“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 andhere. 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!