With research provided by the Surrey Infantry Museum
The name “Tommy Atkins” has been widely used to represent the regular British soldier of the Great War. There are various theories about the origin of this particular term – the Duke of Wellington is often credited with choosing the name – but it certainly dates as far back as 1815, when it was used by the War Office in its “Collection of Orders, Regulations etc.”
The Imperial War Museum lists no less than 76 servicemen called Tommy Atkins and at least three served in the Surrey regiments. Thomas Ernest Atkins served with the 8th and 10th Battalions The Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment. Another Thomas Ernest Atkins claimed to be 19 when he enlisted in the 13th Battalion East Surrey Regiment on 13th July 1915 at Wandsworth. He served with “C” Company 13th Battalion for 179 days until he was discharged aged 16 years and 4 months on 7th January 1916 for misstating his age. (Interestingly, it is believed 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 using this alias. However the birth of a Thomas Ernest Atkins was registered in Wandsworth between October and December 1899 so perhaps this young man lied solely about his age).
We know more about the third Thomas Atkins, who lived in Chertsey. Before enlisting, he was a farm labourer living at 15 Mead Lane. He joined the army under the Derby Scheme and went to the front in November 1916. The Surrey Advertiser reported on 13th October 1917 that he had died of wounds received on 30th September (although his Commonwealth War Graves Commission record says that he died on 26th September). The report states that his wife was living at Keeper’s Cottage, Botleys and that he had worked for Mr. H. Gosling JP of Botleys, Chertsey. He was buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium.
Click here to read more about Thomas Atkins of Chertsey in Graham Webster’s piece on the War Memorial at Holy Trinity Church, Lyne.
The eternal plight of the British Tommy Atkins was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “Tommy”, included in his collection “Barrack-Room Ballads” of 1892:-
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!