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Rudyard Kipling and “The Missing”

Author and Poet, Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936.

Rudyard Kipling was one of most popular poets in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras – a time during which the British Empire reached its zenith, prior to the outbreak of the First World War. 
Kipling’s work captured the romantic and adventurous bravado that was popularly assumed to be the key to Britain’s global dominance.

[Excerpt] By Rudyard Kipling, 1910.

…If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn, long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you,
Except the Will which says to them:
'Hold on!'

…If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more –

You'll be a Man, my son!

Kipling was initially a strong supporter of the Great War.  In 1914 he pulled strings to get his 17-year-old son John commissioned into the Irish Guards, despite the boy having been previously rejected due to poor eyesight.  Tragically, a few days after arriving in France in September 1915, John was posted “Missing in Action” on the battlefield of Loos, just north of Arras.

The loss of his only son came as a profound shock to Kipling and destroyed his illusions about the War. 

He later devoted himself to helping the Imperial War Graves Commission with their work, while at the same time searching their records and cemeteries in a vain effort to find his son’s unmarked grave. 

Kipling never did locate his son, but his contribution to every war cemetery is visible today on the central Stones of Remembrance, where he chose the words:


In addition, the vast numbers of headstones for “Unknown” casualties are all marked with Kipling’s phrase:


- A poignant echo of his own loss, since these words were all that marked the grave of his own “missing” son.

Later, in the aftermath of the Great War, Kipling wrote a strident poem lamenting the war dead.  Its form was reminiscent of the marble epitaphs of the war cemeteries.  He included several references that seem to have personal resonance:

Epitaphs of the War
[Excerpts] By Rudyard Kipling, 1920.

My son was killed while laughing at some jest.
I would I knew
What it was,
And it might serve me in a time
When jests are few.

I have slain none except my Mother.  She
 (Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.

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

In 1992, the grave of Kipling’s son was identified by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.


LEST WE FORGET” is another famous phrase coined by Kipling, in his 1897 poem “Recessional”.

Text by James Oglethorpe.

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