This is not a Kipling. It is a Bush poem. Banjo Patterson was Australia’s popular poet of the Imperial era, and he knew Kipling wrote true when he said engineers — the sons of Martha — had their duty.
They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their job when they damn-well choose.
Rudyard Kipling, Sons of Martha
Patterson knew his Scots. They built the railways, set up gold mines, and did a lot of the policing and soldiering throughout the empire. The Antipodean universities were not set up as are Oxford and Cambridge, but on the Scottish model: we looked to Edinburgh. And we knew that often the heroes in imperial wars did not serve the imperial colours.
This poem refers to the Boer war: the first war that Autralian and New Zealand sent expeditionary forces to. As part of their imperial duty.
With eyes that searched in the dark,
Peering along the line,
Stood the grim Scotsman, Hector Clark,
Driver of “Forty-nine”.
And the veldt-fire flamed on the hills ahead,
Like a blood-red beacon sign.
There was word of a fight to the north,
And a column too hardly pressed,
So they started the Highlanders forth.
Heedless of food or rest.
But the pipers gaily played,
Chanting their fierce delight,
And the armoured carriages rocked and swayed.
Laden with men of the Scots Brigade,
Hurrying up to the fight,
And the grim, grey Highland engineer
Driving them into the night.
Then a signal light glowed red,
And a picket came to the track.
“Enemy holding the line ahead;
Three of our mates we have left for dead,
Only we two got back.”
And far to the north through the still night air
They heard the rifles crack.
And the boom of a gun rang out,
Like the sound of a deep appeal,
And the picket stood in doubt
By the side of the driving-wheel.
But the engineer looked down,
With his hand on the starting-bar,
“Ride ye back to the town,
Ye know what my orders are,
Maybe they’re wanting the Scots Brigade
Up on those hills afar.
“I am no soldier at all,
Only an engineer;
But I could not bear that the folk should say
Over in Scotland — Glasgow way —
That Hector Clark stayed here
With the Scots Brigade till the foe was gone,
With ever a rail to run her on.
Ready behind! Stand clear!
“Fireman, get you gone
Into the armoured train —
I will drive her alone;
One more trip — and perhaps the last —
With a well-raked fire and an open blast;
Hark to the rifles again!”
On through the choking dark,
Never a lamp nor a light,
Never an engine spark
Showing her hurried flight,
Over the lonely plain
Rushed the great armoured train,
Hurrying up to the fight.
Then with her living freight
On to the foe she came,
And the rides snapped their hate.
And the darkness spouted flame.
Over the roar of the fray
The hungry bullets whined,
As she dashed through the foe that lay
Loading and firing blind,
Till the glare of the furnace, burning clear,
Showed them the form of the engineer
Sharply and well defined.
Through! They are safely through!
Hark to the column’s cheer!
Surely the driver knew
He was to halt her here;
But he took no heed of the signals red,
And the fireman found, when he climbed ahead,
There on the door of his engine — dead —
The Scottish Engineer!
We used to quote and know such heroic poetry. Patterson would have known this from his childhood, and you can find echoes of Lord Macauley in his poem.
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods,
Horatius at the Bridge
Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay
We may have been vicious, piratical, uncaring, impervious to heat, but the English used to know their duty and do it. Regardless of the cost. The antipodean colonists of Australia and New Zealand included. We lost this, to our shame and to our peril.