Thursday, 18 January 2018

On this day, 18th January, in 1936 that great poet of the Empire, Rudyard Kipling, died. Friend of kings and yet keeper of the 'common touch', Kipling was never more active than in his work as literary advisor for the nascent Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission.

The Commission had started as a small group of volunteer drivers, known as a Red Cross mobile unit. One of their number - ex-newspaper editor Fabian Ware - became as interested in the whereabouts of the dead as the wounded and missing, as well as acutely aware that the army - fighting a war - hardly seemed best placed to devote resources to meticulously charting and recording the graves (often hastily dug, sometimes under fire) of the fallen.

Ware's tireless efforts almost single-handedly give us what are today the iconic Great War military cemeteries, and the principle that all soldiers are 'equal in sacrifice'.

But putting such sentiments into words, finding the right sentiments and expression, became the job of perhaps the best-qualified man available, Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling, of course, was motivated as much by his own tragic loss as his undeniable sense of duty. And though unfairly derided today for his perceived tub-thumping and jingoistic sentiments, he came to angrily denounce the war as a futile waste of life.

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied. 

(Epitaphs of the War 1914-18)

We have Kipling to thank for such seemingly obvious funerary inscriptions and dedications as:

Known unto God (Acts 15: 18), and
Their Name Liveth for Evermore (Ecclesiasticus 44: 14)

Words so apt, a choice so obviously appropriate that it seems now impossible to conceive of an alternative.

That, of course, is the hidden hand of genius.

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Publication date: November 2018
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