[A] generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory, and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences [...]. (1990: x)The process of disenchantment is mainly attributed to the Western Front, which was characterized by “exhaustive attacks, artillery bombardments and season-length battles" (Onions 1990: 2). Here, the British suffered the greatest number of casualties. With its maze of trenches, the rain and mud, the dangers of gas and enemy artillery, the Western Front dominates the memory of the Great War and, as Hynes states, seems to symbolize the evils of all modern warfare: “If you want the purest embodiment in history of that vision of war in all its cruelty and stupidity and power, the Western Front is the place to go. It is a tragic vision, on a vast scale; compared to the Western Front, other wars are only wars." (1997: 75) Though many of these myths have been questioned by recent scholarship (cf. Bond 1997; Winter 1995; Watson 2004; Flothow 2007: Ch. 4), these images of the War also prevail in the fictional accounts of John Kipling’s life.
‘Left 6/36 without glasses, 6/6 with glasses.’ […] The war is six weeks old. John […] wants to serve in Lord Kitchener’s new army. […] ‘Right 6/36 without glasses, 6/9 with.’ The verdict is given: ‘Unsatisfactory.’ (27)While John is clearly disappointed, his father is even more so: .
Rudyard Kipling feels wounded. After all, everyone wants to do his part in the war. Why should his only son be barred from serving king and country. How can they pass over the son of Rudyard Kipling, the most celebrated writer of his time […]? (29)There are other reasons why John is not qualified for the demands of an officer’s life: John is a likeable boy, yet he fails to pass the exam for Sandhurst (22f.) and is repeatedly described as small and weak (1, 23, etc.). Unsurprisingly “[t]he harsh outdoor life during the raw winter months undermines his health" (44); the military training proves too much for him. In a war which is often perceived as unnecessary, John’s terrible death looks even more futile, as, clearly, he would have had any excuse not to fight. This physically unfit young man, who had no real chance of surviving the war, serves as a proxy for thousands of young, eager, yet ill-prepared volunteers sacrificed in the First World War.
[Rudyard] believes that the war is a heroic fight against the barbarians, and that the noblest fate a young man can encounter would be to give his life for his country. He recalls the words of Horace, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori […].’ (53)With these thoughts, Rudyard personifies an image frequent in the memory of the Great War: the old generation who, unaware of the true horrors of modern warfare, sacrificed the young for their ideals (cf. Winter 1995: 2). As the author of well-known war propaganda, for instance the poem “For All We Have and Are", which is partly quoted in the novel (29), Rudyard is presented as a great war-enthusiast who, however, fails to understand that this war does not resemble the heroic wars of his imagination. The novel emphasizes this point by establishing a parallel between John and Mowgli. In an imaginary conversation with his fictional creation Rudyard finally realizes the difference between fiction and reality: “I sent you to the Jungle, Mowgli. […] But you survived, Mowgli. John didn’t." (149)
And every day the questions running through his head become clearer: Why? Did he have to defend that war so strongly? Who dies if England live? What kind of father sends his only son to his death? How many boys have I written into the grave, he wonders? (146)His reaction illustrates the disenchantment with the First World War and with the glory it seemed to promise; the novel retells the story of the famous author who started out as a war enthusiast and reversed his attitudes completely to demonstrate to a modern readership how widespread this disillusionment was.
Rudyard. Do you really blame me for this? … [People] know what we are fighting for. They know we must go forward, willing to sacrifice everything to deliver mankind from evil. […] Carrie, if by any chance Jack is dead, it will have been the finest moment in his young life. We would not wish him to outlive that. (52f.)Even an eye-witness’ description of John’s brutal death cannot shake him: “Bowe. I see Lieutenant Kipling. [...] The bottom of his face is … shot away. […] There’s nothin’ below his top lip, nothin’ at all. He’s cryin’, tears, cryin’ with the pain, Sir."(74f.) Though this description should have revealed to Rudyard the true nature of John’s suffering, he draws the wrong conclusion – a conclusion which illustrates the discrepancy between ideal and reality that seems so typical of the First World War. “Rudyard (quietly). Thank you…so…he was killed by a shell… […] He led his men from the front, and was courageous in the face of considerable enemy fire." (76)
Doyle. (holding up his rifle). Shit there’s mud in the barrel.The war’s long-term effects are depicted when Bowe, who is shell-shocked after a gas-attack, comes to Batesmans to tell the family of John’s first and final battle.
He immediately undoes his trousers and tries to urinate down the barrel. […]
Bowe (sincerely panicked). Sir! – Sir! My pigeon’s dead! […] Do I have to take the basket across if the pigeon’s dead, Sir? (46)
Bowe. The din is diabolic, so loud you can’t hear it, you can only feel it, feel the whole planet tremblin’. […] Then ... Jesus ... I see the gas creepin’ towards me, like somethin’ livin’ an’ I know I’ve lost my mask. Help me Jesus, where’s me fuckin’ mask? ... the gas is round me, creepin’ up me. Where’s me fuckin’ mask! (71)Bowe’s fate might have been shared by John had he lived; by inventing this meeting between the Kipling family and a man who witnessed John’s death, the play emphasizes the impact of the First World War on those sent to fight on the Western Front.
In World War I, millions of young men were killed fighting for their country – many were only 17 years old. […] My Boy Jack is a moving and powerful story NOT ONLY of duty, sacrifice and bravery, but also the horror of war.
Today nearly a hundred years on YOUNG MEN ARE STILL GOING OFF TO FIGHT IN WAR. MANY WILL NEVER RETURN.