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Authors: Geert Spillebeen

Kipling's Choice

BOOK: Kipling's Choice
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Kipling's Choice
Geert Spillebeen
Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents






Copyright © 2002 by Geert Spillebeen
First American edition 2005
Originally published in Belgium in 2002 by Averbode
English translation by Terese Edelstein copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Graphia, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, in 2005.

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

Graphia and the Graphia logo are registered trademarks of Houghton Mifflin Company.

The text of this book is set in Agenda and Dante.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Spillebeen, Geert. [Kipling's Keuze English] Kipling's choice / written by Geert Spillebeen ; translated by Terese Edelstein. p. cm.

Summary: In 1915, mortally wounded in Loos, France, eighteen-year-old John Kipling, son of writer Rudyard Kipling, remembers his boyhood and the events leading to what is to be his first and last World War I battle.

HC ISBN 0-618-43124-1 PA ISBN 0-618-80035-2

1. Kipling, John, 1897–1915—Juvenile fiction. 2. Kipling, Rudyard, 1865–1936—Juvenile fiction. [1. Kipling, John, 1897–1915—Fiction. 2. Kipling, Rudyard, 1865–1936—Fiction 3. Death—Fiction. 4. Loos, Battle of, Loos-en-Gohelle, France, 1915—Fiction. 5. World War, 1914–1918—France—Fiction. 6. Fathers and sons—Fiction. 7. War—Fiction.] I. Edelstein, Terese. II. Title. PZ7.S7549Ki 2005 [Fic]—dc22


HC ISBN-13: 978-0618-43124-3 PA ISBN-13 978-0-618-80035-3

Interior design and composition by Pamela Consolazio

Manufactured in the United States of America
VB 10 9 8 7 6 5

In the doorway one can clearly see how young and undeveloped this fierce little officer still is. Panting, he shoves open the splintered door against the outside wall. John Kipling hops on one leg and lets himself fall against the house, looking for support on the partially destroyed windowsill. A final sharp bang shudders through the stone house.

A few minutes earlier, under cover of fire, four men, with Kipling in the lead, stealthily crept toward the isolated building. Kipling crawled to a spot under the window of a machine-gun nest and wiped it out with a well-aimed hand grenade. Sergeant Cochrane and two of his men then stormed inside.

"Surely twenty Germans were in this nest, sir," a voice calls from inside. Bowing his head, Sergeant Cochrane comes out through the doorway. The two soldiers follow him.

"You're wounded, Sergeant," Kipling remarks when he sees Cochrane's bloodstained shoulder. He speaks as if he were calling attention to a speck of lint on the sergeants sleeve.

"That leg of yours looks worse than my shoulder, Lieutenant."

Kipling glances down at his khaki trouser leg, which is glistening dark red from his knee to the puttee above his shoe. "Has that machine-gun nest been put out of action, Sergeant?" he asks.

"It's completely destroyed, sir."

Cochrane speaks to his superior in a respectful tone, for Kipling's first hours in the line of fire have made quite an impression. In the few weeks that he has served as lieutenant, this youngest officer in the Irish Guards has been under close scrutiny by his chiefs and foot soldiers alike. It's no wonder. Everyone knows Kipling. Rudyard Kipling, of course, is his father, his "Daddo," as John calls him. Everyone knows at least one of his father's books or exciting stories, especially
The Jungle Book
Most can even rattle off a couple of Kipling's verses from memory. But John wants to establish himself on his own merit. He bends over backward for his "boys." They are all older than he is, but at the front they're equally green.

"Twenty-five, Sergeant," John Kipling says. He points his thumb over his shoulder to the inside of the building. "Twenty-five Fritzes, not twenty, as you said."

"But now they're all the best kind of Germans—stone dead," Sergeant Cochrane chortles.

A shell lands in the chalk pit behind the house they are leaning against, splitting the pit in two. Rubble and glowing shrapnel from the exploded shell pierce through the back wall and the roof. Cochrane and his two men duck down.

"No time to lose, chaps," says Lieutenant Kipling. He blows the grit from his trim little mustache and jumps up on his good leg.

