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"Tommies" from the Royal Irish Rifles in the Battle of the Somme's trenches during the First World War.

Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) is slang for a common soldier in the British Army. It was already well established in the 19th century, but is particularly associated with World War I. 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 soldie. 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, especially with regard to paratroopers.


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".[1][2] Tommy, a diminutive of Thomas, has been a very popular English male name since Saint Thomas Becket was martyred in the 12th century.[citation needed]

Following the British defeat by the Boers at the Battle of Magersfontein in December 1899, Private Smith of the Black Watch wrote the following poem:[3]

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…

Robert Graves, in his autobiography Goodbye to All That (1929), states that: "The original 'Thomas Atkins' was a Royal Welch Fusilier in the American Revolutionary War". Graves, an officer in the Royal Welch in 1915, mentions this among other regimental history but does not cite his reference.[4]

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.

Richard Holmes, in the prologue to Tommy (2005), states that in:

1815 a War Office publication showing how the Soldier's Pocket Book should be filled out gave as its example one Private Thomas Atkins, No. 6 Troop, 6th Dragoons. Atkins became a sergeant in the 1837 version, and was now able to sign his name rather than merely make his mark."[5]

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.[6]

A common belief is that the name was chosen by the 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.

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, 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.[citation needed]

It is also said[by whom?] that the name "Tommy Atkins" was the example name on conscription sheets during the First World War, and that teenagers who were underage often signed up as "Tommy Atkins".

"Tommy cooker" was a nickname for a British soldier's portable stove, which was fuelled by solidified alcohol, making it smokeless but very inefficient.[7] It also a German nickname for the Sherman tank during the Second World War, because of its tendency to burst into flames if the petrol engine was hit.[8]

Today's soldier is nicknamed (within the Army) "Tom", and the British Army magazine Soldier features a cartoon strip character called Tom.[citation needed]

The last Tommy

On 25 July 2009, the death of the last "Tommy" from World War I, 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 World War I.

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. However, this met with opposition from the veterans themselves, few of whom wanted to be singled out in this way.[9] As of 28 June 2006, it was decided that a service at Westminster Abbey would be held upon the death of the last veteran.[10]

See also


  1. Laffin, John (2003) Tommy Atkins: The Story of the English Soldier, The History Press Ltd. pp. vii 0-75-093480-8 Quoted from Soldier Magazine, April 1949.
  2. Imperial War Museum. "Why were English soldiers called "Tommy Atkins" or "Tommy"?". Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  3. Pakenham, Thomas (1979). The Boer War. Jonathan Ball. p. 201. ISBN 0-86850-046-1. 
  4. Graves, Robert (1960) [1929]. "ch.11". Goodbye to All That (1957 revised edition ed.). London: Penguin Books. p. 85. ISBN 0-14-027420-0. 
  5. Holmes, Richard (2005). Tommy: The British soldier on the Western Front 1914–1918. Harper Perennial. pp. xv. ISBN 0-00-713752-4. 
  6. 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)
  7. Weeks, Alan (2009), Tea, Rum and Fags: Sustaining Tommy 1914-18 The History Press (Chapter 6)
  8. Fowler, T Robert (2009), Courage Rewarded: The Valour of Canadian Soldiers Under Fire 1900 To 2007, Trafford Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4251-7024-0 (pp. 143-144)
  9. Staff. Veteran state funeral 'difficult', BBC, 18 April 2006
  10. Michael Evans, Memorial service to be held after death of last Great War survivor, The Times 28 June 2006

External links

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