That is not specially Tommy Atkins; it is homo sapiens of the hearthside, whether in suburban villa or in slum, for ever dissatisfied (more especially with his victuals) and for ever evoking our affection all the same.
No; Tommy Atkins is never twice alike. He is unanimous on few debatable matters. One of them, as I have said, is the desirability of finishing the war—in the proper way. (But even here there are differences as to what constitutes the proper way.) Another is (I trust I shall not shock the reader) the extreme displeasingness of life at the front. I would not say that our hospital patients are positively thankful to be wounded, nor that they do not wish to recover with reasonable rapidity. But that they are glad to be safe in England once more is undeniable. The more honour to them that few, if any, flinch from returning to duty—when they know only too well what that duty consists of. But they make no bones about their opinion. Not long ago I was the conductor of a party of convalescents who went to a special matinee of a military drama. The theatre was entirely filled with wounded soldiers from hospitals, plus a few nurses and orderlies. It was an inspiring sight. The drama went well, and its patriotic touches received their due meed of applause. But when the heroine, in a moving passage, declared that she had never met a wounded British soldier who was not eager to get back to the front, there arose, in an instant, a spontaneous shout of laughter from the whole audience. That was Tommy Atkins unanimous for once.
He was unanimous too, I should add, in perceiving immediately that the actress had been disconcerted by his roar of amusement. The poor girl’s emotional speech had been ruined. She looked blank and stood irresolute. At once a burst of hand-clapping took the place of the laughter. It was not ironical, it was friendly and apologetic. “Go ahead!” it said. “We’re sorry. Those lines aren’t your fault, anyway. You spoke them very prettily, and it was a shame to laugh. But the ass of a playwright hadn’t been in the trenches, and if your usual audiences relish that kind of speech they haven’t been there either.”
So much for Tommy Atkins in his unanimous mood—unanimously condemning cant and at the same time unanimously courteous. Now that I come to reflect I believe that, in his best moments, these are perhaps the only two points concerning which Tommy Atkins is unanimous. Whether he lives up to them or not (and to expect him unflinchingly to live up to them in season and out of season is about as sensible as to expect him perpetually to live up to the photographs and anecdotes), we may take them as his ideal. He dislikes humbug: he tries to be polite. Could one sketch a sounder scaffolding on which to build all the odd divergencies—crankinesses and heroisms, stupidities and engagingnesses—which may go to make the edifice of an average decent soul’s material, mental and spiritual habitation?