My Boy Jack : The Search For Kipling's Only Son
This is the full account of the tragic life of John 'Jack' Kipling. On 27th September 1915 John Kipling, the only son of Britain's best loved poet, disappeared during the Battle of Loos. The body lay undiscovered for 77 years. Then, in a most unusual move, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)re-marked the grave of an unknown Lieutenant of the Irish Guards, as that of John Kipling. There is considerable evidence that John's grave has been wrongly identified and for the first time in this book, the authors name the soldier they believe is buried in 'John's grave'. This is the first biography of John's short life, analysing the devastating effect it had on his famous father's work.
As anyone who has seen the BBC film with Daniel Radcliffe will know, Kipling's son John was reported missing after the battle of Loos in Autumn 1915 and it is pretty certain that he was killed at barely 18 in his first contact with the enemy. Kipling made desperate but unavailing efforts to locate the body, in the course of which he wrote a detailed history of his son's regiment, the Irish Guards, and became a leading and possibly the most energetic member of the War Graves Commission. In 1992 that same organisation decided that a previously unidentified body must be that of John Kipling. However the authors (backed up by four experts) are strongly of the opinion that this is incorrect and that the body has never been found. They give their reasons in compelling, albeit rather repetitive, detail.
There may well be better biographies of Rudyard Kipling, and any reader who is primarily interested in the First World War might skip lightly over the first four chapters. Once the War comes into view, some points come into clear relief. For instance, the amazingly good postal service between the front and parents at home, with the teenage subaltern protesting that he now had too much underwear. The facility with which the upper classes could use their connections to get senior officers in the middle of a campaign to hunt for bodies for them is also highlighted. The older Kipling became a sort of war tourist visiting the French trenches and trying to advise the British officers how to organise trench warfare. Other points highlighted include the difficulty of getting eyewitness reports and their unreliability once you have them, and the difference between Appreciating the Situation and Situating the Appreciation. In other words, forcing the facts to fit the hoped-for conclusion, which seems to have happened in 1992.
For any reader focussing more on a particular ancestor, the sections about how the work of recovering and identifying bodies was done are interesting. The insistence by the War Graves Commission that all the dead should be treated equally and none repatriated was very much Kipling senior's view, and was not universally accepted at first. This not surprising considering the class-ridden attitudes that assumed a barely 18-year old boy of modest stature and poor eyesight would be a suitable person to command a platoon. One of the most horrifying statistics of that awful war is that only about half of the dead were identified. One would guess that as there were many fewer officers than men it would have been easier to put names to them. This failure in the case of Kipling's son reminds us how hopeless would have been most efforts to find a specific ordinary soldier. The vast majority of relatives did not have the resources to even try.
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