Arithmetic on the Frontier

Drummer James Roddick of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, defending Lieutenant Menzies during hand-to-hand fighting in Kandahar 1880 (1894) -  William Skeoch Cumming (1864-1929)

Drummer James Roddick of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, defending Lieutenant Menzies during hand-to-hand fighting in Kandahar 1880 (1894) - William Skeoch Cumming (1864-1929)

A great and glorious thing it is
To learn, for seven years or so,
The Lord knows what of that and this,
Ere reckoned fit to face the foe—
The flying bullet down the Pass,
That whistles clear: “All flesh is grass.”

Three hundred pounds per annum spent
On making brain and body meeter
For all the murderous intent
Comprised in “villanous saltpetre!”
And after—ask the Yusufzaies
What comes of all our ‘ologies.

A scrimmage in a Border Station—
A canter down some dark defile—
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail—
The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

No proposition Euclid wrote,
No formulae the text-books know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat,
Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow
Strike hard who cares—shoot straight who can—
The odds are on the cheaper man.

One sword-knot stolen from the camp
Will pay for all the school expenses
Of any Kurrum Valley scamp
Who knows no word of moods and tenses,
But, being blessed with perfect sight,
Picks off our messmates left and right.

With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
The troop-ships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.
The “captives of our bow and spear”
Are cheap—alas! as we are dear.

Arithmetic on the Frontier was Rudyard Kipling’s condemnation of the senseless slaughter of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). Written 130 years ago and published in Departmental Ditties and Other Verses (1886), it is as appropriate now as it was then.

I heard this read today on Poetry Please on BBC Radio 4.

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