The poem is subtitled "Civil Wars, 1642", referring to the clash between Royalists and Parliamentarians.
The poem begins by presenting the "naked and grey" Cotswolds standing on the stubbly fields between the Avon and Stour rivers. It is autumn. The land that bred them all has not changed. The speaker says that the land should have saved father and son from this "red war" in this calm Midland shire not long after the harvest.
However, by the time they meet on the plain no change has occurred. The soldiers stand and face one another, waiting to kill or be killed by men that they were friends with in a vanished past. These men that they met in a tavern, hall, market, or court – these men that are of their own "blood and speech and race" – are their neighbors and their comrades.
This day will be bitterer than death no matter which way the battle goes, because the brothers of the women the speaker and his men love are prepared to kill them, and they also move toward their foes. The speaker cries "Thank Heaven!" and the trumpets blare before they lose their strength. Whether it is for the King or for the Commonwealth, everything is changed after the first clang of steel.
This poem was included in the 1911 textbook for schoolchildren by C.R.L. Fletcher, A History of England. Kipling contributed over twenty poems to this volume. The book was actually published in two different volumes; the first was larger and more lavish, and was entitled A School History of England, and the second was more economical and dropped the word "School" from the title. It is essentially the same book, although the larger one has four more plates in it. The textbook was intended to inculcate civic pride in students and proffer them a certain type of history.
Kipling's participation in the project indicates that he too felt it important to raise English youth with an understanding of the glories of their country. The book begins with the withdrawal of Roman troops and takes readers into the formation of Britain's empire. In their introduction, Fletcher and Kipling express their aim to provide a text "for all boys and girls who are interested in the story of Great Britain and her Empire." Other notable Kipling poems in this book include "The River's Tale" and "Big Steamers" along with poems whose mere titles demonstrate the didactic nature of their creation - "Norman and Saxon", "The American Rebellion" and "The French Wars".
"Edgehill Fight" is about the civil war of 1642. It was the opening battle fought on October 23 between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. The leader of the Royalists was King Charles I, along with his nephew Prince Rupert, and the Parliamentarians were led by the Earl of Essex. The war started there because Essex was endeavoring to prevent the King's forces from nearing London. Neither side conclusively won; Charles was allowed to move closer to London but did not succeed because Londoners came out in full force to defend their city. The King and his troops thus encamped at Oxford. The battle is significant because it inaugurated this bloody squabble.
In A History of England Fletcher introduces the poem with, "With what feelings the men in either army must have looked upon each other before the great battle!" Kipling, while no stranger to poems about the military and soldiers, takes a very different approach in this poem. He does not use an informal vernacular, as in "Tommy" and "Danny Deever", but rather uses restrained and elegant language and formal structure to convey the solemnity of the encounter between such noble men. His tone is reserved and dispassionate; he does not express heightened emotion or appear to take a side in the conflict. He focuses on the melancholy reality of war, which is that brother is often pitted against brother; men who would normally eat, dance, and laugh together are on opposite sides of a battlefield.
Kipling presents a moment of heightened tension, for he depicts the two armies facing each other and ends his poem with the image of their coming together for the first time with "the dry rattle of new-drawn steel" that "changes the world today!" Indeed, students of English history know that after several bloody years, Charles was executed and the Commonwealth of England and then the Protectorate are established. This conflict is significant in that it showcased the reality that a King could no longer seek to govern without Parliament's consent. Kipling does not take readers through this whole history, however, and is content to dwell on the noble, human side of the affair.