My Boy Jack by Tonie and Valmai Holt

A novel, if good, you may read cover to cover never putting it down; when you do put it down you are unlikely to read it again. A history book such as ‘My Boy Jack?’, with such a powerful and intricate narrative, you put down because of its intellectual weight.

You need to pause to think: to take in the context of the era and the characters involved.

It has taken me a second reading of ‘My Boy Jack?’ to begin to appreciate and hold in my head the detail that it contains. It deserves a third reading, and life on a shelf of choice books on the First World War for reference purposes and to indulge a variety of interests: ‘My Boy Jack?’ provides insights like no other.

There are so many threads to ‘My Boy Jack?’ that it is a wonder that the authors were ever able to agree on a title.

The relationship between a father and a son is at the heart of ‘My Boy Jack?’. It is about a father’s loss and is about the loss of a son and its aftermath. Interestingly, there is much more in ‘My Boy Jack?’ on Rudyard Kipling than on his son John, and just as much on his mother, Caroline ‘Carrie’  Balliester.

The cover photograph on this edition of ‘My Boy Jack?’ is taken from the TV film of John Kipling’s First World War starring Daniel Radcliffe and written and starring David Haig in the role of Rudyard Kipling. This is disingenuous, the casual reader may expect to find between the covers a novelisation of the film, or a biography of one of the Kiplings, rather than this rich, deep investigation into the build-up to and effect of one young man’s death. 'My Boy Jack?' is not John Kipling's story.

We gain a fabulous insight into the life and career of Rudyard Kipling, and through his eyes the British Empire in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras carried by the thread of his behaviour and feelings as a parent. I could imagine another title for the book, say ‘One life to give’, if we are to quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poetry as is done with ‘My Boy Jack?’ Another, alternative title, could be ‘The world must be saved from the Germans’ as ‘My Boy Jack?’ is a tale of sacrifice: we learn about the loss of other young men before John Kipling is killed.

Overall, it is refreshing to read in detail about the life, experience, death and aftermath of a young officer from a wealthy middle-class background as at times one is made to feel in these centenary years that the First World War was only experienced and suffered by the ‘the working class volunteer’.

There is a significant, and necessary backstory, a preamble if you like to Rudyard Kipling’s infancy, youth, early writing and extraordinary success that led him to a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. This is necessary to explain the nature of Rudyard Kipling’s loss and how, indeed, he and Carrie were able to pull so many strings to try to locate John after he went missing in late September 1915. Rudyard Kipling had called in favours to get John, into the army, having failed to get into the navy, despite his dreadful eyesight. In 1992 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, believing that the remains of John Kipling, the only son of Rudyard and Carrie Kipling, had been located, replaced the headstone of ‘A Lieutenant of the Great Guards’ with that reading ‘Lieutenant of the Irish Guards 27th September 1915 Age 18.’

John Kipling was killed on 27 September 1915; he was 18 years old.

During their lifetime, John’s parents, nor even his sister Elsie, who died in 1976, ever had the comfort of having a grave where they could grieve; and so it was for hundreds of thousands of others. As the authors, in the Epilogue, and with subsequent reprints of this book, make clear in a thorough scrutiny of the facts, supported by the views of those on whom reputations as objective analysts of the facts lie, it is exceedingly unlikely that the body under the headstone with John Kipling’s name on it is him.

Whilst the catalyst to research and write ‘My Boy Jack?’ was inspired by this simple act of changing the lettering on a headstone in 1992, at the heart of the book is something far more human, intimate and insightful: the love of a father for his only son.

Rudyard Kipling, sent away from India, his nursemaid and the parents he loved at too young an age to be schooled in England, developed at his emotional core when he became a father himself and found a natural love for his family, his children especially, and his son above them all. We come to build up as full a picture as is possible of Rudyard Kipling as a father. There are rich portrayals too of John Kipling’s mother Carrie, the eldest of the Kipling children Josephine, who died as a 6 year old child of pneumonia and Elsie and of a coterie of close friends and influential connections.

As a parent one can relate to ‘My Boy Jack?’ because war, John’s early and short involvement in it, and the subsequent efforts to find out if he was missing and alive, and then if missing, to locate his remains is exactly the response every parent of a with a missing child must surely go through, some with greater means and drive.

Rudyard Kipling, friend of the great and powerful, a very wealthy and successful author with an international repute, had the means, drive, connections and influence to research the final hours and minutes of his son’s life and to gather and follow-up all leads relating to John’s subsequent fatal injury, possibly movements before his death and the inevitable loss of his body in the wreckage of a landscape between two front lines, hotly and repeatedly contested, and bombed to smithereens.

This is all the climax to the story.

