The Magic Square (exerpt) — Kipling

“Certain it is men have fallen upon each other from the first. This is a business which the Gods lay upon the Young; leaving the Old to weary with words the unreturning phalanx.”

What put the idea of drill into man’s head at the beginning of things? As Shakespeare so beautifully observes, “What made man first drill upon the Square, with Sergeants running round and round?”…

what does drill come to? This—the step, which includes keeping step—the line, by which I mean any sort of line, close or extended—the wheel, which includes a line changing direction—and, most important of all, because it is the foundation that makes every move possible, forming fours. There you have it all, gentlemen—the four sides of the Magic Square. The Step and keeping step—the Line, close or extended—Wheeling and changing direction—and Forming Fours. S.W.L.F. So We Learned Fighting.

Side by side with the practical drill, or rehearsal for the business of hunting and war, there developed the rudiments of what, later on, became ceremonial drill. Why? Here is my reason. The natural instinct of a man, after he has done anything worth talking about, is to talk about it; and Primordial man was extremely natural. When he had finished a successful day’s hunting or had cleverly knocked an enemy on the head, he went home and told his wife and the children all about it. Like all persons with a limited vocabulary, he had to act most of his story and piece it out, precisely as children do, with innumerable repetitions of the same word. His tale wouldn’t grow less in the telling. Tales don’t. His actual fight was probably a crude affair; but he would act it at home before the family with stately leaps and bounds to represent the death-scuffle, and with elaborate wavings of his club and thrustings with his lance to show how he did his man in. At the end of his story there would certainly be a solemn walk round the fire to let the females admire him and the young bloods be impressed with him. You can take it that when a male animal has accomplished a kill of any kind, he generally indulges in a sort of triumphal demonstration—a tense, highly braced walk or promenade round and above the carcass, especially if there is a female of his species near by. At the very first, he was only the hairy, low-browed head of a family, he would declaim and prance alone. Later, as the families grew into groups and tribes, the other men who had assisted at the hunt or the battle would have their say, and their shout, and their walk-round, in the open spaces before the caves. It may be that the idea of forming fours was first originated at those processional walk-rounds where there was open space to manœuvre and safety in which to correct errors. You can imagine how, as these men danced and leaped, they would all sing like children: “This is the way we kill a bison. This is how we stand up to a tiger. This is how we tackle men.” The drama would be accepted as the real thing by the women and the juniors, till at last the bison, or the tiger, or the man-killing charade would become a religious ceremonial—a thing to be acted, said, or sung before going up to battle or chase, with invoca tions to great hunters in the past, and so on. It would end by being a magic ritual, sure to bring good luck if it was properly performed. And so far as that ritual, with its dances, and chants, and stampings, and marches round, gave the men cohesion and confidence, it would go far towards success in the field. That principle holds good to this day.

I was at Edinburgh Castle a few weeks ago, watching a squad marching in slow time, and doing it rather badly. The instructor told ’em so. Then he said: “You’re lazy! You’re lazy! Point that toe! There’s not a fut among ye!”

It is hard work trying to get recruits to reproduce in cold blood, on a cold morning, in cold boots, something of the wonderful grace and poise and arrested motion of the bare-footed, perfectly balanced, perfectly healthy primitive man rejoicing over his kill. The nearest thing I ever saw to the genuine article must have been sham-fight among Kaffirs in a compound at the Kimberley Diamond-fields. It finished with a walk-round in slow time, and I remember that every Kaffir’s foot shot out as straight as the forefoot of a trotting horse. You could almost hear the hip and knee and ankle joint click as the toe was pointed. Now, it’s a far cry from a Kaffir compound to a Guard Mount at Buckingham Palace; but if you stand three-quarters on to the Colours as they come out of the gate with the Guard, you’ll catch just a far-off shadow of what the march in slow time originally sprung from, and what it meant.

…Pass on a few thousand, or hundred thousand years, and we reach the beginnings of some sort of civilisation. By this time man has begun to specialise in his work. Everybody doesn’t hunt; everybody doesn’t fight; everybody doesn’t prepare his own food or make his own weapons for himself. Experience has shown mankind that it is more convenient to tell off certain men for these duties.

