Known Unto God

One of the great tragedies of Rudyard Kipling’s life was the death of his son John in World War I, at the Battle of Loos, exactly 50 years before I was born. The younger Kipling’s body was unidentified during his father’s lifetime, and while Rudyard Kipling made numerous attempts to discover his son’s whereabouts during the course of the war, he appears to have accepted his son’s death by 1919.

John Kipling

John Kipling , 17 Aug 1897-27 Sep 1915.


While Rudyard Kipling was (and sometimes is) seen as an apologist for imperialism — a claim that I don’t really believe survives a reading of Kim, or his poem “Recessional” — quite a few of his postwar writings are rather understandably bitter. Also significant is the fact that Kipling became very active in the War Graves Commission. and is credited with both the standardized single-sized tombstone with no respect of rank (in consultation with Winston Churchill) and for serving as literary advisor with regard to inscriptions. In fact, it has been said that he was responsible for the simple inscription on the markers of unidentified soldiers: “Known Unto God.” Doubtless he was thinking of his own son then, as he was likely thinking of him when he composed his poem, “My Boy Jack“:


“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!

The BBC now reports that historical researchers are morally certain that they have found John Kipling’s grave, and confirm the Commission’s 1992 decision to reinscribe Kipling’s name on the stone, a decision that was apparently a subject of controversy for the last couple of decades.

While there can’t really be a happy ending to this story, there may be some solace in the idea that John Kipling’s body rests in a place no longer known only unto God, but to the rest of us as well.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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