Aftermath - when the boys came home

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from The Guardian, Monday July 27, 1998

Story about John KiplingDiscovery that keeps Kipling's soul in torment

The identification of the grave of a famous author's son, lost in the first world war, is now in doubt. John Ezard reports

TRIUMPHANT official claims to have ended the 83-year search for the body of John Kipling, only son of the patriotic author Rudyard Kipling, are wrong, according to a six-year investigation due out this autumn.

The soldier, only 18 when he was killed in September 1915, remains one of Britain's half million "lost boys" missing in the first world war. His headstone, placed on a grave in France by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1992, is false.

This is the verdict - reached "with much sadness" - of My Boy Jack?, a study by two long-established military authors. Their finding is endorsed by an expert panel, which includes a judge and the museum curator of Lieutenant John Kipling's old regiment, the Irish Guards.

Last night, Michael Smith, secretary of the Kipling Society, said: "This is a shame. Most people had been led to believe by the commission that John had at last been laid to rest - and that Rudyard's soul need no longer be in torment".

Kipling at Loos 1922Kipling and his wife Carrie (right, visiting cemetery at Loos in 1922) were plunged into acute, life-long grief when John was posted missing at the battle of Loos. Through eminent friends, he had fiddled his son a commission after the schoolboy was initially rejected for poor eyesight.

Eye-witnesses reported seeing John crying with pain from a neck wound. However, his body was never found; shellfire was so intense that it may have been blown to pieces. For years the author tried to trace him - interviewing survivors and carrying a description of the spectacles John wore on the battlefield.

His intense hopes of finding his son alive were revealed in documents released by the Public Record Office in February. Not until after the war did Rudyard accept that John was dead.

In June 1992, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission announced it had "succeeded beyond reasonable doubt" in establishing that John is buried in St Mary's field hospital cemetery at Loos, in a grave commemorating an unknown "Lieutenant of the Great War, Irish Guards". This body was recorded found in a sector of the battlefield 6,000 yards from where John Kipling was fighting.

Kipling admirers greeted the news as "marvellous after all these years". The claimed discovery was described as "incontrovertibly" closing one of the war's most tragic family histories.

The commission's proof was that: no other Irish Guards lieutenant was killed on the spot where the body was found that day; the reference on the trench map identifying this spot must have been wrongly recorded - so the body found must be Lieutenant Kipling's.

But both points are dismissed by the new book. The authors Tonie and Valmai Holt, founded Holts' Battlefield Tours, the war pilgrimage company. They have published 15 books of battle studies and war memorabilia.

They stress that John Kipling was a second lieutenant when he died. His promotion to lieutenant was officially decided three months earlier. But he "almost certainly" did not know this.

And it was against military custom for officers to change their rank badges before promotions were published in the London Gazette. John Kipling's new rank was not gazetted until two months after he went missing. Only eight days before he died, he wrote to Rudyard still giving his rank as second lieutenant.

If he had known about the promotion, it is inconceivable that he would not have given his parents the good news, say Major and Mrs Holt. Crucially, his body would "certainly" not have had lieutenant's badges on it.

Study of the field hospital's burial returns revealed that its team had searched the area where John Kipling was fighting the day before they examined the place where the unknown lieutenant was Pound. The commission's claim that it had confused the two areas "stretches the imagination."

This verdict is backed by the leading member of the book's panel, Anthony Babington, a retired circuit judge, holder of the Croix de Guerre, and military author.

The Guards Museum curator, Captain David Horn, says the body is not Kipling's. Howell Griffiths, a magistrate and ex-headmaster, says the commission's proof fails to meet the standards of a criminal or civil court.

Last night the commission said it was not immediately able to comment. The Kipling family has no known descendants.

Unusually for a man now officially classified as one of the 600,000 identified British dead in the first world war, John Kipling has two memorials. One is the newly named cemetery headstone. But his name has also been left on the nemorial to the missing at Loos, under the words Known Unto God. The phrase, standard in British war cemeteries, was written by one of the first and most diligent of war graves commissioners - Rudyard Kipling.

My Boy Jack?: The Search for Kipling's Only Son, published by Leo Cooper. Pen and Sword Books, Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS

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