Soldier’s, Marines, and now Armed Forces NCO/PO Book, hear told the story of the noncommissioned officer as “the Backbone of the Army,” but where does the phrase come from? It is easy to think how the Backbone holds up the body and understand the correlation, but few realize the phrase was first coined in 1896 by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “The ‘eathen.” Or why. So, lets frame the discussion with the actual like from the poem which is quoted as “The ‘eathen in ‘is blindness must end where ‘e began, But the backbone of the Army is the non-commissioned man!” You might say that you got the backbone part down, but what the heck does the first part mean? And what the heck is an ‘eathen?
Here at the NCO Guide we don’t claim any fame to poetry, but today we will try to get all fancy and break it down for our readers. Reading the poem by itself may leave you puzzled, but don’t feel bad, me too. Charles Carrington, author of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work claimed The ‘eathen” was written in February, 1895 but it was not published until September 1896 in McClure’s Magazine. It is one among the songs and poems by Kipling about the British Army and written in a Cockney accent. He had other related works in a published collection (think book) called Barrack Room Ballads where the main character was named Tommy Atkin, a Tommy is a slang term for British soldiers not unlike how the Americans are called Joe (for G.I. Joe).
With that little bit of background you can likely see that the title, “‘The eathen” is actually The Heathen. Kipling was an advocate for the common soldier and it could be easy between the title and the use of a Cockney dialect in his writing, which was/is though of as low class, and you might think that his poem might be a swipe at the soldierly profession. Actually, most acknowledge the poem to be instructions for recruits, an earlier draft version of it was even titled The Recruit’s Progress. The title, the opening line, and near the bottom in the closing he uses Heathen and twice the same verse: “The ’Eathen in ’is blindness bows down to wood an’ stone” gives us insight. That line is actually from a controversial 1819 missionary hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” written by English clergyman and hymn-writer Reginald Heber. The first verse may explain the sentiment of the hymn, which was until the mid 20th century popular:
From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand;
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand:
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.
You can draw a correlation of how in Kippling’s mind he classifies the difficulty of entering the Army, learning its way’s, and then adopting to a military lifestyle as equal to the difficulty of converting”heathen’s to Christianity.” You can read in the beginning about the heathen of this poem, that “‘E keeps ’is side-arms awful: ’e leaves ’em all about.” And in the first chorus he introduces the reader to the thing soldiers of all Armies of all the eras, and all ranks know and have felt, “All along of abby-nay*, kul†, an’ hazar-ho!” In a modern soldier’s words it means hurry up and wait.
*Not now †To-morrow ‡Wait a bit
The true nature of the poem is the story of soldier development. After the first chorus and at the beginning Kipling’s character is being shown the ropes when he pushes back, and in true military fashion “up comes his Company and kicks him around the floor.” That is not an unusual happening in and out of recruit training as new soldiers test their limits. The recruit is sulking and even contemplates suicide, which in this era and with the epedemic of soldiers taking ones lives, this is a reminder that the problem of suicide is as old as is military service. Thanks to the continued prodding, according to the poem by way of kicks , and lo and behold one morning this Tommy turns out a “proper kit.”
The young man tired of hurry up and wait now begins to follow the ways of the soldier, his “tyrant sergeant” watches him for half a year and he is put in for promotion to “lance” [corporal], and eventually becoming a Color Sergeant. More than mid-way through the poem, the now sergeant learns important lessons, how to “make men like ’im so they’ll learn to like their work.” In the face of battle his pay-off shines through when he realizes that when the bullets start flying that no one wants to face them, “but every beggar must.” And now it is his recruits who are steadfast in the fog of war, “And now it’s “Get the doolies,” an’ now the Captain’s gone.” The term dooley threw me, but after some research a “dohli” is a Hindi word for litter, Kipling was born in Bombay, India and as such would likely use the term. The loss of a comrade is hardest, and in this case it is the Captain, surely their commander. But the sergeant and his men press on.
The poem comes to a final success in battle with:
But ’e works ’em, works ’em, works ’em till he feels ’em take the bit;
The rest is ’oldin’ steady till the watchful bugles play,
An’ ’e lifts ’em, lifts ’em, lifts ’em through the charge that wins the day!
The introduction now become the chorus and it is here where we read the famous line. To me it appeared to indicate the end of a military career, a place that we all find ourselves in one day. Kipling tells that “The heathen in his blindness must end where he began” and the final proclamation that “the backbone of the Army is the Non-commissioned Man!”
In almost an epilogue or after-action review fashion, the poem ends with words that can be taken by a ranker, a Color-sergeant, orficers, or a nation, and that is:
Keep away from dirtiness—keep away from mess,
Don’t get into doin’ things rather-more-or-less!
Let’s ha’ done with abby-nay, kul, and hazar-ho;
Mind you keep your rifle an’ yourself jus’ so!
This is a timeless story for the ages. Tell us in the comments if you see any similarities between soldiering today and how Kipling saw it in the late 1800s. Interesting footnote is that Kipling himself never served.
If you have a hard time reading the Cockney form of the original poem Dutch has a ‘translated’ copy over at the Battle Poetry site.
CSM Dan Elder, USA, Retired