The Two Heroes and the Belgae: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: Part 1

Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien

Part 1: The Two Heroes

On Tuesday 29th June 2010, the Somme Association took 47 senior politicians and general public from Northern Ireland to visit the Battlefields of the Somme prior to the Ceremonies at Thiepval, the Ulster Tower and Guillemont on 1st July. It is my custom to relate the story of the Two Heroes J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on our journey to Thiepval from Arras. And this is what I say…

During the Great War, J.R.R. Tolkien enlisted into the Lancashire Fusiliers as a Second Lieutenant. The Lancashire Fusiliers enjoyed a fine reputation They dated back to the landing of William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and had shattered the French Cavalry at the Battle of Minden in the Seven Years War. Following the Napoleonic War, Wellington had described them as “the best and most distinguished” of British regiments, just as he had also said that “the 27th of Foot (Inniskilling Fusiliers) saved the centre of my line at Waterloo”.

My grandfather Samuel and his brother from Bolton served with them in the Boer War when they suffered the heaviest casualties in the attack on Spion Kop, but had gone on to the relief of Ladysmith. Of Tolkien’s school friends in the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Sociey) Robert Quilter Gilson had joined the 11th Suffolks and Geoffrey Bache Smith the 3rd Salford Pals (19th Lancashire Fusiliers).This battalion had just achieved fame in the securing of “W Beach” in Gallipoli when it had won a historic six VCs in one morning.

Late on Sunday 4th June 1916 Tolkien set off for London and thence to France where he was present at the Battle of the Somme. The approximate centre line of the battlefield was defined by this Old Roman Road to the Land of the Belgae which runs straight from Albert in the West to Bapaume in the East. Tolkien’s battalion disembarked in Amiens and marched on to a hamlet called Rubempré ten miles away. Here they were billeted in those conditions of the Western Front to which they would soon become accustomed.

Then on Friday 30th June they moved near to the Front Line. The attack began early the next morning, but they were not to be in it, for they were to be held in reserve, going into battle several days later when it was planned that the German line would have been smashed open and the Allied troops would have penetrated deep into enemy territory.

At 7.30am on Saturday 1st July the troops of the British Front Line went over the top including, of course, the famous 36th Ulster Division. Rob Gilson of the TCBS serving in the Suffolk Regiment was among them. Tolkien’s battalion remained in reserve, moving to a village called Bouzincourt, where the majority bivouacked in a field. Soon the awful truth dawned that on the first day of battle twenty thousand allied troops had been killed and the 36th Ulster Division had suffered five-and-a-half thousand casualties. To their right the 1st Salford Pals (15th Lancashire Fusiliers) were all but wiped out, the remnants joining the Ulstermen. Only they had been able to penetrate the German lines, which generally had remained intact. On Sunday 2nd July, Tolkien attended Mass in front of a portable field altar, being administered by a Chaplain of the Royal Irish Rifles as his battalion’s Padre was an Anglican averse to Roman Catholics, something Tolkien never forgot.

On Thursday 6th July, Tolkien’s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers went into action, but only A Company was sent to the trenches and Tolkien remained at Bouzincourt with the remainder. Finally on Friday 14th July, B Company went into action. The sights which Tolkien now experienced, the images, sounds and the people he met , stayed with him until his death in 1973. He never forgot what he called the “animal horror” of trench warfare.

His first day in action had been chosen by the allied commanders for a major offensive and his company was attached to the Seventh Infantry Brigade for an attack on the ruined hamlet of Ovillers, which was in German hands. The attack was unsuccessful and many of Tolkien’s battalion were killed around him by machine gun fire. On his return to the huts at Bouzincourt, Tolkien found a letter from his friend G P Smith, to say that Rob Gilson had died at La Boisselle, leading his men into action on the first day of battle. A Service of Remembrance is held at the Lochnagar mine crater near La Boiselle every year on the morning of 1st July and we visit it regularly.

Day now followed day in the same pattern; a rest period, back to the trenches and more attacks. Tolkien was among those who were in support at the storming of the Schwaben Redoubt, a massive fortification of German trenches, upon which Northern Ireland’s National War Memorial, The Ulster Tower, stands facing Thiepval Wood which is now owned by the Somme Association. Although he was to make revisions to “Kortirion among the trees “during two days in a dugout in the Thiepval Wood front line, none of the “Lost Tales” which form the basis for the much later “Silmarillion” can be dated to his time in France, let alone in the trenches, when all his energies, like those of his men, were devoted to pure survival .

British losses continued to be severe and many more of Tolkein’s battalion were killed. On 27th October 1916 he was rescued from the battle by “Pyrexia of Unknown Origin” (PUO) or as the soldiers simply called it “Trench Fever”, a highly infectious disease caused by a Rickettsial organism Bartonella Quintana, carried by the louse Pediculus corporis. By 8th November he remained ill and was put on a ship back to England. But his other friend G B Smith was not so lucky. He had been walking down the road in a village behind the lines, when a shell burst near him and wounded him in his right arm and thigh. An operation was attempted, but fatal gangrene set in. They buried him in Warlencourt British Cemetery, where we visit him.

The Young C.S. Lewis 

C S Lewis arrived at the Front Line trenches on his nineteenth birthday, 29th November 1917. To his great surprise he found that the Captain of his company of the Somerset Light Infantry was none other than his old teacher P G K Harris. Lewis was also to suffer from Trench Fever at the beginning of February 1918 but returned to the Front on 28th February and during the First Battle of Arras from 21st to 28th March 1918 he was in or near the Front Line. By this time three of his “old set” of friends had been killed, Alexander Sutton, Thomas Davy and room mate Edward Moore. Edward was posthumously awarded the Military Cross and, as he had promised, Lewis took care of his mother Jane until she died thirty-three years later.

Still around Arras, Lewis saw action in the battle centred on Riez du Village between 14th and 16th April when he was wounded by a British shell exploding behind him. The medical board described Lewis’ wounds thus: “shell fragments caused three wounds, in the left side of his chest, his left wrist and left leg.” The shell fragment in his left chest was to remain lodged in the upper lobe of his left lung for the rest of the War. Sadly the news that his Serjeant Harry Ayres had been killed next to him caused him great grief. Lewis remained in hospital until June, when he was transferred to convalesce in Bristol. He remained there until October and did not return to France.

Thus Tolkien and Lewis had survived the Great War and it was perhaps their similar experiences which drew them together in Oxford to form that legendary friendship which culminated in the development of the group of friends, all of whom were male and Christian, and most of whom were interested in literature, which was known as the Inklings. Certainly for Tolkien, Lewis must have seemed like all his former friends rolled into one.

The first story which Tolkien put on paper was written during his convalescence at Great Haywood early in 1917. This is the Fall of Gondolin, which tells of the assault of the last Elvish stronghold by Morgoth, the prime power of evil and these are the Elves who form the basis of the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. Discussing one of the principal characters in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkein wrote many years later, “my Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war and recognise as so far superior to myself.” The Hobbit itself is almost a parallel of the Great War as Bilbo Baggins is plucked from his rural life and plunged into a brutal conflict. So also are Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins pitched against the forces of darkness and witnesses to a carnage in Middle-earth reminiscent of Armageddon which could only have been imagined by those Heroes of World War One.

To be continued

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