The Irish Guards in the Great War

by Rudyard Kipling. Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1923. Two volumes. Illustrated. 8vo. xviii + 334, x + 307 pp. $10.00.
THE Foot Guards are the infantry corps d’élite of the British Army. Of the regiments so designated, — Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, and Irish, — the Irish Guards was in 1914 the youngest, having been created after the Boer War to give recognition to the work of the Irish in South Africa. The single battalion of which it consisted at the beginning of the Great War set foot in France nine days after England entered the conflict. In the second battalion, which was organized a year later, Rudyard Kipling’s only son, a lad in point of years, held a commission as second lieutenant. He was lost in the first moments of the first engagement (Loos) in which the battalion took part.
This is the bond that has drawn England’s most famous man of letters to the humble task of regimental historian, to be the ‘editor and compiler’ of the diaries and papers of the Irish Guards. The story of each battalion is told in a separate volume; there are no illustrations of either men or places; the maps are beautifully and quaintly drawn after the style loved by the old cartographers.
The book is written for the survivors of the regiment. Its field of vision is narrowed to their experience; its pages teem with references to places, individuals, and incidents that are trivial and yet precious. All the chords of memory are touched, the hideous and the heroic alike, with an impartial hand. And the overtones of memory, the things understood but not to be put into words, add a mystic quality that to the outsider is at once an illumination and an exclusion.
If any such is willing to push aside the pall of oblivion with which the world seeks to smother the horror of those years, he will find that, in addition to the patient and discerning labors of the historian, Kipling has lavished on this labor of love all the richness of his genius. Every aspect of the life of men in war yields a picture for his pen; the hand of the master never fails. There is the magnificently sustained narrative of the part played by the First Battalion on the Somme in September 1916, when in three days’ fighting it lost a full battalion’s strength; there are vivid descriptions of reliefs, raids, bombardments; the inevitable Irish stories in Volume I make us shudder and laugh at the same time.
The two histories are clearly differentiated. In Volume I, the point of view frequently reminds us of Mulvaney, and the manner is sometimes that of his creator. In Volume II, the history of the ‘happy battalion,’ although the references to Lieutenant Kipling are contained in six lines, there is a father’s pride and yearning in the story of the deeds of his brother officers. There is more than a trace of feeling, too, when Kipling speaks of Loos, confidently advertised as ‘the greatest battle in the history of the world,’ and woefully miscalculated, into which the youngsters of the Second Battalion were tossed six weeks after their arrival in France. But on these personal concerns the artist in Kipling keeps a tight rein. Like the music-hall singer in the poem in which he commemorates his son’s death, he must ply his art, must
'. . . use the Word assigned
To hearten and make whole.’
His first duty is to the regiment, and this duty he fulfills.
‘But ye’ll understand, when everything was said and done, there was nothing real to it all, except when we got to talking nud passing round the names of men we wished was with us.’ For Rudyard Kipling, as for many another, life has become three-fourths memory. To comfort memory he has given these truthful volumes to the world.