A Book of Words, by Rudyard Kipling

The War and the Schools

I HAVE been honoured by a request that I should help to dedicate this rifle range to the memory of an old Wykehamist — George Cecil, Ensign of Grenadiers, killed in action. Cecil was not very long before your time, as once time was reckoned, but since each month now equals a year he dates, so far as you are concerned, to the beginning of history. He was one of that original army in France which was sacrificed almost to a man, in order that England might gain time to create those armies which, till then, she had not thought necessary. He was killed just before the long retreat from Mons came to an end — killed leading his platoon in the woods round Villers Cotterets fifteen months ago.

He did no more and no less than thousands have done since, and many thousands are preparing themselves to do; for it would be difficult to find a household in England to-day free from the fact or the fear of a similar loss.

Yet in one respect he differed from some of his fellows. He was devoted by instinct to the profession of arms, and had made it his consuming interest and study, not through any child’s delight in its glitter, but because he absolutely believed in the imminence of that very war in which he fell. It was curious in a world full of wise grown men, who would not or could not understand, to listen to his unshaken conviction on this matter; and to watch the extraordinarily thorough way in which he set about fitting himself to meet it. Both at Sandhurst and during his short time in the Service, he toiled, as I know, at the details of his profession with the passion of a boy, and studied the wider aspects of it with the judgement of a man. I remember a couple of years ago the boy, for he was little more then, saying to me across an atlas: “We shall be sent to prolong the French left — here! We shall not have enough men to do it, and we shall be cut up. But with any luck I ought to be in it.” His fortune allowed him to fight with the best for the best. He is among the first of that vast company of young dead who live without change in the hearts of those who love them.

I speak now to such of you as propose to follow him. Being who you are, you realise what your Foundation has taught its scholars from the beginning — that as Freedom is indispensable, so is Liberty impossible, to a gentleman. This is knowledge which will serve you when you go out into a world whose every landmark has been violently removed, and every distinction save one — an aristocracy of blood — emptied of all significance. Thanks to the unwisdom of your forefathers, the rescue of a wrecked civilisation has been laid upon you and those very little senior to you. Were I addressing men of my own age, I should say that this task was a heavy one. But I speak to youth which can accomplish everything, precisely because it accepts no past, obeys no present, and fears no future. For that reason, I do not doubt your future, nor as much of our future as is in your keeping. It is for your generation to make well sure that those who have defied God and man shall learn to walk humbly before both as long as fear can endure.

The making of the new world that will rise out of these present judgements will fall to your generation also — not only to those in the field, but to those who, for any reason, are afraid that they can never take part in the great work. They need have no fear. After the brute issue of the war shall have been decided on the fronts, all men, all capacities, all attainments, will be called upon to the uttermost to establish civilisation. For then the work will begin of reconstructing, not only England and the Empire, but the whole world — on a scale which outruns imagination. Every aspect of life as we have known life hitherto will have disappeared. National boundaries and national sympathies, powers, responsibilities, and habits of thought will have shifted and been transformed. Our neighbours of yesterday will be our blood-brethren of that to-morrow, bound to us, as we throughout the Empire are bound to each other, by the most far-reaching and intimate ties of common loss and common devotion, and labouring side by side to bring order out of the appalling chaos that humanity has drawn upon itself.

Let no one, whatever his physical disabilities, or however meanly he may think of himself, let no one dream for a moment he will not be needed, and urgently needed, in the new order of things. His duty is to prepare himself now. This is harder for him than for the combatant officer, since an officer’s work is continually tested against actual warfare. The men of the second line — the civil reserve that will take over when the sword is sheathed — have no such check, nor have they the officer’s spur of visible responsibility. Their turn comes later. Till it comes they must work on honour, that they may be ready to uphold the honour of civilisation. They have not long to wait. In a few years some of you must be working with our Allies at the administration of what may be left of Central Europe, where you will have to invent new systems to meet new conditions almost as swiftly as, during the war, new weapons were invented to meet new forms of attack. I say in a few years, because the youngest captain I know is twenty-one; the youngest I have heard of is nineteen. And so it will be on the civil side. The war has given the youth of all our world a step in age — additional seniority of three years. You may say — though your relatives are more likely to think it — that your youth has been taken from you. I prefer to put it, that your manhood has been thrust on you early — at the sword’s point. Fit yourself for it then, not according to the measure of your years, but to the measure of our world’s great need.

You have seen and realised the very things which young Cecil felt would befall. As far as his short life allowed he ordered himself so that he might not be overwhelmed by them when they were upon him. He died — as many of you too will die — but he died knowing the issue for which he died. It is well to die for one’s country. But that is not enough. It is also necessary that, so long as he lives, a man should give to his country, as George Cecil gave, a mind and soul neither ignorant nor inadequate.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38