‘Dirge of the Dead Sisters’
South African War... also called Boer War, or Anglo-boer War (Oct. 11, 1899-May 31,
1902), war fought between Great Britain and the two Boer (Afrikaner) republics--the
South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State.
Although it was the largest and most costly war in which the British engaged between
the Napoleonic Wars and World War I, it was fought between wholly unequal
The total British military strength in South Africa reached nearly 500,000 men,
whereas the Boers could muster no more than about 88,000.
But the British were fighting in a hostile country over difficult terrain, with long
lines of communications, while the Boers, mainly on the defensive, were able to use
modern rifle fire to good effect, at a time when attacking forces had no means of
The farms of Boers and Africans alike were destroyed and the Boer
inhabitants of the countryside were rounded up and held in segregated
The plight of the Boer women and children in these
camps became an international outrage--
more than 20,000 died in the carelessly run,
Lord Kitchener's drastic and brutal methods slowly paid off.
The Boers had unsuccessfully sued for peace in March 1901;
finally, they accepted the loss of their independence by the Peace of
Vereeniging in May 1902.
In Spring 1900 there was an epidemic of
enteric (typhoid) fever, in Bloemfontein,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had
volunteered in his capacity as a medical
doctor, received his knighthood for his
work in the hospitals there.
He later claimed that you could smell
Bloemfontein before you could see it.
During this war twice as many British died
of disease as fell to Boer action, largely
because the British were inept in avoiding
the risks posed by drinking contaminated
By June 1900 there were ninety-nine nurses
serving with the army in South Africa, nine
from the regular Army Nursing Service and
fifty-seven from its reserve; while some were
recruited locally the remainder travelled out
from British colonies such as New Zealand.
This was not enough: there were only 9
nurses for the 600 patients at the Wynberg
Once he had relinquished the South African
command and returned to England, Lord
Roberts was instrumental in forming Queen
Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing
Service, so that in future there would be a
supply of women who had been vetted and
suitably trained on which to draw.
Kipling himself gave evidence to the
South African Hospitals Commission
on August 1 1900.
He had visited a number of hospitals,
distributing tobacco and other comforts
raised by the sales of his poem “ The
He also took dictation from those who
were too ill to write home for
His account of travelling with wounded
on a hospital train was published under
the title With Number Three, Surgical
and Medical, 1900.
At a few points the language of this poem
sounds, a touch sentimental, less honest, not
quite in focus. (See ‘piteous noble laughter’,
‘thee faces of the Sisters and the glory in their
eyes’, ‘patient, wise, and mirthful’)
Kipling himself had endured the ‘Seven Hells’
of delirium during his dangerous illness of 1899
after which he declared that he owed his life to
his wife and her nursing:
Glossary of some tricky parts...
Title] Dirge lament. Written for the nurses who died while serving in the Anglo-Boer War.
[Stanza 1] iron teacups standard military issue, like iron plates, which would not break and need replacing.
[Stanza 2] Let us now remember many honourable women a rephrasing of Ecclesiasticus 44,1 ‘Let us now praise famous men’,
a phrase also familiar from its repetition in the services of the Anglican church.
Here a deliberate emphasis is made on doing the praising now, before memory of the women is lost.
[Stanza 3] culvert pipe carrying water.
[Stanza 4] Powers of Darkness in Christian usage, a phrase taken from the New Testament to denote the devil and his cohorts,
see Luke 22,53, Colossians 1,13.
Seven Hells in the Jain cosmos there are seven hells. (Jains also believe that each soul is reborn after death, and that the type of body it
inhabits depends on the moral character of its deeds in past lives).
[Stanza 7] Blanket-hidden bodies, ﬂagless according to Conan Doyle cofﬁns were out of the question, and the men were lowered in their
brown blankets into shallow graves at the average rate of sixty a day. The military convention of the ﬂag-draped cofﬁn had to be abandoned.
Ringed and reeking town surrounded and stinking, see note on Background above. Encampments of hospital tents were set up on the veldt
at points outside the town.
