Books & Film

Rudyard Kipling and the Great War – with a Canadian Flavour


Before you hit the buffalo, find out where the rest of the herd is. – Proverb.

introduction notes on the text

THIS particular fold of downs behind Salisbury might have been a hump of prairie near Winnipeg. The team that came over the rise, widely spaced between pole-bar and whiffle- trees, were certainly children of the prairie. They shied at the car. Their driver asked them dis- passionately what they thought they were doing, anyway. They put their wise heads together, and did nothing at all. Yes. Oh, yes! said the driver. They were Western horses. They weighed better than twelve hundred apiece. He himself was from Edmonton way. The Camp? Why, the camp was right ahead along up this road. No chance to miss it, and, ‘Sa-ay! Look out for our lorries!’
A fleet of them hove in sight going at the rate of knots, and keeping their left with a conscientiousness only learned when you come out of a country where nearly all the Provinces (except British Columbia) keep to the right. Every line of them, from steering- wheel to brake-shoes, proclaimed their nationality. Three perfectly efficient young men who were sprinkling a golf -green with sifted earth ceased their duties to stare at them. Two riding-boys (also efficient) on racehorses, their knees under their chins and their saddles between their horses’ ears, cantered past on the turf. The rattle of the motors upset their catsmeat, so one could compare their style of riding with that of an officer loping along to over- take a string of buck-wagons that were trotting towards the horizon. The riding-boys have to endure sore hardship nowadays. One gentleman has already complained that his ‘private gallops’ are being cut up by gun- wheels and ‘irremediably ruined.’
Then more lorries, contractors’ wagons, and in- creasing vileness of the battered road-bed, till one slid through a rude gate into a new world, of canvas as far as the eye could reach, and beyond that outlying clouds of tents. It is not a contingent that Canada has sent, but an army – horse, foot, guns, engineers, and all details, fully equipped. Taking that army’s strength at thirty-three thou- sand, and the Dominion’s population at eight million, the camp is Canada on the scale of one to two hundred and forty – an entire nation unrolled across a few square miles of turf and tents and huts. Here I could study at close hand ‘a Colony’ yearning to shake off ‘the British yoke.’ For, beyond question, they yearned – the rank and file unreservedly, the officers with more restraint but equal fervour – and the things they said about the Yoke were simply lamentable.
From Nova Scotia to Victoria, and every city, township, distributing-centre, and divisional point between; from subtropical White River and sultry Jackfish to the ultimate north that lies up beside Alaska; from Kootenay, and Nelson of the fruit- farms, to Prince Edward Island, where motors are not allowed; they yearned to shake it off, with the dust of England from their feet, ‘at once and some time before that.’
I had been warned that when Armageddon came the ‘Colonies’ would ‘revolt against the Mother Country as one man’; but I had no notion I should ever see the dread spectacle with my own eyes or the ‘one man’ so tall!
Joking apart, the Canadian Army wants to get to work. It admits that London is ‘some city,’ but says it did not take the trip to visit London only. Armageddon, which so many people in Europe knew was bound to come, has struck Canada out of the blue, like a noonday murder in a small town. How will they feel when they actually view some of the destruction in France, these men who are used to making and owning their homes? And what effect will it have on their land’s outlook and development for the next few generations? Older countries may possibly slip back into some sort of toleration. New peoples, in their first serious war, like girls in their first real love-affair, neither forget nor forgive. That is why it pays to keep friends with the young.
And such young! They ran inches above all normal standards, not in a few companies or battalions, but through the whole corps; and it was not easy to pick out foolish or even dull faces among them. Details going about their business through the camp’s much mud; defaulters on fatigue; orderlies, foot and mounted; the pro- cession of lorry-drivers; companies falling in for inspection; battalions parading; brigades moving off for manoeuvres; batteries clanking in from the ranges; they were all supple, free, and intelligent ; and moved with a lift and a drive that made one sing for joy.