It begins far, far earlier, with the birth, childhood and schooling of Rudyard Kipling. This matters, as in this way we gain some understanding of Rudyard Kipling as an author and poet, as a parent, husband and father. Through-out ‘My Boy Jack?’ the authors dip into Rudyard Kipling’s work, especially his poetry, to reveal the soul of the man. This is a joy and enlightening, the point well made early on that ‘his work … is often more self-revelatory than his autobiography’. (xiii)

‘My Boy Jack?’ is many things.

It is an insight into a family, is part biography of a man of extraordinary talent and fame in his lifetime, it is a literary review of some of his work, it is an eyeopener to a ‘group’ not so often studied with such proximity during the era of the First World War - the wealthy middle-class of late Victorian and Edwardian England, at the time of Empire. It is a marvel to realise that those with the money and able to take the time, could travel back and forth and around the world by liner, train and eventually by car. The world was Rudyard Kipling’s oyster and he was no less contained once he became a father. He was born in India, schooled in England, and soon travelled to the US, then around the world. Later he had a home in South Africa and took the family skiing in Switzerland and armed with a car and chauffeur made regular tours of France.

The authors have researched their subject thoroughly.

‘My Boy Jack?’ stands as an example of both what can, with great care and time, be found out. It is also an example of tight and wise editorial control. And though researched and written by two people, their voices merge like colours mixed on a palette into a single and consistent voice of reason, persuasion and delight in their discoveries and insight. They ‘stick to the detail as it ‘relates to Rudyard’s behaviour as a father and his relation to his son’s death’ (xv).

My personal emotional connection to ‘My Boy Jack?’ comes from a grandfather, the son of a chauffeur who worked in a house like that owned by the Kiplings, born coincidentally within days of John Kipling on 20 August 1897. Though, my grandfather, unlike John Kipling, was commonly known as ‘Jack’. John was always John. My Jack left school at 14. I could even make a connection to someone born a hundred years on from Rudyard Kipling, who also married a friend’s sister. I personally wouldn’t read anything into Rudyard Kipling marrying the sister of a close friend; before the eras of easy travel, let alone the Internet, we would be naturally drawn to those in our ‘close circle’. Then, as a parent, I coincidently have a daughter and son born a hundred years, to the month, after Elsie Kipling and John Kipling. I too was sent away to school from a young age: with boarding prep and public schools in the 1970s akin to their Edwardian counterparts, so when I learn that,

‘John’s story is that of a typical product of his class and age: a public school boy with a classical education who enjoyed to the full the privileges that money and fame brought, whilst persevering and refreshing modesty and sense of fun.’ (xvii) 

I can relate to it.

For some there is emotional baggage and possible behavioural impact of being sent away from your family for long periods as a child: it makes you hanker after doing the opposite with your own family. In the 1960s, as six decades earlier, public school was meant to be a form of survival’ that would ‘strengthen by testing, character-building situations that life meted out’. (p.5). In John Kipling’s case, schooled at Wellington, his preparation was for an Army Career, an ambition he shared with his father. The possible sexual experiments or inquisitiveness of young teenage boys would, in the 21st century, have been discussed openly with none of the embarrassment or fears that Rudyard projected onto his son regarding what he euphemistically described as ‘beastliness’. But at least, as a father, Rudyard Kipling tried to address this with his son. Rudyard Kipling, was as the authors say, a 20th century father in a 19th century world. Kipling had a ‘hands-on, intimate relationship more resembling the enlightened attitude of a 1990’s ‘new father’ than an 1890 one’. I relate to that too: your paternal sensibilities are soon subsumed by maternal ones when you are around your children most of the day as they grow up: your fears for their safety and hopes for their future are deepened. ‘My Boy Jack?’ therefore is ultimately about that greatest of parental fears: the loss of a child.

The ‘relatability’, as an American would say, ends there: I was not born into an era of British Empire, that made Rudyard Kipling through ‘complex and paradoxical extremism that made ‘patriotism more of a vice than a virtue’. (xvi)

As one finds, towards the end of ‘My Boy Jack?’ Rudyard Kipling and his wife Carrie were two of the earliest regular pilgrims to the cemeteries of the Western Front. With a fourth or fifth read of ‘My Boy Jack?’ I wonder if a ‘motor-tour’ of the Western Front following the tracks of the Kipling’s chauffeur driven car would be a worthy endeavour.

There are ‘two deep strains that run through [Rudyard Kipling’s] works - British Soldiery and children’. (xvi). An intellectual and neither sporting or soldierly himself, Rudyard wished upon his son a career in the navy when that was ruled out due to John Kipling’s awful eyesight and with war breaking out he pulled in favours to get John a commission in the Irish Guards.

Was Rudyard Kipling a born genius or a product of his time?

21st century thinking would favour nature’s uncanny ability to give some extraordinary minds: Rudyard Kipling was no doubt one of the greatest minds of hisera, though his success was founded on ‘seven years slog as a journalist’ (p.9) in India.

