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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Saturday, 25 April 2015

Trying to define 'Tommy'


While copy-proofing the essays for the upcoming volumes of Languages and the First World War I have become very aware of the designation ‘Tommy’. Accordingly I checked on the OED definition – ‘(A generic name for) a British private soldier; British private soldiers collectively’ – which states clearly, and twice, that this is specifically referring to British private soldiers. Officers could not then be called ‘tommies’, nor NCOs I suppose, and surely not privates in the armies of other nations?

Krista Cowman’s essay for LFWW: Communicating in a Transnational War includes the following: 

‘a letter written soon after his arrival in France in the spring of 1915 by Captain Lionel William Crouch described his amusement at ‘watching a group of our chaps surrounding a French Tommy who was endeavouring to teach them French.’ [Crouch, L. W. 1917. Duty and service: letters from the front by Captain Lionel William Crouch.]


The same day I was reading this I did a quick search for Tommy in the newspaper archive and found several thought-provoking stories.

In The Liverpool Daily Post 26 July 1916 there was a report on the Manx Legislative Council and the House of Keys:

‘Yesterday, in connection with the provision for relieving soldiers estates from duty, the Attorney-General strongly protested against soldiers being popularly called “Tommies.” The term, he said, was ridiculous and offensive, and would not be allowed in any other country.’


There is a remote possibility that the term was associated in older people’s minds at that time with older meanings of ‘tommy’, such as those given in J C Hotten’s Dictionary of Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words (1865), in which the meanings given are ‘bread, generally a penny roll’, and ‘a truck, barter, the exchange of labour for goods, not money.’ The association of the conscripted soldiers with a trade or a consumer perishable might have stuck in some people’s throats.

Others, veterans included, disliked the term. In Trench Talk we quoted ‘An Ensign of 1848’ in The Times 23 October 1914 who wrote to the editor thus: 

‘May I … suggest that the time has now come … to put a period to the use of the nickname “Tommies”? … To hear these British soldiers referred to in deprecatory patronage as “Tommies” by those who stay at home … is unseemly and exasperating.’


Other non-British Tommies appear in The Rochdale Observer 20 May 1916, which has ‘a fat French Tommy’, while the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough 17 December 1915 has ‘the Italian “Tommy”’.

An article in The War Budget 24 February 1916 raises the class basis of the designation: ‘Tommy Atkins enters the “upper” class’. This article, about disabled soldiers retraining at Cordwainers College, is naturally a pun, Cordwainers College then as now giving training in shoe design and manufacture, but to be a pun it has to also carry the idea of the upper class, and a Tommy entering it – from outside.

A few weeks later the same publication, while enjoying a bit of banter, unwittingly opened up the question of the unity of the Union by redesignating some Scottish soldiers with a new version of the name with the headline 

‘Tammas McAtkins’s water ration’

When the Americans entered the war a correspondent for the Daily Chronicle, quoted in the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury 3 July 1917, wrote about the need for ‘a nickname for the American troops in the same way as the English are called “Tommies” and the French “Poilus”’. No doubt this was much to do with the age-old muddle between English and British. But the notably observant Arthur Guy Empey in Over the Top (1917) gives a glossary ('Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches') which includes 'Tommy' as 'the name England gives to an English soldier, even if his name is Willie Jones'. 'Willie Jones' has a distinctly Welsh feel about it; is Empey highlighting the muddle? And did Empey's dictionary apply to himself, an American volunteer? Of course Scottish soldiers were traditionally ‘Jock’, and Welsh ones sometimes ‘Taff’; Partridge gives the term ‘The Micks’ for the Irish Guards. Partridge also specifies that ‘Tommy’ was specifically for non-colonial troops (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English).

 So Tommy was British, and English, (and French and Italian and possibly Serbian, Russian, Portuguese, etc), unless known to be not English, in which case what might the Welsh and Irish versions of Tammas McAtkins have been? To stretch the mind further, six months after the Armistice, The Daily Mirror described the political instability in Germany with some antipathy towards ‘Prussian officers’ lording it over ‘German Tommies’. 

Addenda:
1. Quote from Capt Keith Duce, recorded c 1975 (archive material held by IWM); a raid was carried out by 'a couple of officers, some NCOs and the rest were ordinary Tommies who went over'.

 

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