habit of quoting Scripture as soon as he is in difficulties. When Germany begins to realize that her defeat is certain, we shall be urged, in the name of mercy, toleration, lovingkindness, for the sake of the future of mankind, or by similar appeals to the inextinguishable vanity of man, who delights in thinking himself holy and righteous, when he is really only lazy and tired, I say we shall be urged on those high grounds to make some sort of compromise with, or to extend some recognition to. the Power which has for its one object the destruction of man, body and soul.

Yet, if we accept these pleas, we shall betray mankind as effectively as though we had turned our backs on the battle from the first. Your own President has said that there is no conceivable half-way house in dealing with the world’s enemy. It is certainly no part of our business to strike moral attitudes for our own satisfaction till we have administered some measure of justice to those who have made it their religion to do iniquity. I say some measure of justice, because when the full tale is told the world will see that no retribution which, for our own soul’s sake we dare exact, can atone for the sin against the light that Germany has deliberately committed. To that extent, then, the world’s enemy is protected by humanity’s decree that there are certain things which man born of woman must not do. Outside that bare protection, what right has this Power of Absolute Evil to concern herself either in the shaping or the substance of life on earth after the war? None whatever, till we have evidence not merely belief, but sure proof that her heart has been changed.

But you have not come 3,000 miles to protect Germany. Your little vanguard is here to help her change her heart, and I read in the New York Tribune a day or two ago the lines on which you propose to change it: “When we went to war with Germany it was with the resolve to destroy German war power, if that power is inseparable from the German people then we are resolved upon the destruction of the German people. The alternative is in their hands.” That is reasonable and easy to understand. You are going, none too soon, into a world which has been laboriously wrecked by high German philosophy based on the devil’s own creed that there is nothing good or evil in life, but thinking makes it so; in other words, that right and wrong are matters of pure fancy. That belief it will be your privilege to assist in removing from the German mind. (Cheers.)

These beliefs are primitive. Except on certain portions of the front, where he has been better educated, he believes that the United States Army does not exist. In the first place, it could not cross the Atlantic; in the second, it was sunk while crossing; in the third, it was no use when it arrived. It is possible that you may be able to persuade him that he has been misinformed on these points. But we are of a more credulous disposition. We are quite convinced that you have come over, and that the Allied Armies at the front, who are authorities on the subject, tell us that your little vanguard there is extremely useful. (Laughter.) Meantime, your invasion of England goes forward according to programme day-bv- day. Unlike the other invaders we have known, you bring everything you need with you and do not live on the inhabitants. In this you are true to the historical vow of your ancestors when they said to ours, “Millions for defence, but not a cent for tribute.” (Laughter and cheers.)

At any other time the nations would be lost in amazement at the mere volume and scope of your equipment, at the terrifying completeness of your preparations, at the dread evidence of power that underlies them. But we have lived so among miracles these past four years that, even though the thing accomplishes itself before our very eyes, we scarcely realize that we watch the actual bodily transit of the New World moving in arms to aid in redressing the balance of the Old.

We are too close to these vast upheavals and breakings-forth to judge of their significance. One falls back on the simple, the more comprehensible, fact that we are all blood-brothers in a common cause, and, therefore, in that enduring fellowship of loss, toil, peril, and homesickness which needs must be our portion before we come to the victory. But life is not all grey even under these skies. There is a reasonable amount of fun left in the world still, if you know where to look for it; and I have noticed that the young generally have this knowledge. And there are worse fates in the world than to be made welcome, as you are, more than welcome, to the honourable and gallant fraternity of comrades-in-arms the wide world over. Our country and our hearts are at your service, and with these our understanding of the work ahead of you. That understanding we have bought at the price of the life-blood of a generation.    

Mr. Kipling then declared the hut open in these words:

By virtue of the authority vested in me by a few citizens of the United States, I declare this inn open, for the comfort and refreshment of the officers of the Armies of the United States in the intervals of their labours, which may God bless!

Sources:  Library of Congress, The Kipling Society

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