Losing loved ones

Senior Commission figures were bereaved: Principal Architect Edwin Lutyens lost five nephews, while designer Leslie MacDonald Gill’s unique font would be used on his own brother’s headstone.

Rudyard Kipling appealing for recruits at Southport, June 1915.

A studio photograph of John Kipling in uniform by Elliot and Fry, 55 Baker Street, London, W, in a grey mount. The showcase caption reads – “John Kipling, a Lieutenant in the Irish Guards, reported missing at the Battle of Loos 1915”.

The most famous example is Commissioner and Literary Adviser Rudyard Kipling. A firm supporter of the war effort, Kipling took part in recruitment rallies and wrote propagandist pieces for the Government. He helped his only son John secure a post with the Irish Guards, despite the 17 year-old having failed medical tests on account of his severe short-sightedness.

Letter from John Kipling to his father. Courtesy of The Keep.

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Soon John was in France preparing for the Battle of Loos, the first large-scale British offensive of the war. On 19 September 1915 he wrote home discussing the relentlessness of life at the front: “We work like fiends…I’ve done enough marching in the last month to sicken me of it for life”. Dreaming of “a hot bath…[and] dinner at the Ritz”, he also requested a new identity tag, as his previous one was lost.

This would be the last time Kipling ever heard from his son. The next communication was a telegram telling him that John had been missing since 27 September. Frantic attempts were made to ascertain how and where he might have fallen or been captured; Kipling even travelled to the battlefields to search in person. For a long time he clung to the hope that John was alive, but eventually acknowledged his likely fate.

A ruined pithead and a mine crater in the devastated landscape of Loos, 1919. © CWGC.

Man and woman in overcoats and hats looking at white pillar, headstones in front and behind them, and a long white wall, in the background a group of men in hats are walking towards them, black and white photograph

A frail Rudyard and Caroline Kipling at the unveiling of the Loos Memorial, 4 August 1930. CWGC Archive.

The exact nature of John’s death was unconfirmed: all Kipling could ascertain was that under heavy machine-gun fire he had been wounded and crawled into a building that was soon occupied by the Germans. John’s body was never found in Kipling’s lifetime. His name was added to 20,000 others on the Loos Memorial in France, which Kipling and his wife Caroline visited at its unveiling in 1930.

Kipling never publicly discussed the tragedy, but his poem ‘My Boy Jack’ – about a son lost at sea – is a thinly-veiled expression of his anguish. Waves of men advancing and falling in the ebb and flow of battle is a metaphor that resonated with Kipling. He wrote to his author friend Rider Haggard after visiting Bois Guillaume Cemetery, “One never gets over the shock of this Dead Sea of arrested lives”.


‘My Boy Jack’ by Rudyard Kipling (c.1916)

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!