Have you ever wondered why British Soldiers are referred to as Tommies? You can see the reference everywhere from the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling to contemporary historical works like The Last Fighting Tommy by Harry Patch.
It is actually derived from a name; Tommy Atkins and is known as a slang term for British soldiers of the First and Second World Wars but was also well established before then. It has since fallen out of favour, but the slang word Tom is occasionally used to refer to modern day British soldiers.
The First recorded use of the word Tommy with regards to British Forces was in 1743 which described the efforts of British Soldiers in a mutiny in Jamaica. It is also believed that the Duke of Wellington, during the Flanders campaign in 1794, chose the name after being inspired by the bravery of a British soldier, his name being Private Tommy Atkins.
The most likely origination of the term however, and that accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary is given as the specimen forms provided to recruits during the 19th Century and onwards. Enlistment papers would be filled out with the name Tommy Atkins with sample service details.
During the World Wars French, Commonwealth and German troops would all refer to British Soldiers as Tommies and phrases like “For you Tommy the war is over” have become synonymous with British Forces.
Use of the word evolved and was also attributed to the equipment of British Forces, in particular the ‘Tommy Cooker’ which was a portable, solid-alcohol fuelled stove issued to British troops in the First World War. It was notorious as being completely unreliable in terms of heating food or water but was utilised for the smokeless nature of the fuel.
The term ‘Tommy Cooker’ was also used derogatorily by German tank crews to refer to the British used-American built Sherman Tank. Sherman tanks, when hit by shells, tended to burst into flames quickly due to poor stowage of ammunition. Often rounds were left unprotected on the floor of the vehicle for quick access. This problem was so prolific in fact that British troops joined in nicknaming the vehicle ‘Ronsons’ after that Cigarette Lighter’s branding which stated “Lights first time – every time!”
Tommy while being the most easily recognisable nickname for soldiers is one of many that have been used over the years. The next most recognisable being Redcoats for the obvious use of Red Coats in British Uniform during the 17th Century. It gradually fell out of use in the early 20th Century with the switch to Khaki Uniforms however the nickname is maintained by US Forces in a jovial reference to contemporary British Forces. In addition the Royal Green Jackets used to refer to the rest of the Army as Red Coats, as they would wear green in their reconnaissance role.
Limey was another commonly used nickname referring to sailors of the Royal Navy and the practice of adding Lime Juice or Lemon Juice to the Rum ration (Grog) to prevent scurvy. The term did lose its naval connection and refers to British people in general, particularly those who emigrate to Australia or New Zealand.
“Crabs” is an often used slang term for Royal Air Force personnel, the origin of which is still open to debate. Possibilities include the zig-zagging of Spitfire and Hurricane fighters on take-off during the Second World War as the pilots could not see over the noses of their aircraft, or the allowance in RAF drill for the unlimited amount of side-steps that can be made. Both are references to Crabs walking side-ways.
Nicknames in and for the British Forces are often comical in nature and I highly suggest you have a look at the alternate names for some British Units like “The Armoured Farmers”, “The Alberts Lesters” and “The Cloud Punchers”.
Imagine having researched your ancestor’s military service you could announce that he was in “The Comical Chemical Corporals” to your family!
Enjoy researching your family’s military history, I hope you give Forces War Records a go, we’ve got over 6 Million records of Tommies, Limey’s and Crabs now.
Do you know anymore slang terms for British Forces? Share the hilarity with us all by posting a comment below but I don’t think the Chemical Corporals will be beaten!