‘Lost’ at Loos!
Posted on October 15th, 2015
Even if you have read my last two blogs, you might struggle to see a connection between them – apart from the fact that they were written by me? But, as those of you who know of my interest in the Great War will understand, it is almost especially not the strategic history of the war which grabs my attention – although I do pay attention to it – but the huge variety of personal his-stories which grab my attention ; and, I will admit, pulls at my all too vulnerable heart strings. So, as the 100th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Loos draws nigh (25th September – 18th October 1915), what on earth could possibly link that first ‘big push’ to anything to do with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys?
The answer lies at the very heart of what any visitor to a Commonwealth Graves Commission Cemetery will see with heart-breaking regularity ; those graves of soldiers who, by the time the Exhumation Companies were doing the job of clearing the battlefields, could either no longer be identified or even found. These are the soldiers whose grave markers simply advise the passer-by that their identity, as a soldier of the Great War, is only ‘Known unto God’.
These last three words are, of course, a quotation from the Bible, where they to be found in several books of the New Testament. From where they were lifted by the man whose special responsibility it was to provide the very first imperial War Graves Commission with suitable words. Whilst Gertrude Jekyll advised on the sorts of flowers and style of planting that would best suit the various designs of cemeteries as drawn up by the likes of Herbert Baker, Sir Reginald Blomfield and Sir Edwin Lutyens, Rudyard Kipling provided those three powerful words.
He also suggested ‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore’, another biblical quotation from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, which is inscribed on every Stone of Remembrance in cemeteries where there are over 400 burials. Given that Kipling was one of the most famous and prodigious authors of the Victorian / Edwardian age, who was well used to meeting the highest echelons of British Society at its various gatherings, it is not perhaps surprising that he should have been given the job of finding suitable words with which to calm a grieving nation. However, as my title suggests, he had a far more personal engagement with the whole experience of having ‘lost’ a loved one to the mincing machine that was the Great War and specifically the Western Front.
At such a young age, there is an argument to be made that John should never have been in the thick of what was hoped by all to be the last great battle of the war during which the Germans would finally be pushed back across their own border. After all the military rule was that only men over 19 yrs. of age could serve overseas. Further, it is also well known that, at the outbreak of the war in August 1914, John was denied entry to both the Navy and the Army because, for such a young man, he suffered from very poor eye sight ; not for nothing was Rudyard Kipling most often photographed peering through his round spectacles.
Equally however, not for nothing was his father friends with all sorts of high powered people ; by hook or by crook, Rudyard pulled on his very well connected strings and with great relief John found himself commissioned into the Irish Guards. With whom he was serving as a Platoon Commander when the second battalion was moved up to the front to take part in the Battle of Loos. In the course of which John was wounded, likely in the head by shrapnel from a nearby explosion, and was last seen by his men, without his glasses but still alive, crawling towards some cover. After which John was not only never seen alive again but his body was never found. In vain – and they searched very hard, following up every lead they could find – did his parents ever find any trace of his body during the rest of their lives.
It is not difficult then to understand the powerful emotions behind those few simple phrases which Rudyard Kipling gifted to the nation via the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission ; he and his wife Carrie, along with their surviving daughter Elsie, had indeed lost a loved one to the war and like so many millions of others could but hope that at least God would recognise him wherever he was?
But there is a further tangible connection between the boy ‘lost’ at Loos and the ‘Lost Boys’ from Peter Pan – and you will remember that although it was not the model for Peter Pan (Peter Llewelyn Davies) who was killed during the war in the same year, 1915, but his older brother George.
The connection is of course between the two authors, Rudyard Kipling and J.M. Barrie. Both began their illustrious writing careers as journalists serving time on local newspapers ; Barrie with the Nottingham Journal and Kipling with the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, India. Both wrote books for children – Barrie ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ whilst amongst Kipling’s many, perhaps the most famous is ‘The Jungle Book’? But they both also loved cricket and when Barrie founded his own team in 1890, known as the Allahakbarries, amongst the players was to be found not only George Llewelyn-Davies but also Rudyard Kipling!
Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.