Belfast Telegraph

Has anything really changed for our armed services since the days of Kipling's Tommy?


Soldiers on parade at Armed Forces Day in Bangor at the weekend
Soldiers on parade at Armed Forces Day in Bangor at the weekend

The Military Covenant, which recognises the unique position of forces personnel and their families, is being extended to NI as part of the DUP/Tory pact. Richard Doherty looks at its storied history.

For it's Tommy this and Tommy that an' 'Chuck him out - the brute!'

"But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot."

So wrote Rudyard Kipling in 1892. He was describing the attitude of the government and public to the British soldier of his day. Some might argue that little has changed.

When Kipling wrote that poem, Tommy, his subject, the ordinary British private soldier, was paid about 35p per week.

However, he was fed, clothed and accommodated by the War Office, and most of his pay was his to dispose of in whichever way he chose, even if that involved alcohol.

But Kipling felt that the ordinary soldier wasn't appreciated by either nation or government.

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He believed that the man epitomised in his poem and the ordinary sailor in the Royal Navy deserved respect from both government and people for simply being there to protect the nation in time of threat or war.

It wasn't enough to laud the serviceman when "the guns begin to shoot" and to see him as the "saviour of his country". The serviceman deserved respect at all times.

What Kipling was asking for was what has become known in recent years as a Military Covenant, an agreement between the people of the UK, HM Government and those who serve and have served in the armed forces, that recognises the unique position of service personnel and their families.

No Military Covenant came to pass in Kipling's lifetime. It didn't come to pass after either of the World Wars of the last century.

Two generations of servicemen were welcomed home as heroes in 1919 and 1945, but did that sense of national appreciation endure?

Lloyd George's government promised the returning servicemen of the First World War "a land fit for heroes". Instead, they came home to unemployment, penury and indifference.

It was left to veterans to look after themselves. Some formed charities to care for others and Field Marshal Earl Haig galvanised those smaller groups into the British Legion, formed in 1921. Since then the Legion - the Royal British Legion (RBL) since 1971 - has worked strenuously for the welfare of veterans and their families.

There are many other military charities. SSAFA (Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association) predates Kipling's Tommy and is the oldest. Such charities perform sterling work for veterans and serving personnel, and the lot of the veteran would be much worse without them.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been happy to encourage their work. The charities have relieved MoD of a burden over the years. As one Second World War veteran told me almost 30 years ago: "If the Government had kept its promises to us and our fathers for a 'land fit for heroes' there'd be no need for the Legion."

The term "military covenant" has been about for many years, but only in 2000 did the MoD produce a document called Soldiering: The Military Covenant.

In that document the MoD acknowledged that service personnel "forego... some rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces, as they place the needs of country, the forces and others before their own".

Today's MoD website describes the "Armed Forces Covenant" as "an enduring covenant between the people of the United Kingdom, HM Government and all those who serve or have served in the armed forces... and their families".

The MoD is keen to encourage communities, businesses and local authorities in playing a part in "delivering" the Military Covenant. Yet questions can be asked about MoD's own role.

The website states that those who serve, or have served, either as regulars or reservists, and their families "should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services".

It notes that in some cases special consideration is appropriate, "especially for those who have given most, such as the injured and the bereaved".

Today's private soldier is much better paid than Kipling's Tommy at £50 per day compared to 35p. But Tommy didn't have to pay for his accommodation or his meals. Even if he spent his pay on drink, he knew he was still going to get three meals a day. Not so today's soldier.

Tommy's lot has changed in other ways. He and his family used to live in a "military bubble", with health and other services provided by the MoD. Most large military areas had MoD hospitals. These have now gone, replaced by medical centres in large bases. Thus, the serviceman or woman depends on NHS provision.

There is a template that the MoD could use. In the USA, where serving personnel and veterans receive more respect, the Veterans Administration was created to provide for veterans.

Even in death the government steps in - the old soldier receives a military funeral at the country's expense and a military headstone, even if his/her service was 75 years earlier, but lasted more than a year.

Granted, the VA (Veterans Affairs) system is creaking in some states, but it remains an exemplar.

Better still are the Australian and New Zealand systems, which are true military covenants. Closer to home, France shows special respect to its veterans, especially those wounded "pour la Patrie".

Here, the Government talks about the Military Covenant, but doesn't want to shoulder the entire burden. In Opposition, David Cameron was a fervent supporter, while the then Labour government was criticised by the RBL in 2007 for reneging on its commitments to service personnel, highlighting especially the practice of treating wounded personnel alongside civilians in NHS wards.

There was even talk of the Military Covenant being enshrined in law in 2010. But Cameron's government didn't legislate. Instead, the covenant is covered by an annual report to Parliament.

There is much that is nebulous about the Military Covenant. In some respects, it is almost a chimera. Talk about extending it to Northern Ireland is only talk, since it isn't enshrined in law.

As for some of its elements, such as priority on housing lists for veterans, which government asks local authorities to accept, councils here have no housing responsibilities.

However, much of its essence is already available here, while anyone wary of declaring a service background can go through a "veterans' champion" in local council areas (these individuals are elected formally by the d'Hondt system).

The MoD is also happy to tolerate reduced manning levels, thus saving money, while asking those serving to give almost their last drops of sweat or blood. On the one hand government asks the forces to do more. On the other it tells them to do so with less money.

While the public probably have a more positive attitude to service personnel today than since the Second World War, the real responsibility lies with politicians who don't seem to be following the public's lead.

What do service personnel think of the situation? Kipling answered for them 125 years ago: "But Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees."

Richard Doherty is a military historian. His latest book, El Alamein 1942: Turning Point In The Desert, will be published by Pen & Sword Military in November

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