Why we say: ‘Tommy’

The word ‘Tommy’ will forever be associated with British soldiers serving in the trenches of World War I.

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And not just in Britain: French troops routinely used it as a term of reference for their allies, while German infantrymen were known to shout it out across no man’s land when attempting to communicate with British trenches.

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The term is much older than the global conflict of 1914-18. ‘Tommy’ has probably been used for at least 200 years, with the first mention believed to have been in 1794, on the recommendation of the Duke of Wellington. It is said that Wellington hailed one of his troops, a Thomas Atkins, as an ideal example of a British soldier.

Atkins, the legend states, was wounded, but told his commander, “It’s all right, sir. It’s all in a day’s work.” He then died shortly after. Tommy Atkins became the subject of a poem by Rudyard Kipling 100 years later. In the poem, Kipling criticised the treatment of soldiers by the people back home, unaware of the horrors of war.

So why is the name so synonymous with World War I? The answer probably lies within the pages of a pocket ledger that the military authorities produced for all troops to carry.

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When issuing the booklet, the War Office enclosed a guidance sheet, which included example entries. ‘Thomas Atkins’ was the specimen soldier’s name, and so the ledger quickly became known as the ‘Tommy Booklet’ and its holder as ‘Tommy’.