You will have heard of Rudyard Kipling of course. He gets a bad press nowadays, being castigated as an Imperialist and sometimes also a racist, but a lot of what he wrote is as topical today as it was in 1897. For instance his remarks about the treatment of ordinary British soldiers. In his poem ‘Tommy’ he wrote:
Oh it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away’;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins” when the band begins to play
That remains true. Britssh soldiers in the 19th century were not always popular when they were based in the UK. They often hit the bottle and there were few garrison towns that were not disfugured by drunken brawls by redcoats. Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aldershot all had nights when the army rioted in the streets and in 1848 the 93rd Highlanders caused major problems for the police. Only a few years later that same regiment won enduring fame as the Thin Red Line that stopped Russian cavalry at Balaclava. The same soldiers transformed from villains to heroes by a change in circumstance.
The question remained: why did they riot? Possibly because of the way they were treated. Shockingly poor pay, bad living conditions and often neglected ot worse by society and their own superiors, the Victorian soldier had no outlet for their frustration apart from the pub. On discharge they were left to their own devices, often left hundreds of miles from home still wearing tropical kit.
I do have some personal reasons for writing about Victoria’s soldiers as my Grandfather was a 22 year regular and my wife’s uncle fought through the Boer War with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. I used his journal as a base for my Soldier of the Queen trilogy.
Today of course, things are different. . . yet the married quarters of British soldiers are riddled with damp and a large proportion of homeless men are ex-military, while many civilians still harbour negative feelings about off duty British soldiers.
Kipling then, remains topical. Perhaps others of his poems as well as Tommy deserve to be re-read?
At this time of year, with winter about to set in, it may be fitting to consider the plight of the homeless soldiers who have served their country and are now destined to a cold and miserable life.