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

Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien

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.

The Gallic Wars





On Wednesday 30th June 2010, our Somme Pilgrimage took us from Arras on a full day’s tour into Belgium. On the road to Ieper (Ypres) I had the opportunity to tell our group of the continuation of the Roman Road to the land of the Belgae from whom Belgium gets its name and the tribes who once lived there.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9th, 10th and 11th January 1963 I played the role of Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s play of that name performed in the school hall in Bangor Grammar School. Brutus was played by Gus Hancock, who was to become the Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University The program explained the events leading up to the action of the play. The Roman Republic had long relied for its strength upon a sound citizen body headed by an aristocratic Senate. From just before 100 BC, the balance of power swung towards such successful generals as could control the now great empire. Julius Caesar was perhaps the greatest of these generals. He had out-generalled and defeated the great soldier Pompey; shown more political acumen than the Senators; conquered Gaul and fought in Britain, Spain and North Africa, Greece and Anatolia to assert his predominance and become dictator. He was now transforming the very basis of government throughout the empire.

He was a radical and tended to reform without sufficient concern for others. He was impatient with the reactionary Senate. The final and fatal error was his alleged aspiration to Kingship. This was quite alien to aristocratic sentiment. The play begins in 44 BC when a small group of men, because of the reasons mentioned and through their own private motives have conspired to act against Caesar, and assassinate him.

The last phase of colonisation of Britain before the Roman conquest came with the Belgic settlements in the south east during the first century BC. These Belgic colonies gave rise, according to Julius Caesar, to the different petty states of Britain the name of those from which they came. Caesar’s report was the first and only record from historical sources of Celtic or part Celtic migration to Britain. His famous Gallic Wars gives us a personal account of Gaul and the battles he fought there.

Caesar tells us that the Gaul of his day was divided into three parts, inhabited by three nations; Belgae, Celtae and Acquitani, all of whom different in language institutions and laws. Since the Romans knew all three as Gauls and the leaders and tribes at least have Celtic names, we may assume all were Celtic speaking though of different dialects and ethnic origins, the Belgae having strong Germanic elements.

Caesar limits the Celtae to that country included from north to south between the Seine and the Garonne and from the Ocean on the west to the Rhine in Helvetia, and the Rhone on the east. The Veneti were the most powerful of the Celtae and inhabited the country to the north of the mouth of the Loire, (Liger). We know that the Domnonii of Cornwall and Devon were the most cultivated of their British relatives and that the Veneti traded with them for the tin of Cornwall. The Domnonian Britons reserved the legend that they came from Glas-gwyn, from the country of the Liger. Migrating to Ireland under Roman pressure and displacing the aboriginal pre-Celtic Pretani or Cruthin, they called themselves Lagin or Domnainn maintaining the tradition that they were originally from Armorica. When the Irish Lagin later invaded the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales later from Ireland it took the name of Guined (Gwynedd) which derives directly from Veneti.

The Belgae inhabited what is now north eastern France and the Low Countries. The tribe which never sued for peace from Caesar was the Manapii who were originally seated on the Meuse and on the Lower Rhine. This great tribe was to become known to the later Gaels as the Fir Manaig, Men of the Manapii , who gave their name to Fermanagh and Monaghan. It is probable that they also inhabited the Isle of Man (Monapia) before the Gaelic conquest. It was the Manapii along with the Morini and other Northern tribes who maintained an independent Gaulish area following Caesar’s campaign of 57 BC, when he massacred 50,000 Belgic warriors at the earliest recorded Battle on the Somme.

In 56 BC the Veneti threw off the yoke of Rome and the whole coast from the Loire to the Rhine joined the insurrection. Caesar attacked the powerful Venetian navy and destroyed it, selling the defeated captives into slavery to a man. And it was the help they received from their British relatives which prompted his invasion of Britain in 55 BC.

Last of the Belgae
The British invasion was to be a Pyrrhic victory for Caesar. In 54 BC Ambiorix brought together an alliance of Belgic tribes, the Eburones, Manapii, Nervii and Atuatuci allied to local German tribes. He launched an attack on 9000 Roman troops under Sabinus and Cotta, Caesars favourite generals, at Tongres and wiped them out. Caesar retaliated quickly, determined to exterminate the Belgic confederacy which was ruthlessly ravaged in all-out genocide. Ambiorix however, was never captured and disappeared from the pages of Continental History, but the Eburones re-emerged in Britain as the Brigantes (Ui Bairrche) just as the Manapii (Managh) came to Ireland. Their last refuges were to be Newtownbreda and Taughmonagh in Belfast.

In 52 BC the brilliant Belgic leader Commius of the Atrebates turned against his former ally Caesar. He led a large force to join the armies of his kinsman Vercingetorix against him in a great insurrection which was to change the course of European history. Following Vercingetorix’s defeat, Commius became over-leader of the Belgic Atrebates, Morini, Carnutes, Bituriges, Bellovaci and Eburones and many Belgae followed him to his British Kingdom in the last Celtic-speaking folk movement to Britain, rather than endure the savagery of Roman civilisation.

Julius Caesar

In the twenty years following Julius Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March, 44 BC Commius’ British Kingdom grew in size and wealth. In the nine years from 34 BC there were three occasions under Caesar’s successor Octavian (Augustus Caesar), 34, 27, and 26 BC, when a full scale invasion of Britain was contemplated. Commius then appears to have set up a Belgic enclave around the mouth of the Shannon in Western Ireland which became known as and was recorded by Ptolemy as Gangani, the descendants of Gann, the form of his full Celtic name.

