Brown Bess (1911)
The fourteenth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here , here, here, here and here. Certain themes recurred in many of Kipling’s poems: a fascination with mechanical devices, strong British patriotism and a puckish sense of humor. All three of these themes were on display in the poem Brown Bess written in 1911 and which was part of the School History of England authored by Kipling and C.R.L. Fletcher . The poem was a paean to the British Land Pattern Musket, affectionately know by the Redcoats as Brown Bess. Brown Bess was the standard English long gun from 1722-1838, an astounding length of service for those who live in a time of ceaseless and rapid technological change.
The video at the beginning of this post is taken from Sharpe’s Eagle and depicts the battle of Talavera. It illustrates the impact of massed British volleys of Brown Bess musket fire on French columns. (The redcoats are armed with muskets; Sharpe and his green jacketed men are armed with rifles.) The British Army was a curious thing during the period of Brown Bess. The men were almost entirely desperately poor, poverty being the main inducement to don the Red Coat, service in the Army with its low pay, harsh discipline and danger being highly unpopular. The officers tended to be aristocratic wastrels who purchased their commissions and were often regarded by their families as dunderheads fit only for gunpowder. However, from this unpromising material was created the finest army in the world. This was largely a function of ferocious discipline, constant training in drill and volley firing, good career noncoms, a few brilliant generals like Amherst and Wellington, and extreme combativeness and courage, amply displayed both by the common soldiers and the aristocrats who led them.
Kipling’s poem was based upon the device of treating the Brown Bess musket as if she was a fashionable belle of society. Kipling told his father, ‘A conceit somewhat elaborately beaten out but it amused me in the doing – sign that may be t’will amuse other folks to read.’ Here is the text of the poem: Continue reading