Frenchman Meets That Strange Being, Tommy Atkins

The thousands of English soldiers now on French soil are, to Frenchmen, strange, exotic creatures, the study of which is full of delightful surprises. Recently a French journalist traveled to the trenches, interviewed several specimens of the genus Tommy Atkins, and published the results in a Paris newspaper.

One Tommy was “of the species crane,” with thin legs and arms like telegraph wires, by no means as taciturn as the Frenchman had believed Englishmen to be. He told the Frenchman some tall yarns.

“In one fight our battalion lost five hundred men,” he vouchsafed. “One bullet, which just scratched my nose, killed my pal beside me.”

Another Tommy dwelt on the awful fact that he had been “twenty-two days on water without any tea in it.” He, too, had been in the thick of the fray and had killed several of the enemy with his own hand, which, recounts the Frenchman, filled him with “a gentle joy.”

“Are the inhabitants of this part of France hospitable?” the journalist inquired of another Englishman.

“Awfully nice!” replied the soldier. These words the correspondent, after giving them in English, to show how strange they look, translates: “Terriblement aimable”—a combination which must appear perfectly incomprehensible to Frenchmen, who do not see how a thing can be “awful” and “nice” at the same time.

At a village in Northern France the newspaper man found some English soldiers instructing a lot of village boys in the rudiments of football.

“When the French team scored a point,” he writes, “I said to one of the Englishmen: ‘But aren’t you ashamed to let them beat you at your own game?’ To which the Briton replied: ‘Ah, but we want to encourage the people of France to take up sports!'”

Football was being played wherever there were Englishmen. Often the games were between teams of English and French soldiers. Where a ball was not to be had, the players were quite content to kick about a bundle of clothes.

When not thus engaged, the English soldier finds time to enter the lists of Cupid. The French writer tells of one Tommy whom he saw “promenading proudly before the awe-struck glances of the villagers with three girls on his arm!”

“The English? Oh, they’re good fellows!” remarked a villager in whose house a number of the allies of France were quartered. “They’re in bed snoring every night at eight. They get together in my kitchen while I make their tea and sing sentimental songs. They’re all musical.” The journalist adds, in corroboration of this statement, that he himself heard Tommies “singing discordantly to the accompaniment of the cannon.”

Also he found that Tommy had a sense of humor. On one occasion, he learned, a German officer came charging at the head of his men into an English trench. Leaping over the edge of it, he fell headlong into a sea of black mud, from which he picked himself up, black and dripping, and exclaimed:

“What a confounded nuisance this old war is, isn’t it?”

Whereupon a Tommy, about to run his bayonet through the intruder, burst into roars of laughter, and made him a prisoner instead.

“And the Tommies are philosophers, too,” writes the Frenchman. “I heard one of them say solemnly to a comrade: ‘If you have any money, spend it all to-day. You may be dead to-morrow!'”


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