Rudyard Kipling, who was born in India and subsequently moved to England, grew up under the influence of the large, ever-expanding British Empire. The Empire in Kipling’s time, in the late 1800s, claimed a vast amount of territory, including the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland), India, and parts of North and South America. Kipling supported British Imperialism and the Empire, labeling it as a moral right of the stronger British to lay claim to weaker nations, transform them into colonies, and teach them how to live as the mirror of Britain.

Therefore, for Kipling, the soldiers of the British army were heroes fighting for a great cause, fighting to expand the boundaries of the British Empire. However, soldiers in the army were not well treated, and their sacrifices often ignored when they returned to Britain. Many soldiers joined the working industrial class, where they experienced poor wages and arduous and exhausting working hours. Kipling found fault with the fact that these soldier’s were only recognized when at war, but when they were not fighting, they were treated like underclassmen. This is the exact issue that Kipling’s text, “Tommy,” addresses.

I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
     O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
     But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
     The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
     O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.

The poem tells of a man named Tommy, a soldier in the British army, or a “red-coat”, who is thrown away from a bar. However, when the ‘band begins to play,‘ signaling a march to war, suddenly ‘Mister Atkins‘ is thanked and treated with respect. Kipling chooses the name Tommy Atkins because this typically refers to a common British soldier, and therefore, this name acts as a microcosm to all of the British soldiers who came back home and experienced inferior treatment. Kipling refers to this commitment to war as the “White Man’s Burden,“ which is the name of another one of his poems.

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;
     While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind",
     But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind,
     There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
     O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind.

This part of the text further defends soldiers, addressing the idea that they are really no different from a normal citizen, ‘most remarkable like you.‘ Kipling wants to emphasize the difficult task of joining the army and putting your life on the line, saying that anyone who has done this has sacrificed their chance to be ‘plaster saints,‘ but all because they are the ‘uniforms that guard you while you sleep.‘ Kipling defends the soldiers because in times of trouble, ‘when there’s trouble in the wind,‘ the soldiers are asked to walk first and confront that trouble to defend their country. But when there is no trouble, the soldiers are told to ‘fall be’ind‘, in the insignificant background when they are not needed. Kipling’s repetitive use of the phrase ‘while it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that‘ emphasizes the idea that these soldiers were given commands and treated as inferiors, constantly taking criticisms for their participation in violence.

Discussion Questions

1. How did readers back then view Rudyard Kipling’s poems? How has that view probably changed drastically in the present-day?

2. Could the death of his son in the Irish Army have motivated Kipling to write such a poem?

3. Why did Kipling become the writer for British Imperialism when his own birth country, India, suffered as a colony under the British?

4. How has exposure to the British Empire influenced this and other texts that Kipling has written?

5. What techniques does Kipling use in this text to convey his ideas to the reader?

Last modified 3 May 2010