First published in its entirety on 17 May 1890 in issue No. 8 of W.E. Henley's Scot's Observer (later to become the National Observer). However, Kipling had used the refrain to stanzas 1 and 5, with minor differences, as a heading to the story The Big Drunk Draf' in the Week's News of 24 March 1888, with the attribution 'Barrack-room Ballad'.
First collected in Departmental Ditties, Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses, United States Book Company, New York, 1890. Collected in B.R.B and O.V., 1892; I.V., 1919 and D.V. 1940; Sussex Edition, Vol 32, page 213; Burwash Edition, Vol 25. In the ORG it is numbered 436a.
The inclusion of the refrain with The Big Drunk Draf ' makes it clear that this poem was one of the original twelve Barrack Room Ballads offered to Thacker, Spink & Co. between October 1888 and January 1889, an offer they did not take up. See Kipling and his First Publisher, (Pinney and Richards, Rivendale Press, High Wycombe, 2001).
Five stanzas, each of two rhyming couplets with the second couplets of each stanza all ending with the same rhyme. The first and fifth stanzas have a common eight line refrain. The whole has the rhythm and swing of an exuberant marching song.
Areas of India that were under the rule or protection of the Honourable East India Company at the time of the Indian Mutiny were transferred to the British Crown in November 1858. As a result, the British Government was faced with maintaining a British Army force, additional to the Indian Army, of between some 65,000 to 75,000 troops for the rest of the century and beyond. This meant that there was a continuing requirement to move units and drafts of recruits out to India and and bring back units at the end of their tour of duty and men at the end of their term of service. It was the latter who were known as 'time-expired' men.
In order to reduce the costs and simplify the movement of some 12,000 to 15,000 personnel and dependants each way each year, the Government of India commissioned the building of five rigged steam troopships. These were purpose built to carry the 1200 men and families of a battalion and were operated by the Royal Navy from 1867 to the middle of the 1890s. Their names were H.M.S. Crocodile, Euphrates, Jumna, Malabar and Serapis. They feature in a number of Kipling's poems and stories and more information on them can be found at "Trooping and Troopships".
For the period covered by Kipling's writing about the Army in India, the regular army was entirely volunteer and infantry soldiers could serve for terms of 6, 12 or 21 years. Soldiers serving for only 6 years with the Colours had a Reserve liability for a further 6 years after leaving, meaning that they were liable to recall to the Colours should they be needed. For this reserve liability they were paid fourpence a day, about one quarter of the basic rate when serving. There were some variation in the terms under which soldiers of other arms could serve but in general they and the infantry could, if they so wished and the Army wanted them, go on for 12 or 21 years. For more information see "Terms of Service".
In most years about three-quarters of infantry soldiers with 6 years service opted to leave and it is this moment that is being celebrated in this ballad.. Those leaving at this first opportunity naturally included all those who had had enough of service abroad, or the Army, or both. Hence the natural exuberance of the soldiers going home, which, if not controlled, could result in something like the story told in The Big Drunk' Draf' which the refrain first accompanied.