Solving the mystery of Rudyard Kipling’s son

  • 18 January 2016
  • From the section Magazine
Rudyard Kipling, photographed in 1910 Image copyright Getty Images

It is 80 years since the death of Rudyard Kipling. The author of The Jungle Book and If died without finding out what had happened to his son, who disappeared during World War One. Now researchers think they have definitively solved the mystery that transformed Kipling, writes Hannah Sander.

At the height of his career Rudyard Kipling was Britain's most popular writer. The first Briton to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, he remains the youngest ever winner.

Kipling was born in India in 1865 but sent to live near Portsmouth. "He was brought out of the colour and excitement of India, which he clearly loved, to the drabness of Southsea and foster parents who treated him badly," says Kipling biographer Andrew Lycett.

As an adult Kipling travelled widely. But it was the sour years in Southsea that inspired his most famous story - The Jungle Book. Written in 1894 while Kipling was living in snowy Vermont, the tale was a phenomenal success.

Soldiers fascinated Kipling long before WW1 - he had made his name with a poetry collection, Barrack-Room Ballads.

Kipling's son, John, was one of those keen to join the British war effort in 1914. Barred from the navy because of his poor eyesight, John was forced to use his father's connections to get a commission in the infantry, in the 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards.

He arrived in France on 17 August 1915 - his 18th birthday - and six weeks later was sent to the Battle of Loos.

The Battle of Loos

Image copyright Alamy
  • 1915 battle on the Western Front - part of an attempt by the Allies to break through German defences in northern France; also marked the first use by the British of poison gas as a weapon
  • After initial partial success by the British and French, the Germans reinforced and Allied infantry were mowed down as they advanced on enemy positions

BBC iWonder: World War One: The global conflict that defined a century

Voices of the First World War: The Battle of Loos

"That battle was a disaster for the British," says military historian Hugh Cecil. "This was the first time the new volunteer soldiers had engaged in a battle. It was hoped that it would be a breakthrough moment. In fact there were huge casualties."

On 27 September, John's battalion was ordered to cross open ground and head towards Chalk Pit Wood. They dug in opposite the Germans and faced brutal machine gun fire. Sometime in the next hour John disappeared.

"That is where the stories become confused," explains researcher Joanna Legg. Her study of John's final movements is published this week by the Western Front Association.

Heavy fire

Eyewitness accounts from the battle differ. Some suggest that John went forward towards the Germans. Others claim that he and his men headed left towards a farm.

John's colonel later wrote that he had been spotted near the enemy line, hobbling and with a head injury. "There was very heavy machine gun fire," Ms Legg says, "and there were over 1,000 men in that small area."

John Kipling's body was not found.

Rudyard Kipling spent four years searching for his lost son. He tracked down men from John's battalion and quizzed them. He wrote to the most senior military figures he knew, and asked the Red Cross to investigate.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption John Kipling is remembered on this war memorial in Burwash, East Sussex

He even used his contacts in Sweden and asked the neutral ambassadors to contact Germany on his behalf, asking if John had been found.

"There was always this hope that maybe John had been captured - maybe he was a prisoner, or had lost his mind and become trapped behind enemy lines," says Ms Legg.

Kipling feared that his own reputation would place his son in greater danger. "He had been quite vocal in his anti-Germanism," says Mr Lycett. "He was afraid that if his son had been captured then the Germans would find out who he was and avenge the father's vitriolic attacks."

Kipling had been the first person to use "Hun" as an anti-German insult.

Literature of mourning

In June 1919 Kipling wrote a letter to the Army, accepting that his son was most probably dead.

After the war, Kipling was a changed figure. "As a public man he became much more bitter and angry," says Jan Montefiore, professor of 20th Century English Literature at University of Kent.

"But as a writer his scope increased. The young Kipling was vigour and energy. After the war, there was much more sadness. He contributed hugely to the literature of mourning."

Having been a keen supporter of the war, Kipling now grew critical. His haunting poem Common Form reads: "If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied."

Responding to the death of 16-year-old sailor Jack Cornwell, he wrote the poem My Boy Jack. Experts argue about whether the title also refers to his own son John.

My Boy Jack

Image copyright Alamy
  • Poem written by Kipling in 1915 after his son was declared missing, presumed dead, at the Battle of Loos
  • First stanza reads: "Have you news of my boy Jack?"/ Not this tide./ "When d'you think that he'll come back?"/ Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
  • A 1997 play, My Boy Jack, portrayed the relationship between Kipling and his son; it was later adapted for TV with David Haig - who also wrote the play - as Kipling, and Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as John Kipling (pictured above)

For 80 years, the mystery of John's missing body remained unsolved. Then in 1992 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission changed the inscription on the gravestone of an unknown soldier to read John Kipling.

This prompted a huge debate. Joanna Legg and Graham Parker believe they have now solved the mystery of the figure buried under the controversial headstone.

"There were three issues," Ms Legg says. "Firstly, the grid references seemed to suggest that this body had been found three miles away from where John had been fighting. We have now shown that this was simply a clerical mistake."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Kipling photographed in 1905

The second problem was that another lieutenant had gone missing at the same time. "We now know that the second officer had been taken away to a hospital during the battle. He was buried some distance from the battle scene."

The final mystery concerned John's rank. The recovered body wore the stars of a first lieutenant, and Kipling was officially a second lieutenant. Ms Legg believes this was due to a blip in communication - John had in fact been promoted in June.

"We can see that he was being paid a first lieutenant's salary." John was the only first lieutenant from his battalion whose body was not recovered, and therefore Ms Legg concludes that this body must be his.

"It is one of the great ironies that Kipling should have been the person to select the phrase 'known unto God' for all unknown soldiers, and then not know what happened to his own son," says Phillip Mallett, author of Kipling: A Literary Life.

Kipling worked with Winston Churchill to ensure that all gravestones were the same shape and size, regardless of military rank. The long lines of matching gravestones lining war cemeteries are their legacy.

Huge influence

Kipling's reputation has diminished in the 80 years since his death. "I can't think of a single modern writer except perhaps JK Rowling who was anything like as popular," says Mr Mallett.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Kipling's house, Bateman's

"There was a period just before the First World War when everybody was reading Kipling." He had a huge influence on the war poets, including Rupert Brooke, Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon.

But since then his appeal has lessened. "He was very much in favour of the empire," says Mr Lycett. "People either hated him for that or supported him. It is only in the last 20 years that people have started to read Kipling properly. There is genius in his writing."

"I don't think the loss of his son made him a better writer," says Mr Mallett. "For a long time it kept him from writing fiction at all. And yet his poem My Boy Jack is one of the most moving pieces of writing to come out of the war."

Some of Kipling's most famous lines of poetry

Image copyright Getty Images
  • "What should they know of England who only England know?" (The English Flag)
  • "It's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"/ But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll (Tommy)
  • "If you can fill the unforgiving minute/ With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,/ Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,/ And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!" (If)
  • "If, drunk with sight of power, we loose/ Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,/ Such boastings as the Gentiles use,/ Or lesser breeds without the Law -/ Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,/ Lest we forget - lest we forget!" (Recessional)

BBC Radio 4: In Our Time - Rudyard Kipling (October 2014)

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