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“Quick as a shot through the brain”: Notes on Kipling’s “Lichtenberg”

April 17, 2014
From Murray's History.

From P. L. Murray’s “Official Record of Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa.” Click on the image to enlarge it.

During the Anglo-Boer War (also called the Second Boer War), New South Wales, Australia, sent five contingents of soldiers to fight with the British in South Africa, and in the Boer-controlled South African Republic (informally known as the Transvaal Republic, or, at the time, simply as the Transvaal). They saw action from 1900-1902 (though the first departed Australia on October 9, 1899). In his Official Record of Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa (A. J. Mullett, Government Printer: Melbourne, 1911), Lieutenant Colonel P. L. Murray explains, in a chapter on The New South Wales Imperial Bushmen, that these contingents were “raised in response to an invitation from the British Government, which (the second phase of the war having commenced) now asked the Colonies for hardy bushmen—men who could ride, shoot, and find their way about—in order to fight the Boers with their own weapons” (the Boer having resorted to irregular, guerrilla combat). Murray has this to say, by way of preface to the section of his book devoted to New South Wales:

The first Contingents embarked were in reality drafts from the three New South Wales mounted regiments; the company of infantry was enrolled entirely from selected men of the Militia and Volunteer Battalions. These were, therefore, a superior class of individuals, from whom considerable was to be expected; and there was little trouble in getting them away. “A” Battery R.A.A. was, of course, under strict discipline; and the same may be said of the Army Medical Corps. But much rougher material had to be dealt with in the Bushmen’s and subsequent Contingents; though, of course, they ultimately became leavened with a proportion of men who had been to the war and gained valuable experience. Many of the recruits, however—a large majority in some cases—were mere rough bushmen, countrymen, handicraftsmen, farm labourers, and the like, who had never soldiered before, and had everything to learn in the way of drill and discipline.

It is from men like these latter (“mere rough bushmen, countrymen, handicraftsmen, farm labourers, and the like”) that the solider who figures in Rudyard Kipling’s “Lichtenberg” was drawn. Or so we are to imagine him, in any case: a farmer who kept a vineyard in the Hunter River Valley in New South Wales, now celebrated for its wine, the major production of which began at about the time the NSW Bushmen were sent to fight the Boer in South Africa.

Lichtenburg (as it’s usually spelled) was a small market-town in the Transvaal, when it was established in 1873 (it is now in the North West Province of South Africa). General de la Ray, the Boer commander in the region during the war of 1899-1902, was associated with the town and is buried there. A diamond rush dating to the 1920s altered the town, overtaking it for nearly a decade. But when the NSW Bushmen (and their successor contingents) fought in and around Lichtenberg (as Kipling spells it in the poem), the town had been shorn of its trees by General de la Ray, to make it easier to defend, and it passed from Boer to British control more than once. The NSW Bushmen, as Murray indicates, took part in the re-occupation of the town on September 28, 1900 (five firefights with the Boer, with one Australian killed on the 29th), fought near it in February 1900 (losing another soldier), and then again in the relief of it on March 7, 1901 (the NSW Bushmen remained in the vicinity through April, on the 10th of which they lost yet another soldier). For all of which reasons the town is properly described, in “Lichtenberg,” as wide open (emptied of residents, stripped of shade trees) and un-supplied (the “sold-out shops,” owned by Boer merchants, could hardly expect British-controlled trains to stock their shelves). In short, Lichtenberg was a war-time town, exactly as given us in the poem, which Kipling placed in “Service Songs,” a sequence of sixteen poems that close his 1903 volume The Five Nationsthe title of which commends, in a Kiplingesque way, the ties that bound England to its four major (largely “white”) colonies: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Cape Colony, South Africa.

As for “nations”: it should be noted that, even as the Anglo-Boer War proceeded, Australia moved towards union, which was achieved on New Year’s Day 1901, when the new Federal Constitution went into effect, making a Commonwealth of what had been a group of colonies scattered across a continent. So, although the soldier in “Lichtenberg” calls up memories highly specific to New South Wales and the Hunter River Valley, the exclamation, “Ah, Christ! My country again!,” was assuming (perhaps) a new, and broader resonance in Australia. What role Australian soldiers’ experiences in the Anglo-Boer War played  in consolidating a sense of nationalism, I’m not qualified to say, except insofar as partisans of Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton are concerned. Kipling was altogether on the side of British Imperial solidarity, and such poems as “Lichtenberg” (an act of Australian ventriloquism on his part) are hardly incompatible with that; in fact, I should think they’re necessary to it. I haven’t the time to look into the matter, but it would be instructive to see how Kipling’s writings on Australian military service in the Anglo-Boer War were received in Sydney, Perth, Canberra, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Or are received now. I’ll leave that to my Australian friends Justin, Mark, John, and Adam (aka “The Pirate”), who’ll know who they are if they read this.

