On June 28th, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand brought the world to the brink. European countries, bound by treaties and political alliances, declared war on one another. The United Kingdom, home to 22-year-old John Ronal Reuel Tolkien, sided with France against Germany. The First World War would launch Tolkien and three of his closest friends into harm’s way, and would have an enormous impact on each of their lives.
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Born on January 3rd, 1892, in South Africa, the young Tolkien spent part of his childhood in Africa, before ending up in England at the age of three. His father died in Africa before he was able to join his wife and children, and the family remained in England. From an early age, Tolkien was an avid reader and, fascinated by languages, quickly picked up Latin. Fantasy stories in particular captivated the boy, including works from Scottish author George MacDonald, Andrew Lang and Lewis Carroll. He later attended King Edward's School in Birmingham where he made a number of close friends, four of whom banded together to form core of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS): Robert Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman. The quartet held regular meetings, critiqued one another’s work and bonded over mutual interests. Following his graduation from secondary school, Tolkien went on to attend Oxford University’s Exeter College, where he would study English and the Classics.
When Germany invaded Belgium on August 4th, 1914, England entered the conflict by declaring war and mobilizing its military. Upon returning to school, Tolkien found that a number of his classmates and friends had chosen to enlist. Rather than joining them immediately, he joined Oxford's Officer Training Corps, which allowed him to defer active service until the completion of his studies. It was around this time that he began to lay down early versions of his fantasy language, Qenya, and kept in regular touch with his friends from the TCBS. Tolkien began his training in July 1915, commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. In September, the four key members of the TCBS met for the last time in Lichfield. By early 1916, all but Tolkien would be deployed on the front lines in continental Europe. In March, Tolkien married Edith Bratt, but was soon on his way to the front lines in France. Tolkien joined the 11th Battalion in July, and he would take part in the Battle of the Somme as a signal officer. He later noted that, while he didn't much time to write initially, many of his early experiences on the front lines informed elements of his future stories. Unbeknownst to Tolkien at the time, his friend Robert Gilson had died when his unit had come under fire near La Bosielle, and only learned of his friend’s death two weeks later in a letter from Smith.
Gilson’s death affected Smith, Tolkien and Wiseman profoundly: Tolkien wrote that he felt that the group was missing part of its very essence, and despaired that they would never be reunited or whole again. Smith returned a letter from Tolkien with a stern note that the TCBS had not ended, nor would it ever. Shortly thereafter, Tolkien and Smith reunited in Hedauville, their last encounter. For much of the autumn of 1916, Tolkien continued to move with the 11th Battalion, but soon fell ill with trench fever in October and returned home to England to recover. On November 29th, an enemy artillery burst wounded Smith in the right arm and leg. The wounds were minor, and he noted in letters home that he expected to recover soon. However, gangrene set in the wound, and he passed away in early December. Tolkien learned of his friend’s passing when Wiseman wrote several weeks later. The remaining members of the TCBS worked to get their friend’s poetry published in his memory, succeeding in 1918.
Following his recovery at the end of 1916 and early into 1917, Tolkien began to write, inspired by Smith's final letter to him: "May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not here to say them, if such be my lot." The early elements of Tolkien's epic stories had begun to coalesce while overseas, and encouraged by Wiseman, he began to write what would eventually become the Silmarillion. Tolkien's health remained poor throughout much of 1917 and 1918, although he was able to resume some of his military duties. Following the war, Tolkien took a job with the Oxford English Dictionary, and began teaching in 1920. He continued to teach and write, eventually writing The Hobbit in the early 1930s.
Tolkien's experiences in the Great War had a profound effect on his writing and stories. He left the war with most of his friends dead, and a personal view of the horrors that war wrought on the soldiers who fought it. Years later, Tolkien felt that the Great War "had come down like winter on his creative powers in their first bloom.” These views would translate into his writing, with his experiences on the front lines informing the epic conflicts between good and evil in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. His characters form close parties and alliances as they go off to face terrible adventures together, much like he did with his friends when evil arose in the world.