Success to Tommy Atkins, he’s a very brave man,
And to deny it there’s few people can;
And to face his foreign foes he’s never afraid,
Therefore he’s not a beggar, as Rudyard Kipling has said.
No, he’s paid by our Government, and is worthy of his hire;
And from our shores in time of war he makes our foes retire,
He doesn’t need to beg; no, nothing so low;
No, he considers it more honourable to face a foreign foe.
No, he’s not a beggar, he’s a more useful man,
And, as Shakespeare has said, his life’s but a span;
And at the cannon’s mouth he seeks for reputation,
He doesn’t go from door to door seeking a donation.
Oh, think of Tommy Atkins when from home far away,
Lying on the battlefield, earth’s cold clay;
And a stone or his knapsack pillowing his head,
And his comrades lying near by him wounded and dead.
And while lying there, poor fellow, he thinks of his wife at home,
And his heart bleeds at the thought, and he does moan;
And down his cheek flows many a silent tear,
When he thinks of his friends and children dear.
Kind Christians, think of him when far, far away,
Fighting for his Queen and Country without dismay;
May God protect him wherever he goes,
And give him strength to conqner his foes.
To call a soldier a beggar is a very degrading name,
And in my opinion it’s a very great shame;
And the man that calls him a beggar is not the soldier’s friend,
And no sensible soldier should on him depend.
A soldier is a man that ought to be respected,
And by his country shouldn’t be neglected;
For he fights our foreign foes, and in danger of his life,
Leaving behind him his relatives and his dear wife.
Then hurrah for Tommy Atkins, he’s the people’s friend,
Because when foreign foes assail us he does us defend;
He is not a beggar, as Rudyard Kipling has said,
No, he doesn’t need to beg, he lives by his trade.
And in conclusion I will say,
Don’t forget his wife and children when he’s far away;
But try and help them all you can,
For remember Tommy Atkins is a very useful man.
McGonagall, oblivious as ever to any kind of irony, has clearly missed the point of Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads. This collection of poems, published in 1892, takes an unsentimental – though not unsympathetic – view of life in the services from the viewpoint of the private soldier. McGonagall’s ire seems to have been particularly raised by The Widow at Windsor which begins thus:
‘Ave you ‘eard o’ the Widow at Windsor
With a hairy gold crown on ‘er ‘ead?
She ‘as ships on the foam — she ‘as millions at ‘ome,
An’ she pays us poor beggars in red.
McGonagall probably wasn’t all that impressed by the tone adopted towards his beloved Queen either, but seems to have restrained any urge to write a poem to defend her too. In his call for better treatment of Britain’s soldiers he echoes, in his own artless way, another of Kipling’s ballads: Tommy, though Kipling manages to evoke the human frailties of his subject in contrast to McGonagzall’s cardboard heroes:
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,
McGonagall may also have felt professional jealousy for Kipling. After Tennyson’s death in 1892 the post of Poet Laureate was offered to Kipling, but he turned it down. What the “Queen’s poet” McGonagall made of this can only be imagined.