J R R Tolkien shares one thing in common with every other man that served in the World War One: he never forgot it. During that war men were taken far from everything they knew, moved from pillar to post with great rapidity or left to rot in trenches, and plunged daily from grave danger to comparative calm and back again. All dreamed of and missed home more than they would ever admit, and that is one of the enduring themes of The Lord of the Rings. In one of the most moving passages of The Return of the King, Samwise Gamgee says, “Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It'll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they'll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields... and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?” To which Frodo replies, “No, Sam. I can't recall the taste of food... Nor the sound of water or touch of grass... I'm naked in the dark, with nothing. No veil between me and the ring of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes!”
It’s not surprising that the men sometimes lost heart. Many had joined the war for a bit of excitement, expecting it to be over by Christmas. Instead, they lost four years of their life. Death was literally all around them, and often it was a case of ‘kill or be killed’. ‘Songs & Slang of the British Solider 1914-1918, 2nd Edition’, edited by John Brophy and Eric Partridge, explains that only a minority of men were barbarous enough to kill or see men killed without revulsion and general disorganisation. In previous wars, the fighting was man to man. By 1914-1918, soldiers had to endure the inhuman brutality of explosive machines. Brophy & Partridge say, “Shell fire is not so lethal as machine-gunning, but batters the mind to the pulp of insanity, from which every return is slower and less certain.” Does that remind you of anything… say, a Ring of Power?
For Tolkien’s unit, the crux of the war came at the Battle of the Somme, when the 38 were recorded killed in just two days in the battalion’s official war diary, as well as 63 missing and 166 wounded. Although nominally an Allied victory, this skirmish is generally seen to epitomise the utter futility of trench warfare, and resulted in massive losses for the British - not to mention every other force involved. By the end of the 5 month battle, in mid-November 1916, Britain had suffered 420,000 casualties, France 205,000 and Germany at least 680,000. In the first day of fighting alone, the most deadly of all, over 20,000 Allied troops died and 10-12,000 Germans. The gain from these months of bloodshed? The Allied forces advanced 8km, or 5 miles. There is no need to imagine what Tolkien saw and heard during this traumatic period, as he admitted in a letter in 1960 that "the Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”
So, let us take some quotes from that part of the book as a description of the battlefield: “Dreary and wearisome. Cold, clammy winter still held sway in this forsaken country. The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long forgotten summers […] Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze…For a moment the water below him looked like a window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hand out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror. ‘Dead faces!’” Frodo later adds, “They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.” The stuff of nightmares.
Still, Tolkien managed to find solace and hope in the midst of hell, and much of it flowed from his close relationships – or ‘fellowship’, if you will, with the men around him. The men Tolkien was closest to were not the officers or the gentry, but the average soldier. He said later, “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself.” In the book, the simpler characters such as Sam are shown to be the most consistent and reliable; many of those generally looked to as obvious leaders, such as Denthor II, or his son Boromir and King Théoden (who ultimately redeem themselves with their brave deaths), are shown at times to be cowardly, weak or in need of guidance. The latter was certainly true of some of the officers in the Great War. In Kitchener’s September 1914 appeal he called for 2,000 men of good education to come forward, as it was felt that if a man was from a good family, he would have the air of command necessary to be a good officer. Although some of the men who signed up were already headed for the forces, merely being rushed through their Sandhurst courses early, the majority of Junior Officers were commissioned directly, having attended selection boards with just membership to a public school or university OTC to recommend them as soldiers. These were the men whose decisions would affect every soldier under their command, despite the fact that usually the second-in-command of a platoon, the Sergeant or Sergeant Major, had much more fighting experience but came from a less distinguished background. The wiser officers valued the support and advice of such valuable comrades; some were not so wise, and their ‘seconds’ grew to resent them.
