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Tommy Atkins

Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) is a term for a common soldier in the British Army that is particularly associated with World War I. German soldiers would call out to Tommy across no man's land if they wished to speak to a British soldier. French and Commonwealth troops would also call British soldiers "Tommies".

Tommy Atkins has been used as a generic name for a common soldier for many years. The precise origin is the subject of some debate, but it is known to have been used as early as 1743. A letter sent from Jamaica about a mutiny amongst the troops says "except for those from N. America (mostly Irish Papists) ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly".

According to Lieutenant General Sir William MacArthur, in an article in the Army Medical Services Magazine (circa 1950), "Tommy Atkins" was chosen as a generic name by the War Office in 1815. Specimen forms of the "Soldier's Account Book" for that year, show the name "Tommy Atkins", in the space allocated for the soldier's signature.

A common belief is that the name was chosen by the Duke of Wellington having been inspired by the bravery of a soldier at the Battle of Boxtel in 1794. After a fierce engagement, the Duke, in command of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, spotted the best man-at-arms in the regiment, Private Thomas Atkins, terribly wounded. The Private said "It's all right sir. It's all in a day's work" and died shortly after.

Another suggestion was given in 1900 by an army chaplain named Reverend E. J. Hardy. He wrote of an incident during the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. When most of the Europeans in Lucknow were fleeing to the British Residency for protection, a private of the 32nd Regiment of Foot remained on duty at an outpost. Despite the pleas of his comrades he insisted that he must remain at his post. He was killed at his post and the Reverend Hardy wrote that "His name happened to be Tommy Atkins and so, throughout the Mutiny Campaign, when a daring deed was done, the doer was said to be 'a regular Tommy Atkins'".

Rudyard Kipling published the poem Tommy (part of the Barrack Room Ballads – themselves dedicated "To T.A.") in 1892 and in 1893 the music hall song Private Tommy Atkins was published with words by Henry Hamilton and music by S. Potter. In 1898 William McGonagall wrote Lines In Praise of Tommy Atkins, which was an attack on what McGonagall saw as the disparaging portrayal of Tommy in Kipling's poem.

The British were still called Tommies by the Germans in World War II. The phrase — "For you Tommy the War is over!" — has become a stock phrase, expressed by a German upon the capture of a British soldier or airman. They also nicknamed the Sherman tanks which were out-gunned and poorly armoured compared to German tanks, and which ran on petrol so tended to "brew-up" easily, "Tommy cookers".

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"Tommy" by Rudyard Kipling

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!

Rudyard Kipling

"Private Tommy Atkins" lyrics by Henry Hamilton, music by S. Potter

O, we take him from the city or the plough,
Ta-ran-ta-ra
And we drill him, and we dress him up so neat,
Ta-ran-ta-ra
We teach him to uphold his manly brow,
Ta-ran-ta-ra
And how to walk, and where to put his feet.
Ta-ran-ta-ran-ta-ra
It doesn't matter who he was before,
Ta-ran-ta-ra
Or what his parents favor'd for his name;
Ta-ran-ta-ra
Once he's pocketed the shilling,
And a uniform he's filling,
We'll call him Tommy Atkins, all the same.
O!
Tommy, Tommy Atkins,
You're a "good un," heart and hand;
You're a credit to your calling,
And to all your native land;
May your luck be never failing,
May your love be ever true!
God bless you, Tommy Atkins,
Here's your Country's love to you!
In time of peace he hears the bugle call
Ta-ran-ta-ra
And in Barracks, from "Revally" to "Lights Out!"
Ta-ran-ta-ra
If "Sentry go" and "Pipeclay" ever pall,
Ta-ran-ta-ra
There's always plenty more of work about.
Ta-ran-ta-ran-ta-ra
As happy as a school boy, and as gay;
Then back he goes to duty,
All for Country, Home and Beauty
And the noble sum of half a crown a day.
O!
Tommy, Tommy Atkins,
You're a good un, heart and hand;
You're a credit to your calling,
And to all your native land;
May your luck be never failing,
May your love be ever true!
God bless you, Tommy Atkins,
Here's your Country's love to you!
In wartime then, it's "Tommy to the Front!"
Ta-ran-ta-ra
And we ship him off, in "Troopers" to the fray,
Ta-ran-ta-ra
We sit at home while Tommy bears the brunt,
Ta-ran-ta-ra
A fighting for his country – and his pay.
Ta-ran-ta-ran-ta-ra
And weather he's on India's coral strand,
Or pouring out his blood in the Soudan,
To keep our flag a-flying,
He's a doing, and a dying,
Ev'ry inch of him a soldier and a man.
O!
Tommy, Tommy Atkins,
You're a "good un," heart and hand;
You're a credit to your calling,
And to all your native land;
May your luck be never failing,
May your love be ever true!
God bless you, Tommy Atkins,
Here's your Country's love to you!

Henry Hamilton

"Lines in Praise of Tommy Atkins" by William McGonagall

Success to Tommy Atkins, he's a very brave man,
And to deny it there's few people can;
And to face his foreign foes he's never afraid,
Therefore he's not a beggar, as Rudyard Kipling has said.
No, he's paid by our Government, and is worthy of his hire;
And from our shores in time of war he makes our foes retire,
He doesn't need to beg; no, nothing so low;
No, he considers it more honourable to face a foreign foe.
No, he's not a beggar, he's a more useful man,
And, as Shakespeare has said, his life's but a span;
And at the cannon's mouth he seeks for reputation,
He doesn't go from door to door seeking a donation.
Oh, think of Tommy Atkins when from home far away,
Lying on the battlefield, earth's cold clay;
And a stone or his knapsack pillowing his head,
And his comrades lying near by him wounded and dead.
And while lying there, poor fellow, he thinks of his wife at home,
And his heart bleeds at the thought, and he does moan;
And down his cheek flows many a silent tear,
When he thinks of his friends and children dear.
Kind Christians, think of him when far, far away,
Fighting for his Queen and Country without dismay;
May God protect him wherever he goes,
And give him strength to conqner his foes.
To call a soldier a beggar is a very degrading name,
And in my opinion it's a very great shame;
And the man that calls him a beggar is not the soldier's friend,
And no sensible soldier should on him depend.
A soldier is a man that ought to be respected,
And by his country shouldn't be neglected;
For he fights our foreign foes, and in danger of his life,
Leaving behind him his relatives and his dear wife.
Then hurrah for Tommy Atkins, he's the people's friend,
Because when foreign foes assail us he does us defend;
He is not a beggar, as Rudyard Kipling has said,
No, he doesn't need to beg, he lives by his trade.
And in conclusion I will say,
Don't forget his wife and children when he's far away;
But try and help them all you can,
For remember Tommy Atkins is a very useful man.

William McGonagall

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