Strictly speaking this poem has no title. Composed as an introduction to the suite of sixteen ‘Service Songs’, with which The Five Nations closes, it was printed there without a title. It is sometimes encountered under the title of “The Service Man”, as in the general index to the Sussex Edition. In the actual volume, however, it is printed without a title. Neither “Tommy you was when it began” nor any of the ‘Service Songs’ which follow in The Five Nations, were headed by a date when collected by Kipling for the Sussex Edition.
Collected only as part of The Five Nations, in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.
In 1892 Kipling published his poem entitled “Tommy”, in the first series of Barrack-Room Ballads. There is sometimes confusion between that poem and this one from The Five Nations.
In the army reforms which took place following the Anglo-Boer War, flexible ‘terms of service’ were offered in recruitment. The name ‘Tommy’ appears to have been still in use during the Second World War, however, at least among other nations when they were referring to British soldiers.
By the end of the Anglo-Boer War more than 80,000 troops from the colonies had fought on the British side in South Africa. Possibly even more than Kipling himself, these men had been changed by what they found there. Borrowing their voices in these ‘Service Songs’ he explores and records the shift in sensibility, the expansion, that has taken place among the men who went through this war.
Notes on the text
(by Mary Hamer)
[Title] It is sometimes asserted that ‘Tommy’, short for ‘Thomas Atkins’, had been the popular nickname for ordinary soldiers since 1843, when it was coined by the Duke of Wellington. According to the Imperial War Museum, however, Lt. General Sir William MacArthur demonstrated that the War Office had chosen the name Tommy Atkins as a representative name as early as 1815; there is evidence that it was in use even before that date. In 1743 a letter sent from Jamaica referring to a mutiny among hired soldiery there said: 'except for those from N. America (mostly Irish Papists) ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly'.
[Stanza 2] Batt’ry brigade ... a battery is a number of pieces of artillery, placed together for concerted action; a brigade is a military subdivision, in the UK an infantry unit of three battalions.
Defaulter A soldier who has committed an offence.
Army corps A substantial tactical unit of an Army.
[Stanza 3] ‘Alifax Halifax, garrison town in north-west England