Who was Tommy Atkin’s?

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a ...

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Tommy Atkins” was a general name given to the British soldier and first appeared in 1815 when “Thomas Atkins” was used as a representative name on specimen forms of the “Soldiers Book” which was, to all intents and purposes, his record file.

The minimum height for infantrymen was 5 feet 3 inches and 5 feet 5 inches for the cavalrymen. The average “Tommy” was slightly built and at best, semiliterate, which would probably account for the few letters and diaries which exist today to tell us about his life at this time.

Unlike his Boer counterpart, “Tommy” joined the army at a young age and knew little of life outside the regiment. On enlisting he swore allegiance to Her Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria by taking the “Queen’s Shilling”, a shiny new coin which sealed the contract for the next six years. Thereafter he was owned, body and soul, by the military establishment and was subject to its rules and regulations some of which were barbaric. to say the least. Lord Wolseley called the British Soldier “the worst paid labourer in England”. His military training was hard and laborious and he was soon turned into an “unthinking” machine. The British military ruled by fear and this worked well in as far as “Tommy” never considered retreat or surrender. He was disciplined to follow orders without question.

He existed on a diet of meat and potatoes and occasionally vegetables and this was washed down with the inevitable mug of “char” and when he could afford it, a pint of beer. His duties were to dig trenches, build sangars, mount piquet duty and fight to the death when told to. Living conditions were far from comfortable in the hot African sun and there was a lack of fresh water despite the often heavy rainfall. To add to his discomfit he was often confronted with scorpions, snakes and spiders. Despite all this he was the most courageous soldier as can be substantiated by the many awards for gallantry that he received during the Natal campaign, the highest of which was the Victoria Cross.

His day started at about 3.30 am. By 4 he was on parade with bare feet, a cleaned rifle, and his emergency rations of tinned meat or “bully” and biscuits at the ready. Breakfast was at 6 o’clock consisting of bread and jam followed by a cup of tea affectionately called “gunfire”. An occasional tot of rum was issued to the men and for those who were literate, the cost of posting a letter to England at this time was twopence.

Christmas food for “Tommy” Turkey or Chicken with Potatoes and Onions and this was followed by a pint of beer and finished off with a small piece of cake. Various forms of recreation were enjoyed, race-running, tug o war etc. The British soldiers besieged in Ladysmith were not as lucky and had to survive on quarter rations of biscuits and horsemeat, washed down with polluted water from the Klip River.


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