Here we come to a curious fact in human nature.

As soon as any man is detailed for a particular job—that is to say, a duty that he has to perform for somebody else’s sake—he gets, whether he likes it or not, the beginnings of an ideal of conduct. He may loathe the job; but that reasoning mind that I’ve mentioned makes him uncomfortable in himself if he neglects the job. The worst of it is that any being who knows what he is doing, remembers what he has done, and can estimate the probable consequence of what he is going to do, knows also what he ought to do. That’s the beginning of Conscience. I grant you it’s an infernal nuisance; but it’s true. As a compensation, all men have a tendency to glorify and make much of their own special duty, no matter how humble they or the job may be.

But the primitive warrior was far from humble. He was a man set apart by his strength, skill, or courage, for work on which the very existence of his tribe depended. As such, he was entitled to extra or more varied rations in order that he might do that work properly. Primitive tribes at the present day have long lists of certain foods and special portions of game which are forbidden to be eaten by the women, or by the men before they come to manhood. The fighting men of the tribe are freed from any restrictions on this head, and the best cuts and joints are reserved for them—like the Captain’s Wing. Three years ago, scientific men called these restrictions the outcome of savage superstition. Now, we have food-regulations of our own, and, you will observe, the rationing of the Army and Navy is the most important matter of all, because the safety of the tribe depends upon it.

Besides these advantages, the primitive fighting man had behind him an enormous mass of tradition and ritual, and song and dance and ceremony handed down through generation to generation from prehistoric days, which dealt with everything that he did in the performance of his duties or in the preparation for his duties. The crude drills and hunting rehearsals of George Robey’s time had developed into complicated sacred dances of fabulous antiquity. Every detail connected with war had its special rite or incantation. The warrior himself, his clothes, the paints he used for personal decoration, his weapons, his form of attack, his particular fashion of marking or mutilating his enemy after death, his war-cry, the charms that protected him in battle—were all matters of the deepest importance on which the best brains of mankind had spent centuries and centuries of thought, with the object—conscious or unconscious—of creating and improving the morale of the individual set apart to fight for the tribe. To-day, these rituals have faded out of the memory of civilised mankind altogether. But, in spite of time and change, one can still trace in our modern days shadows here and there of customs and ceremonial dating from the birth of time—customs which still persist among us because, mark you, they concern the individual and collective morale of the warrior—the man set apart to fight for the safety of the tribe.

I give you three instances.

I. It is an offence to draw one’s sword in Mess, just as it is a gross liberty to examine or handle any man’s sword without first asking his permission.


Because the Sword is, above all weapons, the most ancient and most holy. Why? Because it was the terrible weapon with the cutting edge and the thrusting point which first superseded the stick and the club among mankind, and gave the tribes that had it power over the tribes that had not. The old fairy-tales of magic swords that cut off people’s heads of themselves run back to that dim and distant date when some sword-using tribe broke in upon and scuppered some tribe of club-using primitives. Through thousands and thousands of years the Sword—the manufactured weapon which cannot be extemporised out of a branch, like the club; nor out of a branch and a strip of leather or sinew like the bow—this expensive hand-made Sword has been personal to its owner, slung to his body by day, ready to his hand by night, a thing prayed over and worshipped—the visible shrine, so to speak, of the personal honour of the man who wielded it—the weapon set apart for the man who is set apart for the business of war.

II. It is an offence to mention a woman’s name in Mess.

Why? Because the warrior’s work being war, and the one thing furthest from war being woman, it follows that at no time since fighting began was the warrior encouraged to think of women while preparing for, or engaged in, his job. Because, when the warrior went to war, he was forbidden—as he is forbidden to-day among savages—to have anything to do with women for a certain length of time before starting. The idea of women, and therefore, the name of any woman, was considered distracting, weakening, to a warrior, and for that reason was absolutely forbidden—tabu—to him not only in the field, but also in his ceremonial gatherings with his equals—the men set apart for the business of war.

III. It is extraordinarily difficult to prevent ragging in the Army. Why? Because as soon as men were set apart for the work of fighting, it was necessary for them to find out the character, powers of endurance, and resistance to pain of the young men who from time to time joined them.