[Stanza 9] Them that died at Uitvlugt There was an epidemic of plague in Cape Town in 1901-2, when the hospital and isolation camps
were situated at Uitﬂugt on the Cape Flats.
Her that fell at Simonstown Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) a writer who combined formidable intelligence with charm and common sense,
had been a personal friend of Kipling’s since the early 1890’s. He described her as the bravest woman he ever knew. She had travelled alone
in West Africa, living there among the cannibal Fans. Her books of travel had already made her famous when she volunteered to go to the
Cape as a hospital nurse. There she died of fever contracted while nursing Boer prisoners who were kept at Simonstown, the naval base
down the coast from Cape Town. By her own wish she was buried at sea, her body being ﬁrst transported on a gun-carriage to the torpedo
boat which took it out to sea.
Dirge of the Dead Sisters
do we feel
Very strong imagery, visual beauty
amongst horror of war & disease
Who recalls the twilight and the ranged tents in
(Violet peaks uplifted through the crystal evening
And the clink of iron teacups and the piteous, noble
And the faces of the Sisters with the dust upon their
(Now and not hereafter, while the breath is in our
Now and not hereafter, ere the meaner years go by
Let us now remember many honourable women,
Such as bade us turn again when we were like to
A call to remember, let us not forget,
a theme in war poetry
Repetition of questioning, throughout poem. Emphasises point & provides rhythmical structure.
Who recalls the morning and the thunder through
incongruous, you expect wool to be soft,
the foothills, shrapnel hard= contradictions of war
(Tufts of fleecy shrapnel strung along the empty
And the sun-scarred Red-Cross coaches creeping
guarded to the culvert,
And the faces of the Sisters looking gravely from
the trains? Alien landscape for Brits, more than the sun
(When the days were torment and the nights were
When the Powers of Darkness had dominion on our
When we fled consuming through the Seven Hells of
These put out their hands to us and healed and
made us whole.)
Typhoid sufferers go through
several stages of fever etc,
sometimes they would come out
of it, usually not
Who recalls the midnight by the bridge's wrecked
(Autumn rain that rattled like a Maxim on the tin?)
And the lightning-dazzled levels and the streaming,
And the faces of the Sisters as they bore the
(Till the pain was merciful and stunned us into
When each nerve cried out on God that made the
When the Body triumphed and the last poor shame
These abode our agonies and wiped the sweat
Who recalls the noontide and the funerals
through the market,
(Blanket-hidden bodies, flagless, followed by
And the footsore firing-party, and the dust and
stench and staleness,
And the faces of the Sisters and the glory in
(Bold behind the battle, in the open camp all-
Patient, wise, and mirthful in the ringed and
These endured unresting till they rested from
their labours -
Little wasted bodies, ah, so light to lower
Yet their graves are scattered and their names
are clean forgotten,
Earth shall not remember, but the Waiting
Them who died at Uitvlugt when the plague
was on the city -
Her that fell at Simon's Town' in service on
Why was ‘Dirge of the Dead
What point was Kipling trying to
Does it have any resonance today?
Why was it
This poem is written to commemorate the Nurses who died in the
South African War/Boer war.
Kipling wrote this poem when he went to South Africa as a
For the first time doubt had entered his mind about military
supremacy as he watched first hand the affects of war.
In the first stanza Kipling asks "Who recalls the.... Faces of the
Sisters with the dust upon their hair?"
He asks this because the answer would most likely be very few
when the true hero's in the war were actually heroines such as
the nurses that followed in the path that Florence Nightingale
had set them. Unlike Lord Kitchener who took the ‘glory’ for
his military persistence.
Kipling continues by describing the gory corpses "Blanket-
hidden bodies, flagless, followed by the flies", by flagless
he means undefined, no longer soldiers fighting for their
country, but corpses awaiting their burial.
It remains rare for the work
performed by nurses in time of
war to receive such public
Apparently written speciﬁcally for The Five Nations.
Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition
vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.
For the Sussex Edition Kipling added a subscript in
‘For the nurses who
died during the South African
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