Only a few months ago that entire collection poured into
[Page 33, line 15] Armageddon

The place of the final battle with the Anti-Christ named in Revelations 16. 16. Frequently used to describe the war of 1914-1918. Valcartier camp in pink shirts and straw hats, desperately afraid they might not be in time. Since then they have been taught several things. Notably, that the more independent the individual soldier, the more does he need fore- thought and endless care when he is in bulk.
‘Just because we were all used to looking after ourselves in civil life,’ said an officer, ‘we used to send parties out without rations. And the parties used to go, too! And we expected the boys to look after their own feet. But we’re wiser now.’
‘They’re learning the same thing in the New Army,’ I said. ‘Company officers have to be taught to be mothers and housekeepers and sanitary- inspectors. Where do your men come from?’
‘Tell me some place that they don’t come from,’ said he, and I could not. The men had rolled up from everywhere between the Arctic circle and the border, and I was told that those who could not get into the first contingent were moving heaven and earth and local politicians to get into the second.
‘There’s some use in politics now,’ that officer reflected. ‘But it’s going to thin the voting-lists at home.’
A good many of the old South African crowd (the rest are coming) were present and awfully correct. Men last met as privates between De Aar and Belmont were captains and majors now, while one lad who, to the best of his ability, had painted Cape Town pink in those fresh years, was a grim non-commissioned officer worth his disciplined weight in dollars. ‘I didn’t remind Dan of old times when he turned up at Valcartier disguised as a respectable citizen.’ said my informant. ‘I just roped him in for my crowd. He’s a father to ’em. He knows.’ ‘And have you many cheery souls coming on?’ I asked. ‘Not many; but it’s always the same with a first contingent. You take everything that offers and weed the bravoes out later.’
‘We don’t weed,’ said an officer of artillery. ‘Any one who has had his passage paid for by the Canadian Government stays with us till he eats out of our hand. And he does. They make the best men in the long run,’ he added. I thought of a friend of mine who is now disabusing two or three ‘old soldiers’ in a Service corps of the idea that they can run the battalion, and I laughed. The Gunner was right. ‘Old soldiers’ after a little loving care, become valuable and virtuous.
A company of Foot was drawn up under the lee of a fir plantation behind us. They were a miniature of their army as their army was of their people, and one could feel the impact of strong personality almost like a blow.
‘If you’d believe it,’ said a cavalryman, ‘we’re forbidden to cut into that little wood-lot, yonder! Not one stick of it may we have! We could make shelters for our horses in a day out of that stuff.’ ‘But it’s timber!’ I gasped. ‘Sacred, tame trees!’ ‘Oh, we know what wood is! They issue it to us by the pound. Wood to burn by the pound! What’s wood for, anyway? ‘
‘And when do you think we shall be allowed to go?’ some one asked, not for the first time. ‘By and by,’ said I. ‘And then you’ll have to detail half your army to see that your equipment isn’t stolen from you.’ ‘What!’ cried an old Strathcona Horse. He looked anxiously towards the horse-lines. ‘I was thinking of your mechanical transport and your travelling workshops and a few other things that you’ve got.’
I got away from those large men on their windy hill-top, and slid through mud and past mechanical transport and troops untold towards Lark Hill, On the way I passed three fresh-cut pine sticks, laid and notched one atop of the other to shore up a caving bank. Trust a Canadian or a beaver within gunshot of standing timber!


