‘Peaky Blinders’: Cillian Murphy Explains Thomas Shelby’s Job in WWI

Peaky Blinders begins in 1919, shortly after the end of WWI. Thomas Shelby returns home from the war a changed man. The horrors he experiences left him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), emotionally closed off and rarely smiling and laughing as he once did. Tommy’s job in WWI was one of the worst imaginable. In an interview with the BBC, Cillian Murphy breaks down Tommy’s role in the war and the severe consequences it had on him once he returned home.

A close-up photo of Cillian Murphy with very blue eyes in a suit.
Cillian Murphy | Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Who served in WWI in ‘Peaky Blinders’?

Tommy was not the only character in Peaky Blinders to serve in WWI. Due to the Military Service Act, almost every young, single man in England could be called upon to serve in the war. Tommy’s brothers Arthur and John served alongside him. Many of Tommy’s friends in Birmingham were also drafted, including Freddie Thorne, Danny Whizz-Bang, and Barney Thompson. The war significantly affected each character after they returned home.

PTSD in ‘Peaky Blinders’

PTSD presents itself in a variety of ways in Peaky Blinders. Arthur is subject to fits of rage, and both he and John can commit unspeakable acts of violence without batting an eye. They return from war emotionally numb to violence. Danny Whizz-Bang is subject to violent episodes, during which he believes he is still fighting in France. Barney is committed to a mental asylum shortly after the war. Although the series never reveals exactly what caused Barney’s confinement, it is presumed it has something to do with PTSD from the war.

Tommy’s symptoms are perhaps the most subtle. He is emotionally detached and relies on drugs and alcohol to cope. Tommy has nightmares and difficulty sleeping. The war profoundly affects him, as Murphy explains in an interview with the BBC. “For Tommy, I think what it did was, he lost all faith. Religion was just a joke. Authority was just a joke. You know, the establishment was a joke.” Murphy explains that every day was “extra” for Tommy after he returned home alive. He was no longer afraid of anything, including death.

What was Tommy Shelby’s role in WWI?

Tommy gained the rank of Sergeant Major in WWI. He was awarded several medals for gallantry after returning home and is said to have fought bravely during the Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme. The medals were no consolation. Polly tells Grace that Tommy threw them in the Cut after returning home from war. For a while, Grace helps Tommy heal from the trauma of war. However, the respite is quickly taken away when Grace is killed.

Murphy explains Tommy and his comrades’ job in WWI in more detail. “Tommy was a “clay kicker” in the first World War, which was basically a tunneler,” he says to the BBC. “They tunneled under enemy lines and set explosives. And so it was the most claustrophobic, horrific, dark job you could possibly have. Like the worst of the worst.” It’s no wonder that Tommy and his brothers were so profoundly affected by their service.

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