Tolkien’s War: The History behind The Lord of the Rings


      “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

     The above quote was taken from the forward to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings and was intended as a rebuttal to the suggestions that his trilogy was an analogy to the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. In actual fact, as Tolkien himself made pains to assert, much of it was based on Tolkien’s experiences in the First World War, a war which was a far bloodier event in British military history than the subsequent war and in which Tolkien played a part in the costliest British battle of that war, the Somme Offensive.

     A hundred years ago this summer (2015), John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers and began training as a signals officer. Tolkien had just recently graduated with a double first in English Language and Literature from Oxford University, which he had completed despite pressure from some quarters to abandon his studies prematurely in order to join up as many of his friends from the ‘Tea Club Barrovian Society’ had done.

     As a university-educated graduate, he was naturally considered to be officer material and was therefore commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, initially as part of the 13th (Service) Battalion, but was later attached to the 11th Battalion. Eventually he became that battalion’s signals officer, responsible for maintaining communications between his battalion and HQ, in order that orders and reports could pass between the two and that artillery and other support could be deployed against the Germans when required.

     Tolkien arrived in France in June of 1916 but did not arrive at the front until the 14thof July, two weeks after the Battle of the Somme had started. On the day he arrived, his battalion made an unsuccessful attempt to capture the village of Orvillers from the Germans, and Tolkien witnessed his battalion being decimated by German machine-gun fire as it struggled to break through barbed wire that a preliminary bombardment had failed to destroy.

     Some months later, Tolkien participated in the assault on the Schwaben Redoubt, a heavily fortified German position which was eventually captured at the cost of over 7,000 British troops and just over 2,500 Germans. Shortly thereafter, Tolkien was, to his greater fortune, struck down with Typhus as his battalion took part in seizing the Regina Trench alongside the Canadians. Following Tolkien’s return from the front to recuperate, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers went on to suffer enormous casualties as the result of a ‘massive bombardment’ by German artillery before the battle concluded in November.

     Tolkien was lucky to survive. Front line junior officers were statistically more likely to become casualties than to escape unscathed, more so even than the ordinary enlisted men under their command due to the fact that officers were often deliberately singled out as priority targets by the enemy. Many of Tolkien’s friends were not so lucky. Of the four core TCBS members whom Tolkien considered his closes friends, only he and Christopher Wiseman survived the war. Robert Gilson was killed on the opening day of the Offensive on the First of July, and GB Smith, who also served with the Lancashire Fusiliers, was mortally wounded by a shell in the November.

     Tolkien, no longer considered medically fit to take part in further front line service, spent the rest of the war either in recuperation or based in training units in the U.K. It was during this period that Tolkien first began to formulate the Middle Earth fantasy universe in which The Lord of the Rings was based. Beginning with the ‘Fall of Gondolin’ in 1917, he describes a battle in which an elf-city is destroyed by the evil lord Morgoth with the aid of ‘iron monsters’ reminiscent of tanks, which were first deployed in 1916 during the Somme Offensive.

     The shell-pocked, muddy carnage of the Somme offensive and the horrific experiences it created were doubtlessly on Tolkien’s mind as he described the ‘dead marshes’ scene in his LotR trilogy many years later:-

     “They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.

     Tolkien saw, too, the devastating impact of combat stress and shell-shock on the soldiers he served alongside with:

     “Even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.”

     This passage from The Lord of the Rings describing the impact of a Ring-Wraith’s cry could easily have been describing his experiences of enemy shelling and their impact on those caught up within it.

    During his time in service, Tolkien also came to be deeply impressed by the cheerful resilience of the ordinary Lancashire cotton operatives, miners, and factory workers he commanded, who despite living ordinary, unadventurous lives prior to the war had answered the call of duty to King and Country and had endured all the horrific hardships thrown at them. He openly admitted that his Sam Gamgee character was “indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself.”

     In Frodo, Tolkien identified with the officer class who led the other hobbits in their quest to destroy the ring, particularly Sam Gamgee. Following the return of Frodo after destroying the Ring, he described feelings not too dissimilar to the shell-shock and combat stress suffered by those returning from the front after the war: 

     “There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden.”

    At the end of the war Tolkien was discharged from the army and resumed his academic career, first with the Oxford English Dictionary, eventually ending up back at Oxford as a professor of English. He founded ‘The Inklings’ alongside his fellow Oxford English dons and authors C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

     J.R. R. Tolkien would go on to refine his fantasy universe, eventually publishing The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Simarillion (edited and published posthumously by his son Christopher). Of the genre he is largely responsible for starting, he had this to say:

     “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

     It is a sentiment that many of his fans, even those who whose lives have never been touched by the intense horrors Tolkien experienced in 1916, would no doubt agree with.

By Matthew Hill-Spur