Tommy

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“I thank God that I served as a sergeant and army  chaplain in the First World War. How much I learned about the human  heart during this time, how much experience I gained, what grace I  received.”

                                                                      Pope John XXIII

 

 

 

The seventh in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.   The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here,  here and here.  Throughout his life Kipling constantly returned to one theme in his poetry and prose:  the common British soldier.  Kipling did not romanticize them, being far too aware that they were merely fallible humans like the rest of us, and often the products of the school of hard knocks with many rough edges about them.  However, he also recognized their virtues:  courage, endurance, good humor and a willingness to place their lives at jeopardy for the rest of us.  He never forgot the men who lived at the sharp end of the stick and who often got the short end of the stick from the society they protected.    His poem Tommy  brilliantly encapsulates this wretched ingratitude:

 

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!

Tommy is a common nickname for British soldiers.  It is short for Thomas Atkins, a group name for British soldiers since at least 1743.  Atkins means “little son of red earth” and the nickname was probably a reference to the red coats of the British soldiers. 

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.

The poem opens with an event all too common for soldiers in every age:  going into a bar and finding out that they do not serve servicemen.  Such scenes have not been uncommon in this country, although rarer now than they used to be.  The embarrassed soldier leaves the pub and ruefully contrasts his treatment now, when he is not needed, to the attitude of the public when it comes time for him to risk his life for them.

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.

Now that he is thinking about it, it is easy for Tommy to recall similar examples of ill-treatment from those he is paid to protect.

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.

Soldiers as either completely worthless in the eyes of the public or shining heroes, rather than the ordinary men they are who are asked to perform extraordinary and dangerous tasks.  This couplet I have always thought is the finest, and bitterest, ever written by Kipling:

 “Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;”

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.

Tommy tells the simple truth that the British soldiers are neither heroes nor villians, but ordinary men doing a very tough and dirty job.

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!

The  “Widow’s Uniform” is a reference to Queen Victoria, the widow of Windsor, and the uniform her soldiers wore. Conditions for British soldiers did improve during Kipling’s lifetime, and he helped play a role in accomplishing that, although a larger factor was World War I when such a huge portion of the British male population was part of the Army.  In our day the military is once again small and professional as it was in Kipling’s time.  Whenever that occurs in a society there is a risk of estrangement between civilians and those who keep the civilians safe.  May Kipling’s poem always remind us to remember the men and women inside the uniforms who allow us to live in liberty and peace, and to treat them as we would wish to be treated.

 


12 Responses to Tommy

  • “Single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints.”

    Check out Kipling’s eclipse of moral reason.

    “So we loosed a bloomin’ volley,
    An’ we made the beggars cut,
    An’ when our pouch was emptied out.
    We used the bloomin’ butt,
    Ho! My!
    Don’t yer come anigh,
    When Tommy is a playin’ with the baynit an’ the butt.”
    “The Taking of Lungtingpen” — Barrack Room Ballad.

    It’s better today than when they spat on, and threw feces at, Vietnam War soldiers.

    The same ilk that did that are now “occupying” Wall Street.

  • T Shaw

    Help me out.

    The stanza is a narrative description.

    They were in fight with an enemy. For lack of other data in your selection we must assume in accord with the JWD and law of warfare.
    The ran out of bullets
    They to used the Bayonet and Rifle Butt.

    Kipling offers practical advice that to potential enemies that will lose even if it gets down to ‘baynit an’ the butt.”

    Where is the moral reasoning, good bad or indifferent.

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

  • Don

    One of my favorites. It seemed to hit a cord in the early 70’.

    Roger Moore gave a impromptu presentation from memory. Missing a few lines but he catches the emotion better than most.

    <Tommy Atkins>

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

  • ” It seemed to hit a cord in the early 70’.”

    Didn’t it though Hank. I arrive at the U of I in the Fall of 1975. The Armory where I took my ROTC courses had been firebombed before I got there. In the Spring of 1975 the student government held a party to celebrate the fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia to the Communists. Yeah, Tommy fit right in with that milleau.

  • The point: there is no moral reason. War is all hell. There is no way to kill gently or to destroy honorably.

    The story is about Brit regulars taking a Burmese rebel ville after a forced march. Imagine the troops are getting “payback” for ambushes and sentry throat cuttings. Assume the Brits are armed with modern (probably rolling block, single-shot Martini-Henry) weapons. The Burmese have flint locks and edged weapons, maybe a muzzle-loading cannon. The Brits ran out of ammunition and were ordered forward with the bayonet, which employed by organized, trained men is truly fearsome.

    Kipling expresses the ardor and excitement of troops in a rare victorious action, I think.

  • The quote from Pope John XXIII on his learning about the human heart brought me to think about how well Rudyard Kipling did, too. Each revealing the wisdom of the other. The Pope defining the essence of Kipling’s skill, Kipling writing the voice of the Pope’s understanding knowledge. Great minds thinking alike.

    ‘Tommy’ reminds me of a 1971 winter evening scene as I opened the door to leave Goodell Library at U of M to find a passing war protest march proceeding to the nearby Student Union heckling me as misplaced (a Pass/Fail system had been instituted to accomodate anti-war things). Didn’t know what to think, except that I had to get to my job, my brother was on USS Enterprise, and during recent holidays the sad development of a social divide between college and military draft kids I knew of from high school.

    In 2011, I’m glad I went to work that night rather than follow them into the unknown. 40 years from now how will these occupiers have formed their world? Cannot imagine – oh – I guess a little. Outside the grocery store, someone with a handful of petitions was asking for signatures for a ‘dignity law’. What? Translated to passing assisted suicide for the elderly. Wasn’t hungry – but bought cookies and chips.

  • Article 1, Section 8, the Constitution.

  • I saw this silly musical when I was much younger and loved old musicals — this number at the end shocked me. I didn’t know then about the pacifism that followed WWI, in part because of how badly the war was managed and the bitterness of so many people over the deaths of their sons and brothers and fathers. I can’t imagine a movie having a number like this in it today — perhaps a very cynical one, but not one like this.

    http://www.veoh.com/watch/v833469RtpFCT4R?h1=remember+my+forgotten+man

  • I like Kipling, and I’ve enjoyed the articles about him on this site. But for all the merit in what he’s saying in this poem, don’t you ever get the feeling that he’s pulling your leg? It’s just too much pub song and too little poem. Part of that is that he writes with ease – the same thing that Mozart does, where he makes it look like child’s play. I don’t know.

  • People did sing the “Barracks Room Ballads”; there were a number of popular musical settings for each of the big ones, and people are still setting them to music today.

    You sound like the kind of person who looks for post-postmodern irony while listening to dance songs on a country music station.

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