For that reason, there grew up all the world over, a system of formally initiating young men into the tribe by a series of tests, varying in severity, which ranged—as they do among primitive tribes to-day—from mere flogging to being hung, head down, over smoke, burning on various parts of the body, or being swung from the ground by hooks inserted through their muscles. There were also other tests—spiritual as well as physical. You can see a trace of them in the mediaeval idea of the candidate for knighthood watching his arms before the altar of a church, generally full of tombs, from sunset to sunrise. Men reasoned logically enough: “If a man can’t stand our peacetime tests, he’ll fail us in war. Let’s see what he can stand.” Nowadays, young men argue—or, rather, they don’t argue, they feel: “So-and-so looks rather an ass; or is rather a beast; or carries too much side. Let’s rag him.” Then they turn his room inside out, or rub harness-paste into his hair, or sit him in a bath, or make him dance the fox-trot, as the case may be. If he loses his temper he falls in their opinion. If he keeps it, and pays back the rag with interest later on, they say he is a good sort. I’m not defending ragging—I’ve known cases where everyone who took part in it ought to have been R.T.U. 2 I’m only giving you the primitive reason for the performance which to-day has been watered down into a “rag”. It rose out of a test that was of vital importance to the men who were set apart for the business of war.

I have tried to make clear that even from the earliest ages, the warrior has been a man set apart for a definite purpose, and surrounded by a definite ritual from which, as you know, he is not permitted to escape. The reason for this is very simple. I will summarise it.

The earliest drill was born of the tactics, first of hunting, then of war. The notion of hunting and fighting in accordance with some preconceived plan—that is to say, an ideal of conduct—was developed and taught in the ceremonial drills and dances before and after hunting and fighting. Then came the period of specialisation, when certain men fought for the tribe—in other words, offered themselves as sacrifices for the tribe. They hoped, of course, to sacrifice the enemy; but if they failed in that, their own bodies, their own lives, would be the sacrifice.

People who think a great deal and know very little will tell you that mankind, as a rule, don’t take kindly to the idea of sacrificing themselves unless there is an advantage to be gained from it. But it is worth noting that there is hardly any people in the world so degraded that it cannot appreciate the idea of sacrifice in others, and there are few races or tribes in the world whose legends of their origin or whose religion does not include the story of some tremendous sacrifice made by a hero or demi-god for their sakes. Most of the stories describe at length how the hero or demi-god prepared himself for the sacrifice.

Now, if you think for a moment, you will see that there were only two people in the tribe who were permanently and officially concerned in the theory and practice of sacrifice. They were the Priest, who was also the doctor or the medicine man; and the fighting-man. The Priest knew the charms and spells that would protect the warrior from hurt in battle, as well as the herbs and dressings that would cure him if he were hurt. Most important of all, he knew how the warrior would stand with the Gods of the tribe after his death. If he had died well, the Gods would be pleased. If he had died badly, the Gods would be angry. In other words, whatever ideals of conduct existed in the tribe, the Priest upheld them. The Priest sacrificed fruits, animals, or human beings to the spirits of the great hunters and fighters of old. And because savages are not infidels, he sacrificed also to the unknown gods, who are above all the demi-gods. But the warrior, remember, stood ready to sacrifice himself. He more than any other needed preparation and setting apart for his task.

If one compares the ritual and the code of conduct required of the Priest with that required of the warrior, one is struck by the curious likeness between them, even at the present time.

The good Priest is required to offer up prayer several times a day, wherever he may be. This is to remind him that he is in a service. Twice a day in peace-time the Soldier has to appear on parade; and the more desolate and God-forsaken his station or post is, the more strict and formal ought the parade to be—for the good of his soul!

Most religions demand that the Priest shall be clean and purified by actual or ceremonial washing before he can take part in any service or sacrifice. I needn’t tell you what happens to the Soldier who appears on parade in a condition which is technically called “dirty”.

The textbooks say that cleanliness and neatness of clothing make for “smartness”. They don’t inform us what “smartness” signified originally. It meant the absolute cleanliness and purity, so far as was possible, of the man who might himself be the sacrifice for his tribe.

