Tolkien disembarked on June 6, 1916, at Étaples, from where he and the 11th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, under the command of Lt. Col. Laurence Bird, were transported by train to the great British communication and supply center at Amiens and billeted near the front lines. The battalion was transferred to 74th Brigade, 25th Division for an upcoming offensive on the Somme River. Tolkien was assigned to A Company.
Tolkien in the ‘Big Push’
Neither he nor his men were aware of it, but they were about to participate in the greatest attack in the history of the British Army, the “Big Push” that Army planners had designed to break through the Germans lines in the rolling, chalky countryside near the Somme. After a massive artillery barrage, the Germans would be either dazed or dead, and the British Army would simply stroll over no-man’s-land, occupy the trenches, and roll up the rest of the enemy’s forces before breaking out into open ground. The war could be brought to a sudden and decisive close. That, at any rate, was the plan.
Because the vast majority of the men were green, Tolkien and his fellow officers were instructed to lead their troops into battle in parade fashion—long, even lines marching against the Germans in waves, their bayoneted rifles held “at the slope,” tilted slightly forward. For a week before the attack, 1,500 British guns had pulverized the German positions to soften them up and cut the dense wire entanglements through which the attacking British were to weave. Zero hour was set for 7:30 am, July 1, 1916. Some 200 battalions, containing 100,000 British troops, would go over the top. Gilson’s and Smith’s units were among those moved up to take part in the initial attack; Tolkien’s unit was held in reserve.
The morning of the attack was a poet’s morning of golden sunshine and wildflowers swaying gently in a faint breeze. It had rained the night before, and freshness was everywhere. Suddenly, at 7:28 am, a massive heap of dirt, German soldiers, and trees suddenly lifted into the air as British sappers blew mines under the German trenches, in one place scooping out a 90-foot-deep crater in the earth. This was followed by an eerie silence. Then, all along the line, the shrill sound of whistles trilled as British officers signaled their men to attack. The Army slowly surged up jumping-off ladders and began walking slowly toward the enemy lines.
Gilson had blown his whistle and led his men over the top. Their target was the enemy trenches near the village of La Boisselle. As Gilson and the 11th Suffolk advanced, they soon realized to their horror that the wire before them had not been cut by the artillery fire and that the Germans, well-protected in deep dugouts, had survived the massive bombardment. The Germans waited for the advancing British to come into range, then opened up with machine guns, small arms, and artillery fire. Before the leading wave had advanced 100 yards, men began dropping everywhere. A wounded company commander wrote: “My very last memory of the attack is the sight of Gilson in front of me and [another officer] on my right, both moving as if on parade, and both a minute or two later to be mortally hit.” The first of Tolkien’s friends had fallen. In a few moments, the 11th Suffolk had suffered 691 casualties. “My chief impression,” Tolkien wrote to Smith, reflecting on Gilson’s death, “is that something has gone crack.”
Smith, an intelligence officer in the 19th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, was also in action at the Somme. On July 4, he and his men attacked the Leipzig Salient, a strongly fortified section of the German line on Thiepval Ridge. Once again, the attack was repulsed with heavy losses. Smith survived, writing in a very nonpoetic manner in his battle report, “Owing to hostile MG [machine-gun] fire the advance was made by short rushes. Casualties were heavy.”
After Smith and his battered men were pulled out of the line for leave, he ran into Tolkien in the village of Bouzincourt, and the two old friends talked about their experiences.
Battle of Thiepval Ridge
Luckily for him, Tolkien had not taken part on the disastrous opening day of the battle, when a staggering 60,000 British soldiers fell, 20,000 of them killed outright. Held in reserve, his unit watched the lines of British wounded and German prisoners stream past. When elements of the 11th were thrown into the fighting, Tolkien was kept back to act as communications officer for the battalion. On July 14, he slogged through the battered remains of the village of La Boisselle, he and his men hauling signal flares, lamps, and rolls of telephone wire to maintain communication with headquarters. The 11th attacked German trenches around Ovillers and the fighting was fierce. Tolkien’s company commander was killed, just one of the 267 casualties the 11th suffered in two weeks of fighting. Tolkien was made battalion signal officer in command of several noncommissioned officers and privates.
Throughout July and August, the 11th was yanked in and out of the line several times. In late summer it was engaged in hard fighting at Thiepval Wood, especially a section of the German line known as the Schwaben Redoubt. Tolkien, with eight runners under his command, was assigned again to battalion headquarters. While the battle stormed about him, Tolkien had to ensure that vital battlefield information went out to his superiors while simultaneously coping with runners being wounded or killed and telephone lines being severed by hostile gunfire.
Tolkien kept up with his writing as well as he could under the circumstances. He recalled working on some of his stories “in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” But such occasions were rare. “You might scribble something on the back of an envelope and shove it in your back pocket,” he later wrote, “but that’s all. You couldn’t write. You’d be crouching down among flies and filth.”
“It is You and I Now”
The war continued. In late October, Tolkien and his men were involved in bloody fighting to take Regina Trench, located a mere 200 yards from the British lines. Tolkien was stationed at battalion headquarters at Zollern Redoubt. The attack began at precisely 12:18 pm with an artillery barrage, before waves of British soldiers rushed toward the German trench. This time the artillery fire was effective enough to catch the Germans by surprise, and many were killed, wounded, or captured. One of Tolkien’s signalers was hit while carrying a pigeon basket; he joined 160 other men who were casualties, among them many officers knocked out while crossing no-man’s-land. For Tolkien and the 11th, this was the last fighting of the Battle of the Somme before they were pulled out of line for a much needed rest.
After surviving four hellish months in one of the war’s deadliest battles, Tolkien succumbed to the most humble but ubiquitous enemy of all—lice. With a fever of 103 degrees, he was sent back to Great Britain in early November, diagnosed with trench fever, a disease akin to typhus that was spread by infected lice. A vicious, debilitating, sometimes deadly disease, trench fever nevertheless was considered a “blighty wound,” a nonfatal wound that ensured that the victim would be sent back to Old Blighty—soldier slang for Britain—to recover. Such wounded men were congratulated by their envious comrades; hearing about Tolkien’s condition, G.B. Smith immediately wrote: “Stay a long time in England. I am beyond measure delighted.”
Tolkien spent the rest of the war in Harrogate Sanatorium and other Army facilities. In September 1918 he was deemed incapable of returning to active service. Back at the front, Tolkien was sorely missed. Although he often dismissed his war service with typical English self-deprecation, Tolkien was considered a good officer. On leave in 1917, Wiseman visited the convalescing Tolkien, telling his friend that he hoped Tolkien would not be sent back to the war. “It is you and I now,” Wiseman had written to him earlier. Throughout 1917 and 1918, Tolkien was struck by recurring bouts of trench fever and was in and out of the hospital. Whenever he was well enough, he continued to fulfill his duties, being promoted to full lieutenant. He also found time to write an unpublished elegiac piece on Gilson and Smith, and worked on his stories and languages
Meanwhile, his surviving friends were still at war. As Tolkien lay feverishly in bed, G.B. Smith and his men were settling down in the tiny village of Souastre, behind the front lines. Smith’s stay was uneventful until in late November 1916, when he was hit in the arm and buttock by shell fragments. At first, it was believed he received his own “blighty wound.” But by the first week of December, Smith was dead, killed by gangrene from the foul battlefield soil that infected his wounds.