200: The Tolkien Special


One of my favorite authors would serve during the war, taking part in the Battle of the Somme. In this episode, an Episode 200 special, I take some time to talk about his experiences during the war



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 200. After the war was over in 1918, countless people all over Europe probably could have said the words, “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.” Today we are going to focus on one of those people. This episode is something a bit different, and so I feel like I have to start off with a few disclaimers. This episode does not really fit in our overall narrative of the war, that will start up again next week. It also is very focused on one person, J.R.R. Tolkien, and this is done for one very good reason, I want to. At this point, after the First World War, Tolkien’s works are probably in second place for the amount of time I have spent reading and thinking about a topic, and since this is a pretty special episode, 200, I thought it would be okay for me to do a project that I was very interested in, even if it is a bit outside of the norm for the podcast. This episode is broken down into two sections, the first will chronicle Tolkien’s path through the war, if you are just here for First World War history this should certainly still be of interest to you, if only because it is one of the few times we have zoomed down to the individual level. During the war Tolkien would serve in the Lancashire Fusiliers, and would be present for the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The second half of this episode is where I will start talking using words like Quenya, Gondolin, Morgoth, Samwise Gamgee, and the Dead Marshes as we dive into some of the ways that his experiences in the First World War would influence his works later in life. While Tolkien was adamant that none of his stories were allegorical, or inspired by real events, he would fully admit that his experiences both during and after the war effected his fictional works. During the Second World War he would write to his son, who was serving in the Royal Air Force, that ‘I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering’

Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in the Orange Free State in southern Africa. His family would eventually make their way back to the British Isles were Tolkien would begin the path that would eventually lead to him attending Exeter College in Oxford. During this time Tolkien’s later obsession with languages and their evolution over time was in full effect. He would create and evolve several languages during this time, but he was also known as a very solid rugby player. Like many young men of his social standing he was involved in the Officer Training Corps, where he was a cadet. By 1914 he was also betrothed to Edith, who would later become his wife, and his studies were progressing nicely. Then the war came.

After the war started there was a call for more volunteers to fill out the ranks of the British army. These efforts targetted the entire society, and middle class young men experienced quite a bit of pressure to join up as officers. Tolkien would write later in his life that ‘In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in.’ Tolkien would elect to remain in school, hoping to earn his degree before joining up. He believed that this was his best option, since money was not something he had in abundance. One of his very good friends, Rob Gilson, would say that “He did not join the Army until later than the rest of us as he finished his schools at Oxford first. It was quite necessary for him, as it is his main hope of earning his living and I am glad to say he got his first – in English Literature…He has always been desperately poor…” Even though Tolkien did not immediately join the army his life was still effected by the fact that so many others of his peers did join up. A large percentage of students from Exeter answered the call to the colors, and the number of new students dropped precipitously. This meant a mostly empty campus during 1915, an emptiness that Tolkien noted with regret. He did enroll in the Officer Training Corps once again, choosing the path that set him up for joining the army at a later date, this meant his weeks involved several hours of military drill and classroom instruction. Tolkien would complete his degree during the 1915 spring semester, and during the summer of 1915 he was looking to join the army. On June 28th he would receive an officer’s commission ‘for the duration of the war.’ He would attempt to join one of his friends in the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers, but he would be unsuccessful and would instead be assigned to the 13th Service Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers. For this posting he would be given a commission as a second Lieutenant, and on July 9th he received a letter from the War Office, making it official. His first task was to attend an officer’s training course in Bedford. At this course he would be instructed on how to be an officer in the army, and also to lead other men in the drills and other activities that was required during training.

