The speaker addresses "the lost ones", the "cohort of the damned", his brethren overseas. He describes himself as an Englishman very respectable and well-bred, and a "trooper" of the Empress. He has run his own horses and participated blindly in the war, and saw the world as his kin. Today, though, the Sergeant is not very kind, and they are all lost lambs and sheep who have gone astray. They are the gentlemen-rankers damned to Eternity.
It is pleasant enough to work in the stables and in the kitchen, listen to the troopers' stories, and dance with housemaids (although you may fight with the man who accuses you of dancing too well). You are lauded for being a "Rider" to your troop and branded, but you really envy the simple boy who blacks your boots and has nothing more to do than call you "sir".
The speaker says that they do not write home anymore and do not keep their oaths; no one should judge them if they drown themselves in beer. In the night when one's drunken comrade talks in his sleep and the lantern sputters, it is clear how deeply they have all fallen, and there is no wonder that they drug themselves to alleviate the pain.
Hope, Honour, Love, and Truth are gone, and they descend each rung of the ladder. They are too young to know the worst of things, but they do. Their shame is the repentance for the "crime that brought the sentence". The Curse of Reuben keeps them intact until they die in an alien land. They are poor little lambs who have lost their way, black sheep who have gone astray. They are the gentlemen-rankers damned to Eternity.
“Gentlemen-Rankers” was included in Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses. The term “gentleman-ranker” was used in some of Kipling’s other stories as well; it means an enlisted soldier who was a gentleman through education and/or birth and was qualified to be a commissioned officer. This poem has achieved fame through its chorus’s usage in Yale’s “Whiffenpoof Song.” This famous a capella group’s song was published in sheet music form in 1909. “Gentlemen-Rankers” was sung at Yale as early as 1902, according to Whiffenpoof historian James M. Howard.
Besides its fame in the academic arena, the poem is notable for its very bleak and bitter tone and its dire message about the way war can ravage a soldier’s mind as well as his body. Kipling starts off his dark poem by referring to the soldiers he is addressing as his fellow “lost ones” and his “cohort of the damned”. They are also “poor little lambs who’ve lost our way” and “little black sheep who’ve gone astray”; those phrases are repeated at the end of each stanza to hammer home the message. Kipling contrasts the hallmarks of being a gentlemen – being “cleanly bred”, dancing well, and possessing virtues of duty and loyalty – with the reality of wartime experience in which they have little use for the vestiges of their old life.
What soldiers see, hear, and feel in war shapes them irrevocably. Kipling describes the symptoms of PTSD when that terminology did not even exist yet. The gentlemen-rankers do not write home anymore, they do not keep their oaths. They “soak [themselves] in beer” and “drug [themselves] from the pain”. They are being punished for their sins of pride by having all pride stripped from them. They no longer embrace the ideals of “Hope and Honour” and are “lost to Love and / Truth”.
One of the major themes of the poem is the loss of innocence experienced by the soldiers. The prevailing discourse of the day was that men joined the war and fought for their country, considering it an honor and exulting in their military service. None of the horrors of war were proffered as countervailing realities; most young men grew up listening to some version of “Dulce et decorum est” (“it is an honor to fight for one’s country", viciously used to great effect by the disillusioned WWI poet Wilfred Owen). Kipling certainly believed that military service was the duty of young men and believed deeply in the British Empire’s might and virtues, but he also knew of the reality of war (see the analysis for “My Boy Jack”).
In “Gentlemen-Rankers” he writes, “And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth. / God help us, for we knew the worst too young!” It is clear and bold statement, and it explains why the soldiers need to drink and self-medicate. They have had their eyes opened and they know that war is filled with terrors; they are held in the clutches of the conflict until “an alien turf enfolds us / And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.” Kipling mentions “The Curse of Reuben”, which comes from the book of Genesis and refers to the story of a young, unstable, and immoral young man who takes what does not belong to him. The inclusion of such an allusion makes the poem all the more devastating.