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Reinventing Tommy Atkins: How the British Soldier Went From Scoundrel to Hero

John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.

"Tommies" from the Royal Irish Rifles in the Battle of the Somme's trenches during the First World War.

"Tommies" from the Royal Irish Rifles in the Battle of the Somme's trenches during the First World War.

A Shifting Image

In Britain at the turn of the 20th century, the image of the soldier was suitable for manipulation on political grounds. The army, as an important institution of British life, was also seen as a possible remedy for some of society’s problems. Increasingly during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the role of the army was key to preserving and expanding the Empire which attracted unprecedented public interest in the national press. War, while a ‘far-away noise’, aroused more interest and popular appeal than ever before over a comparable period of time.[1]

Since the Crimean War, soldiers’ letters were being printed and reprinted in The Times[2] and other regional papers to bring the public a feel of the happenings on campaign and an air of authenticity. Victories were celebrated, and reverses, even the minor ones, were interpreted as catastrophic defeats.[3] As a result of some of these reports from the Crimean War, the apparent need for reform of the army was debated and discussed with great interest and enthusiasm in the press of the period.

“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.”

— Rudyard Kipling, “Tommy”, Barrack Room Ballads (1892)

The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb. Campbell's 93rd Highlanders repel the Russian cavalry.

The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb. Campbell's 93rd Highlanders repel the Russian cavalry.

The aim of this article is to highlight the reform of the image of the soldier army, in the context of the greater reforms of the late nineteenth century, and how this image proved problematic, even as it was manipulated to reflect the political and financial objectives of the reformers. It will be argued here that during this period of reforms to the army, the public image and perception of the soldier were likewise changing. Increasingly, army matters and representations of soldiers were becoming more accessible to a public keen to be in touch with the army and soldiering.

The Duke of Wellington was famous for his care and compassion towards his men, but stern discipline as well. He famously called the ordinary soldier "the scum of the earth".

The Duke of Wellington was famous for his care and compassion towards his men, but stern discipline as well. He famously called the ordinary soldier "the scum of the earth".

Soldiers, Not Plaster Saints

Following the Crimean War, evidence suggests that attitudes toward the army were changing. The war had attracted widespread popular support and the valour and heroism of the troops, in contrast to the bungling of the generals, was well reported and had been widely admired. The return to peace, although temporary with the wars in India close at hand, would test these assumptions; it would reveal the depth and significance of these transformations of public attitudes and would confirm whether these attitudes had changed sufficiently to sustain army reform.[4]

The patient fatalism of the ranks as they endured the hardships of the camp before Sebastopol had aroused immense emotional feeling and unprecedented interest in their plight and welfare. It became commonplace to assert that the nations should, in the post-war years, recognize their responsibilities to the rank and file.[5] Seemingly, public esteem, or at least sympathy for, the army soldier was much improved as The Times in 1856 cited an opinion article of the much-abused soldier of the late war:

‘It is quite clear, however, that any hostility which may have existed in bygone days towards the army has long passed away. The red coat of the soldier is honoured throughout the country’

— quoted from "The Times," Wednesday, October 22, 1856, Issue 22505, 6.

Indeed the image of the soldier, as previously cited, had much to be improved upon. The opportunity seemed available to reinvent the image of the soldier. But the debate on what the character and composition of a soldier should and might be was conflicted. The Times in December 1854 cited:

“The idea, indeed, that a bad man made the best soldier originated, no doubt, in the persuasion that a certain amount of recklessness or devilry was absolutely indispensable to the service in which a soldier was engaged.”

— quoted from "The Times," (London, England) Monday 4 December, 1854, pg. 6, Issue 21915.

The Reverend Henry P. Wright, a chaplain to the forces, made this observation about the condition and status of the soldier immediately following the Crimean War, but recalling the days when the soldier was held in low esteem:

“Many, who in those days cared little about the soldier, but who have lived to know his worth, will now loudly ask, ‘How could such a state of things have been permitted?’ The explanation is simple. The public, generally, looked upon soldiers as fitted only for swearing, drinking, and fighting—that they deemed their normal condition; while the wealthy, and the lovers of pleasure, considered them good implements for keeping down riots in the manufacturing districts, and for figuring at reviews on any great occasion; but, that they had souls to be saved was never for one moment dreamt of.”[6]

The Reverend Wright alluded to a principal concern of the public image of the soldier, that of a debauched, drunken, character of low morals:

