To Thomas Atkins

(Prelude to Barrack-Room Ballads)

(notes by Roger Ayers)

Publication history

First published BRB and OV, 1892; I.V, 1919; D.V., 1940; Sussex Edition Vol 32, page 173, Burwash Edition Vol 25. The title was expanded from “To T.A.” to “To Thomas Atkins’” in I.V., 1919 and subsequent collections.
The Dedication

This dedication at the front of the Barrack Room Ballads section of Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses is similar to the dedication prefacing Departmental Ditties and Other Verses (see the poem “Prelude”) in that it is addressed to the specific group of people whose life is reflected in the poems, with the hope that they will recognise the truth of them. ‘T.A.’, or, in full, Thomas Atkins, and hence Tommy Atkins or Tommy, was a general term for the infantry soldier commonly in use in the army before Kipling went to India as a young man. A typical example is the following comment by Lieutenant General Sir Garnet Wolseley in the fourth edition of his The Soldier’s Pocket Book for Field Service, published in 1882.

“Many of our expeditions into the hills of India have failed to accomplish all that was aimed at … because the use of picked men was ignored, and every Tommy Atkins from Whitechapel or Ram Bux from the Benares bazaar, because he had been taught the goose step, and dressed in the conventional garb of a soldier, was regarded as fully competent to face the Afridee or other Hillman who, a warrior by birth, was engaged in defending his own native hills and fighting for all he held dear on earth. (Page 402, “Hill expeditions to India”).

The name Thomas Atkins was originally used in the example of how a Soldier’s Book (record of service) should be completed. This was laid down in a War Office order dated 31 August 1815 and a sample page was later included in each Soldier’s Book. The page heading for an infantry soldier’s book is shown below.

For a cavalry soldier, his unit was shown as No. 6 Troop, 6th Regiment of Dragoons, but he was still shown as born in Odiham.

The selection of the name has been popularly attributed, like much else, to the Duke of Wellington but there is some evidence that a Thomas Atkins of Odiham, Hampshire, was the soldier servant of Lieutenant General Sir Harry Calvert GCB, who was Adjutant General at the time when his department framed the order.


Notes on the Text

[Line 8] ‘When they’ll give you all your pay’:  Although the recruit may have been promised a regular daily rate of pay (1s 2d in 1887), ‘stoppages’ or deductions of pay for a wide variety of reasons greatly reduced the amount drawn weekly over the pay table, often by 40% or more. This was greatly resented by the soldier.

[Line 9] And treat you as a Christian ought to do: See “Tommy”, the second poem in Barrack Room Ballads, for how soldiers were actually treated.