Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) is slang for a common soldier in the British Army. It was certainly well established during the nineteenth century, but is particularly associated with the First World War. It can be used as a term of reference, or as a form of address. 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". In more recent times, the term Tommy Atkins has been used less frequently, although the name "Tom" is occasionally still heard; private soldiers in the British Army's Parachute Regiment are still referred to as "Toms".
Tommy Atkins or Thomas Atkins has been used as a generic name for a common British soldier for many years. The origin of the term is a subject of 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 ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly".
A common belief is that the name was chosen by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington after having been inspired by the bravery of a soldier at the Battle of Boxtel in 1794 during the Flanders Campaign. 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. According to the Imperial War Museum, this theory has Wellington choosing the name in 1843.
According to J. H. Leslie, writing in Notes and Queries in 1912, "Tommy Atkins" was chosen as a generic name by the War Office in 1815, in every sample infantry form in the Soldiers Account Book, signing with a mark. The Cavalry form had Trumpeter William Jones and Sergeant John Thomas, though they did not use a mark. Leslie observes the same name in the 1837 King's Regulations, pages 204 and 210, and later editions. Leslie comments that this disproves the anecdote about the Duke of Wellington selecting the name in 1843.
Richard Holmes, in the prologue to his 2005 book, Tommy, states that:
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, 31 August 1815. The name is used for an exemplary cavalry and infantry soldier; other names used included William Jones and John Thomas. Thomas Atkins continued to be used in the Soldier's Account Book until the early 20th century.
A further 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, which were dedicated "To T.A.") in 1892. In reply, William McGonagall wrote "Lines in Praise of Tommy Atkins" in 1898, which was an attack on what McGonagall saw as the disparaging portrayal of Tommy in Kipling's poem.
In 1893, for the musical play A Gaiety Girl, Henry Hamilton (lyrics) and Samuel Potter (music) wrote the song Private Tommy Atkins for the baritone C. Hayden Coffin. It was immediately published by Willcocks & Co. Ltd. in London and published by T. B. Harms & Co. in New York the next year. The song was also reintroduced into later performances of San Toy for Hayden Coffin. He recalled singing it on Ladysmith Night (1 March 1900) where "the audience were roused to such a pitch of enthusiasm, that they rose to their feet, and commenced to shower money on to the stage".
Such was the day for our regiment
Dread the revenge we will take.
Dearly we paid for the blunder
A drawing-room General's mistake.
Why weren't we told of the trenches?
Why weren't we told of the wire?
Why were we marched up in column,
May Tommy Atkins enquire…
Present day English soldiers are often referred to as 'Toms' or just 'Tom' (the Scots equivalent being 'Jock'). Outside the services soldiers are generally known as 'Squaddies' by the British popular press. The British Army magazine Soldier has a regular cartoon strip, 'Tom', featuring the everyday life of a British soldier.
Junior officers in the army are generally known as 'Ruperts' by the other ranks. This nickname is believed to be derived from the children's comic book character Rupert Bear who epitomises traditional public school values (see "Inside the British Army" by Antony Beevor ISBN 9780552138185)
The term 'Pongo' or 'Perce' is often used by Sailors and Royal Marines to refer to soldiers. It is considered complimentary.
The last Tommy
On 25 July 2009, the death of the last "Tommy" from the First World War, Harry Patch (at 111 the oldest man in the United Kingdom and also in Europe), left Claude Choules as the last serviceman of the British forces in the war.
There was a growing opinion that the passing of the last of them should be marked in an appropriate manner. This was the subject of a cross-party campaign led by the politician Iain Duncan Smith. It was originally proposed that the last veteran to die should be given a state funeral. This met with opposition from the veterans themselves, few of whom wanted to be singled out in this way. As of 28 June 2006, it was decided that a service at Westminster Abbey would be held upon the death of the last veteran. However, the funeral of Harry Patch took place at Wells Cathedral, close to his home.
- Laffin, John (2003). Tommy Atkins: The Story of the English Soldier, The History Press Ltd. p. vii. ISBN 0-75-093480-8. Quoted from Soldier Magazine, April 1949.
- Imperial War Museum. "Why were English soldiers called 'Tommy Atkins' or 'Tommy'?". archive.iwm.org.uk. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
- Johnson, Ben. "The British Tommy, Tommy Atkins", Historic UK
- J. H. Leslie (24 February 1912). "Thomas Atkins". Notes and Queries: 146.
- Richard Holmes (2005). Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914–1918. Harper Perennial. pp. xv. ISBN 0-00-713752-4.
- Edward Fraser and John Gibbons (1925) Soldier and sailor words and phrases; including slang of the trenches and the air force; British and American war-words and service terms and expressions in every-day use; nicknames, sobriquets, and titles of regiments, with their origins; the battle-honours of the Great War awarded to the British Army Routledge, London (p. 287)
- "New Military Song". Volunteer Service Gazette. 4 November 1893. P. 11. Retrieved 20 March 2018 – via British Newspaper Archive.
- Digital Collections, The New York Public Library. "(notated music) Private Tommy Atkins, (1894 - 1894)". The New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundation. Retrieved April 8, 2018.
- "Mr Hayden-Coffin interviewed". The Bristol Magpie. 8 March 1906. P. 6. Retrieved 8 April 2018 – via British Newspaper Archive.
- Pakenham, Thomas (1979). The Boer War. Jonathan Ball. p. 201. ISBN 0-86850-046-1.
- Weeks, Alan (2009), Tea, Rum and Fags: Sustaining Tommy 1914–18, The History Press (Chapter 6)
- "British first world war veteran Harry Patch dies at 111". The Guardian. Guardian News & Media (GNM). 25 July 2009. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
- Staff. Veteran state funeral 'difficult', BBC, 18 April 2006
- Michael Evans, Memorial service to be held after death of last Great War survivor, The Times 28 June 2006
- "Last Post salute for WWI veteran". BBC News. BBC. 6 August 2009. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
- Tommy Atkins Society British Second World War Reenactment Society in the UK, and winner of the Best Display Award at the Victory Show 2007 sponsored by the Armchair General Magazine
- "The last time I saw Tommy", illustrated poem by Joshua Quagmire
- The Last Tommy—a campaign to mark the passing of the last First World War Tommy with a state funeral.
- "Why were English soldiers called 'Tommy Atkins' or 'Tommy'?". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 4 April 2013.