The United States is hardly the only country to be indifferent to its soldiers. British soldiers in the Empire never received much respect and if they did it was hardly on the level accorded to the “senior service,” meaning the Royal Navy. British common soldiers were looked down on in a way which reflected the worst of the English class system.

Most of us are familiar with the slang word “Tommy” as a reference to a British soldier. While often associated with World War One and Two, “Tommy” or the longer term, “Tommy Atkins,” has long been a generic name for a British soldier.

The origin is in dispute but the term goes back for quite some time. The Oxford English Dictionary states its origin as “arising out of the casual use of this name in the specimen forms given in the official regulations from 1815 onward;” the citation references Collection of Orders, Regulations, etc., pp. 75–87, published by the War Office, August 31, 1815.

Rudyard Kipling made the expression even more popular in his poem, Tommy, published in 1892. Although Kipling himself did not serve in the British military, he was born in British India and as an adult worked there as a journalist. He was a keen observer of life in the British Empire and he wrote many stories about the common British soldier.

Tommy is hardly a happy, patriotic poem. It expresses Kipling’s deep bitterness of how the enlisted English soldier was treated. This is the last stanza of the poem:

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!

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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