Key point: Tolkein witnessed many horrors, including the loss of most of his friends. This is how it changed him.
Smoke and ash drifted across the shattered ground. Dead faces peered up with lidless eyes from pools of stagnant water. Black flying objects screeched downward, bringing terror and death to the soldiers huddled below, while on the horizon the sky blazed red-orange with flame and the entire earth shook.
This is the fictional world described in J.R.R. Tolkien’s immensely popular trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, but it was based on the awful reality of the Western Front in World War I. Perhaps no other war has produced such an illustrious array of writers. Out of this fiery cataclysm, names such as English writers Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and Siegfried Sassoon—to say nothing of such American writers as Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, and John Dos Passos, and German author Erich Maria Remarque—have been etched into public perceptions of World War I-inspired literature. Ironically, Tolkien, perhaps the most famous and widely read writer to emerge from the conflict, is almost never associated with it.
Yet World War I had a major creative impact on Tolkien, informing the universal themes that make his novels so vivid. Brooding evil arises out of the East, a grand alliance of forces forms in the West, and a war for the future of civilization takes place in a nightmarish lunar landscape filled with surging armies and killing machines—the very things Tolkien experienced firsthand in World War I. In particular, male friendship, fortified by the shared hardships of warfare, stands out in Tolkien’s writings, and it jars modern readers to read Tolkien’s foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. “By 1918,” he writes, “all but one of my close friends were dead.”
Tolkien’s Tea Club of the Barrovian Society
In 1889, Queen Victoria sat on the British throne, dourly surveying her mighty empire, which spread out from the British Isles to India, Egypt, Australia, Canada, and much of the rest of the planet. Britain’s powerful navy protected homeland and colony alike; her small professional army was battle hardened from fierce colonial wars. This was the world into which John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1892. Three years later, his mother brought him and his brother to England to escape the harsh African climate. Shortly afterward, the family was crushed to learn that Tolkien’s father had died of rheumatic fever. They moved to Sarehole, just outside the grim industrial city of Birmingham, where Tolkien’s mother gave him an excellent education at home. Her death in 1904 was another body blow to the young boy. The Tolkien children were raised by an aunt and a family friend.
At school, Tolkien’s linguistic gifts blossomed, and he excelled at Latin and ancient Greek, before devouring German, Gothic, Welsh, Finnish, and other languages. Tolkien was a member of his school’s cadet corps, riding with a territorial cavalry regiment in 1912. He made best friends with Christopher Wiseman, Geoffrey Bache Smith, and Robert Gilson, and together they founded the Tea Club of the Barrovian Society, or TCBS, named after their meeting place, the Barrow Store. It was an idealistic, irreverent, and pretentious little group. The witty aesthetic Gilson dreamed of becoming a renowned architect; Wiseman, sensitive and talented, wished to be a musician; literature-loving G.B. Smith longed to be a poet; and Tolkien, dreamy, ambitious, and hardworking, wrote tales of elves, dwarfs, and heroic supermen, inventing his own private languages for them.
Upon graduation, Tolkien was accepted into Oxford University, where he majored in Old English and Germanic languages while developing a relationship with Edith Bratt, his childhood sweetheart. Against the background of romance and ivy-covered university walls, Tolkien observed the slowly escalating tensions among the nations of Europe, which finally exploded into all-out war in 1914 after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The TCBS Goes to War
Although many European men enthusiastically dashed to the colors of their respective nations to participate in a war that was to be over by Christmas, others greeted the conflict with indifference or repulsion. For his part, Tolkien decided to complete his studies and then join up, a primarily financial choice. Tolkien had always been desperately poor, and his only chance for survival after the war was to find a job in academia. After struggling so hard to better himself, Tolkien did not welcome the war, which symbolized for him “the collapse of all my world.” Still, after graduating with a first-class degree in 1915, he prepared to enlist in the British Army.
