Title:                      The Spies’ March

Author:                 Rudyard Kipling

Kipling, Rudyard (1911). The Spies’ March Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page




  • Poem.

Date Posted:      March 3, 2015

The following is extracted from “The Spy Wise Blog” by Dr. Wesley Britton[1].

[In 1911] Kipling published …“The Spies March,” a unique poem often interpreted to be about the role of the spy in war. The eight stanza refrain first appeared in The Literary Pageant: A Charity Magazine issued July 12, 1911 in aid of Prince Francis of the Teck Memorial fund for Middlesex Hospital. Apparently, one inspiration for the poem was an “Extract from a private letter from Manchuria” as Kipling used the following as a motto for the poem:

“The outbreak is in full swing and our death-rate would sicken Napoleon . . . . Dr. M—died last week, and C—on Monday, but some more medicines are coming. . . We don’t seem to be able to check it at all . . . . Villages panicking badly . . . . In some places not a living soul . . . . But at any rate the experience gained may come in useful, so I am keeping my notes written up to date in case of accidents . . . Death is a queer chap to live with for steady company.”

According to Kipling expert John Radcliffe, why the writer used this note is not clear and, to date, few critics have commented on the poem. “It was written when Kipling was very conscious of the danger of war in Europe and the need to prepare for it, and—one assumes—to be alert to the possible infiltration of spies into England.” (Radcliffe) Kipling librarian John Walker adds the poem was probably instigated by Sir John Bland-Sutton, Kipling’s close friend and physician for many years, who “was associated with Middlesex Hospital. Presumably at Bland Sutton’s request, Kipling contributed ‘The Spies’ March’“ To the Literary Pageant (Walker). It was later collected in The Years Between (1919). The text reads:

The Spies’ March

There are no leaders to lead us to honour, and yet with out leaders we sally, Each man reporting for duty alone, out of sight, out of reach, of his fellow. There are no bugles to call the battalions, and yet without bugle we rally.

From the ends of the earth to the ends of the earth, to follow the Standard
of Yellow!

Fall in! O fall in! O fall in!

Not where the squadrons mass,
Not where the bayonets shine,
Not where the big shell shout as they pass
Over the firing-line;
Not where the wounded are,
Not’ where the nations die,
Killed in the cleanly game of war—
That is no place for a spy!
O Princes, Thrones and Powers, your work is less than ours—
Here is no place for a spy!
Trained to another use,
We march with colours furled,
Only concerned when Death breaks loose
On a front of half a world.
Only for General Death
The Yellow Flag may fly,
While we take post beneath—
That is the place for a spy.
Where Plague has spread his pinions over Nations and Dominions—
Then will be work for a spy!

The dropping shots begin,
The single funerals pass,
Our skirmishers run in,
The corpses dot the grass!
The howling towns stampede,
The tainted hamlets die.
Now it is war indeed—
Now there is room for a spy!
O Peoples, Kings and Lands, we are waiting your commands—
What is the work for a spy?
(Drums)—Fear is upon us, spy!

“Go where his pickets hide—
Unmask the shape they take,
Whether a gnat from the waterside,
Or a stinging fly in the brake,
Or filth of the crowded street,
Or a sick rat limping by,
Or a smear of spittle dried in the heat—
That is the work of a spy!
(Drums)—Death is upon us, spy!

“What does he next prepare?
Whence will he move to attack?—
By water, earth or air?—
How can we head him back?
Shall we starve him out if we burn
Or bury his food-supply?
Slip through his lines and learn—
That is work for a spy!
(Drums)—Get to your business, spy!

“Does he feint or strike in force?
Will he charge or ambuscade?
What is it checks his course?
Is he beaten or only delayed?
How long will the lull endure?
Is he retreating? Why?
Crawl to his camp and make sure—
That is the work for a spy!
(Drums)—Fetch us our answer, spy!

“Ride with him girth to girth
Wherever the Pale Horse wheels
Wait on his councils, ear to earth,
And say what the dust reveals.
For the smoke of our torment rolls
Where the burning thousands lie;
What do we care for men’s bodies or souls?
Bring us deliverance, spy!”

While the subject of “The Spies March” might seem, at first glance, about espionage, John Walker offers a different interpretation. “I think that this is one of the `layered’ pieces he enjoyed so much. The Society of Epidemiologists (originally a wartime group, I think) adopted part of the poem as theirs, interpreting the spies as

those needed in the battle against disease. Remember, this was written for a hospital fund raising publication, and for the Middlesex, where epidemiology was a specialty. It is

fever, and not the fight.” (Walker) To support this interpretation, in “Kipling and Medicine – Sanitation,” Gillian Sheehan connected the extract from the letters heading the poem to Kipling’s lifelong concern with proper sanitation (Sheehan). Putting the poem in this context, the stanzas clearly take on different meanings than commonly assumed. With this reading, espionage becomes metaphor giving readers a “layer” that was not the central theme of “The Spies March.”

[1] Dr. Wesley Britton, Rudyard Kiplingt’s ‘Great Game’: Kim, spy Stories, and ‘The Spies March’” Downloaded March 3, 20154


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