Too often those talking about the First World War suggest that 100 years ago, with death more common in childhood and disease, that people were somehow immune to the pain of loss. With the death of Rudyard Kipling’s close friend Wolcott Balestier, I am reminded of a friend of mine who died in a rugby accident at the age of 20. Loss such as this aggravates and triggers an emotional response. Far from being hardened by the loss of a child, a young parent or a close friend, I feel that people a hundred years ago must have been weakened by it. They were more vulnerable to it pains. I can now understand why some people stay away from funerals: they’ve attended too many. Towards the very end of ‘My Boy Jack?’ we learn that Rudyard and Carrie Kipling, having commissioned a bust of their boy John, cannot face it - the bust is destroyed. 

The Kiplings lost their first born, Josephine, to ‘flu in March 1899. She was 6 years old.

Like all first born she was adored deeply. Her loss could only have fueled the depth of the despair they would fall into with John’s death age 18 in November 1915.

There are lighter moments and insights to the age and the man. Kipling goes off to ‘see flying machines at Aldershot, at half-term Elsie and John learn to Tango. Kipling pressed for National Service, he had the insight of a well-travelled man to see its need. The war that finally broke out in August 1914 had been on the cards for a decade or more. Kipling, like another author of the time, HG Wells, could only wish, wishfully that it would be ‘The War that will end War’ - a quote given correctly here (p.56) that is repeatedly misquoted almost everywhere. This accuracy to the history, even if the authors of ‘My Boy Jack?’ rightfully in this case argue that littering the text with references and footnotes would be a mistake, gives a reader like this one, the confidence that what he is reading has been meticulously researched, though there is room to quibble: the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Cochek, was the successful outcome of a group of six conspirators on the ground, financed and armed by the Serbian nationalist quasi-official gang the ‘Black Hand’ - a bomb lobbed at the car earlier that day by Cabrinovic was followed by the shots from Princip’s revolver. Six were involved on the ground to pull off this planned assassination with many more Serb nationalists supporting it in the background.

It is painful, in November 2015 to read in a letter that Carrie Kipling wrote to her close friend Lady Edward Cecil, the words that ‘the best recruiting agents are the Germans, if we just wait a bit they may be depended upon to do their job!”

The deaths of George Cecil and John Manners are a painful rehearsal for what the Kiplings are to go through. In the case of George and John their bodies were eventually identified by a gold watch on one and the initials on the uniform of the other (p.65). Whilst here, such detail, can be positive proof of identity, as we will see later, the evidence around a body in the early 1990s being identified as that of John Kipling is far less sound.

To indicate how prepared parents were to let their sons fight in the war, even to encourage it, should their sons not already be keen to go and impossible to stop, she writes after the deaths of Julian and Billy Grenfell regarding a third son, a 17 year old, “who is to start training after Xmas. You write you don’t see where one finds the courage to send a boy out there but there is nothing else to do. The world must be saved from the Germans … one can’t let one’s friend’ and neighbours’ sons be ‘killed in order to save us and our son.’ Carrie Kipling then suggests who she, and no doubt Rudyard Kipling are prepared to lose John, ‘There is no chance that John will survive unless he is so maimed from a wound as to be unfit to fight’.

Taylor, John Kipling’s servant, is mentioned far less often than John’s Singer motor car. It is an odd detail to pick out from John’s letters home, but it is one of the few.

John Kipling’s many letters home give a vivid and detailed account of how men were spending their time ahead of a ‘big push’, there was barely an idle moment or even a chance to write, what with route marches, lectures on first aid, practise taking a village, and use of smoke helmets. And when he had a break John wanted to read the Sketch, the Tatler, Punch, Sunday Pictorial, Sunday Herald and London Mail. Personally I imagine John’s popularity at having such a hoard of current reading matter to share in the mess.

In ‘My Boy Jack?’ as we approach John Kipling’s demise of necessity a brief introduction to the Battle of Loos is given.

It is a mistake to suggest that Sir Douglas Haig made the decision to release gas, a first from the British army, based on the wind direction of his ADC’s cigarette. Haig had a meteorologist, interviewed by the Imperial War Museum after the war, who explained how he advised Haig and when pushed by Haig said that he believed the wind direction would hold, though perhaps weaken. Its with points like this that you wish for references so that sources can be checked. The authors also slip into the controversy surrounding the control of the two reserve Divisions at Loos. Though in fairness to them, it may only be last few years that we get a truer and complete sense of what took place ‘at the top’ during Loos. We need to push aside, in particular, the nature of Sir Douglas Haig’s machinations to become Commander-in-Chief over Sir John French or the nastiness of Lloyd George’s memoir on his dealings with Haig. Lloyd George wrote with considerable bias on Loos and Haig so is not a reliable source to quote. (p.96)

John Kipling is killed and we are halfway through the book.

