As Tolkien fans rush to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, rare WW1 hospital records from the Forces War Records archives have shown that – if it wasn’t for trench fever – J R R Tolkien may well have been killed at the frontline with many of his comrades, and would not have written The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.
These documents, from the No. 11 Casualty Clearing Station, are among the first 50 thousand of 1.5 million records that we are currently transcribing as part of our ‘Military Hospitals Admissions and Discharge Registers WWI’ collection for the public to view for the first time. The collection is coded MH106 at the National Archives, but their records are arranged by medical unit and are not indexed, so are very difficult to search.
Tolkien was serving with the 11th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers when he was hospitalised in October 1916. This unit had suffered hugely at the Somme, with 38 killed, 63 missing and 166 wounded in just two days, all of whom were recorded as being ‘struck off the strength’ in the battalion’s official war diary. The iconic author was referred to the Casualty Clearing Station from the 75th Field Ambulance on 28th October 1916, where he was treated for two days, then transferred to Number 22 Ambulance Train before being sent back home to ‘Blighty’. While Tolkien was convalescing, the battalion’s ‘D’ Company Headquarters was hit by German mortar fire, which wounded a number of personnel; this attack was followed by a massive bombardment of the already weakened battalion’s frontline. So, it is likely that sustaining trench fever may have actually saved his life. During the rest of the war he was either in hospital, where he had several relapses, or in home service camps.
Trench fever – a disease transmitted by the bites of body lice – attacked all armies in the First World War and was the most common medical condition. It caused high fever (or ‘pyrexia of unknown origin’, as detailed on Tolkien’s record), severe headaches, skin rashes, inflamed eyes and leg pains. A.A. Milne and C.S. Lewis were also sufferers.
Many commentators believe that Tolkien’s wartime experiences are expressed in his most famous novels. The Lord of the Rings features horrific landscapes, and there is a real sense of loss that permeates the story, as well as the fates of the Hobbit characters. The Hobbit, which was written 21 years after he contracted the disease, was followed by The Lord of the Rings. In the foreword to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien sadly wrote: “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”
Although a large number of records have now been transcribed by Forces War Records’ specialist data entry staff, it is astonishing to come across this particular record of Tolkien. After the war most medical and hospital records were destroyed. The rest were given by the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) to the Ministry of Health. Just a representative selection (no more than two per cent of the total) remains at The National Archives in Kew. These are the records that are being digitised by Forces War Records for searching on its site by the public. The originals have not been transcribed before now since they are handwritten, many in faint pencil or with lots of abbreviations, and therefore very difficult to read and interpret. Methods of recording and fluctuating levels of accuracy between the 100 year old books also made the records challenging to decipher.
In some cases a hospital record may be the only existing proof that an ancestor fought in the Great War, as it can be hard to find information on men who, like J R R Tolkien, were injured in the war but survived. To search for your World War One relative today, visit https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/military-hospital-records.