The Other Great War

The background of Rudyard Kipling’s book, The Irish Guards in the Great War, is a sad one. His only son John, barely 18 years old, had joined the Guards in the summer of 1915—and died a few weeks later in the Battle of Loos. They didn’t even know which corpse was his: in death the boy was anonymous—“Known to God,” in the phrase that his father coined. In the regimental history, Kipling refers to his son only twice, in passing, as “Lieutenant J. Kipling,” who went missing in action and was presumed to be dead. It would have been bad taste for Kipling to make more of it than that. The author subsumed his family’s affliction in the larger sacrifice of the regiment.

Kipling wrote the book (a fine example of regimental history, as you would expect—a brisk, vivid tick-tock of life in the trenches on the Western Front) as a memorial to his son and a tribute to the men with whom he served. It was Kipling’s way of coping with his grief—and with the guilt that he must have felt for having pulled strings to get his much-too-young and near-sighted boy into the Irish Guards in the first place, after the Royal Navy had rejected him because of poor eyesight. Few of the people involved in the Great War, including Kipling, emerged from it, after four years, feeling Kipling-esque. The war finished off not only his son, but also the British Empire, though the unraveling would take another generation or two.

I started reading the two-volume history, late at night, in order to get away from the coronavirus and escape into a different world and century. But, unexpectedly, images of the lives and deaths of the Irish Guards got mixed up (even in my dreams) with the experience of the pandemic of 2020—as if the Great War were a sort of prototype: An entirely different catastrophe in a different time, of course, but with, here and there, surreal and haunting similarities, as if the same devils were at work in both.

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