Tolkien and the Somme
On July 1, 1916, the British launched a massive offensive against the German lines in the Somme River region of France. A few days previously, 250,000 Allied shells had pounded German positions with the intention of forcing the enemy back. 100,000 British soldiers poured out of their trenches and into no-man’s-land on July 1, expecting to find little opposition. However, many heavy German machine guns had survived, and the British infantry were massacred. After one day, 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 wounded, the single heaviest day of casualties in British military history. More than 1,000 Allied lives were lost for every 100 yards gained on the Germans. On September 15, tanks appeared for the first time in history in an attempt to break the deadlock in the Somme.
Bert Chaney, a nineteen-year-old signal officer, recorded his impressions:
We heard strange throbbing noises, and lumbering slowly towards us came three huge mechanical monsters such as we had never seen before. My first impression was that they looked ready to topple on their noses, but their tails and the two little wheels at the back held them down and kept them level. Big metal things they were, with two sets of caterpillar wheels that went right round the body.
The soldiers were at first excited to see how this new development, never before seen, would change the battle. But they were in for a disappointment.
Instead of going on to the German lines the three tanks assigned to us straddled our front line, stopped and then opened up a murderous machine gun fire, enfilading us left and right. There they sat, squat monstrous things, noses stuck up in the air, crushing the sides of our trench out of shape with their machine guns swivelling around and firing like mad.
The tanks were a failure, subject to mechanical breakdown and unable to hold their positions as effectively as had been hoped.
In October, heavy rains turned the battlefield into a sea of mud. The dead, lying unrecovered for the most part in No Man’s Land, formed part of the swamp. Tolkien, who was present during the battle, wrote later of Frodo and Sam and their journey to the Dark Land, a lifeless wasteland.
The gasping pits and poisonous mounds grew hideously clear. The sun was up, walking among clouds and long flags of smoke, but even the sunlight was defiled.
Passing through the marshes, Sam catches his foot and falls on his knees, ‘so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mire.’ He is startled by what he glimpses there: ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water!’
Sir Martin Gilbert, historian and author of a definitive account of the Somme offensive, interviewed Tolkien in the 1960s about his experiences in the battle, noting that Tolkien's description of the dead marshes above matched precisely the descriptions of soldiers at the Somme: ‘Many soldiers on the Somme had been confronted by corpses, often decaying in the mud, that had lain undisturbed, except by bombardment, for days, weeks and even months.’
In a letter to L. W. Forster written on December 31, 1960, Tolkien confirmed the connection:
The Dead Marshes and the approaches to Morannon [Mordor] owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.
Tolkien’s first dragons were tank-like, attacking elf-city of Gondolin, spouting fire and clanking, with orc troops concealed within.
After winning first-class honours, Tolkien joined the Army in July 1915 and was sent for training in signals. He married in March 1916 and in June was ordered to France. Appointed battalion signalling officer, Tolkien was in and out of the trenches for the next three months. In October, after seizing a key German trench, the Fusiliers were sent on to Ypres, but Tolkien, bitten by a louse that gave him trench fever, was sent back to a Birmingham hospital, and spent the rest of the war in and out of hospital and convalescence, or training fresh troops in Staffordshire and Yorkshire.
The Somme killed two of Tolkien’s closest school friends. Had it not been for the bite of a louse, the likelihood was that Tolkien would have been killed himself, and the lights of Middle-earth would never have shone. But the terrible experience of the war, and the sense of commitment to his dead friends, as well as his love of invented languages and the need to find a world for them, added up to the sub-creation that we can now experience for ourselves.