Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) is slang for a common soldier in the British Army. It was already well established in the 19th century, but is particularly associated with World War I. It can be used as a term of reference, or as a form of address. German soldiers would call out to "Tommy" across no man's land if they wished to speak to a British soldier. French and Commonwealth troops would also call British soldiers "Tommies". In more recent times, the term Tommy Atkins has been used less frequently, although the name "Tom" is occasionally still heard, especially with regard to paratroopers.
Tommy Atkins or Thomas Atkins has been used as a generic name for a common British soldier for many years. The origin of the term is a subject of debate, but it is known to have been used as early as 1743. A letter sent from Jamaica about a mutiny amongst the troops says "except for those from N. America ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly".
A common belief is that the name was chosen by the Duke of Wellington after having been inspired by the bravery of a soldier at the Battle of Boxtel in 1794 during the Flanders Campaign. After a fierce engagement, the Duke, in command of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, spotted the best man-at-arms in the regiment, Private Thomas Atkins, terribly wounded. The private said "It's all right, sir. It's all in a day's work" and died shortly after.
The Oxford English Dictionary states its origin as "arising out of the casual use of this name in the specimen forms given in the official regulations from 1815 onward"; the citation references Collection of Orders, Regulations, etc., pp. 75–87, published by the War Office, 31 August 1815. The name is used for an exemplary cavalry and infantry soldier; other names used included William Jones and John Thomas. Thomas Atkins continued to be used in the "Soldier's Account Book" until the early 20th century.
A further suggestion was given in 1900 by an army chaplain named Reverend E. J. Hardy. He wrote of an incident during the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. When most of the Europeans in Lucknow were fleeing to the British Residency for protection, a private of the 32nd Regiment of Foot remained on duty at an outpost. Despite the pleas of his comrades, he insisted that he must remain at his post. He was killed at his post, and the Reverend Hardy wrote that "His name happened to be Tommy Atkins and so, throughout the Mutiny Campaign, when a daring deed was done, the doer was said to be 'a regular Tommy Atkins'".
Following the British defeat by the Boers at the Battle of Magersfontein in December 1899, Private Smith of the Black Watch wrote the following poem:
Alongside his passionate antipathy towards Germany, Kipling was privately deeply critical of how the war was fought by the British Army as opposed to the war itself, which he ardently supported, complaining as early as October 1914 that Germany should have been defeated by now, and something must be wrong with the British Army. Kipling, who was shocked by the heavy losses that the BEF had taken by the autumn of 1914 blamed the entire pre-war generation of British politicians, who he argued had failed to learn the lessons of the Boer War and as a result, thousands of British soldiers were now paying with their lives for their failure in the fields of France and Belgium.
Kipling had scorn for those men who shirked duty in the First World War. In "The New Army in Training"[ (1915), Kipling concluded the piece by saying:"This much we can realise, even though we are so close to it, the old safe instinct saves us from triumph and exultation. But what will be the position in years to come of the young man who has deliberately elected to outcaste himself from this all-embracing brotherhood? What of his family, and, above all, what of his descendants, when the books have been closed and the last balance struck of sacrifice and sorrow in every hamlet, village, parish, suburb, city, shire, district, province, and Dominion throughout the Empire?"
After his son's death, Kipling wrote, "If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied." It is speculated that these words may reveal his feelings of guilt at his role in getting John a commission in the Irish Guards. Others such as the English professor Tracey Bilsing contend that the line is referring to Kipling's disgust that British leaders failed to learn the lessons of the Boer War, and were not prepared for the struggle with Germany in 1914 with the "lie" of the "fathers" being that the British Army was prepared for any war before 1914 when it was not.
I had wondered the same thing from my studies..I had read a book called ""The Defense of Duffer's Drift" It was a training aid written by the British in 1905. The experiences of the British during the Boer war was later shown to parallel the experience in WWI. The British knew what to expect but didn't prepare. I do know that the time was vary languid for the empire. They did the same thing they did before because is what they knew. Sometimes the old ways are not the best. I am sure that the mid range officers tried to impart the lessons of the war to the general staff, but the general staff had an institutional drift and inertia all its own. It was like drinking the kool-aid.
I also know that the WWI was sudden, it didn't take long from the kook that shot the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo
I do know that the professionalism of the average British soldier was second to none. The empire may not be no more but the average "Tommie" still defend the ramparts as has his ancestors from the colonial period to the Zulu wars to the cold war and to present.