The name “Tommy Atkins” is used to refer to any British soldier, sort of like “John Doe” is an average, anonymous sort of person in many English-speaking countries. In the modern British military, Tommy Atkins is usually shortened to just “Tom,” and it is in more common use in some service branches than others. The origins of Tommy Atkins are a bit obscure, and numerous theories have been posited to explain why this name has become so closely associated with the common military man in British culture.
The first recorded use of “Tommy Atkins” to refer generically to soldiers dates to the mid-1700s, when a plantation owner in the Caribbean reported back on the performance of a group of soldiers assigned to him. By 1815, “Tommy Atkins” had also become a common figure in military handbooks, being used as an example for various situations, much like Jane Doe stands in as an example in hypothetical situations in many American courtrooms.
Some people have suggested that Tommy Atkins is named for a soldier observed in battle by the Duke of Wellington. Although the original Thomas Atkins supposedly died shortly after meeting the Duke, he allegedly claimed to be undistressed by his death because it was “all in a day's work,” impressing the Duke with his bravery and commitment to duty. More likely, the name was simply a good pseudonymous fit for a generic soldier.
Whatever the origins, Tommy Atkins became popularized in 1892, in Rudyard Kipling's poem, “Tommy.” The poem launched the name into popular culture, and by the First World War, British soldiers were being referred to as Tommies both by themselves, and by the enemy. Famously, the Germans used to shout out “hey Tommy” across the lines in the trenches to attract the attention of bored British soldiers.
Upon their return from the war, the Tommies found themselves treated with respect, reverence, and appreciation by the British people, and they began to bear the nickname with a badge of pride. Military service often creates feelings of camaraderie and pride in those who participate, and some may have appreciated the idea of being treated as a collective entity which had worked to protect Britain. By being given a nickname which could be used to refer to anyone, British soldiers were reminded of their commonalities, which spanned class, religion, and politics.