Lichtenberg

(New South Wales Contingent)

Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack—
They start those awful voices o’ nights
That whisper, “Old man, come back!”
That must be why the big things pass
And the little things remain,
Like the smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

There was some silly fire on the flank
And the small wet drizzling down—
There were the sold-out shops and the bank
And the wet, wide-open town;
And we were doing escort-duty
To somebody’s baggage-train,
And I smelt wattle by Lichtenberg—
Riding in, in the rain.

It was all Australia to me—
All I had found or missed:
Every face I was crazy to see,
And every woman I’d kissed:
All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows!
(As He knows I’ll do it again),
That smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

And I saw Sydney the same as ever,
The picnics and brass-bands;
And my little homestead on Hunter River
And my new vines joining hands.
It all came over me in one act
Quick as a shot through the brain—
With the smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

I have forgotten a hundred fights,
But one I shall not forget—
With the raindrops bunging up my sights
And my eyes bunged up with wet;
And through the crack and the stink of the cordite
(Ah Christ! My country again!)
The smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

Fitting that a poem concerned with memory should have a refrain, rung in here with subtle variations in the last two lines of each stanza. Fitting also that a poem concerning not memory only but also a singularly affecting kind of nostalgia should have, as an organizing principle, or motive, that most familiar, and oldest, of stanzas—the English ballad stanza, sometimes called “hymn meter” (because so many hymns are composed in it): four-line runs of verse, alternating, in stress, 4/3/4/3, sometimes rhyming A-B-A-B, as in the first four lines of each stanza here, sometimes x-A-x-A, as in the last four lines of each stanza. These are the patterns earliest learned and most enduringly available to the ear of anyone native to an English-speaking, Christian country. They’re demotic, so to speak, and as fully vernacular as are so many turns of phrase in the poem, which differ in no respect from ordinary speech (“some silly fire on the flank,” “somebody’s baggage-train,” “All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows! / As he knows I’ll do it again,” “bunged up,” and so on).

Kipling’s tact is to make so keenly felt, against these easy patterns and phrasings, those moments when the soldier’s voice takes on its peculiar and affecting note (“the small wet drizzling down,” “It was all Australia to me,” “Every face I was crazy to see,” “my new vines joining hands”). Mary Hamer suggests, rightly I think, that with “the small wet drizzling down” the poem recalls, or remembers, that oldest and most immediately moving poem of nostalgia in English (in, of course, the ballad stanza):

O westron wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

The “wattle” referred to in the refrain is a flowering plant (of the mimosa family), indigenous to New South Wales. The smokeless explosive cordite—through the stink of which the solider gets his whiff of the wattle—was developed and produced in the UK; it replaced gunpowder in the .303 cartridges used, by the infantry, from 1891 to 1915. So much for the details. What chiefly marks the poem are such touches as follow.

“There was some silly fire on the flank”: the word “silly” has had (as the OED shows) a strange career in English, meaning (sometimes during the same epoch) quite diverse and incompatible things. In the 15th and 16th centuries it meant, or could mean, “worthy, good, pious, holy.” By the 17th century it also meant “auspicious, fortunate.” The word has also been applied, since the 15th century, to defenseless creatures (in particular those who suffer undeservedly), a hint of which sense has been retained, somewhat altered, in contemporary uses of the word “silly” as a term of endearment. All the while, in the 16th and 17th centuries, “silly” also came to mean (when applied to persons) “weak, frail,” and (when applied to things) “trifling, of little significance.” The last sense operates here. This soldier may have once been (as were the men brought into the NSW Bushmen) without any military training or service. But by now he’s been in enough skirmishes to have forgotten a hundred of them, and no doubt he’s simply observed the fire off to the flank, and assessed it with the ready judgment veterans of combat acquire: in a trice they decide whether a fire, or the sound of a shell, or some smoke on the horizon, is or isn’t a threat that needs tending to; this fire off to the flank (it seems) is a trifle, not worth a second glance, let alone a soldier’s apprehension. The colloquial phrasing as much as the word “silly” dismisses it—has done with it.

