Sunday 20 May 2012

'In Praise of Tommy Atkins' by A. L. Berridge

‘Tommy’ really existed, although no-one knows his face. In 1843 the Duke of Wellington was asked for a 'typical' soldier's name, and remembered a badly wounded but stoical soldier he’d met in the Low Countries - Thomas Atkins. 

 He’s usually just ‘Tommy’ now, but as the British public began to take him to their hearts they also began to ‘gentrify’ him, to make him a suitably respectable idealized image of the British Soldier of the Queen.

Victorian 'Happy Families'

 But that’s not Tommy. These sanitised images of a well-fed, and well-dressed family have little to do with the poor and despised reality of a Victorian private soldier. Kipling summed it up succinctly in his brilliant (and bitter) poem ‘Tommy’:

Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.

 That’s Tommy. That’s the truth behind images such as this:

The original Thin Red Line - 93rd Highlanders at Balaklava
 And if we think of the Victorians as snobs for keeping him well in the background, then I’d have to ask – are we any better ourselves?

‘Tommy’ isn’t what we expect of our war stories – and if it is, it ain’t what we get. Novels about war are almost universally told from the viewpoint of the officers. From A.E.W. Mason to Tolstoy, from Allan Mallinson to Patrick Mercer, war exists only through the eyes of the educated and privileged. At sea too, from C.S. Forester to Patrick O’Brien to Alexander Kent, we learn that the lowliest position that can be occupied by a hero is ‘midshipman’. Private soldiers and Able Seamen can exist, of course – they can be loyal to the hero and fight in a lump. They can even come on and do a comedy turn in suitably risible accents, then exeunt left while the officers get on with the real business of being heroic.

Just who do we think actually fought these wars? The gentlemen made them, the politicians created the need for them – but who actually went out there and died in their hundreds of thousands?
Tommy. Tommy Atkins. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, the man who ran the bookshop, the man who took his children to the Great Exhibition on a shilling day because he couldn’t afford to go with ‘the nobs’. War is fought by soldiers, which is why I’ve always tried to feature them in my novels.

 In ‘Into the Valley of Death’ I decided to go further and use ONLY those below officer-rank to form my point-of-view characters in the Crimea. Bernard Cornwell led the way in allowing Sharpe to be a sergeant before he became an officer, and I thought I’d go one better in permitting one of my characters to be a corporal, and letting the others stand as the men they were.

Great plan. But I was only twenty pages in when I realized the snag, and that the reason so many greater and better-known writers had used officers had less to do with snobbery than with the sheer practicality of telling a story.

Private soldiers make terrible protagonists. They can’t wander off and have adventures because they don’t have their own horses and are allowed only very limited time outside camp. If they do venture abroad they can’t get in a fight because they’re not supposed to leave camp ‘under arms’. They can’t have one of those ‘helpful hero’ moments when they tell the Duke of Wellington the strategy that will win the battle of Waterloo, because they’ll only be flogged for impertinence. They can’t, in reality, do very much at all.

But we’re writers, it’s our job to throw obstacles at our characters, and I found that working my way round that little lot not only provided some of my favourite plot twists, it also gave me a way into exploring their personalities. Which of these men would happily break rules? Which would be too scared, and which too disapproving? What kind of man keeps back his own rifle for cleaning when everyone else has piled arms? What kind of heroism does it take to risk a flogging for the greater good of saving lives? As almost always happens, the restrictions of reality proved no more than building blocks to structure a better story.

Except one. Dealing only with private soldiers gave me a major problem of perspective, making it impossible to give a broader view of the war or even of individual battles. How could my narrators tell the reader what they wouldn’t have known themselves?

 It was actually my editor at Penguin who pointed this out, and (infuriatingly) he was right. I permitted an officer to engage with my characters – and found (as usual) that the story was better for it. 

But if my kind of novel won’t work without an officer’s view, I’d argue it would be just as limited without the perspective of the private soldier. Tommy Atkins might not always see the wood for the trees, but his commanding officers often couldn’t see the trees for the wood – especially in the Crimea.

Some did see, and Midshipman (later Field Marshal) Evelyn Wood wrote of this very cartoon that ‘graphic as it is, it scarcely conveys the intense suffering of our men, who died, as they lived, without making a complaint.’ But even Wood, one of the most humanitarian officers out there, enjoyed his special Christmas dinner of 1854 in ignorance of the fact that many of the men had no food at all.

Some officers simply lacked the imagination. While the men were crammed ten to a tent with no more possessions than they could carry on their backs, Lt. Col Sir Anthony Coningham Sterling complained in a letter that the inconveniences of tent life ‘consist principally in the necessities of keeping all one’s clothes, books etc shut up in the boxes they travel in; to get out a pocket handkerchief a whole portmanteau must be unpacked and repacked.’ My heart bleeds.

It wasn’t only ignorance. It’s easy to see what restricted the view of Lt-Col Frederick Dallas when he wrote ‘The men suffer a great deal, I fancy. As regards ourselves, I find what I always expected and knew: that gentlemen can bear discomfort and privation better than the lower orders.’ 

Tommy Atkins was ‘a lower order’ of being. Many officers write of him in the same tone they used of the pack mules, as a creature who is always getting drunk and being a nuisance. Maybe he was. Twenty-first century sentimentality has no place here, and it would be hardly surprising if men brutalised since birth sometimes behaved like brutes. They were certainly treated like them, and flogging was still a terrible reality in the army of the Crimea.

But they were still men, and improved levels of literacy have left us a wealth of letters and diaries that reveal the intelligence, sensitivity and even philosophy that flourished beneath those ragged exteriors. Tommy Atkins is a human being, as Kipling’s poem works so hard to make clear:

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints.

