When World War I broke out in 1914, fiercely patriotic The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling encouraged his 17-year-old son, John (pictured), to fight for their country.
John did just that, and in August of the next year, now a fully-trained soldier in the Irish Guard, he made his way to France where his father was already working as a war correspondent. John Kipling kept in touch with his parents by letter, some of which you will now hear, and Rudyard Kipling wrote back to his son daily.
Tragically, just a month after arriving in France, weeks after his 18th birthday, John Kipling was killed at the Battle of Loos.
Somewhere in France
Friday 20th August 1915
Here we are billeted in a splendid little village nestling among the downs about 20 miles from the firing line. It is an awfully nice place – a typical French village about the size of Burwash Wield.
I have the great luck of being billeted with the Mayor, who is also the school master, in his house. I am awfully comfortable, having a feather bed with sheets & a sitting room for 3 of us, the whole place being absolutely spotlessly clean. The old Mayor is a topping old fellow who can’t speak a word of English, but the kindest chap you ever met & awfully funny. He possesses a very pretty daughter – Marcelle – who is awfully nice and we get on very well.
The old lady too is A1 & they will do anything for me. The only disadvantage is that there is very little food & what there is is very 2nd rate. All the other Regiments have gutted the place, & one can’t get a cigarette for love or money. Our food in the Mess is mostly bully beef & jam.
I can’t of course tell you where this place is, but it is quite near the place I told you I thought we would go. The country is looking awfully nice, with all the crops to get in yet.
We haven’t had any letters yet since we left, but are hoping that they will arrive tomorrow.
Motor bike despatch riders abound here, tearing along at fearsome speeds, and big lorries going “all out”.
How goes old Vincent?
The French here are the dirtiest I ever saw, their ideas of hotels are simply unspeakable!! The men talking French are screamingly funny, but they manage to get on very well with the French girls.
As we have to censor all the letters at our platoon we get some very funny things; also some rather pathetic ones.
The men are sticking it wonderfully considering they haven’t had a square meal since they left England. The idea is I believe that we stay here a fortnight before we go up to the trenches but one can never tell from one moment to the next what is going to happen to one next.
Please send me a pair of my ordinary pyjamas and that stiff hair brush.
Grayson has discovered a French girl who rather resembles Gaby in appearance and very much so in morals so he is quite happy.
You might send me out one of those letter block letters & envelopes all in one.
Please remember me to Jerry
Much love to yourself
August 25 1915
Dear old man –
As I leave tomorrow at a perfectly ungodly hour in order that there may be time at the railway station to examine the passports, I write my little daily letter to you now. I hope to be in Folkestone by 6 o’clock tomorrow evening but this is a deceitful world and there have been several delays in the Channel boats. I expect the submarines are on the rampage again. Yesterday’s train went off crowded to the lee-scuppers (if that is the right word) on account of no boat going the day before.
I have been working all day at my accounts of my travels and saying pretty things about the French Army. I really think that they are excellent and I expect as time goes on, you will be of that opinion too. Really, there isn’t much difference between the way in which the officers of the English and French armies look at things. I was talking the other night “Somewhere in France” with a delightful old General. We were some miles from a town and the German and French searchlights were playing all around us. I asked him if he knew who was his opposite number on the Hun side. “Quite well,” he said. “I’ve known him for months.” (He told me his name.) “He’s an old man and I think he has gout. Every now and again I keep him awake all night with my big guns. He always loses his temper. He gets excited and begins to fire away all round the landscape. I should say he cost Germany a lot in ammunition.” Now isn’t that very much as an English officer would talk.
11 p.m. Just back from an idiotic cinema theatre at the Ambassadeurs. There were lots of faked pictures of the war and the only funny turn was about a kid who was spanked for throwing stones into a river where a man was fishing. So he went back to his father’s caravan (he was a gipsy), got a crocodile’s skin and fastened it over his dog. Well, as you can imagine the sight of a sky-blue crocodile on four legs running at him like Hell rather upset the fisherman and then the dog-crocodile got loose all over the country and the usual upsets and panics followed.
Thursday morn 9 a.m. Just off for Boulogne and have just received copy of your letter of 20th describing your billet with the Mayor and the maid Marcelle and the immoral luck of Grayson and local Gaby. I’m sorry about the food but Bateman’s will do its best to supplement. You ought to get a whole lot of letters from me when you arrive as I’ve written you regularly. Now for the Gare du Nord and a hell of a crush at the station.
Dear F –
Just a hurried line as we start off tonight. The front line trenches are nine miles off from here so it wont be a very long march.
This is THE great effort to break through & end the war.
The guns have been going deafeningly all day, without a single stop.
We have to push through at all costs so we won’t have much time in the trenches, which is great luck.
Funny to think one will be in the thick of it tomorrow.
One’s first experience of shell fire not in the trenches but in the open.
This is one of the advantages of a Flying Division, you have to keep moving.
We marched 18 miles last night in the pouring wet.
It came down in sheets steadily.
They are staking a tremendous lot on this great advancing movement as if it succeeds the war won’t go on for long.
You have no idea what enormous issues depend on the next few days.
This will be my last letter most likely for some time as we won’t get any time for writing this next week, but I will try & send Field post cards.
Well so long old dears.
Nov. 12 1915
Our boy was reported “wounded and missing” since Sep. 27 – the battle of Loos and we’ve heard nothing official since that date. But all we can pick up from the men points to the fact that he is dead and probably wiped out by shell fire.
However, he had his heart’s desire and he didn’t have a long time in trenches. The Guards advanced on a front of two platoons for each battalion. He led the right platoon over a mile of open ground in the face of shell and machine-gun fire and was dropped at the further limit of the advance, after having emptied his pistol into a house full of German machine guns. His Commanding Officer and his company commander told me how he he led ‘em: and the wounded have confirmed it. He was senior ensign tho’ only 18 years and 6 weeks, had worked like the devil for a year at Warley and knew his Irish to the ground. He was reported on as one of the best subalterns and was gym instructor and signaller. It was a short life. I’m sorry that all the year’s work ended in that one afternoon but – lots of people are in our position and it’s something to have bred a man. The wife is standing it wonderfully tho’ she of course clings to the bare hope of his being a prisoner. I’ve seen what shells can do and I don’t.
We’re pounding on in our perfectly insane English fashion. The boys at the front are cheery enough, (we’ve got rather a lot of artillery) and the Hun is being killed daily. It’s the old story. All the victories were on Napoleon’s side all through and yet he didn’t somehow get further than St. Helena.
Now, my dear old man, try and look after yourself a bit and keep fit. We’ve a hell of a year ahead of us but after that I think we’ll be through.