This much good luck is bound to run out,
Sergeant Cochrane thinks, shaking his head. Half an hour earlier he begged Kipling to take cover next to him behind a sandbag of a captured trench. When enemy machine guns began to plow a groove into the ground between the house and their own position, he finally grabbed his young officer by the sleeve with a "Sorry, sir" and pulled him down. A moment later the bullets hit the sandbag behind their heads. "Quite warm here, isn't it, Sergeant?" was Kipling's sarcastic comment.

"Come on, boys!" John calls, waving toward the trench. Twenty heads, which had invisibly been following their officer's every move, emerge from the ground. "Come on, boys!" he shouts again and again, pistol in the air, as he limps behind the right side of the house. The shouting is now taken up by his men in the lead, who are storming across the open terrain toward the chalk pit like a ribbon waving in the wind.

Shouting makes you forget, shouting numbs your fear, shouting blocks your ears from the din of the oncoming shells and the whistling bullets, from the wails of the boy next to you who can't move any farther because his legs are gone or because his intestines are lying at his feet, his belly ripped open by flying shrapnel and scalding-hot lead balls from fragmentation bombs.

John Kipling has waited months for this glorious moment, and he has waited with great patience. At first nobody wanted him in their ranks, this filthy-rich kid, this sickly dandy. Too slow for a military career, dragged along on Papa's long arm because of his extreme nearsightedness, and then too young for the front...

Dragging his injured foot with difficulty, Lieutenant Kipling pumps his good leg with his hand on his knee and proceeds at least fifty meters farther. The adrenaline in his blood blocks out the pain in his head.

"Come on, boys!"

The troops wrestle with their heavy packs. A sudden burst of artillery fire scatters the platoon in all directions. Caps fly through the air, soldiers stumble, then pick up their guns and try to stand up. More and more boys fall behind, as helpless as children whimpering for their mothers. Some lie there, surprised and speechless; others are convulsing, twitching, dying. A few are already motionless.

John Kipling hesitates, but the sergeants below blow their whistles and get most of the boys back in one line. "Come on!" John calls encouragingly, and with his pistol he points in the direction of the chalk pit.

That boy will be given a Victoria Cross, Sergeant Cochrane thinks when he sees his lieutenant in action. And on his first day, too!

Cochrane and the other two Irish Guards crouch down and stumble over to their officer. One by one they sink down to the warm grass, exhausted. A road runs between the chalk pit and a wooded area. Everyone assumes that Kipling will gather his platoon together so that the men can give each other cover while crossing the road. Perhaps he will ask the artillery to fire a few rounds into the woods first.

"Quarter to five. This is proceeding too slowly," the slender lieutenant growls. He stands up straight and snaps his pocket watch shut. It is a gift his father brought back from Switzerland, a watch with the initials J.K. engraved upon it.

A new wave of shells rains over their heads and plunges with a devilish din into the dry, chalky soil. Fountains of white dust and black smoke cloud the horizon. Heavy machine-gun fire, which comes from the bushes higher up, just past the road, drowns out the moans of the wounded.

Lying on his stomach, Sergeant Cochrane peers into the line of fire. The other platoons are progressing even more slowly than his.

"Gas! Gas, Lieutenant!" Cochrane screams, pointing to the poisonous green cloud ahead, above the position of the Scots Guards.

"No danger yet, Sergeant," Kipling calls back. "The wind is in our favor."

"Shouldn't you seek better cover, sir?" asks the sergeant hesitantly.

"How would my men know where to proceed then?" he answers impatiently.

Those are the last words exchanged by the two men.

"Come on, boys!" Kipling shouts as he runs limping in the direction of the woods, toward the enemy. Cochrane runs after him. A little later the sergeant is dragged out of the trees, half-dead, overcome by poison gas.

At five o'clock Lieutenant John Kipling is observed for the last time. His head is bloodied and he seems half-crazy, bawling from the pain. He is stumbling, falling, and rolling over the thin, pale earth. He takes a bandage and tries to stop the blood that is gushing from the shattered remains of his mouth, but blood is spurting just as fast from a gash in his neck. Thick drops penetrate deep into the dry, chalky soil of the Bois Hugo in northern France, between the villages of Hulluch and Loos.

