What Tolkien Taught Me About the Battle of the Somme

FT Magazine  29/30 July 2006

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Somme were inextricably linked. I learned this forty-four years ago, shortly after I was elected to my first university appointment, at Merton College, Oxford. I was twenty-six years old.

In those days there was a strict seating order at college dinners. The head of the college sat in the centre, the senior fellows on either side of him, and the junior fellows at the far ends of the table. Also at the ends were the Emeritus Fellows, long retired, venerable, sometimes garrulous guardians of the college name. Several of them had served in the First World War. When they discovered a historian, new to his craft, filled with the keenness of a youngster amid his elders, they were happy to talk about those distant days, already more than forty years in the past.

Some enjoyed singing the songs of the trenches, in versions far ruder than those sung today. Tolkien was more reticent, yet when he did open up, full of terrible tales. There was never any boasting. The war’s scars were too many, its reality too grim, to lead to self-glorification, or even to embellishment.

In 1916, the twenty-four-year-old Tolkien was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. On the evening of July 14 – two weeks after the start of the Battle of the Somme – his battalion went into the line. He had never seen action before. What he later called the “animal horror” of the trenches was as yet unknown to him. But he already knew that one of his closest friends, Robert Gilson, had been killed on the first day.

Gilson, two years younger than Tolkien, had written home two nights before he was killed. “Guns firing at night are beautiful – if they were not so terrible. They have the grandeur of thunderstorms. But how one clutches at the glimpses of peaceful scenes. It would be wonderful to be a hundred miles from the firing line once again.”

Tolkien was to experience many such nights. He was also to lose more friends. On July 22, three days after his first five-day spell in the trenches, his friend Ralph Payton was killed in action. Payton’s body was never identified; his name is inscribed today on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.

Two days after Payton was killed, Tolkien returned to the trenches for a second five-day spell of front-line duty. As battalion Signals Officer, his task each time he went “up the line” was to supervise the communications to the brigade command post a mile and a half behind the trenches. The main method of communication was by pigeon.

As we talked of those far off times, Tolkien remembered, as vividly as if it were yesterday, the constant danger of German artillery shells, ranging throughout the area, falling with their screech and roar, and clouds of earth and mud, and the fearful cries of men who had been hit.

Like all the First World War soldiers at dinner in college, Tolkien knew that his stories seemed antique compared to the more recent memories of those who had fought in the Second World War. Several times he told me, in words he was later to use in his introduction to the second edition of “The Lord of the Rings”:  “It seems now often forgotten that to be caught by youth in 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to have been involved in 1939 and the following years.”

Forty-four years after my Merton conversations with Tolkien, I passed the Roman Catholic church at Bertrancourt, three miles behind the old front line. There, on August 6, he attended mass before setting off, the following morning, for the front-line trenches. It was his third spell up the line, and he was fortunate. During the five days that he ran the communications there, no British forward assault took place, and only four men were killed. One writes “only” because, at the time, the death of four soldiers on a battalion front seemed a small toll.

Like many old soldiers, Tolkien spoke of the stark, dull, ordinariness of much of life on the battlefield. But there were no lack of action. On September 27 he was back in the front line, organizing communications through the splintered maze of Thiepval Wood, as his battalion struggled, in vain, to enter the Schwaben Redoubt, a German strong point that had resisted all efforts to capture it since July 1. On the following day, when the battalion carried out a successful raid on a German machine-gun position that had caused havoc for the attackers, more than thirty Germans were taken prisoner.

Tolkien, who spoke German, later recalled with wry amusement how, when he offered a drink of water to a wounded German officer, the prisoner, while accepting the water, corrected him on his German pronunciation.

Tolkien and his signallers were always vulnerable. One of them, Private Sydney Sumner, had disappeared during intense shellfire on July 9. For two months no trace of him could be found. “Dear Sir”, his wife wrote to Tolkien in hope and despair, “I would not care if only I knew how he went”, and she added, “I know that they cannot all be saved to come home.”

Sumner had left a one-year-old daughter at home. His name is on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing: a memorial with more than 73,335 names on it. No one of those men was ever identified amid the cruel carnage of the battlefield, another facet of Tolkien’s “animal horror” of the trenches.

On October 21 Tolkien was again in the front line with his signallers, following the first wave of infantrymen, who captured the German trench in front of them. During the attack, a German shell hit one of his signallers. Another rescued the signaller’s pigeon basket. On the following day the battalion chaplain, Captain Evers, who had disappeared during the fighting, returned to the British lines covered in blood. He has spent the night in No-Man’s Land, under German artillery fire, tending the wounded.

On October 26, while in reserve, Tolkien’s battalion was inspected by Sir Douglas Haig. The next day Tolkien was taken ill. He had contracted “trench fever”, a bacterium in the bloodstream, through the burrowing of the ever-active lice. He was not to see active service again.

On November 18, the final day of the Battle of the Somme, Tolkien was struck off his battalion’s strength and evacuated to Britain. He was never to forget his five months on the Somme. In “The Lord of the Rings”, Sam Gangee – the fictional character of whom Tolkien said that he was “a reflection of the English soldiers, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself” – trips, “catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank into the sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up…. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a  cry. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror.”

I feel proud to have told the story of a battle of which Tolkien was my first eye-witness.

The Somme by Sir Martin Gilbert

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