Two incorrigible fife and drum boys serving in the British Army on the Afghan frontier hunger for their first taste of combat, despite the reputation of their regiment for cowardice. Story by Rudyard Kipling.
First published as No. 6 in the Indian Railway Library as Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories in 1888 and collected in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories in 1895, and in numerous subsequent reprints of that collection.
An untried British regiment is sent to the front in a border war, and finds itself faced by a fanatical band of Muslim fighters, powerful hairy men armed with long knives. The British are driven back and retreat in panic and confusion, but two young drummer boys, Jakin and Lew, are left stranded on the battlefield between the armies. Fortified by blind courage and canteen rum, they decide to shame their regiment into returning to the battle. They march up and down across the front to the strains of “The British Grenadiers”. The regiment turns back and advances on the enemy, this time successfully. The boys are killed, but the battle is won.
It is generally agreed that this story is founded on fact, and that the fight in the story is probably an amalgamation of the disastrous British defeat at Maiwand in July 1880, and the victory at Ahmed Khel on 19 April of the same year, during the 2nd Afghan War (1878-1890)
Lieutenant Colonel R.C. Ayers confirms that there is little doubt that Kipling used the 2nd Afghan War as the setting for “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”, and that Ahmed Khel was the model for the battle he depicts:
As three British/Indian battalions formed up for this battle, a strong force of Ghazis charged from the line of the Afghan regular battalions and initially drove back the 59th Foot who were very hard pressed and giving ground, before the flanking Gurkha and Sikh battalions came to their aid and the charge was repulsed. In the end, with cavalry and infantry support, the Afghan force was driven from the field. There are also echoes of the battle of Charasia from that war, where a battalion of Punjab Infantry, which had previously shown a distinct unwillingness to fight, was brigaded with Highlanders and Gurkhas and another Punjabi battalion to stiffen its resolve.