They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?
They shall not return to us; the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?
Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide–
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?
Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour:
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To conform and re-establish each career?
Their lives cannot repay us–their death could not undo–
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shall we leave it unabated in its place?
In his scrupulous biography of Kipling, David Gilmour recognized the poem as one of Kipling’s angriest, “a set of verses so critical of senior officials that the Daily Telegraph would not publish it.” Gilmour provides the following background:
In 1915 the British had embarked on an ill-judged and badly planned campaign against the Turks in Mesopotamia. Advancing too far up the Tigris, 14,000 men of the Indian army under General Townshend were defeated at Ctesiphon, forced to retreat down river and then compelled to surrender at Kut el-Amara. An imperial humiliation to rival Yorktown and Kabul, Kut was the consequence of military blunders which, allied to medical incompetence, provoked condemnation from a Royal Commission and then from Rudyard Kipling….
Kipling’s fury was distilled and directed at the officials blamed by the [Royal Commission] report who managed to stay in their post or be transferred to equivalent positions….The poet explained privately that his targets were all the men who had escaped punishment for their share in the debacle….
I’m posting the poem at the request of reader Steve Baker, who loves Kipling and thinks that it would make for a good thread.