Yet we’re rarely asked to identify with him. Because the viewpoint presented in films and books is usually that of the officers, it’s how we see ourselves – and often how we write too. But if we do that in the Crimean War, then we’re making a big mistake. Commissions were still purchased in 1854, and even the cheapest, lowliest rank of ensign in a line regiment went for £450 – about £81,000 in today’s money. If we wanted to be a Lieutenant Colonel in the Guards, it would cost us in considerable excess of half a million. Those of us on this blog are intelligent, we’re literate and educated – but if we’d joined the army in 1854 we’d almost certainly have had to do it as private soldiers.

‘Tommy Atkins’ is us. He’s not one man, he’s a million, and any one of them could be us. In ‘Into the Valley of Death’, one of my ‘Tommies’ is an East End crook who speaks underworld slang, but another is a staunch Presbyterian from the Highlands who won’t countenance swearing in his presence. One is the aspiring and snobbish son of a bailiff, and yet another is a Blue Coat School charity boy who speaks Latin. They’re all Tommy, and they’re all us. 

So let’s hear from him. In no other branch of literature does this snobbery survive, and not since ‘Jane Eyre’ have we doubted that the servant girl is capable of as fine a feeling as her titled mistress. Doesn’t the common soldier deserve at least as much respect?

Mug from the Boer War

We’re writers, and we can give Tommy something more than just blessing. Let’s pick up the baton that Kipling passed - and give the man a VOICE.


'Into the Valley of Death' came out on May 10th. 

More ranting can be found on A.L. Berridge's excitingly revamped website here.


Katherine Langrish said...

What a great post! - can't believe Lt Col Dallas's remark, yet I fear it's still a mode of thought not yet banished from the subconscious minds of Those In Charge.

michelle lovric said...

Brilliant, Louise. And very angry-making, in a good way.

alberridge said...

Thanks so much, Katherine. I suspect you're right about today's subconscious minds too, though few would dare voice it as openly as Dallas. My jaw just clunked open when I read that line.

Thanks, Michelle! I know, I felt myelf getting angry when I wrote it. I've been reading this kind of thing for ages now and trying to see it from the 'normal' perspective of the 19th century, so it was good to stand back and think 'Hang on a minute...'

Mark Burgess said...

Great post, Louise. I like your rants! And fascinating about the origins of the British 'Tommy'.

alberridge said...

Thanks, Mark. I'm quite reasonable and non-ranty really, but it's hard to read letters and diaries of these men and NOT feel aggrieved on their behalf when their only acknowledgement in an officer's diary is 'The men behaved quite well.'

Anonymous said...

Simon here (excuse the soubriquet).

Yes! Puts me in mind of the scene in The History Boys about Drummer Hodge, and how they used to sweep up the bones from the battlefield for fertiliser.

I think the lierary treatment of later wars has done more justice to the common soldier; no doubt American input has helped (eg The Red Badge of Courage).

adele said...

Excellent post, Louise! Love that Kipling poem too.

alberridge said...

Hi, Anonymous Simon! Ugh, yes - I'd forgotten that scene. Nothing much seemed to have changed since the days when war was just 'I'll kill your peasants and you kill my peasants, and who kills most wins.'

But the Crimea DID start to change things. Officers weren't in distant billets, they were in tents right alongsdie the men, and as the siege drew on they began to get a much clearer idea of what the men suffered.By the end of the war there were some touchingly close bonds.

Not that we'd know it from our literature...

alberridge said...

Thanks, Adele. Yes, I love that poem. Kipling's out of fashion now, as if he's somehow been confused with the old colonialism his work did so much to change. Praising common soldiers! Praising the Indian people! The fellah was clearly off his head...

Katherine Roberts said...

It looks like a great book, Louise, congratulations! I love that cover.

The charge of the Light Brigade is on my "ideas for historical stories involving horses" list (though unlikely ever to become a book, since I can't work out how to do it without making children cry!) so this is obviously one I need to read.

alberridge said...

Katherine - thank you so much. I love the cover too.

But a 'horse story' about the Charge is a fantastic idea. There IS a very heartwarming true story I came across when researching this, which I think of as 'The Horse That Came Back'. It's more than that actually - it's a horse that led many of the others home. I used it only briefly in the book, and it really needs someone like you to do it justice.

If you think it might interest you, I'll dig it out and send an e-mail.

Sue Purkiss said...

A very powerful post, Louise. I'm writing about private soldiers who were prisoners in the second world war, and theirs too are voices that you don't often hear. When people think of prisoners, they tend to think of Colditz etc - camps for officers, who were not obliged to work and so had plenty of time to concentrate their efforts on escaping, if they so wished. But as you say, writing about a Tommy does have its difficulties - it can be quite tricky to make someone who's not only a private, but also a prisoner, an active (in the sense of not passive) hero.

alberridge said...

That's brilliant, Sue! You're so right about POW stories, and I can't actually think of one that doesn't essentially concentrate on the officers - except possibly (IIRC) 'The Great Escape'. I'm so glad you're tackling it.

But yes, that's quite a passivity problem - and you're a lot braver than I. Still, something tells me you'll have found a way round it, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how!

Leslie Wilson said...

I loved the way in which you made it clear that the challenge you had to face made the novel more interesting to write - and read. And it is great to write about the men themselves, who, as you say, really mattered.

alberridge said...

Thanks, Leslie. I find that's often the way - that it's the problems that force me away from the conventional, easy path, and torture me till I come up with something more interesting. I suspect I'd be a lot lazier without them.

Mark, Man of TIN said...

Interesting post and to see the older Happy Families cards. I have a more recent 1940s version of your Thomas Atkins Happy Families cards, with no Monday washday drudgery for Mrs Atkins - she's in uniform too!
Many best wishes, Mark, Man of TIN blog