In 2003, John Garth wrote a book about how J.R.R. Tolkien’s experiences on the Somme influenced the writing of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. On the first page of the book, Garth describes a scene from Tolkien’s early 20s that, at face value, seems to be seared into our collective consciousness of the war:
“Chill gusts buffet the flanks and faces of the attackers struggling to advance across a bare hundred yards or so of mud. They are a ramshackle group, some of them mere novices …. most of the time there is chaos. Again and again their opponents shrug off the assault and land a fearsome counterblow, so that all the guile, fortitude, and experience of the veterans can barely hold back the assault.” 1
Today our group visited the Somme. For much of the day it was pouring rain outside, and many of us shivered in the rain and gusting winds. The sky was grey and overcast, and enough mist covered the green earth that the otherwise tall and impressive British monument of Thiepeval was shrouded in clouds and hard to see from a distance. We were in a rural area, so once we got out in the fields, you could not hear the sounds of cars. The fields looked the part.
Not for the first time on this trip, I was struck by the great beauty of the landscape. So much of the land that we have visited in France and Belgium is dominated by long, yawning fields of green. The picturesque images contrast strongly with the ugliness of what had to happen.
At Beaumont Hamel, we visited the the memorial to the Newfoundlanders. There is a statue of a moose atop a walkway, and below you have a view looking down at the battlefield. There you can see the tree the Newfoundlanders advanced to on July 1, 1916. It is not very far from the front of the trenches. The mist was not so great that we couldn’t see that far.
Later, we visited the Adanac Cemetery. Adanac is Canada spelled backwards, and this site is a cemetery on the Somme with many Canadian soldiers. When we were here, our guide Dr. Marc Milner gave each of us a small Canadian flag and told us to pick the grave of a soldier and place our Canadian flags before their graves. Not all the graves were marked; some were labeled as being known only by God. In the blustery wind, cold, and rain, kneeling before these soldiers’ graves to place our flags was an affecting experience. Many of the soldiers were as young (or younger) than we are. I placed my flag at the grave of one J.M. Strike–who was from the 2nd Battalion of the Canadian Infantry. He was 20 when he died.
It reminded me of that passage in Garth’s book on Tolkien. However, although most of that book is about the War the passage I quoted above is not. The reader is set up to think it is, but then told: “The year is 1913: the Great War is eight months away and this is just a game.”2 The passage describes Tolkien and his friends playing rugby outside in muddy conditions. Some of them will die in the war, but that day, they are doing something that men in their early 20s should be free to do: enjoying life.
Because of the war, men like J.M. Strike had that opportunity cut short.
By Robert Revington
- John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2003), 3.