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“Take up the defaulter's sheet of any reckless soldier, and you will find nine-tenths of the crimes recorded against him connected with drunkenness; then examine the daily returns of the hospital, and there three-fourths of the diseases under treatment are those to which drunkenness necessarily leads: in other words, the only use to which the soldier is invited to turn his reason is to make himself more exquisitely animal than any other creature.”[7]

This preoccupation was evident in the newspapers of the period, and the focus on the forces, which Conley discusses at length in her analysis of ‘Jack Tar’ casting off the ‘sad hobby’ of drink,[8] was put as well to the army at home and in the far territories of the empire. Temperance movements and meetings, especially in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, were much discussed in the newspapers. The Baptist Minister Dawson Burns, a dedicated temperance activist of the period, in studying the 1st Battalion of the Leinster Regiment stationed in India, cited “that so large a proportion of abstainers in the battalion would tend to exert a beneficial influence on the conduct of the non-abstaining soldiers.”[9]

Valor: A pathway to image to rehabilitation?

A reimagining of the character of the soldier, in part, had to play to his principal activities: the making of war. The conduct of the war, or how the soldier conducted himself while at war, was of great importance to the Victorian mind. Likewise, the Victorian preoccupation with morality and the extent to which their institutions reflected their society, determined the extent to which these ideas were transmuted to the army.

The concept of chivalry, popular with the Victorians, was also appropriated into nineteenth century from a mythical medieval heritage by a broad range of political and social groups, and used to reinforce conservative, progressive, elitist, and egalitarian ideas.[10] The upper and middle classes had been increasingly encouraged to believe that to fight in a just cause was one of the most desirable and honourable activities open to man, and that there was no more glorious fate than to die for one’s country.[11]

The front and back of a Victoria Cross Medal

The front and back of a Victoria Cross Medal

Representative of this sentiment, and furthermore how it was being used to promote these values in British youth, was in an 1867 publication by S.O. Beeton about the Victoria Cross, compiled largely from his articles about the medal in his Boy’s Own Magazine:

‘The Victoria Cross is as much to a soldier as the gage d’amour the knight-errant in the days of chivalry received from his lady-love, and swore never to part with. The pledge of her affection might be a soiled and tattered glove, worth even less than the cross “For Valour”, but it was dearer to her lover than life itself.’[12]

Queen Victoria (1882). The first Victoria Cross medals, named for the Queen, were awarded by her to the first recipients of the Crimean War in Hyde Park in 1857.

Queen Victoria (1882). The first Victoria Cross medals, named for the Queen, were awarded by her to the first recipients of the Crimean War in Hyde Park in 1857.

Highly idealized in this narrative by Beeton, the Victoria Cross, at this early stage, was a representation of the best qualities of the British soldier, and by extension the values of the British people. Courage was taken for granted as the essential traditional characteristic of British military officers and this view carried over into the Victorian era.[13] Similarly, G.W. Steevens in his book With Kitchener to Khartoum cited the appeal of the adventure of war which could be attained by ordinary men when he wrote that, “the bullets had whispered to raw youngsters in one breath the secret of all the glories of the British Army.”[14]

If courage was traditionally an upper-class trait, even if considered a personal quality although not strictly belonging in the public domain, the experience of war as cited by Steevens and the bestowal of a medal like the Victoria Cross affirm that courage, could bridge social gaps by declaring a common soldier a hero on a public platform with a tangible representation of that courage. In this sense, a ‘democratisation’ of sorts to extend military virtues to the soldier, traditionally the basest of characters, was being undertaken.

It may be a fallacy, however, to assume that the creation of such a medal had such democratic intentions entirely in mind. If a common soldier was to receive the medal, however, this did not elevate him beyond his station in life but instead marked him as an individual who best embodied idealized Victorian values. The 1865 ‘Official Guide’ addressed the problem of how to classify private soldiers who stepped outside the parameters of their class by winning the Victoria Cross:

‘The private, graced with such a distinction, is no longer a plebeian. He is not one of the multitude. Even if his social and military rank should remain unchanged, he is raised morally much above his former self.’

Excerpt from: "The Victoria Cross; An Official Chronicle of the Deeds of Personal Valour Achieved in the Presence of the Enemy during the Crimean and Baltic Campaigns, the Indian Mutinies and the Persia, China, and New Zealand Wars" (London: O’Byrne Brothers, 1865), vii.

