Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A link to JRR Tolkien

Now for a bit of a sideshow: 

In researching George's unit, I found that one of the junior officers in his battalion was a very close friend of JRR Tolkien, famous author of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." 

Lt. Geoffrey Bache Smith was a member of what Tolkien and his friends called the "Tea Cup and Barovian Society" or "TCBS." The TCBS was a literary group started by Tolkien and his three close friends while they were at King Edward's School in Birmingham. They met regularly at Barrow stores and in the school's library to drink tea on the sly (how daring!) and to discuss their literary interests. The four founding and core members were Tolkien, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Robert Gilson and Christopher Wiseman. There were also five other peripheral members who came and went and who never achieved the closeness of the original four. After King Edward's school, Gilson and Wiseman attended Cambridge and Tolkien and Smith went to Oxford. As a result, Tolkien's friendship with Smith deepened. Nevertheless the four members still managed to meet now and then and continue their comradeship of the TCBS.

The four founding members of the TCBS (note that the portrait designated as Smith shown above has subsequently been determined not actually to be of Smith)

When war broke out, all four joined up as junior officers. Tolkien joined later than the others as he needed to finish up his degree work first. Christopher Wiseman joined the Royal Navy, Rob Gilson the 11th (Cambridgeshire) Service Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment and Tolkien and Smith both joined the Lancashire Fusiliers. Geoffrey Bache Smith was assigned to George's battalion, the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers, as a platoon commander. Tolkien hoped to join this battalion too and efforts were certainly made to influence events in favour of this posting. Luckily for him (and for fans of his books), Tolkien was posted to the 11th Service Battalion of the Fusiliers as the battalion communications officer rather than a platoon commander. As communications officer he was not in the front line.

Lt. JRR Tolkien - 11th Lancashire Fusilier
After a short stint as a platoon commander, Smith was appointed as the 19th Battalion`s Intelligence Officer. As such, he was responsible for such day-to-day duties as keeping the battalion's war diary up to date, writing intelligence summaries and interrogating prisoners. The war diary is a detailed daily summary of operations at the company level. Less lucky, Rob Gilson remained an infantry platoon commander in the Cambridgeshires.

Rob Gilson led his platoon over the top in the attack near Becourt on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Going forward with his men, Gilson was reported by Corporal Hicks of C Company as having been killed by a shell. When they learned of Gilson's death, the remaining three members of the TCBS were inconsolable.

Geoffrey Bache Smith was not directly involved in the 19th Battalion's attack just north of Gilson's on July 1 as he was stationed as part of the battalion HQ alongside Colonel Graham. He was also not involved in the later vicious hand-to-hand struggle in Ovillers la Boisselle during the night of July 12 and 13. But Intelligence Officers are not indestructible. On November 29, 1916, after the battalion had been converted to a pioneer unit, Smith was lightly wounded by shrapnel from an exploding shell as he walked well behind the lines. He should have laughed off the injury but instead he developed "gas gangrene," an infection caused by bacteria from manure in the earth being carried into his wound. He died four days later, aged 22. A book of Smith`s poetry was published posthumously with a forward written by Tolkien.

Lt. Geoffrey Bache Smith - 19th Lancashire Fusiliers
In a letter he wrote to Tolkien from the trenches before his death, Geoffrey Bache Smith wrote with a presentiment of his own death:

"My chief consolation is, that if I am scuppered to-night... there will still be left a member of the great TCBS to voice what I dreamed... may you say the things that I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot." He continued that the TCBS "had been granted some spark of fire that was destined to kindle a new light in the world... The death of one of its members cannot... dissolve [it]."

Geoffrey Bache Smith`s Signature Taken From a 19th LF Intelligence Summary

Tolkien`s own first experience of battle was in the village of Ovillers la Boisselle on July 15, the same day that George died from a mortal wound sufffered two days earlier in that same place. That infamous fortified village consumed many British battalions and ground them up. It's very possible that as Tolkien marched up to the front-line trenches in Ovillers, he could have been passed by George`s ambulance returning to the casualty clearing station at Warloy.

Tolkien's experiences in approaching that terrible village inspired his description of the dead marshes in "Lord of the Rings."

“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, with weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead” 


- Frodo “Passage of the marshes” from The Two Towers.

Tolkien also said Frodo's faithful friend Sam Gamgee personified his experience of the British soldier of WW1.

Tolkien`s lost friends illustrate the literary and personal potential that was lost to Britain in the Great War.

For further reading on Tolkien and the Somme one can look no further than "Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth" by John Garth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN-10: 0618331298

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