When Denthor II orders Faramir to hold Western Osgiliath against numerous foes, in what is essentially a suicide mission, Faramir goes reluctantly but obediently, just as the men in the trenches went over the top at the order of the Generals, many of whom were far removed from the fighting. On 1st July 1916 the Battle of the Somme commenced, and the unfortunate British soldiers on the front line were ordered to advance towards German lines in boiling heat and, worse still, bright sunshine. Their packs were so heavy that they couldn’t run, and they were in plain sight of every German machine gunner. No real gains were made that day, but 19,290 Allied troops died; nor did things get better in the days that followed. Of course, there are good and inspirational leaders in The Lord of the Rings, particularly Aragorn and Faramir. Again, this is true to life, as many of the officers in the Great War were prepared to face the guns with their men. In ‘The Western Front Companion’ by Mark Adkin, General Patton is quoted as having said after World War II, “If you want your men to fight to the death, then lead them. Troops are like spaghetti. You can’t push them around, you have to pull them.” The official policy was that the officers should remain behind while others went over the top and live another day to strategise new attacks, so the officers needn’t have put themselves in harm’s way; however, this policy was usually ignored, and the death rate among officers was especially high.
Ethics in battle were another strong theme of Lord of the Rings, with key characters showing mercy towards enemies and resisting the temptation to use brutality to cower those who resist them. Faramir says of the Ring of Power, “I would not take this thing, if it lay be the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling into ruin and I alone could save her, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for any such triumphs.” Tolkien also had Elrond say, “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill,” while Frodo declares, “It is useless to meet revenge with revenge; it will heal nothing.” Perhaps Tolkien was thinking of gas attacks when he wrote this. Since the Germans used poisoned gas at Neuve Chapelle in 1914 (a weapon that was generally frowned upon in war as being too indiscriminate), the British decided that they would use it themselves at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Smoke and gas were intended to help cover the men’s exit from the trenches on 25th September 1915, but the officer responsible for releasing the gas actually declined to do so until ordered, and when he did the wind pushed the chlorine gas, so laboriously transported to the front line by 8,000 porters in its heavy canisters, right back over the troops. Such gas not only burned skin and lungs, it rusted rifles and artillery breech blocks. All was chaos, and the Division was forced to halt.
Generally, Tolkien was not a great fan of any sort of violence. Faramir says at one point, “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” How many Great War soldiers would echo that sentiment – from both sides? The Christmas Truce of 1914 demonstrated that most men were fighting out of love for their own countries, not ill-will towards others. Photographs from that day show German and British soldiers with their arms around each other, hats and caps swapped, smiling and laughing together. As Private William Tapp of the Warwickshire Regiment put it in ‘The Great War Companion’, “It doesn’t seem right killing each other at Christmas time.” The memories reminded the soldiers that the real dispute was at governmental level, and the ordinary men were just pawns in a dangerous game. Hating the enemy did nobody any good.
The enduring theme of Tolkien’s writing is that light is stronger than darkness. Men who love each other stand together to fight against impossible odds, or die protecting their friends. The simplest and most humble characters surprise themselves by proving they can be heroes when the chips are down; as Lady Galadriel says, “Even the smallest person can change the course of history”. And, even in the midst of the greatest peril, hope never dies. When Frodo feels like giving up in The Two Towers, after nearly handing the Ring of Power to the Nazgûl and attacking Sam when he tries to stop him, Sam comforts him by saying, “It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” Having lived through the war Tolkien knew this to be true, though he also knew that carrying on with life could be very hard. By 1928, 10 years after the war had ended, 65,000 soldiers remained in British hospitals suffering from shell shock, unable to forget the things they had done and seen. Talking about the atrocities was the first step to recovery, and perhaps that was what Tolkien was trying to do with his books; pour out his own grief, while helping others to work through theirs. Once again, the greatest words of hope are left to the humblest character: Sam: “Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.” Frodo: “What are we holding onto, Sam? Sam: “That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.”
Take a look at Tolkien's hospital record here: https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/records/7024355/2nd-lieutenant-j-r-r-tolkien-lancashire-fusiliers/, or search for your own war hero relative here: https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/search/