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Towards Britain's Standing Army

By Professor Richard Holmes
The Tommy

Image of soldiers sitting in their barracks, 1896
A formal insight into barrack life, 1896 ©
The army’s performance on campaign has often encouraged those critical of its peacetime habits to applaud its wartime achievements.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that until the two world wars many of those who wrote about the soldier, in poetry or in prose, had little contact with him and so judged him by superficialities - he was a hero in battle, a nuisance in barracks.

'The name Tommy Atkins, used to describe the typical British soldier, probably originated in a War Office publication of 1815 ...'

Rudyard Kipling was educated in England, but spent his early career as a journalist in India, where he often talked to British soldiers and found that they were far more complex than the usual literary clichés suggested. His poem Tommy, one of his Barrack-Room Ballads (1892), expresses the soldier’s contempt for a society that scorns him until there is fighting to be done. It goes straight to the heart of the ambivalent relationship between Britain and her army.

The ‘widow’ in the poem is Queen Victoria:

'I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint of beer, /The publican ‘e ups and sez, "We serve no red-coats here." /The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fir to die, /I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I: /O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, ‘a’ "Tommy, go away"; /But it’s "Thank you, Mister Atkins," when the band begins to play - /The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play. /O it’s "Thank you, Mister Atkins," when the band begins to play.
'I went into a theatre as sober as could be, /They gave a drunk civilian room but ‘adn’t none for me; /They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls, /But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! They’ll shove me in the stalls! /For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ "Tommy, wait outside"; /But it’s "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper’s on the tide - /The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide, /O it’s "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper’s on the tide...
'You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all, /We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational. /Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face /The Widow’s uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace. /For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ "Chuck him out, the brute!" /But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot; /An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please; /An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool - you bet that Tommy sees!'
Rudyard Kipling's Verse (Inclusive Edition, 1885-1932)

The name Tommy Atkins, used to describe the typical British soldier, probably originated in a War Office publication of 1815 which showed how a 'Soldier’s Book' should be made out, and gave Pte Thomas Atkins as its example. Some have suggested that the Duke of Wellington suggested the name himself, in memory of a soldier in his regiment who had been killed in Flanders in 1794.

The nickname had wide currency by the 1880s, and was universal in World War One. Its numerous derivatives included ‘Tommy cooker’, a small portable stove - or the World War Two Sherman tank, which caught fire all too easily. The widespread use of the word Tommy shows how a more affectionate attitude to the soldier was beginning to make itself felt early in the 20th century, but the old tensions still survived.

Published: 2005-02-28



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