This poem depicts a visit of the twenty surviving veterans of the famous charge of the light cavalry during the Crimean War to poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who famously wrote of that event in his "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854).
The speaker begins by saying while thirty million Englishmen talked of England's military glory, twenty veterans lacked a bed for the night. They did not possess food, money, or jobs, and were the aimless leftover troopers of the Light Brigade.
For them life seemed fleeting but the art they were immortalized in was long; they were dying of starvation but seemed to live on in "deathless / song". All they wanted was a bit of money to keep them alive, but the English did not send enough.
They laid their grizzled old heads together, remembering that even though their Russian enemies' swords were sharp, they were "keener". One of them suggested going to the poet who wrote the poems that English schoolchildren recite.
They journeyed without military color or flash to look for the "Master-singer" who crowned them heroes. They waited at the door of his gate, they of the Light Brigade.
They tried to stand up straight and fix their crooked backs, drilling even on an empty stomach. Their shoulders slumped and their clothes were tattered. They came before the poet, and the old Troop-Sergeant acted as their spokesman. He told the poet that those left of those he wrote about stood before him, and that what Tennyson said about "the mouth of hell" in his poem had come true. The spokesman said they were on their way to the workhouse but thought they would call first.
The spokesman continued by saying they did not want food, but asked the poet if he might write a "to be continued" or "see next page" as an addendum to his poem. It seemed like there had been some mistake, because these men certainly did not look like heroes now.
The army sadly and miserable departed. Tennyson's heart grew hot with anger and scorn, and he took up his pen to write more "wonderful verses that swept the land like flames". These verses made the English souls swell with shame.
The speaker ends by saying that while thirty million Englishmen ramble on in their pride, twenty men lack food tonight. Their children's children try to whisper the command to honor the charge of the Light Brigade, but they are on their way to the workhouse and the streets.
This poem of Kipling's has been largely overlooked by readers, especially in comparison with Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854), but it is nonetheless a poignant and telling moment in the history of Britain's military endeavors. Like "Tommy" and "Gentlemen-Rankers", it expresses scorn at the ways in which soldiers are treated on the home front and the difficulties they have adjusting to normalcy after the horrors they have witnessed and perpetrated.
The conflict referred to is the Crimean War, a conflict between the Russian Empire and the British Empire, French Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Kingdom of Sardinia. It spanned three years, from 1853-1856, and was largely concerned with the territories of the Ottoman Empire, which by this time was in decline. The famous charge of the British light cavalry took place at the Battle of Balaclava on October 25th, 1854. This brigade was supposed to pursue a Russian artillery train, but, due to miscommunication, was instead sent into a frontal assault against the heavily armed, well-prepared Russian defense. The British were valorous but were cut to pieces and retreated with immense casualties.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, then the poet laureate of the United Kingdom, wrote his famous poem on the heroic actions of the brigade. It was published in the Examiner on December 9th, 1854, and was immediately acclaimed. Tennyson's poem is generally upbeat and positive, and is considered one of his best works.
Kipling's poem is very different. He tells the tale of the last twenty veterans of the charge, who are immortalized in verse but are ignored in real life. They are poor, starved, and "shiftless". England refused to provide for these men they deemed heroes, finding it easier to talk of the glory of their soldiers rather than deliver them sustenance. Kipling's tone is somber and melancholy, but there is also a note of rage and bitterness that courses through the lines. He is more negative than Tennyson, and it is no surprise that his poem was far less popular.
There was another verse of the poem published in the St. James Gazette but it is not normally included in further publications:
They sent a cheque to the felon that sprang from an Irish bog;
They healed the spavined cab-horse; they housed the homeless dog;
And they sent (you may call me a liar), when felon and beast were paid,
A cheque, for enough to live on, to the last of the Light Brigade.
An article published in The New York Times on November 2nd, 1913 on the death of Sir George Wombwell, the last surviving officer of the charge, reported that the fund that had been set up to help the veterans was first used to assist convicted Irish rebels and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, with only the balance left to go to the veterans. This claim has been unverified, as has the Times's claim that Kipling's lines about Tennyson writing new verses that "scourged" the "fatted souls of the English" with shame were actually true.