We were joined for our meeting today by our friends and ‘virtual’ Southfarthing members, Carol and Rosemary, although we missed other friends who were unable to be with us for our discussion of Chapters 8, 9 and 10.
Our discussions were illustrated at appropriate moments by Carol’s family photos, one of which established a poignant connection with some of Angela’s family history. Carol also brought along 2 certificates issued during WW1 to children who had contributed to providing ‘comfort’ to troops in the trenches, such as writing to those who had no family.
Prompted by the many references to Tolkien’s time near Thiepval, I also brought along a book on the Thiepval Monument to the military dead of the Great War.
Laura began our discussion with her observation that the chapters that made up the reading for this session launch us into the reality of the war so that it becomes hard to concentrate on the poetry now.
Carol and Kathleen commented that they hadn’t realised how much detail John Garth included in his treatment of the TCBS and the war.
Anne remarked that the poetry of the TCBS members still showed evidence of their belief in their ‘higher mission’, and that the TCBS (in full) is a banal name in contrast to their belief in their ‘destiny’.
Kathleen noted that what would be later named ‘battle fatigue’ was given no consideration early in the war, and Rosemary observed that John Garth is not skimping on the horror in these chapters. Carol added that in contrast to the gung-ho attitude to war in the propaganda, and initial patriotism of WW1, war has become anathema, but the soldiers still deserve praise for doing their duty.
We turned to a discussion of Gilson’s ploy of going into battle dressed not in his officer’s uniform but in the battledress of the other ranks because he would be less likely to get shot. It was thought that officers were likely to be targets because they were officers, and that at least in a few cases, ordinary soldiers would pick out enemy officers rather than ‘other ranks’ like themselves.
Carol then observed that there is now less social deference, and Chris noted that Tolkien did not get on with many of his fellow officers, but might have bonded more with an intelligent batman under less status-driven conditions. Laura elaborated this notion when she remarked that Tolkien was closer to the Sam’s of the world than with pretentious officers.
Angela picked up Tolkien’s compassion for scared soldiers, relating it to his description of Aragorn’s reaction to the fighting men who shrank from the horror of approaching the Black Gate on the way to the final battle against Mordor. Aragorn not only offers them the chance to retreat honourably, but counsels them to do so in an orderly way, without a show of the panic they feel.
Anne was impressed by the descriptions of the terrible sleep deprivation and cold that was part of Tolkien’s life in the trenches. Rosemary observed that the fighting men not only suffered wounds but were often afflicted more by illness. She noted that while many soldiers had come from unhealthy conditions in the slums, in the trenches all the pernicious illnesses were more concentrated. Added to this the local illnesses would have attacked unprepared immune systems. Angela added that conditions in the trenches were filthy, and Kathleen reminded us of the connection between illness and the infestations of lice that attacked Tolkien no less than others. Laura remarked that the underlying diseases afflicting some British soldiers were actually discovered during the medical that was part of the process of conscription. Rosemary noted that many were under-height anyway due to malnourishment. It all made for a bleak view of the health of young British working men during the early decades of the 20thC.
Anne lightened the mood when she reminded us of the incident Garth narrates of Tolkien offering a drink of water, in German, to a German prisoner and being reprimanded for his mispronunciation!
Angela and Laura both remarked on the fact that Tolkien kept some of the letters he received from the relatives of men who had been killed and to whom he had had to write with the terrible news. His sensitivity seems to have been appreciated.
I commented on the interesting sense of irony in G.B. Smith’s assessment of Rob Gilson’s character, when he declared that ‘even though doubt and misgiving, storm and stress raged always in his developing mind…. the nobility of character and action once sent into the world does not return again empty’. The sentiments are a little strained, as might be expected of young men, but for Smith to have used the phrase ‘storm and stress’ without apparent recognition of the inherent irony shows how completely that generation shared a European-wide enthusiasm for the German Romantics and their concept of ‘sturm und drang’ – storm and stress. The sense of a shared culture adds pathos to the surrounding descriptions of the sufferings of war on both sides of the front line.
Laura expanded this line of thought when she asked who now would compare the cataclysm of the Somme battle field to ‘Wotan … in some paroxysm of rage’, as an RFC officer said at the time.
Carol took us back to Gilson dressing like the other-ranks, and compared this to Sam and Frodo in Mordor dressing so as to look like all the other orc foot-soldiers. It was conjectured that, like the uniforms of the British, orc garments were probably infested with lice too. No wonder Frodo objects to the gear Sam brings him in the Tower of Cirith Ungol!
Anne wondered at the name of Gilson’s stepmother – Donna – which sounded too modern. Carol enlightened those of us who hadn’t read to the end, or didn’t remember it: Donna was not a given name but a nickname.
Anne then went on to remark on the chirpy, heroic, but very prejudiced chaplain who made it necessary for Tolkien to worship with the Royal Irish Rifles. We were non-plussed by the idea that both sides in the war had chaplains praying for their sides’ victory, and hence the outright slaughter of other Christians.
Rosemary took us back to the shooting of officers and thought more German officers had been shot. Kathleen observed that the shooting of officers was not necessarily status-based, but was likely to have demoralised the men if their leaders were constantly being killed. Laura noted that in Tolkien’s battalion officers of progressively decreasing ranks had to take on higher responsibilities as their commanders were killed.
After an afternoon of wide-ranging discussion we had to decide what to read next. Our next reading will be chapters 11 and 12.
As August is a 5-week month our next meeting it will be 14th Sept.