Tolkien would complete the training course in August, and he would travel to Staffordshire to join the 13th Lancashires. This unit was setup as a training unit, which meant that it existed to train and prepare new soldiers that would then be drafted into other battalions as replacements. Tolkien did not get on very well with his commanding officer, or really any of the higher ranking officers he encountered during training. Tolkien’s letters during this time, mostly to Edith his future wife, are full of run little stories and quotes. In what is maybe my favorite quote from one of his letters, and a sentiment that was probably shared by many other soldiers in the British army, Tolkien would write to Edith that ‘Gentlemen are non-existent among the superiors, and even human beings rare indeed.’ There is also another quote about what war does to people which I just have to share ‘war multiplies the stupidity by 3 and its power by itself: so one’s precious days are ruled by (3x)2 when x = normal human crassitude’. One more quote from another letter from his time in training, this one discussing the types of training that were being done at various times of the year “The usual kind of morning standing about and freezing and then trotting to get warmer so as to freeze again. We ended up by an hour’s bomb-throwing with dummies. Lunch and a freezing afternoon. All the hot days of summer we doubled about at full speed and perspiration, and now we stand in icy groups in the open being talked at!”

Near the start of 1916 Tolkien chose to specialize in signaling, the allowed Tolkien to engage a bit with his love of language and codes, and also made it more likely that he would survive the war, although I do not believe that survivability had much of an input into his decision. Once he transferred into the signals unit he accounts of training show a marked increase in morale. He would spend most of the time from the start of 1916 until June 4th at various signals training schools, but he would find time to officially marry Edith on March 22nd. Then in the first days of June he was informed that he would be off to the front in 48 hours before being given his last leave before being on his way. He would later say of this moment that ‘Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute, parting from my wife this…it was like a death.’

Tolkien would be posted to the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers and when he arrived behind the front, he found a unit which had many different types of officers. Some of them were new to the war just as he was, some of these were even younger than Tolkien was, but then there were also a few officers who were much older. These men were veterans not just of the First World War but also some of Britain’s previous conflicts, there were even a few Boer War veterans kicking around. Tolkien found that he had little in common with either group, and he would write to Edith lamenting this fact. During these last days before the Somme offensive Tolkien and the other officers were constantly training either some of the younger officers or the men of their units. Tolkien was focusing on signals, and what he found at the front did not at all match up with what he was told to expect during his training. Cables and telephone lines were a mess, not the nice neat and orderly setup that they were supposed to have. To top it all off they could rarely actually use them. There were problems with phone lines, with single return lines bleeding signals into the ground that could be listened to by the Germans. This meant that most of the really important messages had to be sent in other ways, like runners of even carrier pigeons. Tolkien felt that this made most of his training completely worthless. During the first days of July Tolkien’s unit was put on grave-digging detail to handle all of the casualties that were being caused by the fighting on the Somme, then on July 5th his unit would receive orders to move forward to reinforce the units that had taken La Boiselle. During this movement Tolkien would stay behind to man the communications behind the front.

The Lancashires would move out to the front again on July 14th, where they would act as reserve for an attack on Ollivers. Tolkien would be involved this time, running communications closer to the front for the action. It was during this move to the front that Tolkien would first describe experiencing the true horror of the battlefield, noting that the stench of dead bodies that were still laying on the battlefield was particularly overwhelming. His unit reached the front and then remained in reserve for most of the morning of July 15th, then orders arrived for the Lancashires to join in the second attack of the day. This attack did not go well, and was beaten back. During all of these actions Tolkien was trying to keep some sort of communications link between the units at the front and the rear. This meant mostly trying to use runners who were of dubious value given their vulnerability as they tried to approach the front line units. With the attacks a failure Tolkien’s unit was back in reserve on the 27th with Ollivers was finally taken.

After the Ollivers action Tolkien was made the Battalion Signals Officer, with the previous officer moving up to the brigade. This put Tolkien in command of the entire Battalion’s communications, and put him at the head of a team of NCOs and enlisted men who helped him setup the battalion signals station. He would assume his new role on July 21st and then the unit would be on its way to the front again on the 24th. They would take over part of the line that was to the north of the Somme battlefield. Here they were not tasked with launching any attacks, just simply holding the line, with most of the nights spent working on the trenches. The biggest problem for Tolkien during this time was trying to maintain communications lines with brigade headquarters which was over a mile away. On August 5th they would be pulled out of the line once again.