Tolkien’s friends in the TCBS had already reached the same conclusion. Gilson had joined in November 1915, going into the Cambridgeshire Battalion, later to be transferred to the 11th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment as a second lieutenant. Smith followed his friend a month later, the young poet being accepted into the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, although he would later be transferred to the 19th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, also as a second lieutenant. Like Tolkien, Wiseman opted to enlist later, going into the Royal Navy in summer 1915 to serve on the battleship HMS Superb. Although it was a hard decision for the young men, in reality there was little choice but to volunteer. “In those days,” Tolkien later recalled, “chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in.”
In 1915, the war was not going well for Great Britain and its allies. As Tolkien and his friends went through boot camp, the character of the war transformed, becoming more protracted and deadly than anybody had foreseen. The Lancashire Fusiliers, for instance, had taken part in a bloody but failed landing against well-entrenched Turkish forces at Gallipoli. On the Western Front, British forces had suffered appalling losses at Neuve Chapelle while Russians and Austrians battled it out in the Carpathian Mountains. On the home front, a German submarine campaign was strangling much needed food and weapon supplies. And in April 1915, a new horror appeared: along a four-mile stretch of the Ypres Salient in Belgium, the Germans struck combined French, Algerian, and Canadian divisions with a terrible new weapon—168 tons of chlorine, the world’s first poison gas attack. That autumn, Great Britain suffered 50,000 casualties in the Battle of Loos.
Tolkien Joins the Lancashire Fusiliers
At this bleak hour, Tolkien and the three other members of the TCBS gathered one last time to discuss literature and the future. On June 28, the 23-year-old Tolkien enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers, no doubt desiring to be close to G.B. Smith but also choosing the unit because it was full of Oxford men. This was typical of British Army recruiting at the time—young men joined up en masse by town, school, or trade, organized into regiments sporting such quaint names such as the Tyneside Commercials or the Manchester Pals; G.B. Smith’s battalion was known as the 3rd Salford Pals. The idea was that units made up of friends, relatives, and colleagues would be more cohesive and motivated on the battlefield. The tragic corollary to this thinking was that when the fighting was particularly intense, such close-knit groups would also fall en masse, wiping out entire school classes or neighborhoods in the space of a few bloody moments.
Because of his language expertise, Tolkien was trained in Yorkshire as a signals officer, responsible for battalion communications with headquarters. He learned map reading, Morse code, message sending via carrier pigeon, and field telephone operation. He memorized the art of station call signs—tactical voice communications with letters or digits representing companies, platoons, and sections—and also how to use signal flags and discs, flares, lamps, and heliographs as well as “runners,” soldiers who carried hand-written notes to headquarters under fire.
Like all new soldiers, Tolkien found boot camp dull, Army bureaucracy intolerable, and most of his commanding officers insipid. “War multiplies the stupidity by 3,” he wrote. But in training camp, a more subtle transformation was occurring within him. Great Britain’s first volunteer army had thrown together men from all walks of life and all social classes, and Tolkien developed “a deep sympathy and feeling for the ‘tommy,’ especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties.” In socially stratified prewar England, Tolkien the Oxford man would normally never have had anything to do with such “commoners.”
On June 2, 1916, Tolkien received his embarkation orders. Now married to Edith Bratt, he visited her for the last time, harboring little hope that he would ever see her again. As he later remembered, “Junior officers were being killed off a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then was like death.”
One by one, Tolkien and his friends went off to battle. While Wiseman experienced a comparatively “clean” war in the Navy, seeing sporadic action, Tolkien, Gilson, and Smith entered a war zone of gothic horrors for which nothing in their comfortably sheltered young lives had prepared them. Moving up into the front lines, they witnessed the genius of their enlightened epoch being used to kill masses of men. The earth of northern France was ripped up and broken, oozing mud from countless shell holes, the rotting bodies of dead men and horses littering the ground, grotesquely entwined with the hulks of rusting guns, smashed wagons, and barbed wire. The trenches were torn up by shell blasts, rat infested and mud filled, and adorned with hunks of putrid flesh and smashed equipment.