[Title] Tommy: Tommy Atkins, the general nickname for the British soldier (see the notes to the poem ‘To T.A.’)
[Line 2] The publican …: the holder of the licence allowing alcohol to be sold in a public house.
We serve no red-coats here: While coloured uniforms existed before the English Civil War began in 1642, it was the Parliamentary New Model Army of that war that introduced red frock-coats as uniform for the infantry. When some units of the Parliamentary army were incorporated into the regular army on the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, such as Monck’s Regiment which became the Coldstream Guards, the red coat became the standard uniform of infantry soldiers, who were quickly identified as ‘Redcoats’. The last red coats were worn in action by the infantry of the Gordon Relief Expedition in 1884 (see ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’).
[Line 10] Mister Atkins: as opposed to just ‘Tommy’ – a sarcastic indication of the sudden change in public attitude.
when the band begins to play: Troops marching to the docks to board a troopship for service overseas were played through the town by regimental bands, in this sense, an overture to war.
[Line 11] gallery: the uppermost balcony of a theatre with the cheapest seats most distant from the stage. Traditionally known as ‘The Gods’ because, if the occupants of these seats were displeased with the performance, they were apt to make the actors aware of it. Not the place for a serious play-goer.
music ‘alls: music halls, or variety theatres. Similar to vaudeville in the USA. A very popular but distinctly low-brow form of entertainment at the time.
[Line 12] stalls: the front rows of the auditorium in a theatre and, after the boxes, the best seats in the house.
[Line 14] trooper’s on the tide: a troopship, commonly abbreviated to ‘trooper’, used for troop transport sailing ‘on the (high) tide’ in order to have deep water to ease its passage out of harbour.
[Line 19] hustlin’: Hustling in Kipling’s day meant to force someone to move in an aggressive, pushing manner.
goin’ large a bit: behaviour that is beyond the acceptable norm. The current expression ‘over the top’ is a modern equivalent.
[Line 20] paradin’ in full kit: parading in ‘full kit’, that is, in full uniform with helmet, rifle and bayonet, valise (pack), greatcoat, haversack, ammunition pouches, water bottle and the belt and straps to secure it all, was part of everyday life when duty required it. However, parading in full kit after the day’s work was a minor punishment. Apart from the inconvenience of having to appear in it, the soldier would be minutely inspected and any fault could lead to further punishment, such as extra drill. (see ‘Black Jack’, where Mulvaney suffers this indignity). In addition, the kit would all have to be cleaned again before ‘lights out’ in order for it to be ready for parade, or to lay out for barrack room inspection the following morning.
[Line 21] ‘ow’s yer soul?: How’s your soul? The question asked by Victorian evangelists of men drinking in public houses and in particular, by the members of the Salvation Army. It is of interest that General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, who was acquainted with Kipling having once been a passenger with him on a boat from New Zealand to Ceylon, greeted Kipling at a ceremony at Oxford 16 years later with exactly the same question: ‘Young fellow, how’s your soul?’ (Something of Myself, end of Chapter IV). Perhaps he was making a point that the question was still worth asking, of the author as well as of Tommy.
[Line 22] ‘…“Thin red line of ‘eroes” ’ Thin red line of heroes. The celebrated reporter for The Times, William Howard Russell, described the two-deep line of the 93rd Highlanders that repulsed the charge of Russian cavalry at the battle of Balaklava on 25 October 1854, as “that thin red streak topped with a line of steel.” (The British Expedition to the Crimea, W. H. Russell, Routledge, London,1858). This was very quickly reduced to “the thin red line” by the British public and has been taken to be the epitome of heroic British defence against overwhelming odds ever since.
‘… drums begin to roll’ sounding the alarm with a long drawn-out drum roll, the continuing unbroken sound stressing the urgency of the alarm, which was used to warn of imminent attack. In this case, meaning ‘when the country is in danger’.
[Line 25] ‘… we aren’t no blackguards too,’ Pronounced ‘blaggards’. This is a reference to the historic view that the British Army ‘consisted of blackguards, commanded by gentlemen.’
[Line 26] ‘… barricks’ barracks.
[Line 27] ‘… conduck …’ conduct.
[Line 29] ‘… “Tommy, fall be’ind.”’ The accepted place of a servant when walking with master or mistress was two paces behind. In the following lines, the speaker contrasts this treatment with being thrust in front as soon as danger threatened.
[Line 33-36] ‘You talk o’ better food …’ the reforms introduced by Edward Cardwell as Secretary of State for War (1868-74) had improved the food and accommodation of soldiers 10 years before this but there was still a great deal of room for further improvement. When “Tommy” was published in 1890 this was the subject of discussion that resulted in an inquiry by the Wantage Committee in 1892. Kipling’s “Tommy” is making the point that improving the soldiers’ status was actually more important than tinkering with the rations. In his scornful reference to these rations, Kipling had to insert ‘cook-room’ before ‘slops’, since to the soldier, ‘slops’ was slang for his working uniform. (See the poem “Back to the Army Again”)
[Lines 37-40] ‘For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, …’ A final bitter summing up of the shoddy and disdainful way in which the hypocritical civilian population treated the ordinary soldier until he was needed to face danger and fight; two-faced behaviour of which Tommy was well aware.