Meanwhile his sons took over from one another in surprisingly swift succession as kings of South East Britain. Each re-emerged of Kings of the expanding Belgic settlements in Western Ireland; these were Tincommius (Irish Sen Gann), Epillus (Eochill) and Verica (Ferach) However a war between the tribes of Britain brought Verica (Bericus) to the Court of the Emperor Claudius to ask for support. And so in the year 43 AD a Roman army under the able command of Aulus Plautius landed in Britain Among the distinguished soldiers of this army was Vespasian and  about 60 AD his son Titus, both of whom were destined to become Emperors of Rome. It was therefore among the Britons that those soldiers were trained who destroyed that Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.

By this time the Brigantes controlled the largest section which is now northern England and a significant part of the midlands, centring on what is now known as Yorkshire. The modern town of York was originally known by the name of Eboracum, founded by the Romans in 71AD and deriving from the Eburones, whose High Goddess of Sovereignty was Brigantia. Ptolemy also places the Brigantes in South Wexford. They survived into the period of documentary history as the Ui Bairrche giving their name to the Barony of Bargy. It could be that the Brigantes invaded Ireland under pressure from later Belgic and Gaulish tribes and that prior to this they had lived in parts of Britain which were more proximal to Wexford. But they could also have migrated under pressure from the Romans in the 70’s AD. There was also a tribe, of course, known as the Brigantii, whose capital was Brigantion, now Bregenz, on the Lake of Constance, the Bodensee or Swabian Sea (das schwäbische Meer) , known to the ancients as Lacus Brigantinus.

The legendary Ninth Legion, Legio IX Hispana, the Spanish Legion, was one of the oldest and most feared units in the Roman Army. Put together in Spain by Pompey in 65 BC, it came under the command of Julius Caesar who was Governor of Further Spain in 61 BC, and served in Gaul throughout the Gallic Wars from 58 – 51 BC, the Legion was decisive in ensuring Caesar’s control of the Republic.

After Caesar’s assassination it remained loyal to his successor Octavian. It fought with distinction against the Cantabrians in Spain from 25 – 13 BC but suffered terribly in the British revolt led by Boadicea ( Boudica) in 60AD, losing as many as 50 – 80 per cent of its men . However, several high ranking Officers who could only have served after 117 AD are well known to us, so we can safely assume that the core of the Legion was still extant in the reign of Hadrian, 117 – 138 AD.

The first great leader of the Feni (later “Gaels”) in Ireland, Tuathal (Teuto–valos) Techtmar, was probably a Roman soldier, commanding Q-Celtic speaking auxiliaries from Spain. The earliest known source for the story of Tuathal Techtmar’s conquest of Ireland from the Aithech thuatha (Vassal Tribes) is a poem by Mael Mura of Othain AD 885. Mael Mura intimates that about 750 years had elapsed since Tuathal Techtmar had marched on the ancient British or Cruthin ritual centre of Tara to create his kingdom of Meath, which would date the invasion to the early 2nd Century AD. This is probably approximately correct. The standard pseudo-historical convention is employed, however, to make him an exiled Irishman returning with a foreign army. The account in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, which does contain a shadow of history, is probably older and in this we see that Tuathal was born outside Ireland and had not seen the country before he invaded it. We can synchronise his invasion to early in the reign of Hadrian (122 – 138) and his death fighting the Cruthin near Antrim in the reign of Antoninus Pius (138 – 161).This fits with Juvenal (c60 to 127 AD) who wrote “We have taken our arms beyond the shores of Ireland…” Tuathal may indeed represent the fictitious Mil Espáne, or even the Ninth Legion, the Legio IX Hispana, but that we will probably never know.

Kylie Minogue

And who are the Last of the Belgae? We meet the Manapians again in the 3rd Century AD in the person of Carausius, who by immense naval talent rose to be admiral of the British fleet and ruled Britain from 287 to 292 AD. We meet them through their sea-god Manannán Mac Lir who slept with Cantigern, wife of Fiachna Lurgan, who bore him a son, Mongan. These legends were first put down in Bangor, founded by Comgall, who was sponsored by Cantigern as Queen of Dalaradia. And of course we meet them today as Kylie and Dannii Minogue.

As for the Brigantes, one of their descendants was Sir John Gorman, soldier and politician, who became Deputy Speaker of the new Northern Ireland Assembly. What of the pre-Celtic ancient British Cruthin they displaced? Well, we meet them as Sir John Lavery, L S Lowry, and Martin Lynch, the artists, and as Martin Mc Guinness, Ken Maginnis and Alban Maginness, the politicians.

Ian Hill

Finally, I attended the funeral of my friend Julian Ian McCartan Hill on Friday 23rd July 2010 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Downpatrick and stood on the Hill of Down where St Patrick, St Columba and St Brigid (Brigit or Brigantia) are said to be “buried”. Like the Guinness family, the McCartans had also been Lords of Iveagh, the ancient Cruthin territory of Ulster. I stood with Jim McDowell and Erskine Holmes and looked towards the Mournes, so beloved of C.S. Lewis and one inspiration for Narnia. The old name for the range of mountains was na Beanna Boirche, but originally Bairche. I wondered if this could have meant the Breasts of Brigantia, the High Goddess, and we were standing on her sacred site. Who knows? The usual translation is the Peaks of Boirche, a local king. What is certain, however, is that the Mournes were a final refuge of the Manaig, the Last of the Belgae.

Julian Ian McCartan Hill – Irish Times obituary July 31, 2010

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