Tommies

Tommy or Tommy Atkins is the slang name for the British soldier.

Although established in previous campaigns, it was during the First World War that it became a household term. Even German soldiers could be heard across no mans land calling ‘Tommy’ to the British troops.

Although its exact origins are unknown, it is thought to have derived from a conversation between the War Office and the Duke of Wellington when he was asked for a name that personified the common British soldier. He thought about this for a while and remembered a chance meeting on a battlefield with a wounded soldier, the Duke asked the man his name and he answered ‘Tommy Atkins’. Tommy later died from his wounds.

The term was widely used in the 19th century but not with the same affection as to which is used nowadays. Many common soldiers could be resented in times of peace but then praised if they were called to arms to fight or defend the country. This was noted by Rudyard Kiplin and became the inspiration behind his famous poem Tommies.

I WENT into a public ‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer, 
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, ” We serve no red-coats here.” 
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die, 
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I: 
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ” 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. 

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap. 
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit. 
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul? “
But it’s ” Thin red line of ‘eroes ” when the drums begin to roll
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll, 
O it’s ” Thin red line of ‘eroes, ” when the drums begin to roll.

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too, 
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you; 
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints, 
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints; 
While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Tommy, fall be’ind,” 
But it’s ” Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind, 
O it’s ” Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind.

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!

His intention here was to sway public opinion and attitude towards the common soldier.

The last ‘Tommy’, Harry Patch died in 2009.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top