How the Kiplings responded, the lengths they went to and then how 75 years on a name was put on a previously anonymous headstone makes up the remainder of the book.

The authors state, repeat and support their argument from every conceivable angle short of calling on the services of a medium (the 1915 answer) or using DNA testing (the 2015) answer, that the body identified as that of Lieutenant John Kipling in 1992 could not be him.

While the reasons for not cluttering the text with footnotes is a sensible editorial decision to take, as it does in truth trip rather than support most readers, it is nonetheless ironic that the authors, responsible for so many battlefield guides, chose therefore to leave out the signs as footnotes and references that some readers would expect in a book of this nature and calibre: it is a non-fiction history book, not a story. References and footnotes, at least at the end of each chapter, rather than at the bottom of the page or the end of the book, given the enquiring reader in the connected age of the Internet to quietly chase down and even acquire further references to add and qualify the arguments being made. The answer of course is an eBook with copious links throughout.

If anyone was going to be found, alive, wounded, imprisoned, dead, or even just his remains or an indication of where he fell, it would be John Kipling. I wonder if any, or many, soldiers of the First World War, at the time, or since, or still, have been the subject of such close scrutiny and enquiry. If Rudyard Kipling with his attitude, contacts, drive, means and wherewithal could not locate his son's ‘final resting place’ then no one could. This is someone who had the means to do a leaflet drop over German lines requesting news of the son of ‘the famous author’. This is a man who could get favours through to the influential on both sides of the Western Front.

It appears clear, from amongst the reports, letters and messages that they received, that John Kipling was killed and, his body subsequently buried and churned into the mud within yards of where he fell. We learn (p.120) of how John, in charge of Platoon 5, took charge of Platoon 6 as well, his orders, his actions, behaviour and words. All of this supported by a map drawn by Sergeant John Cochraine. 

“All we can pick up from the men points to the fact that he is dead and probably wiped out by shellfire!’ wrote Rudyard Kipling on 12 November 1915 to Brigadier Dunsterville. In further accounts we learn that John Kipling as shot in the temple and carried some 66 yards and left, as dead, in a shell hole. (pp 161-62)

Rudyard Kipling felt the loss, but he also felt it had been his duty, as well as his son’s to serve and die as he did.

It took a letter in September 1916, a year on from his certain death, to learn that ‘Second Lieutenant John Kipling’ had died.

Rudyard Kipling buried himself in work on the History of the Irish Guards, written in two volumes, and according to Dorothy Paton, ‘as a memorial to his son’. Dorothy had been governess to Elsie and John Kipling when they were young, and had been Rudyard Kipling’s private secretary from 1919-1924.

Kipling also engaged his efforts and mind on his work for the Imperial War Graves Commission which he joined in 1917 and remained with until his death in 1936.

In 1920, like so many others with the means or determination to visit the Western Front and its cemeteries, Rudyard and Carrie Kipling headed from France. On 25 July 1920 they visited Loos and Chalk Pit Wood. ‘There was no thought of finding his body’.

In August 1930, Rudyard Kipling unveiled the Loos Memorial at Dud Corner.

As well as keeping ‘My Boy Jack?’ to hand to refer to. I will also be following up with further reading, not least of Rudyard Kipling’s life and works.

I will watch the TV film ‘My Boy Jack’ again with renewed interest to.

I expect also to use many of the points raised in ‘My Boy Jack?’ to support discussions online.

I will recommend ‘My Boy Jack?’ often.

Review written by Jonathan Vernon (22 November 2015)


FURTHER COMMENT by Keith Roberts (2 June 2020)

Members of The Western Front Association might wish to refresh their memory of the article  ‘John Kipling: On the Balance of Probability’ by David Langley in Stand To! no. 108 published in January  2017 [WFA membership is required for digital access].

Mr Langley’s conclusion, drawing together not just his own significant and painstaking research, but also that of several other experienced, diligent, and knowledgeable researchers who shared their research in a lengthy thread in the Great War Forum, is that the case for the identification of John Kipling’s body is definitely not proved beyond reasonable doubt. 

His article in Stand To! he concludes: ‘All that can be said is that there is a chance that the body under John Kipling’s headstone is his.  There again, it might be Second Lieutenant Packenham-Kaw, or a full lieutenant of another regiment, or indeed a misidentified other rank. Short of more compelling evidence, we shall never know. In any case, may he Rest in Peace’.

Note: Digital members of the WFA can read the original copies of Stand To! in the archive here > Stand To!. To investigate the debate and research that supported the article visit this lengthy thread in the Great War Forum : CWGC confirms that John Kipling is buried in the correct grave


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