The Minute Book
Wednesday, 21 October 2015

"Tommy Atkins"
Topic: British Army

"Tommy Atkins"

The best and strongest argument against "Tommy Atkins" is that, for some reason, from Commander-in-Chief to private, nobody likes the name.

Military News, The Daily Mail and Empire, Toronto, Ontario, 25 September 1897
(From the Broad Arrow)

Many people share Lord Wolseley's opinion that it is a piece of impertinence to call the private soldier "Tommy Atkins." It is a mistake to suppose that it is equally applied to the non-commissioned officer, rather it is a distinguishing mark between the two. Yet that opinion is far from universal, for when the term is used it is rarely, if ever, in an offensive sense. It runs through Barrack Room Ballads and in this month's issue of the United Service Magazine five different writers on military subjects employ the alleged opprobrious appellation, viz., a military critic, a civilian, an old colonel of the Sutlej days, and two army chaplains. It cannot therefore be supposed for one instant that the five are guilty of intentional insult. In what then does the offence consist? We have in the sister service the "Jack Tar," shortened to "Jack" for daily use, and the song says, "They all love Jack." The corresponding name for the soldier—taking Thomas as the starting point—would be "Tom Pipe-clay," but there is no rule in this manner of nicknames. They crop up like mushrooms without ever having been sown, although "Tommy" is clearly the outcome of the Thomas Atkins of officialdom, the invention of the War Office itself. The public made it "Tommy," not "Tom"; it is conceivable they might have made the "John" of the navy into "Jacky," but "Jack," being more euphonious, was adopted. If we have "Blue Jackets" we should also have "Red Coats" and "Blue Coats," but we have not got beyond "Tommies." At the same time there is nothing sacred about the name; apparently it is out of fashion and opposed to the conspicuous refinement of the fast-vanishing days of the nineteenth century, and therefore the sooner it is dropped the better. But who can say what will follow? Not a reversion, it is to be hoped, to "sodger," which was current before the more familiar and friendly "Tommy" came into general use. Once upon a time it used to be "Gentlemen of the First Life Guards, draw your swords," Are we coming to that form of command once more? Perhaps the phonetic " ‘Tshun" may be replaced by "Soldiers of the First Battalion, the Seaforth Highlanders, Ross-shire Buffs, the Duke of Albany's, have the kindness to come to attention." The best and strongest argument against "Tommy Atkins" is that, for some reason, from Commander-in-Chief to private, nobody likes the name. It is only popular outside the service; whilst in the navy "Jack" is popular throughout, afloat and ashore, with the poet and the writer of prose, and with the public generally. Once there is a suspicion that "tommy" is an intentionally uncomplimentary mode of referring to our soldiers, soldiers, at all events, should drop it.

[In a brief piece on sailors' nicknames for naval things, in the same issue of this paper, it is noted that: "Jack Tar" is a creation of the landsman, and is never used in the naval service.]

elipsis graphic

Military News, The Daily Mail and Empire, Toronto, Ontario, 25 September 1897

Military Editor, Mail and Empire:

Sir,— In your column today you reproduce an article from the Broad Arrow advising all, particularly soldiers, to drop the name "Tommy Atkins," as applied to British infantry men. If the origin of the name was as it is given by a writer in the Navy and Army Illustrated of September 3rd in an article on "Zeal in the Army," then it is a name to be proud of. The following extract may interest your readers:—

"In 1857, when the Sepoys at Lucknow mutinied, some Europeans fled to the Residency, pursued by the rebels. On their way they encountered a private of the 32nd (now 1st Batt., Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry), on sentry duty at an outpost, and told him to fly. He stoutly refused to quit his post until properly relieved. Before that time he was numbered among those who fell on that memorable day. That gallant man's name was Thomas Atkins. All through the terrible mutiny if at any time a man especially distinguished himself by any deed of bravery his comrades used to call him "a regular Tommy Atkins,"

and it was thus the name of the hero was handed down to posterity.

Yours, etc., Veteran

Peterborough, Sept. 18.

The Senior Subaltern


Posted by regimentalrogue at 12:01 AM EDT

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