Many of you know that during World War 1 the British soldiers were known as “Tommies” and the Americans as “Doughboys”. But did you ever wonder where these sobriquets came from?

As for ‘Tommy’, there is a charming story that the Duke of Wellington came up with the term, in memory of an outstanding soldier in his command who died in heroic circumstances in 1794, but the actual source is considered to be from The Soldier’s Account Book, issued by the War Office beginning in 1815. At the head of each page there was a sample ‘filled-in’ line that the clerks could use as a template, and this sample soldier was named “Thomas Atkins”.

The term remained fairly obscure in public usage, however, until immortalized by Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tommy, from his runaway 1892 bestseller Barrack Room Ballads. Best-known is his verse three:

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap.
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul? ”
But it’s ” Thin red line of ‘eroes ” when the drums begin to roll
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s ” Thin red line of ‘eroes, ” when the drums begin to roll.

The popular use of ‘Tommy’ prevailed until well after the Second World War.

The origin of “Doughboy”, on the other hand, is more difficult to track down. Soldiers are called “Doughboys” in writings from the Mexican-American War (1846-8) so this seems a logical place to start. Four rather fanciful explanations have been postulated, called The Baked Goods Theory, The Button Theory, The Pipe Clay Theory and The Adobe Dust Theory. You can read about these here, in an article written by my friend Mike Hanlon.

There are two factors about “Doughboy” that are hard to explain. First, the use of the term exploded in the American media in 1917, quickly eclipsing “Yank” (remember George M. Cohan’s ”The Yanks are Coming”) and “Sammie”. Second, “Doughboy” disappeared from popular usage nearly as fast after the war. The American soldier in WW2 was universally known as the “GI”, a term that was still hanging on when I served in the US Army in the late sixties, as evidenced by this Jody Call: “GI beans and GI gravy, GI wish I’d joined the Navy”.

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he did work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and is affiliated with the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Salonika Campaign Society and the Gallipoli Association.