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A Shout From The Attic: I’m Tommy Atkins, I Am

...In quiet, solitary moments, when the dust of the day has settled, even the most perverse of personalities may slip into reverie and share the contents of their innermost soul with a good listener. I had religion; most soldiers did not..

Ronnie Bray tells how he became the auditor of the chorus of soldiers' souls

I was with a good group of men. Most were seventeen as I was, some eighteen, and there were a couple of re-enlistments in their middle to late thirties. When one of these old men age was questioned about his antiquity, he replied that he was “a re-enlistment – accepted trade and musket, sir!” His response, I thought quaint but attractive, almost poetic, but unexpected in an environment that did not court poesy. Re-enlistments past the normal recruiting age could deduct former years of service from their chronological age, and if the sum came out right, they were accepted back in.

So many of these lads, from a variety of backgrounds, all had at their cores a sensitivity that was surprising. Soldiers have their moments when they are no better than fighting men should be. That is when they live up to the low opinion of the populace in war time. During times of national crises such as war, the soldier is a hero, and is welcome anywhere. However, in peace time he is something of an embarrassment. Kipling penned some trenchant lines on this subject:

Oh, 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,
Oh, it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play.

In quiet, solitary moments, when the dust of the day has settled, even the most perverse of personalities may slip into reverie and share the contents of their innermost soul with a good listener. I had religion; most soldiers did not.

While this set me apart when the lads were doing what lads do, things that I did not share because of my religious belief, such as drinking, smoking, telling off-colour stories, womanising, swearing, and so forth, when the mood was on them to talk of their more profound selves, I was singled out to be the auditor of the chorus of their souls. They revealed dimensions that cast the confessors in new light, rounding off their characters and redeeming superficial personas behind which many hide.

Although I was very young, but seventeen and a half, I was trusted with their secrets, their fears, and sometimes their misdeeds, and I have never betrayed any of their disclosures, and I never shall.

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