The early medals awarded retroactively for the Crimean War, and later for the Indian Mutiny, also demonstrated how the Victoria Cross was used to highlight positive aspects of poorly executed wars and campaigns, despite the victory, in the valorous contributions of its soldiers. As a vindication of British values, the medal showed British soldiers could fight, and prevail, and represented what the British perceived to be the best parts of their character. The stoicism of the British soldier in the worst of conditions, similar in description to the depictions of the solider of the Crimean War, was brought home again by G.W. Steevens, now a war correspondent for the Daily Mail, who would die of fever before the relief of Ladysmith, but had up to then enthralled readers with his despatches over the years of war far afield:

“But Lord, O poor Tommy! His waterproof sheet is spread out, mud-slimed, over the top of the wall of stone and earth and sandbag, and pegged down inside the schanz. He crouches at the base of the wall, in a miry hole. Nothing can keep out this film of water. He sops and sneezes, runs at the eyes and nose, half manful, half miserable. He is earning the shilling a-day.”[15]

Front cover of sheet music, pub 1893, for song "Private Tommy Atkins" composed by Samuel Potter (1851–1934) and Henry Hamilton (c. 1854 – 1918).

Front cover of sheet music, pub 1893, for song "Private Tommy Atkins" composed by Samuel Potter (1851–1934) and Henry Hamilton (c. 1854 – 1918).

As a tool for the War Office and the government, a clever despatch from a friendly newspaper or a medal like the Victoria Cross could be used to patch up a bad situation, which would be a reoccurring theme throughout the wars of empire in the late nineteenth century. As John MacKenzie has noted, the hero "becomes not only a moral paradigm but also the exemplar and advocate of the policy, policy which can be repeatedly reinterpreted according to the evidence of character, moral standards and actions in the heroic life."[16]

What these examples of heroism represented and inspired the British people, in what this image of the British soldier conveyed, were the better part of the struggles of the empire, perhaps soothing a troubling vision of an empire even if they saw British soldiers slaughtering hordes of Zulus.[17]

The Defence of Rorke's Drift, by Alphonse de Neuville (1880)

The Defence of Rorke's Drift, by Alphonse de Neuville (1880)

New Soldiers for a New Type of War

As a consequence of the increased media coverage, the army was increasingly in the public eye, and as cited, reverses were quickly reported whether on the scale of “Black Week” in the early days of the Boer War, or comparatively minor ones. Senior army leadership could expect blame by civilians in government for mismanaging the army purse strings, as well as failures in the field. But failure in the field reserved a special and easily available target in the press. Following an attack by De Wet’s commando group resulting in the capture of an entire unit of the Derbyshire militia, accounts of the inadequate preparations of the British officers were highlighted in The Times:

“While our officers continue to neglect the most elementary principles of their profession they will continue to be outwitted and defeated by the common sense of peasant leaders in inferior force.”[18]

British and Australian officers in South Africa, c. 1900

British and Australian officers in South Africa, c. 1900

The army was as yet unequipped to handle itself adeptly with press and public relations with counter stories. And when reports of worse conduct yet appeared in the press citing the “methods of barbarism” in Africa to defeat the Boers, the Victorian sense of fair play was on precarious ground; Britons may well have felt their society was degenerating by factors at home as well as actions abroad. Still, the supporters of the army were quick to reply to critics of the army, such as the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his book The Great Boer War, and their conduct of military operations:

“A day will come when ‘the man in the street’ (it used to be the ‘blatant beast’, but that was before he had the vote) will recognize that he is not a better judge of military matters than a cabinet minister in full possession of all the facts. Is it too much to hope that the gentleman to whom I have alluded may learn to do likewise?”[19]

But increasingly, finding opportunities to celebrate feats of bravery juxtaposed against traditional Victorian values increasingly diminished and were becoming anachronistic when confronted with the realities of war, such as seen in Africa in the Boer War. And this caused problems in the reimagining of a soldier hero. L. March Phillipps again makes plain in his account of the Boer War, the failure of the press and popular authors to buttress the argument for the reformed character of Tommy Atkins with authentic depictions. In direct contrast to the images portrayed in the newspapers or by popular authors such as Kipling, who was almost certainly one of the soldier’s greatest advocates and whom he calls out specifically, Phillipps makes this observation on the soldier in Africa:

“They are not, to begin with, a bit like the description I sometimes read of them in newspapers. In one of Kipling's books there is a description of a painting of a soldier in action; realistic and true to life; dirty and grimed and foul, with an assegai wound across the ankle, and the terror of death in his face.”[20]