It is Monday, September 27, 1915. John Kipling turned eighteen just six weeks ago. He is screaming from terror and pain, screams that are high as a child's and just as piercing. None of the bewildered soldiers dare to help him, for fear of humiliating the young officer.

In the confusion of the shells smashing all around, each man runs for his life. The shrieking, damaged face of this normally friendly lieutenant emits only animal sounds, but his cries are swallowed up by the noise of his very first field battle. And his very last, as well.


Though John Kipling literally feels his life dripping away through his fingers and is in agonizing pain, he wants to maintain his dignity. Daddo would want that, too. Above all else he is an officer, a gentleman. He has the same feeling of embarrassment as he did when he walked into the office of the assistant headmaster, stumbled over the carpet, and fell flat on his face. He was eleven and attending boarding school in Rottingdean.


"Embracing Mother Earth, John Kipling?" the assistant headmaster asked.

"No sir, kissing Cousin Carpet."


Daddo had a good laugh about it later. But John can't save himself with a witty remark this time. This situation is deadly serious.

God! This is unbearable, this pain! It must have been shrapnel, a shell fragment. My spectacles, my pince-nez! Without my spectacles I'm nothing...


"We'll pull you through. Those eyes will be all right," Rudyard Kipling wrote to his son more than once. He knows what he is talking about, for he himself has been wearing glasses since childhood. They called him "Gigger" as a child, "Ruddy Giglamps." Everyone can draw a caricature of this brand-new Nobel Prize winner: a walrus mustache, two jam-jar lids for eyes, and a pipe.

Saint Aubyns Prep School. John has just turned ten. He arrives on September 1 in a uniform that is stiffly starched and ironed. An expensive boarding school, of course. They ride there in style, in Daddo's chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. Mummy has stayed home with Elsie, John's older sister. Rudyard and John survey the whole building, the two of them, father and son. The distinguished, famous Mr. Kipling and his slender little son in his new school uniform.

"You're going hunting alone in the jungle now, Mowgli," the father says. He grasps his son firmly by the hand.

"I'm not a tenderfoot anymore, am I, Akela?"

"Keep your chin up, fellow."

Rudyard Kipling has never had to leave his son alone before, but he doesn't let on about it. He has big plans for John. The navy, at the very least. His own childhood dream.

They write to each other twice a week, just as they promised. Sometimes Daddo's letters come from the most exotic places on earth. One even comes from the fancy VIP railway carriage in which the celebrated English writer travels as he gives readings throughout Canada. John devours the reports about the spouting whales between Victoria and Vancouver, and of the royal reception his father gets wherever he goes. John writes back and maintains a brave front, with not a word about the terrible homesickness for Bateman's, their country house near the village of Burwash, in southern England.

Once John writes about the ghost hunt. Beresford, the boy who sleeps next to John in the dormitory, lay in bed and was shaking with fear, for he thought he saw ghosts roaming through the house. In the dead of night John pulled on his sturdy shoes and crept down below, lantern in hand, to calm poor Beresford.

"Good boy!" his father writes back. "That's what any man wanting to join the navy would do. I'll bring you back a Hunter pocket watch. It's made of gunmetal and comes with a brown leather watchguard ..." John is then eleven years old.


Oh God, help me! Make it stop!
He would like to cry out, but his crushed palate spews only unintelligible, animal moans. The bandage he holds over his mouth is full of splinters from his jawbone.
My eyes!
he wants to shout. Thick red drops drip down his forehead, over his eyelashes. He falls forward and rolls onto his side. In his panicked state he is unable to determine exactly where he has been hit. The pain is tearing through his whole body. Lieutenant Kipling is especially worried about his eyes. Just as always, ever since his childhood.


He has just turned fourteen. The specialist in Switzerland gives the Kiplings little hope. John's loss of vision is getting worse each year. At home he begins to wear glasses every now and then. Daddo might as well forget about planning a naval career for his son. John will now attend the Wellington School, which is geared toward preparing its students for a future life in the army.

BOOK: Kipling's Choice
13.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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