Lark Hill is where the Canadian Engineers live, in the midst of a profligate abundance of tools and carts, pontoon wagons, field telephones, and other mouth-watering gear. Hundreds of tin huts are being built there, but quite leisurely, by contract, I noticed three workmen, at eleven o’clock of that Monday forenoon, as drunk as Davy’s sow, reeling and shouting across the landscape. So far as I could ascertain, the workmen do not work extra shifts, nor even, but I hope this is incorrect, on Saturday afternoons; and I think they take their full hour at noon these short days.
Every camp throws up men one has met at the other end of the earth; so, of course, the Engineer C.O. was an ex-South African Canadian.
‘Some of our boys are digging a trench over yonder,’ he said. ‘I’d like you to look at ’em.’ The boys seemed to average five feet ten inches, with thirty-seven inch chests. The soil was unaccommodating chalk.
‘What are you?’ I asked of the first pickaxe. ‘Private.’ ‘Yes, but before that?’ ‘McGill (University understood). Nineteen twelve.’ ‘And that boy with the shovel?’ ‘Queen’s, I think. No; he’s Toronto.’
And thus the class in applied geology went on half up the trench, under supervision of a Corporal-Bachelor-of-Science with a most scientific biceps. They were young; they were beautifully fit, and they were all truly thankful that they lived in these high days. Sappers, like sergeants, take care to make themselves comfortable. The corps were dealing with all sorts of little domestic matters in the way of arrangements for baths, which are cruelly needed, and an apparatus for depopulating shirts, which is even more wanted. Healthy but unwashen men sleeping on the ground are bound to develop certain things which at first disgust them, but later are accepted as an unlovely part of the game.
It would be quite easy to make bakehouses and super-heated steam fittings to deal with the trouble. The huts themselves stand on brick piers, from one to three feet above ground. The board floors are not grooved or tongued, so there is ample ventila- tion from beneath; but they have installed decent cooking ranges and gas, and the men have already made themselves all sorts of handy little labour-saving gadgets. They would do this if they were in the real desert.
Incidentally, I came across a delightful bit of racial instinct. A man had been told to knock up a desk out of broken packing- cases. There is only one type of desk in Canada —the roller-top, with three shelves each side the knee-hole, characteristic sloping sides, raised back, and long shelf in front of the writer. He reproduced it faithfully, barring, of course, the roller- top; and the thing leaped to the eye out of its English office surroundings. The Engineers do not suffer for lack of talents. Their senior officers appear to have been the heads, and their juniors the assistants, in big concerns that wrestle with unharnessed nature. (There is a tale of the building of a bridge in Valcartier Camp which is not bad hearing.) The rank and file include miners; road, trestle, and bridge men; iron construction men who, among other things, are steeplejacks; whole castes of such as deal in high explosives for a living; loco-drivers, superintendents, too, for aught I know, and a solid packing of selected machinists, mechanics, and electricians. Unluckily, they were all a foot or so too tall for me to tell them that, even if their equipment escaped at the front, they would infallibly be raided for their men.


I left McGill, Queen’s, and Toronto still digging in their trench, which another undergraduate, mounted and leading a horse, went out of his way to jump standing. My last glimpse was of a little detachment, with five or six South African ribbons among them, who were being looked over by an officer. No one thought it strange that they should have embodied themselves and crossed the salt seas independently as ‘So-and-So’s Horse’. (It is best to travel with a title these days.) Once arrived, they were not at all particular, except that they meant to join the Army, and the lonely batch was stating its qualifications as Engineers.
‘They get over any way and every way,’ said my companion. ‘Swimming, I believe.’ ‘But who was the So-and-So that they were christened after?’ I asked. ‘I guess he was the man who financed ’em or grub-staked ’em while they were waiting. He may be one of ’em in that crowd now; or he may be a provincial magnate at home getting another bunch together’.


Then I went back to the main camp for a last look at that wonderful army, where the tin-roofed messes take French conversation lessons with the keen-faced French-Canadian officers, and where one sees esprit-de-Corps in the making. Nowhere is local sentiment stronger than in Canada. East and West, lake and maritime provinces, prairie and mountain, fruit district and timber lands – they each thrill to it. The West keeps one cold blue open- air eye on the townful East. Winnipeg sits between, posing alternately as sophisticated metropolis and simple prairie. Alberta, of the thousand horses, looks down from her high-peaked saddle on all who walk on their feet; and British Columbia thanks God for an equable climate, and that she is not like Ottawa, full of politicians and frozen sludge. Quebec, unassailable in her years and experience, smiles tolerantly on the Nova Scotian, for he has a history too, and asks Montreal if any good thing can come out of Brandon, Moose Jaw, or Regina. They discuss each other out- rageously, as they know each other intimately, over four thousand miles of longitude – their fathers, their families, and all the connections. Which is useful when it comes to sizing up the merits of a newly-promoted non-commissioned officer or the capacities of a quartermaster’.
As their Army does and suffers, and its record begins to blaze, fierce pride of regiment will be added to local love and the national pride that backs and envelops all. But that pride is held in very severe check now; for they are neither provinces nor tribes but a welded people fighting in the War of Liberty. They permit themselves to hope that the physique of their next contingent will not be worse than that of the present. They believe that their country can send forward a certain number of men and a certain number behind that, all equipped to a certain scale. Of discomforts endured, of the long learning and relearning and waiting on, they say nothing. They do not hint what they will do when their hour strikes, though they more than hint their longing for that hour. In all their talk I caught no phrase that could be twisted into the shadow of a boast or any claim to superiority, even in respect to their kit and outfit; no word or implication of self-praise for any sacrifice made or intended. It was their rigid humility that impressed one as most significant and, perhaps, most menacing for such as may have to deal with this vanguard of an armed Nation.

notes on the text


Much more on the Great War and Rudyard Kipling here