The Origins of the British ‘Tommy’
The name Tommy or Tommy Atkins has long been used as a generic nickname for the British Soldier for hundreds of years. There are many opinions as to where/how/why this name came about, my favourite is the one that suggests it was chosen by the Duke of Wellington…
The Duke was standing on a path which ran around the ramparts of Walmer Castle on a sunny summers day in July 1843. Near him, standing to attention, was a young Staff Officer of the Adjutant-General’s Department. He had just asked a question on a small matter of detail which the War Office thought should, as a courtesy, be referred to the Commander of the Forces. A name typical of the British private soldier was required, for use on the model sheet of the soldiers’ accounts and to show them where to sign.
The Duke stood gazing out to sea while the young officer waited, searching in a long memory stored with recollections for a man who typified the character of Britain’s soldiers. He thought back to his first campaign in the Low Countries where he had fought his first action with his old Regiment, the 33rd Foot.
When the battle was over and won, Wellesly rode back to where little groups of wounded men were lying on the ground. At the place where the right of the line had been lay the right-hand man of the Grenadier Company, Thomas Atkins. He stood six foot three in his stockinged feet, he had served for twenty years, he could neither read or write and he was the best man at arms in the Regiment. One of the bandsmen had bound up his head where a sabre had slashed it, he had a bayonet wound in the chest, and a bullet through the lungs. He had begged the bearers not to move him, but to let him die in peace. Wellesly looked down on him and the man must have seen his concern. ‘It’s all right, Sir’ he gasped. ‘It’s all in the day’s work.’ They were his last words.
The Old Duke turned to the the waiting staff officer. ‘Thomas Atkins,’ he said.