by Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936
"Danny Deever" was written in 1889 or 1890, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) then being 23 or 24 years old, working as a newspaper reporter in India. Though there is no evidence that Kipling ever witnessed a military execution, he had probably read an account of the hanging of Private Flaxman of the Leicestershire Regiment, which took place on January 10, 1887 in Lucknow. Private Flaxman had murdered one of his regiment's NCOs. The details given in the poem about the manner in which military executions were carried out at that time and place are, in any case, and unsurprisingly to Kipling devotees, very accurate.
An infantry battalion in the British army in India during Kipling's time had a theoretical strength of 915 men of all ranks, though the number on parade at any time, given the usual level of sicknesses, casualties, recruiting shortfalls, and so on, was more likely 800. Compare another of Kipling's military poems, Route Marchin', where he says
We're marchin' on relief over Injia's coral strand,
Eight 'undred fightin' Englishmen, the Colonel, and the Band …
A battalion would parade in companies, eight companies of a hundred or so men each stretched out in two extended lines, called "ranks," one behind the other, with the battalion colors in the middle. Each pair of men, one in the front rank, one behind him in the rear rank, was called a "file." This was battle formation; this is how a battalion would advance on an open battlefield. If you were standing out in front viewing this arrangement, like an enemy facing them, you would therefore see four hundred odd of these "files on parade." That was, in fact, how they counted heads: by counting the files on parade and doubling the answer.
Each of the companies in the line had its own officers — lieutenants and a captain — and NCOs — non-commissioned officers, which is to say various gradations of corporal and sergeant. The senior NCO of each company was a color sergeant, who would stand at the right of the company and to its rear when on parade in extended line, a vantage point from which he could keep an eye on the men, or, in battle, encourage them. (See Kipling's poem "The 'Eathen".) For a spectacle like a hanging, the outermost two companies would be brought around to make an open rectangle, called "hollow square," so that all got a close view.
The companies making up the extended battle-formation line would, at the end of a parade, be ordered each to wheel through ninety degrees about its center point; the battalion would then be said to be "in column," ready to be marched off by companies.
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• Text of the poem
"WHAT are the bugles blowin' for?" said Files-on-Parade.
"To turn you out, to turn you out", the Colour-Sergeant said.
"What makes you look so white, so white?" said Files-on-Parade.
"I'm dreadin' what I've got to watch", the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they're hangin' Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play,
The regiment's in 'ollow square — they're hangin' him to-day;
They've taken of his buttons off an' cut his stripes away,
An' they're hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'.
"What makes the rear-rank breathe so 'ard?" said Files-on-Parade.
"It's bitter cold, it's bitter cold", the Colour-Sergeant said.
"What makes that front-rank man fall down?" said Files-on-Parade.
"A touch o' sun, a touch o' sun", the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin' Danny Deever, they are marchin' of 'im round,
They 'ave 'alted Danny Deever by 'is coffin on the ground;
An' 'e'll swing in 'arf a minute for a sneakin' shootin' hound —
O they're hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'!
"'Is cot was right-'and cot to mine", said Files-on-Parade.
"'E's sleepin' out an' far to-night", the Colour-Sergeant said.
"I've drunk 'is beer a score o' times", said Files-on-Parade.
"'E's drinkin' bitter beer alone", the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin' Danny Deever, you must mark 'im to 'is place,
For 'e shot a comrade sleepin' — you must look 'im in the face;
Nine 'undred of 'is county an' the regiment's disgrace,
While they're hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'.
"What's that so black agin' the sun?" said Files-on-Parade.
"It's Danny fightin' 'ard for life", the Colour-Sergeant said.
"What's that that whimpers over'ead?" said Files-on-Parade.
"It's Danny's soul that's passin' now", the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they're done with Danny Deever, you can 'ear the quickstep play,
The regiment's in column, an' they're marchin' us away;
Ho! the young recruits are shakin', an' they'll want their beer to-day,
After hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'.