‘Peaky Blinders’: Inside the Real World War I History That Made the Characters

March 12, 2022Mac Caltrider
Peaky Blinders

The final season of Peaky Blinders is expected to arrive on Netflix in the United States next month. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

In April, the sixth and final season of BBC’s smash hit Peaky Blinders will arrive on Netflix. Since first airing in 2013, the British gangster drama has blown audiences away with its depiction of England’s criminal underworld following World War I. One of the things that makes the show so unique is its authentic portrayal of combat veterans in the wake of the deadliest conflict in British military history.

Many of the show’s characters are World War I veterans. From Paul Anderson’s depiction of Arthur Shelby’s post-war psychosis and Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Thomas Shelby’s extreme claustrophobia to the Shelby family’s overall penchant for violence, the Peaky Blinders’ experiences in the trenches dramatically shaped them as people. Although the Shelby family never existed, the units they purportedly served in did. Here’s a look at the real military units and occupational specialties each character is said to have served in during World War I.

Peaky Blinders
The Shelbys of Peaky Blinders never existed, but the units the fictional characters served in were real. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Thomas Shelby — Tunneler

Of all the characters, the patriarch of the Shelby family and backbone of the entire series drops the most references to his wartime experience. Though Tommy Shelby sometimes references serving in the Small Heath Rifles — a fictional unit based on the real Birmingham Pals battalions — it’s well established throughout the series that Tommy served in the 179th Tunneling Company of the Royal Engineers. 

Tunnelers — known colloquially as “clay kickers” or “moles” — were tasked with digging long tunnels underneath contested no-man’s-land territory to bury explosives underneath enemy trenches. During the Battle of the Somme, British tunnelers successfully laid an estimated 17 mines underneath the German lines. When the mines were detonated during the first day of the battle, it was the largest man-made sound ever created. Some of the craters left by the subterranean mines are still visible today, such as the famous Lochnagar crater, which measures 330 feet across. 

Peaky Blinders never reveals which crater Tommy helped create, but there are multiple references to his underground service during the Somme. His participation in the bloodiest day in British military history lends Tommy enough credibility among other veterans to enjoy a final smoke from his would-be executioners during the second season’s finale, and Tommy’s service is the reason Winston Churchill turns a blind eye to his criminal activity. 

Arthur Shelby — Machine-Gunner

Tommy’s half-cocked older brother Arthur is the undisputed wild card of the Peaky Blinders. He’s also the character who struggles the most to adapt to life after the war. Arthur repeatedly declares he served in the Warwickshire Yeomanry, which checks out when you consider that Arthur is the only Shelby who served in both Gallipoli and France, and the Warwickshire Yeomanry — unlike the 179th Tunneling Company — served in both theaters during the war.

The Warwickshire Yeomanry was originally a cavalry unit, which helps explain Arthur’s knowledge of horses. After service in Gallipoli and Palestine, the Warwickshire Yeomanry was moved to France and restructured as part of the 100th Battalion Machine Gun Corps. In season five, the Peaky’s very own loose cannon reveals he’s still proficient with machine guns when he single-handedly stops an ambush with a Russian Degtyaryov DP-27.

Barney Thompson — Sniper

Barney Thompson is only in one season, but despite his short run, he’s one of the more memorable characters with a military background. Tommy breaks Thompson out of an insane asylum where he finds the former Royal Marine sniper in a straitjacket and seemingly out of his mind from a combination of shell shock and heavy medication. He’s the best marksman Tommy knows and the perfect scapegoat for attempting to assassinate the real fascist party leader Oswald Mosley. 

According to Tommy, the former Royal Marine was “one of the best snipers in the army.” It would be pretty unlikely for a tunneler to have fought side by side with a sniper, but it makes for a badass backstory.

John Shelby, Danny Whizz-Bang, Jeremiah Jesus — Fusiliers

The rest of the primary members of the Peaky Blinders — John Shelby, Danny Whizz-Bang, and Jeremiah Jesus — all served together in France, presumably in one of three Birmingham Pals battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Pals battalions recruited locally with the promise that those who joined would serve alongside one another rather than being sent to separate units. The three Pals battalions raised in Birmingham were all infantry units, making John, Danny, and Jeremiah fusiliers, or standard infantrymen.

According to Tommy’s speech at John’s funeral, the Shelby brothers, along with Danny and Jeremiah, all wound up together in a shell crater cut off from a retreat in an unnamed battle. As they waited to be killed by advancing Prussian cavalry, they recited “In the Bleak Midwinter” by British poet Christina Rossetti, and when the death never came they vowed never to take the “extra” years of their life for granted. The likelihood that they would find themselves in the same crater as Tommy raises some continuity issues, but it explains their collective attitude that every day they remain alive is nothing more than a bonus. 

From the unwelcome cavalry officers at Tommy’s wedding to Winston Churchill recalling to Tommy how “I have no doubt that there was once a time in Flanders when you were under the ground and I was above it,” Peaky Blinders is brimming with references to service in World War I. The final season of Peaky Blinders — now airing in the United Kingdom and soon to be available in the United States — will take the Birmingham gang of World War I veterans to the doorstep of World War II. 

Read Next: ‘Peaky Blinders’ Ups the Action as Series Careens Toward Chaotic World War II Conclusion

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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