Tommy, Tommy Atkins

The great joy of running this website is that now and again you discover a term that simultaneously connects with great historical figures and events and reveals how language, the most human of inventions, works. The British slang term for a soldier, Tommy, is just such a word. It is short for Tommy Atkins, and the word’s history, both purported and real, pulls in both the great, i.e., the Duke of Wellington, and the small, i.e., an example of how to fill out a government form correctly.

As mentioned, Tommy is slang for a British private soldier. Today, the word is chiefly associated with those who fought in the First World War, but its origins are at least a hundred years older, in the Napoleonic wars. Today it’s primarily found in British usage, but North Americans may be familiar with Tommy from movies about the two World Wars and from the Kipling poem. And the oldest among us will remember its use during the first half of the twentieth century, when the word had some currency on this side of the pond.

Who is the Tommy Atkins who lent his name as a sobriquet for the British soldier? Most likely there is no real person behind the term’s use. While there have been a number of British soldiers with that name over the centuries, the name was probably picked because its only remarkable feature is its lack of remarkability, like John Smith. The first documented use of the term is in the form Thomas Atkins. And not only is it in that form, it is quite literally on a form, the 1815 Collection of Orders, Regulations, &c., a book that was issued to every British soldier and that contained a record of his pay and allowances. Like all good bureaucratic documents, that book provides an example of how to properly fill out a form for a soldier’s pay:

Description, Service, &c. of Thomas Atkins, Private, No. 6 Troop, 6th Regt. of Dragoons. Where Born… Parish of Odiham, Hants. When ditto… 1st January 1784. [...] Bounty, £7, 7s. Received, Thomas Atkins, his x mark.

The beauty of this specific use is that it would be seen by thousands of officers and soldiers all across the British Empire, permanently cementing the name’s use as a soldier’s sobriquet. In fact, this book was so closely associated with the name that soldiers took to calling the book itself The Tommy Atkins. We tend to look to Shakespeare and great literary works for linguistic innovation, but more often it’s things like humble bureaucratic documents, texts that we see on a daily basis but don’t take conscious note of, that are more powerful.

It is likely that by the time this document was issued in 1815 Thomas Atkins was already a generic slang term for a soldier and it’s appearance in that document is an attestation, rather than a coinage. One clue to this is that soldiers and sailors were already calling bread tommy, often soft tommy, white tommy, or brown tommy to differentiate various types. Grose’s 1796 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue has this:

TOMMY. Soft Tommy, or white tommy; bread is so called by sailors, to distinguish it from biscuit.

The 1811 revision of Grose’s dictionary, known as the Lexicon Balatronicum, adds to the above:

Brown Tommy; ammunition bread for soldiers; or brown bread given to convicts at the hulks.

While these citations aren’t in the same sense as the name for a soldier, they show the name Tommy was in slang use by British soldiers, and it’s not hard to imagine a jump from the bread to the person who ate it.

By 1850 Thomas Atkins had been familiarized to Tommy Atkins, and by 1881 it had become simply Tommy.

There is a popular story that the name was coined by the Duke of Wellington in honor of a soldier who had died bravely at the Battle of Boxtel in 1794, Wellington’s first major battle. The story says that the war office consulted the duke on an appropriate name for a soldier to use in its 1815 pay book and that Wellington recalled the battle where Atkins, as he lay dying, told the young duke-to-be that the multiple wounds he had received were “all a day’s work.” Wellington allegedly chose the name to honor the brave lad. But the biographical details in the pay book don’t match those of the alleged namesake, and most tellingly, it is unlikely that the War Office would have bothered Wellington with such bureaucratic minutiae in 1815, given that the duke was busy with other things at the time, such minor concerns as the Battle of Waterloo and exiling Napoleon to St. Helena.

If this tale has no evidence behind it, what evidence would it take to convince us that it were true? Well, if someone produced a draft manuscript of the 1815 pay book with Wellington’s emendation or a letter from the Duke instructing the change be made, that would clinch it. Failing that, an after-the-fact letter or memoir of Wellington’s telling the story of his directing the change would be almost as good. A documented, second-hand account by someone who knew Wellington would be strong evidence, but not in-and-of-itself convincing. Even evidence from muster rolls that a soldier named Thomas Atkins of the 33rd Regiment of Foot (Wellington’s regiment) died at Boxtel would be something. But we have none of these or anything like them.

Furthermore, the Wellington story doesn’t appear until many decades after the fact—the earliest version I know of that connects Wellington to Tommy Atkins only dates to 1908, and that one that is demonstrably false because it gives the date of Wellington’s coinage as 1843. I have found no versions of the tale, even those told by professional historians, that reference any source material that would support the tale as being true. The tale is simply repeated and everyone, even historians who should know better, take that repetition as evidence. If the Iron Duke ever related the Atkins story to someone, we have no record of him doing so. And if he did, the actual incident may well have involved a soldier with a different name that Wellington conflated with the then-current slang name Thomas Atkins; such conflation is a very common form of memory error. But more likely this is another example of a famous name over time becoming associated with a myth. We have a tendency to ascribe events and phenomenon to famous people.

There are also several claimed citations of Tommy Atkins from the eighteenth century, which if true would put the kibosh on the Wellington story, but these claims also appear to be false. One is allegedly from a 1743 letter that was quoted in the Spectator magazine in 1938, but no one has been able to find the original. A second, even sketchier, account has Atkins captured by the Americans at Yorktown in 1781; again, no supporting evidence has been adduced.

Perhaps it is fitting that the archetype of the British soldier be named for someone who exists only in myth. Better that than one that can be labeled as false or incorrect.


Sources:

Carter, Philip. “Atkins, Thomas (d. 1794),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online ed, May 2006.

Clode, Charles M. The Military Forces of the Crown: Their Administration and Government, vol 1 of 2. London: John Murray, 1869. 59

Laffin, John. Tommy Atkins: The Story of the English Soldier. London: Cassell, 1966. xi–xiii.

“Notices to Correspondents.” Notes and Queries. 25 April 1885. 340.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, second edition, 1989, s. v. Tommy, n.1.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, third edition, June 2014, s. v. Thomas Atkins, n.; Tommy Atkins, n.

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