Again, the good Priest is responsible not only for the proper use but for the proper care and keeping of the linen, the vestments, the vessels, the images, and the lights employed in the ritual of his religion. Every one of them must be dealt with, handled, and put away in a certain prescribed manner with certain prescribed motions, that the priest may not at any time be led to treat them as common things. Has anyone here ever had to attend kit-inspection? Well, the earliest kit-inspection began when the earliest hunter or warrior laid out his poor little weapons, his charms, and his food-pouch on the ground in front of him, counted them, and prayed over them, for they were all he had to take him through life. I’ve never heard of any man praying at kit-inspection since—unless he prayed that the inspecting officer might be struck blind.

Once more, at any hour of the day or night, the good Priest must leave whatever he is doing, so long as it is not the service of his God, and go to any member of his flock who needs him, on the death-bed, or the sick-bed, in trouble of mind, family quarrel, misfortune, or weariness of spirit. So I have seen an Officer put down his drink untasted—the first in twelve hours—and go off to see that his men were properly settled in their billets and lacked nothing that his help or his authority could supply them.

Lastly, however often the Priest enters, leaves, or crosses the holy building of his faith, he must pay due acknowledgement and reverence to the altar or the shrine there. This is that he may not forget, however busy he is, the Spirit Whom he serves. I watched an old Priest in Italy once tidying up an empty church. He knelt and crossed himself before the altar twenty-three times in half an hour as he pottered about. When the war was young, I walked once with a private soldier in London, and he told me what drove him nearly crazy was what he called the “incessant, foolish, unnecessary, snobbish” saluting. I told the young ’un what I am telling you now—that the Salute was the most important and ancient piece of symbolism invented for the deepest of spiritual reasons, many, many thousand years ago. Originally, it must have been the right hand of the armed man raised high to testify to a companion that he was there. “Behold me! I am the sacrifice.” In the course of years the violent gesture has been softened down—except among children at school when they want to show that they know the answer to a question. The hand has been dropped to the level of the forehead; but you will observe that the palm of the hand is turned outwards. That is the sign of giving, not of keeping back. If the Salute were, or ever had been a sign of servility, the palm of the hand would have been turned to the inside and slightly hollowed, and the head also would have been bent forward; because that attitude is the immemorial instinctive sign of abasement, which is fear, among all the races of mankind. As it is, the gesture of the Salute is no more than the armed man indicating himself as one of the brotherhood of the sacrifice, and, curiously enough, the higher-spirited the regiment, the keener its tradition and its instinct of service, the more tense and emphatic is the motion of the indicating right hand.

Now, gentlemen, I have tried to give you the rough outline of how Drill was born; how it developed through untold ages; and a little of what it signifies. Many of my ideas will strike you as absurd and fantastic; but, if you think them over, you will see that they are at bottom only an expansion or explanation of the first few paragraphs of Infantry training. Things are said to change in the world. To a certain extent, they do; but the changes are largely confined to making wheels turn faster and throwing weights farther than our ancestors did. The one thing that does not change, as far as we know it, is human nature. What the earliest man faced at the beginning, we have to face now. There were wonders and terrors of death, darkness, fire and lightning, frost, blood, and destruction, all about him. He faced them with such weapons as were within his knowledge, and he supplemented his weapons with what skill and craft life taught him. But behind all was his indomitable soul, the spirit of man that knows what it ought to do, even though it loathes doing it, without which he would have fallen back to be a beast among beasts again.

And, in the meantime, what has happened to the Magic Square I began to talk about? I’ve neglected it for a little. Before we dismiss, let’s t run over its outlines again on the blackboard, and make them clearer. Here, as I said, is the Line; here is the Step and the Wheel; and here, at the bottom, the foundation of all, is Forming Fours. You see? Do you notice any other change?

There isn’t one, really, because, as I have said, man changes little; but it seems to me that the Magic Square has developed quite simply and naturally into the Altar of Sacrifice. Look! The letters are just the same: S.W.L.F. But the altar is based on Faith, by which we live; it is supported by Wisdom and Strength; and it is crowned by Sacrifice, which is the highest form of Love. So you see: Faith, Wisdom, Strength, and Love—make the Altar of Sacrifice for the Man set apart to save his Tribe.