His stories about India, or ghosts, or lovers, are like dreams, and have stayed in my mind only as pictures or brief moments without their contexts, but his stories about war are memorable, maybe partly because they're written with intent. My father says Kipling was a real "warmonger" until his son was killed in battle (but which one - the Boer or WWI?). The Madonna of the Trenches is about a traumatised soldier who had been at 'Butcher's Row' in France, where corpses were used as sand-bags to keep back the tide of mud. This was all right in winter, but "all those trenches were like gruel in a thaw", and when the duckboards were missing a slat, you'd unavoidably tread on the corpses, and they'd "creak". To the reader, it seems more than understandable that this would leave a person permanently unhinged. But Kipling's Brother Keede (a local doctor) doesn't buy it, and over the course of the story, he unlocks the real cause of Brother Strangwick's anxiety. Kipling is telling a good story, but he is also making the point that when you have been calibrated to the daily horror of war, walking down Butcher's Row is as traumatising as say, cleaning out a grease trap (which is pretty disgusting). But do we want to reach that level of calibration?
He writes just as well about the people left at home in England, and how they become calibrated - not to say hardened - to the constant dying around them. Mary Postgate is a story about a 'lady's companion', an inert woman who has no family of her own, seems to have no desires, no impulses or emotions, excepting a slightly maternal attachment to her lady's nephew. He dies in WWI, and she gathers together his belongings and burns them in the incinerator at the bottom of the garden. An enemy pilot chances to have parachuted down to the ground nearby, and is mortally wounded. As Mary incinerates, she listens to him dying. Mary, when young, had a lot of experience with people dying - her mother, father, "cousin Dick", and "Lady McCausland's house-maid". One line reveals her as she was when young, before life had cauterised hopes and emotions out of her: "Her long pleasure [in listening to the soldier's death rattle] was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life." Mary Postgate might be the strangest anti-hero ever. The Gardener is the other war-at-home story that really struck me - struck me so hard I cried, and not just a tear or two! Helen goes to Belgium to see where her 'nephew' has been buried: