In 1892 Rudyard Kipling published a collection of poems called ‘Barrack Room Ballads’. This included ‘Tommy’ which he’d penned a coupe of years earlier and contrasted the public view of the Victorian soldier in wartime and peace. This is best summed up by this line:
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,.
Soldiers – as Kipling’s poem suggested – were to be valued when there was fighting to be done but were considered a nuisance at other times. I grew up watching the annual Festival of Remembrance that honours the dead of two world wars (and subsequent conflicts) but while the British Legion have done much for ex-servicemen and their families it was still deemed necessary to create the Help for Heroes charity in 2007 to support men and women wounded in the course of serving in the armed forces.
We might well ask why such a charity is needed in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a country which is a founder member of NATO and that has an arms trade that generates billions from the sale of lethal weapons across the globe. Then again we might ask ourselves why over half a million people used food banks in Britain last year, or why the DWP (Department for work and pensions) concluded that in 2016 over 21m Britons were living in ‘relative poverty’.
But back to ‘Tommy Atkins’ and public attitudes in the 1800s. There was no ‘help for heroes’ then, or a British Legion. All the ex-soldier without work could rely on at mid century was his army pension (if he had one) charity, the Poor Law, and his wits. George Hill had no pension because he’d been kicked out of the army for getting drunk and assaulting an officer.
Hill was lucky; if he’d attacked the officer whilst on active service he’d have faced a court martial and the possibility of a firing squad. Instead he’d been released ‘with ignominy’ and no pension and had subsequently found it difficult or impossible to secure gainful employment. As a result Hill sat himself on the streets of London with a painted sign that read:
9th Regiment of foot.
I have served 22 years in the 9thFoot – 20 years in India, and have been in eight general engagements, and am now discharged without a pension’.
Begging was a summary offence and so when PC James Light (128B) discovered him on his beat he asked him to move along and, when this request was ignored, arrested him. The former infantryman was brought before Mr Broderip at Westminster Police court where his previous military indiscretion was revealed. In the eyes of Victorian society Hill was a violent drunk who deserved nothing from a society he had served for 22 years expect condemnation and a prison cell. The magistrate duly obliged and sent him down for three months.
George Hill may well have been a ‘impudent, violent beggar’ and he certainly had previous convictions for vagrancy but today we recognize that ex-servicemen suffer mental as well as physical wounds as a consequence of what they’ve been through. Perhaps Hill’s 22 years in the colours had left him similarly scarred and unable to function as a part of ‘normal’ Victorian society.
He had probably fought at the battles of Mudki and Ferozeshah during the First Anglo-Afghan War and so, like many modern soldiers, had been to Kabul. He would also have been with the colours at the battle of Soprano (right) in the First Anglo-Sikh war. Technically of course he was fighting under the general banner of the East India Company but that matters little, the danger and suffering is the same.
In 1852 then soldiers like George Hill were not valued by the society they had served. Within two years however thousands of then were fighting for ‘Queen and Country’ once more as Britain took on the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea and then the challenge to the Empire in India in 1857. So once again it was ‘ “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play’.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, 5 January, 1852]