The next combat that the unit would see was on October 19th when they would join in the attack on a section of German fortifications known as the Regina Trench. Here they would be successful, and Tolkien would be the one that sent the signal of that success to Brigade headquarters. Just a few days later they would once again be relieved that they would move back into reserve. This would prove to the Tolkien’s last experience in combat because on October 25th he would report sick with a temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit. The diagnosis would be trench fever, an affliction generally caused by lice that were always present for the men at the front. There was only own known way to treat this fever and this was simply rest while the bacteria that caused it did whatever it was going to do on its way through the body. Tolkien would leave his unit on October 28th and be sent to an officer’s hospital behind the front, eventually making his way back to England.

Over the next several months he would be in and out of hospital with the fever returning several times. On February 27th the medical review board found that he was well enough to be given a posting, although not one that was overseas and in combat. A short time later he would be posted to the Humber Garrison which guarded the Yorkshire coast near the mouth of the river that shared its name. He would be at this posting until the beginning of August, and he apparently found it to be very dull, which seems pretty understandable. Even though he was found to be fit for duty in June, in August his fever would return, and this began a series of medical problems that would once again see him in and out of hospital for the next year. On April 10th he would be declared fit to fight, and would be posted to the 13th Lancashire Fusiliers, but then on June 29th he would again be in hospital due to gastritis. This bit of sickness probably saved his life, because he would have been posted to the 11th Lancashires, a unit that was almost entirely destroyed by the Germans in Operation Georgette. In October, with the war seemingly near and end Tolkien requested that he be allowed to transfer out of the military and into civilian work. On October 13th he was found to be unfit for military duty and was posted to a desk job. This would be his general role until he was demobilized after the end of the war, although he would be posted to Oxford after the signing of the armistice so that he could continue his education.

One of the persistent stories, or myths, of Tolkien and his experiences during the war is that some of his early work was written in the trenches. He would later in life claim that this was completely false, stating ‘That’s all spoof, you might scribble something on the back of an envelope and shove it in your back pocket, but that’s all. You couldn’t write…You’d be crouching down among flies and filth.’ Tolkien did later write that he may have done some writing in dugouts near the front, but probably nothing more than some brief outlines or just jotting down some ideas. He would find time to write during his time in hospital after 1916 and it would be during that time that the first drafts of some of his later works, and also a large amount of work on some of the languages that would play an important role in those later works, would be completed.

Even if Tolkien did not write any of his stories in the trenches the influence of Tolkien’s time in the military, and at the front, can be seen in several aspects of his writings. I am going to just focus on three specific areas where I feel that the influence is particularly strong: the character of Samwise Gamgee, the Dead Marshes, and the early drafts of the fall of Gondolin. Tolkien rarely called out specific influences within his life for pieces of his stories, although he would often refer to older works and how they influenced his writings. One of the rare exceptions to this rule was the character of Samwise Gamgee. Sam was Frodo’s companion in the Lord of the Rings and their relationship is very clearly modeled on the relationship between an officer and his batman, a relationship that Tolkien had seen first hand during the war. Batmen were men, generally NCOs, that were assigned as orderlies to commissioned officers. During the First World War the official terms was soldier-servant, but the more common terms was batman. They would take care of all of the various administrative items that the officer generally would not have time to do while worrying about leading his unit. In many cases this relationship had an extra dimension due to the very strict class divisions that were a part of early 20th century British society. Batmen were generally from a lower social class than the officer, and this was also reflected in Lord of the Rings. Frodo is from the upper classes, as far as hobbits go, and Sam is originally his gardener, clearly of a lower class. Even with this master servant relationship dynamic Tolkien did not mean any slight against Samwise, saying that ‘My “Sam Gamgee” is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.’

