("The Queen's Uniform")
(notes by Roger Ayers)
| the poem
notes on the text
…prove it to our faceHowever it appears that the public, like Punch, took the poem to heart as “Tommy”, so that is what it became.
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
“In times of war, and not before,Despite such precedents, ‘Freshness’ was another quality attributed to these early ballads of Rudyard Kipling, since few literate Victorians had ever thought or written of the common soldier in this way and "Tommy" stood out, encapsulating as it did an attitude which Kipling clearly wanted to see eliminated. This attitude was not, and in some circles still has not, been totally eliminated and some of the following extracts show that, despite being condemned when the freshness wore off, "Tommy" has returned to do the job for which Kipling wrote it.
God and the soldier men adore;
When the war is o’er and all things righted,
The Lord’s forgot and the soldier slighted.”
“One [Ballad] deals, naturally enough, with the want of sympathy shown in public houses to Tommie Atkins in time of peace, as contrasted with the enthusiasm for him in time of war; …”Buchanan’s ‘naturally enough’ betrays his own automatic reaction to anything that has to do with Tommie (sic) Atkins.
.['The Voice of “The Hooligan', Robert Buchanan, Contemporary Review, New York, December 1899]
“The Barrack Room Ballads fell one by one upon a shocked but enraptured public. … Their success was immediate but, with the exception of ‘Danny Deever’, these verses have now lost their magic.” [Rudyard Kipling, Lord Birkenhead, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1978]"Tommy" may have lost some of its initial magic, but it remains a powerful expression of public unease whenever the Army or Armed Forces are neglected by the government of the day. Unfortunately this happens with such frequency that "Tommy" remains one of the most quoted, or parodied, of Kipling’s poems in the press. A recent example under the title ‘Tommy in the 21st Century’ appeared in the Sunday Telegraph of 28 December 2003. One refrain of the verses, which were written by Peter Pindar and subtitled ‘Queen’s speech praises Armed Forces’ (that speech having being written for Her Majesty by the government), was:
Yes, it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ spend less on defence,I think that Kipling would have been immensely saddened if he had known that "Tommy" could still be applied 113 years after he wrote it; but not surprised, except possibly by the British Army being back in Kabul.
But who walks the streets of Basra when the air is getting tense?
When the air is getting tense, boys, from Kabul to Kosovo
Who’ll say goodbye to wife and kids, and shoulder pack and go?
“ ‘Tommy, A Lawyer's guide to Veterans’ Affairs’ is the name of the quarterly newsletter published by the Veterans Law Section of the US Federal Bar Association, but I had somehow previously failed to make the obvious connection between the poem and the newsletter. … [In the poem] the speaker is calling our attention to the gross disparity in the value that the citizenry places on its soldiers. The unjust disparity he observes is the miserable treatment accorded the soldier and ex-soldier in peacetime, contrasted with their treatment when the winds of war are blowing or, as Tommy puts it, when ‘there's trouble in the wind.’ … As an attorney, I respect the way Kipling's speaker, `Mister Atkins,' makes his case; his supporting examples are clear and visual, his logic is straightforward and his closing line poses a clear point for all Americans to ponder.” [Thomas Roy Harney, The Stars and Stripes, 26 January 1997, quoted in the U.S. House of Representatives by the Hon. Ms. Zoe Lofgren].In an article by Ian Cowie on Saturday, 1 August 2009, the Daily Telegraph refers to the Government's 'shameful attempt to cut compensation paid to members of the Armed Forces wounded in the line of duty', and encourages its readers to join the paper's 'Justice for Wounded' campaign. Cowie's closing paragraph ends:
There is, of course nothing new about public and politicians' ambivalence towards the Armed Forces; willing the end but not the means or money to achieve it. This was best described by Rudyard Kipling ... in his Barrack Room Ballads. If any reader is unsure about supporting the Telegraph campaign, I hope a few verses from his classic poem "Tommy" will do the trick.He then quotes the last three stanzas in full. A number of parodies of "Tommy" have circulated in 2008/9 in e-mails, blogs or army chat lines on the internet, written by soldiers and based on their current experiences. Some of the metre and rhyme might be questionable but there is no doubt about the strength of feeling. Kipling's original continues to provide a powerful means of expression to soldiers who find themselves in a situation very like that of Kipling's Tommy of almost 120 years ago. One version, current at the beginning of 2009, which acknowledges Rudyard Kipling, ends:
O then we're just like 'eroes from the army's glorious past.And now, in 2012, the Daily Telegraph for Friday 13 July, in response to the announcement by the Home Secretary, Mrs Theresa May, that troops would have to be employed to provide security at Olympic venues to cover a shortfall in commercial security staff, had its daily political cartoon showing a soldier on guard as crowds enter an Olympic stadium. He wears a Security flash above his Iraq and Afghanistan medals and the caption is:
Yes, it's "God go with you, Tommy," when the trip might be your last.
They pays us skivvy wages, never mind we're sitting ducks,
When clerks what's pushing pens at 'ome don't know their flippin' luck.
"Ah, yes" sez they "but think of all the travel to be 'ad."
Pull the other one. Does Cooks do 'olidays in Baghdad?
It's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, know your place,"
But it's "Tommy, take the front seat," when there's terrorists to chase
. An' the town is full of maniacs who'd like you dead toot sweet.
Yes, it's "Thank you, Mr Atkins," when they find you in the street.
There's s'pposed to be a covenant to treat us fair an' square
But I 'ad to buy me army boots, an' me combats is threadbare.
An' 'alf the bloody 'elicopters can't get in the air,
An' me pistol jammed when snipers fired. That's why I'm laid up 'ere.
Yes, it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, "We 'ave to watch the pence";
Bold as brass the P.M. sez, "We spare them no expense.
But I'll tell you when they do us proud an' pull out all the stops,
It's when Tommy lands at Lyneham in a bloomin' wooden box!.
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that an' "Tommy go away",In the same paper on Saturday 14 July is a leading article by Matthew Norman severely critical of the intention to employ soldiers in place of civilian security staff just because a civilian firm failed to recruit adequate numbers. Norman also quotes "Tommy", this time the last four lines and then, questioning just what it is the soldiers might be expected to do, ends his own parody of Kipling's words with the thought that, as a result, it may end up as:
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when he rescues Mrs May.
Its "Tommy, frisk that toddler" an' its "Tommy, clean the loos".