That the solider speaks of himself as doing escort duty to “somebody’s baggage-train” hits the right note. Is the train to supply British forces, Canadian forces, forces from Cape Colony? The fact matters about as much as that silly fire on the flank matters, which is as it should be; you get, here, the war-weariness wherein not a thought is expended on things an infantryman (say) doesn’t need (or often wish) to know. All he knows, and needs to know, is that it isn’t supplying his own contingent. Lightly registered here is a slight disaffection with, or disregard for, the larger machinations governing the battlefield—a disposition of long-standing amongst enlisted men in modern armies. He’s good at what he does, our man; he can tell a silly fire from a serious one, passing into a town bedevilled by un-uniformed guerrillas conducting “irregular” warfare. But as for the disposition of troops and trains, well, what’s that to a man who only wants to live to hear, again, a brass band in Sydney? He can be of two minds, of two places—that smell of a wattle’s compelled him so to be: he’s in the Transvaal, but also by the Hunter River in New South Wales. “Crazy” catches the sheer vehemence of his nostalgia, and the lines “All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows! / (As He knows I’ll do it again)” catch his ingratiating, and happily ironic, way of taking himself.

But most remarkable is what lies at the heart of the fourth stanza:

And I saw Sydney the same as ever,
The picnics and brass-bands;
And my little homestead on Hunter River
And my new vines joining hands.
It all came over me in one act
Quick as a shot through the brain—
With the smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

“My new vines joining hands”: here is a case where the tenderness a man feels for the work he does, the land he works, the vineyards he keeps, gives rise to the language he uses to speak of them all. The phrase “joining hands” is partly literal (this is more or less how vines grow on, and through, trellises, etc.), but chiefly figurative, sounding notes at once fraternal, affectionate, pious, or anyway reverential, as when a man, in this case a vintner, might join his own hands (spes alit agricolam). Adding force to the latter ideas is (perhaps) the scriptural resonance of talk about vines and vineyards (terms that occur hundreds of times in the English Bible).

That these ideas, these memories, this rendition from the Hunter River Valley, and in fact from “all Australia,” should “[come] over him in one act” is as correct psychologically (that is how olfactory memory works) as it is disquieting, when the coming over, when the act, is “quick as a shot to the brain,” whether from the cordite in a .303 cartridge, or from a Boer sniper wearing British kahki: the wattle and the memories it brings out simply slay this soldier from the New South Wales Contingent. And so it happens that out of a hundred skirmishes, and the forgetting of them, only one is lodged so deeply in memory by the scent of a wayside flower.

With the raindrops bunging up my sights
And my eyes bunged up with wet;
And through the crack and the stink of the cordite
(Ah Christ! My country again!)
The smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

 The scene evoked so obliquely is no doubt chaotic, aggravated by “bunged up” rifle sights, such that those .303 shells are hard (or impossible) to get off to good effect in a firefight not at all “silly” (the stink and the crack of the gunshots tell us how things now are, in or near that market-town coveted by the Boer commander de la Ray); and the eyes that would sight the rifle are “bunged up” not with rain but with “wet,” as likely from welled up tears as from whatever’s “drizzling down.” But set against the chaotic manoeuvres, and the incapacity rightly to see anything immediate, are those scenes realized in memory, and occasioned by a scent, with such uncanny precision: the brass bands, the picnics, Sydney, and a “little homestead on Hunter River.” In short, the soldier’s country again—where the word involves two incompatible ideas: delight in the memory, and frustration that it should come here, now, exactly where and when it’s as likely to cause pain as give relief.

In closing, I’ll add that Ralph Durand, in his Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling (1914), relays the following anecdote:

Some time after the war a group of men in a New Zealand club were discussing Rudyard Kipling’s accuracy. One man referred to this poem, and declared positively that there was no wattle in Lichtenberg. An argument followed, and the point was referred to a man present, an Australian, who had been to Lichtenberg. The Australian declared the first speaker to be wrong. He said that on a rainy day in Lichtenberg he had smelt wattle though he could not at first see any. Later, when opportunity offered, he had searched for it and found one small wattle-bush in full flower.

≈    ≈    ≈

The Rudyard Kipling Society maintains a page devoted to “Lichtenberg,” which you’ll find here. As for olfactory memory, you’ll find articles here, here, here, and here. You’ll find a useful site devoted to the Anglo-Boer War here. Finally, for discussion, in these pages, of another poem pertaining to the Anglo-Boer War (by Thomas Hardy), click here.

Map showing British colonies and Boer Republics, as disposed at the start of the Second Boer War.

Map showing British colonies and Boer Republics, as disposed at the start of the Second Boer War.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2014 4:59 AM

    A great piece on “Lichtenburg” and the NSW Bushmen. Could I please correct one small detail The first NSW soldiers (indeed the first Australian unit) to arrive in South Africa were the NSW Lancers who arrived in mid November of 1899. By the end of 1899 the whole of the first NSW contingent was in theatre These were the main elements of 4 company sized groups

    • May 30, 2014 5:09 AM

      Thank you for the correction, Cheryl, and thank you for stopping by. I’ll amend the little essay this weekend.

  2. May 30, 2014 5:10 AM

    I should have added that they saw action from November 1899 in battles such as Belmont and Graspan

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