The controversy over John Kipling’s burial place

Last month we wrote about the new exhibition, ‘My Boy Jack’, which deals with John Kipling (son of the famous writer Rudyard) who was killed in the First World War, and how disagreement exists over whether his grave, identified in 1992, is actually his. 

Mark Quinlan, who was involved in a review of the the decision in 2002 has written the following for us about the decision.

“When the war started in 1914 Kipling’s only son, John, still at school and not yet 17, applied for a commission in the army. He was turned down because of his age and poor sight. His father was a friend of Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, Colonel-in-Chief of the Irish Guards and by this connection he secured a commission for his son. John sailed to France with the newly formed 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards in 1915.

On 27 Sep 1915 the battalion attacked Chalk Pit Wood during the Battle of Loos and John was reported as missing, believed wounded. His body was never found and he was recorded as ‘missing, believed killed’. In 1919 a Graves Registration Unit had recorded a burial in St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery at Haisnes as being an ‘Unknown Lieutenant of the Irish Guards’ and only three Irish Guards officers who were killed in the Great War had in fact been buried as ‘Unknown’.

In 1992, by a process of elimination, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission positively identified the grave at St Mary’s as being that of John and arranged for the headstone inscription to be changed.  While Rudyard Kipling certainly saw the grave at St Mary’s ADS Cemetery, he did not know it was John’s. In 1917 he became literary adviser to the Imperial War Graves Commission, a post he held until his death in 1936 and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his devotion to the Commission was in some way to atone for the death of his son.

The Commission’s conclusion was subsequently challenged by Western Front battlefield experts Major Tonie and Valmai Holt in their book, My Boy Jack? The Search for Kipling’s Only Son. In June 2002, after carefully examining all the evidence, what was then titled Army Casualty Branch confirmed the Commission’s identification and given that the conclusion was likely to be contentious, forwarded the paperwork to the Defence Service Secretary’s Secretariat at the MoD, where Tri-Service graves policy at that time resided.

I was then the desk officer responsible for War and non-World War graves, saw all the relevant paperwork, carefully considered the Army’s conclusions and confirmed the identification.”

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6 comments
  1. Anonymous said:

    Joseph Rudyard Kiplings ‘My Boy Jack’ in fact commemorates not the death of his his son John Kipling, but of ‘Jack Cornwell, V.C.’ Killed in action onboard H.M.S. Chester aged just 16.

  2. Professor Keith Chittenden said:

    Very Moving

  3. ukniwm1 said:

    In response to anonymous, research by one of our office volunteers, Richard Graham, has found that the poem is about a sailor, and therefore nothing to do with John Kipling, nor have Major and Mrs Holt found any evidence that he was known in the family as Jack. The playwright was using considerable artistic licence.

    Jack Cornwell was mortally wounded on HMS Chester at Jutland on 31 May 1916 and died in Grimsby Hospital on 2 June. He was buried at Grimsby but reinterred with great ceremony at Manor Park cemetery in East London on 29 July.

    Taken literally then the poem cannot refer to Cornwell, as it includes the lines
    ‘For what is sunk will hardly swim/ Not with the wind blowing and this tide’. Cornwell was not buried at sea or otherwise consigned to the deep, but buried, twice, on dry land. It is not a case of a mother waiting for news of her son.

    Richard has been unable to establish when the poem was written, but it was first published in The Times on 19 October 1916, above the first of a series of articles by Kipling, which was entitled ‘Destroyers at Jutland; stories of the battle’. HMS Chester was a light cruiser, not a destroyer. It seems much more likely that Kipling had in mind ‘Jack Tar’ than Jack Cornwell.

  4. Charles Burgess said:

    With all respect, it is quite obvious that the poem My Boy Jack, by Rudyard Kipling, was meant to honor the memory of all the boys who never came home, including, obviously, John Kipling and Jack Cornwall. I am amazed that anybody could fail to understand that considering the circumstances. That the Holt’s could ignore the clear intention of Kipling in writing the poem by focusing on the nickname Jack somewhat undercuts their claims that the CWGC made a mistake in identifying John Kipling’s resting place. It may indicate cast of mind that quibbles over the irrelevant and ignores the important. Not to sharpen the point, the man who is buried under Kipling’s name was a lieutenant in the Irish Guards. John Kipling was, as I understand it, the only Irish Guards lieutenant to go missing in that area in the entire war. Case closed.

  5. David Nunn said:

    A writer’s creative intention becomes irrelevant over decades as successive generations of readers re-interpret his/her work. My view is that My Boy Jack was written to honour a missing generation but that its inspiration was rooted in Kipling’s guilt over his own son’s death. A reasonable scrutiny of the available evidence suggests there would seem to be a 95% chance that the Irish Guards officer’s grave in question contains the remains of John Kipling.

  6. I thought that the Holts argued fairly convincingly that it was unlikely that the body in the unmarked grave was of a Lt. in the Irish Guards in the first place. So if it this was the case, the likelihood it was John are remote. What is needed is a DNA test like Richared III. Mine vs that of the body ( as I am distantly related to Rudyard)

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