The poem expresses Kipling's admiration for the Beja warriors, labeled as "Fuzzy-Wuzzies" by the British, in the Mahdist War. In particular, he lauds their performance at the 1884 Battle of Tamai. It is subtitled "Soudan Expeditionary Force. Early Campaigns."
The speaker says that they have fought with many men across the seas, some brave and some not; Fuzzy was the best of them. Fuzzy worked with their horses and played the banjo in his home in the Soudan. The speaker lauds Fuzzy-Wuzzy for being a "pore [sic] benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man", and explains that they will give him a certificate if he wants it, as well as romp with him whenever he might be inclined to do so.
In the Kyber Hills, the Boers beat them, and the Burman and Zulu held them at bay as well, but this was nothing compared to what Fuzzy made them "swaller". Even though the papers said that they were evenly matched, Fuzzy had the advantage. The speaker cheers to Fuzzy and his wife and kids, for even though his orders were to break the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, which they certainly did thanks to martinis, the Fuzzy-Wuzzies still broke through the square at the battle.
The Fuzzy-Wuzzies have no papers or medals or rewards, and it is the speaker's job to bring to light their skill in using two-handled swords. When one of them is out in the bush with his shield and shovel-spear, he could waste a Tommy for at least a year. Again, the speaker commends Fuzzy-Wuzzy and his "friends which are no more" and says that if he and his soldiers hadn't lost some messmates they would "'elp you to deplore". The bargain is fair now, because even if the Fuzzy-Wuzzies lost more men, they did take the square.
The speaker notes how they rushed through the smoke, and, before they knew it, the Fuzzy-Wuzzies were attacking at their heads. When the Fuzzy-Wuzzies are alive, they are hot sand and ginger, but when dead they are as helpless as a daisy or a ducky or a lamb. They are the only ones who could care less about the mighty British Infantree [sic]. The speaker ends with "'ere's to Wuzzy-Fuzzy" in his home in the Soudan, who may be a poor fellow but is a fantastic warrior with a "'ayrick 'ead of 'air" who broke the British square.
"Fuzzy-Wuzzy", published in the Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses in 1892, is often a favorite of Kipling's readers. It expresses the admiration of a British soldier for the Sudanese Beja warriors who fought against the British in the Mahdist War. These men had very bushy heads of hair and were thusly nicknamed by the British. The poem's structure consists of four eight-line stanzas that speak to the Fuzzy-Wuzzies themselves, cheering them for their fighting prowess and the particular victory they had of taking the square in the Battle of Tamai.
Britain was a supporter of Egypt in the late 19th century, working to protect the Suez Canal and ending the Sudanese slave trade. Even though Britain tried to stay out of the Egyptian-controlled Sudan, Prime Minister Gladstone was finally forced to send troops in 1884 when the Egyptians could no longer resist the aggression of the Sudanese, who, ordered by their Mahdi, had declared a Jihad against the Egyptians. The two tribes who opposed the Egyptians and British were the Baggara and the Beja. The former was the dominant group; the latter was not entirely hostile to the British, but contained intensely accomplished warriors. One British sergeant commented that, "...without a doubt, these Arabs are the most fierce, brave, daring and unmerciful race of men in the world." Their nickname seems rather incongruous, but it has been suggested that the nickname is intended to mitigate their very real threat.
The "square" that Kipling writes of – "But for all the odd agin' you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the / square" – refers to a military formation that consisted of 1,000-1,500 men that had ranks of infantry or cavalry on all four sides and the artillery, animals, machine guns, and transports in the center. This style of defense only worked when the enemy did not possess modern mechanized weapons; this was true of the Sudanese in this conflict. Twice during the conflict was the British square broken by the Beja warriors, and it is commonly assumed that this instance refers to the Battle of Tamai on March 13th, 1884.
Kipling uses the vernacular in this poem. His language is decidedly informal, the language of lively young soldiers. Words are truncated or replaced with a deliberately misspelled version of the word. The speaker has a tone of cheerful admiration, perhaps underlain with a bit of bitterness that is barely detectable. He talks about other Eastern warriors and how they were somewhat formidable but ultimately paled in comparison to the Beja. The soldier says that he would be happy to "'ave a romp with you whenever you're / inclined" and that Fuzzy-Wuzzy is a "first-class fightin' man".
There is, of course, a great deal of racism in this poem, which explains why it has fallen out of favor in modern times. The speaker calls the subject of the poem a "pore benighted 'eathen" and a "big black boundin' beggar". The language is certainly cringe-worthy. It is certainly apparent that the speaker cannot praise the Fuzzy-Wuzzies without adding a layer of scorn and disgust.