Kipling ended the first war angry. This was the warmup. It is satire, it was written for that time, and the context matters. The report on the siege of Kut had been written, and the general staff were excoriated for their lack of logistic skill.
Kipling was a journalist, a poet, and a defender of the common soldier. He is now deeply unfashionable.
The subject of the poem is the Mesopotamia campaign of World War I, and, specifically, the administrative bungling that led to General Townshend’s surrender of Kut in April 1916, which one historian has called ‘the most abject capitulation in British military history’ [ J. Morris, Farewell the Trumpets, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979, p.171]
Like much of the verse in The Years Between, “Mesopotamia” is a poem of protest. In this case, the verses seek vengeance for the deaths caused by the incompetent leadership of a military operation that was a strategic, tactical, and logistical disaster. In six quatrains of ballad-like rhyme and metre, Kipling lets loose all his powers of public rhetoric to revolt against the appalling and unnecessary suffering of the common soldier, and calls for revenge on the politicians and generals responsible for the administration of a system generally admitted to be ‘hopelessly inadequate’. [Report of the Mesopotamia Commission of Enquiry,(RMCE), London, HMSO, 1917, p.115]
Ann Parry, one of the most recent commentators on Kipling’s verse, sees the effect of the poem in terms of his ‘tones of the biblical prophet’, and puts “Mesopotamia” alongside Wilfred Owen’s scathing contempt for the politicians of his time, and Sassoon’s comic satire of military maladministration. [A. Parry, The Poetry of Rudyard Kipling, Buckingham, OUP, 1992]
“Mesopotamia” is a poem of outraged accusation at the incompetence and self-seeking of the figures at the head of the failed campaign.
Julian Moore, The Kipling Society
The anger of the satire remains though the events are often forgotten, and the fallen lie in forgotten graves while Iraq remains a battlefield.
They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?
They shall not return to us; the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?
Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide–
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?
Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour:
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their
To conform and re-establish each career?
Their lives cannot repay us–their death could not undo–
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shell we leave it unabated in its place?