Tommy Atkins

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At least during the First World war, and possibly far earlier, the British Army had to explain to new recruits how to fill in the necessary paperwork, such as the Army Book 64 (the all-important pay book). As well as signing for their pay each week, the AB64 also had the all-important final page, left mainly blank, but headed Last Will and Testament, which when retrieved from the body would be processed and acted upon as a legally binding document. In order to instruct the new recruit where to sign, demonstration copies were used which had been pre-signed in the name of Thomas Atkins. This was thought of as being a suitably generic name for the purpose.

It became so generic, in fact, that it became the British equivalent of "Landser", "Schultz", "G.I.", "Strelets", etc., as the universal term for the British soldier. Even today, over a hundred years after the Boer War (Britain's first experience of modern mass recruiting) British soldiers still refer to each other as "Toms", the modern version of what in WW2 was "Tommies" and in WW1 were "Tommy Atkinses".

The Universal Soldier makes his appearance in Johnny and the Dead, as a resident of the Sunshine Acres Residential Care Home for the Elderly. In the middle 1990s, Tommy Atkins, aged ninety-seven, jokes about "I'm the one, I'm the boy, when I'm gone it's all over!". Johnny Maxwell is allowed to look at his personal effects when one day it finally is all over. There is a shoebox not quite full of war medals, odd little mementos such as the dirty postcards of a bygone age, newspaper cuttings, and a very old photograph from the Blackbury Guardian showing thirty Tommy Atkinses of the Blackbury Pals battalion, marching off to war with their thumbs up. There are crosses against twenty-nine of the names on the back. Mr Atterbury fills Johnny in on the missing details: they all died on the same day: July 1st 1916.

A little later, at Blackbury Cemetery, Death performs a little grace that allows the thirty Pals to be re-united, but only Johnny sees this.


Tommy's words "When I'm gone it's all over!" are similar to stock phrase used by Max Miller to describe his own relationship with Variety.

Tommy Atkins was in common use before the First World War as the poem Tommy by Rudyard Kipling proves.