The twenty-third in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here and here. In his poems Kipling was fond of the theme of education. In several poems he tied in education with another great theme of his poetry, the British Army, Kipling being fascinated by the rough and ready process by which soldiers learned how to be soldiers.
One feature of the British Army that has helped make it such a formidable force over the centuries is the pride in regimental history taken by officers and men. In the poem The Men That Fought at Minden a sergeant, or perhaps a corporal, is using the battle of Minden as an example to tell new recruits what to expect as they learn how to be soldiers.
On August 1, 1759 an Anglo-German army won a striking victory over a larger French army at the battle of Minden in Germany. The victory was one of the numerous victories won by the British in 1759, the Annus Mirabilis, which included the taking of Quebec. The following British regiments fought at Minden and are known as Minden regiments: 12th of Foot, 20th Foot, 23rd of Foot, 25th of Foot, 37th of Foot and 51st Foot. Minden Day is still observed on August 1, when the men of these regiments wear roses in their caps. Lord George Sackville was cashiered from the British Army due to cowardice that day. As Lord George Germain he would serve as George III’s Secretary of State during the American Revolution, contributing greatly to the British loss in that War. The Marquis de Lafayette’s father died at the battle, and sparked in Lafayette a strong desire for revenge on the British that he brought to fruition in the aid that he brought to the American cause in the Revolution.
Kipling published this poem in 1896 as part of his second series of Barrack Room Ballads, poems on the British Army as seen through the eyes of common soldiers.
The noncom in the poem is remarkably ignorant of the actual battle of Minden, but he is no doubt completely accurate in his description of what the recruits can expect as they learn to be soldiers. He is telling them not to be disheartened by their experiences, and that all soldiers of the regiment start out the same way. They are part of the chain that stretches back through the history of the regiment, and for most of the soldiers that knowledge they ultimately will take pride in, although probably not as much comfort as they take in the beer mentioned at the end of the poem! Here is the text of The Men That Fought at Minden: (more…)