The influences on the character of Sam are very clear, and they seem similarly clear when looking at the location of the Dead Marshes. I have always, personally, considered the Dead Marshes to be clearly inspired by the First World War Battlefields like on the Somme, which Tolkien would have seen and experienced. My research for this episodes mades that connection seem a bit less clear cut. The Dead Marshes are an area near and old battlefield where over the years multiple very large battles have occurred. Due to these battles, and the armies that participated in them the marshes are full of dead bodies, although in this case preserved by something supernatural. In the Two Towers, as Sam and Frodo are crossing the marshes Same would say ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water’ to which Frodo replies ‘I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them…I know not who they are.’ It is very tempting to directly relate this area, an area full of dead and decaying bodies left behind by battles from the past, to Tolkien’s wartime experience. In 1960 he would write that ‘The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morranon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.’ However, in that same letter he would say that “They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains.” In general the physical features of the Dead Marshes, the concept of an old battle leaving behind dead bodies that have been buried by time is perhaps inspired by the war, but the actual details of the Dead Marshes, and many of its fantastical elements which are so critical to its place in the story, seems to come from more ancient stories.

We come now to the Fall of Gondolin. The Fall of Gondolin was a story that had its roots in one of those hospitals that Tolkien would spend so much of the war years as a patient in. It is the story of an attack on a large city, Gondolin, by an overwhelming enemy army. The draft of the story was created during the war years, and it would turn into the most extensive draft on the topic. This draft would include several aspects that would later be excised from the narrative, and these parts are often the ones that seem most clearly inspired by the war. One of these elements is the presence of Dragons. At this point in Tolkien’s stories dragons were much different than what the modern conception of dragons has become. They were not Game of Thrones, or Harry Potter dragons, or even Smaug from Tolkien’s own work, instead they were more like large machines made of various metals. One of them is made of iron, it carries soldiers within it, and they are created from ‘iron so cunningly linked that they might flow…around and above all obstacles before them.’ When these dragons are fired upon by the elves of Gondolin ‘their hollow bellies clanged…yet it availed not for they might not be broken, and the fires rolled off them.’ The obvious parallel for these descriptions is to that of a tank, but they seem a good deal more fantastical. However, now I am going to read a report summarizing an account from a German soldier of the 211th Infantry Regiment who would be in the German trenches when the British used their tanks for the first time in 1916 “There is a crocodile crawling into our lines!’ The poor wretch was off his head. He had seen a tank for the first time and had imagined this giant of a machine, rearing up and dipping down as it came, to be a monster. It presented a fantastic picture, this Colossus in the dawn light. One moment its front section would disappear into a crater, with the rear section still protruding, the next its yawning mouth would rear up out of the crater, to roll slowly forward with terrifying assurance.” When confronting the unknown it is often the case that we reach into the fantastical. While the iron dragons to tanks is a pretty easy parallel, there is also something to be said about the overall theme of the fighting in the story. There is a reason that the story, and the story of a siege of a city is called the Fall of Gondolin, spoilers, it does not go well. It is the story of failure, and the hopelessness of war, all of the feelings the Tolkien had about the war after the fighting was over. He would later say, around the time of the release of the Lord of the Rings ‘That, I suppose, was an actual conscious reaction from the War – from the stuff I was brought up on in the “War to end wars” – that kind of stuff, which I didn’t believe in at the time and I believe in less now.’ Tolkien’s experiences during the war would stick with him for the rest of his life, and the above examples are just a few of the ways in which those experiences are seen in his writings. Then, later he would live through another war. His son, who he wrote that quote to at the beginning of his episode would serve in the RAF, and Tolkien would write to him in January 1945 about how he reflected on those years almost 30 years later “I read eagerly all details of your life, and the things you see and do – and suffer, You will have no heart-tug at losing that, but you’ll remember the other things, even the storms and the dry veld and even the smells of camp, when you return to this other land. I can see clearly now in my mind’s eye the old trenches and the squalid houses and the long roads of Artois, and I would visit them again if I could.”