Phillipps continues:

“The newspapers describe the British soldier, I suppose, to suit the public too, much on the same lines. He is the most simpering, mild-mannered, and perfect gentleman. If you asked him to loot a farm, he would stare at you in shocked amazement. He is, of course, ‘as brave as a lion,’ his courage being always at that dead level of perfect heroism which makes the term quite meaningless. Except, however, when they are shining with the light of battle, his eyes regard all people, friends and foes alike, with an expression of kindness and brotherly love. He never uses a strong word, and under all circumstances the gentleness and sweet decorum of his manner is such as you would never expect to meet outside the Y.M.C.A. This is about as much like our dear, old, real Tommy Atkins as Kipling's portrait was. Such a likeness does no honour to the man. It is simply lifeless. Whatever Tommy is, he is a man; not a round-eyed, pink-cheeked waxwork stuffed with bran. The truth is coarse and strong, but he can stand having the truth told about him.”[21]

British 55th Division soldiers blinded by tear gas during the Battle of Estaires, 10 April 1918

British 55th Division soldiers blinded by tear gas during the Battle of Estaires, 10 April 1918

An Imperfect Representation of British Identity

The reformed image of the soldier was still much in process in the early 20th century, but the so-called democratisation of this image was still an emerging one. Britons were still preoccupied with what the role of the classes was in their evolving society in the late nineteenth century. The concern that the army was the domain of a specific ‘caste’ or class of society, had made it as much a target for reform by the Liberals as the failures and mismanagement endemic in the process of winning the Crimean War. In reading of wars, and subsequently indulging in their own fantasies about battles in imperial campaigns, Victorian Britons could vicariously experience the noblest virtues which imbued one of the principal actors extending the limits of the empire: the soldier.

In evaluating the successes and failures of their army, the Victorians were effectively measuring up against their European rivals and to an extent their racial superiority in a colonial capacity. Failures against these others would raise or underscore concerns. The British soldier was, and remained, an imperfect representation of what Britain sought to identify as representations of themselves. What was shifting was the common representation of what the soldier was meant to represent. The shift was occurring from the focus on the “great man”, such as Wellington, to the common soldier. Just as ‘Jack Tar’, the term for the British sailor, was increasingly the representation of the navy, the common ‘Tommy Atkins’ now had a stage and increasingly a voice.

Some notes on sources

1) Spiers, Edward M. The Army and Society: 1815-1914, (London: Longman Group Limited, 1980) 206.

2) The Times, (London, England) Monday 4 December, 1854, pg. 6, Issue 21915.

3) Spiers, The Army and Society, 206.

4) Ibid, 117

5) Ibid, 116

6) Henry P. Wright, “England’s Duty to England’s Army”, A letter, London: Rivington’s, 1858 [3rd Edition] 6.

7) Ibid, 31-32.

8) Conley, Mary. Jack Tar to Union Jack, representing naval manhood in the British Empire, 1870-1918, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009) 87-88

9) The Times, “Total Abstinence in the Army”, (London, England) Tuesday October 12, 1886; pg 6, Issue 31888.

10) Girouard, Mark. The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman, (London: Yale University Press, 1981) 32-33.

11) Ibid, 276

12) S.O. Beeton, Our Soldier’s and the Victoria Cross, (London: Ward, Lock & Tyler, 1867) 7.

13) Michael Lieven, “Heroism, Heroics and the Making of Heroes: The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879”, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3, Autumn 1998, 419.

14) G.W. Steevens, With Kitchener to Khartoum, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1898) 146-147.

15) G.W. Steevens, “From Capetown to Ladysmith: An Unfinished Record Of The South African War”, edited by Vernon Blackburn, (London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1900). Accessed from:

16) John M. MacKenzie, "Heroic myths of empire," in Popular Imperialism and the Military, 1850- 1950, edited by John M. MacKenzie (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), 112.

17) Michael Lieven, “Heroism, Heroics and the Making of Heroes: The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879”, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3, (Autumn 1998): 422, 430.

18) The Times, (London, England) Wednesday 25 July 1900, pg. 11, issue 36203.

19) The Times, (London, England) Tuesday, December 25, 1900, pg. 4, Issue 36334.

20) Phillips, With Rimington, (London: Edward Arnold, 1902). Accessed from: Project Gutenberg Book,

21) Ibid

© 2019 John Bolt

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