TOLKIEN AND THE ZEPPELINS;
To devotees of Tolkien, the
trench fever that led to his repatriation from the Western Front in November
1916, was a fortuitous circumstance that saved an extraordinary intellect
from annihilation in the mud and blood of French or Belgian fields. His
return is widely seen as an escape to the peace and quiet of treatment
and convalescence in England. Yet his posting to Holderness, in April
1917, placed him in the alarms and excursions of another front line.
This article examines the background to Tolkien's military duties in the
East Riding of Yorkshire from April 1917. The night bombing raids on England
by Zeppelins had a significant effect on his service as a Signals Officer
in the Holderness Peninsula. The airborne threat to this strategic region
had fundamentally altered the defence arrangements in which he came to
play a part until March 1918. The creation of the world's first air-raid
early warning system is explained in detail. The vital part that Post
Offices played in this network is presented.
His attachment to the Headquarters of the Humber Garrison is shown to
have been a return to active service as Officer Commanding a Royal Engineers
outpost in the Post Office in Roos. Medical records show this to have
been after 1st June 1917. The Zeppelin raids he experienced whilst a patient
in the Brooklands Officers' Hospital are detailed together with the corresponding
diary entries of Margaret Strickland-Constable. His duties as a Signals
Officer instructor with the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers,
a training battalion, are illustrated.
His attachment to the 9th Battalion Royal Defence Corps during the winter
of 1917-1918 was to a unit that needed a battle-experienced Signals Officer
to supervise essential, often coded, communication in a focus of the war
at the crucial approaches to the Humber Estuary.
Finally, the possible reason for the absence of this military detail from
the records is suggested.
Author: Sqn Ldr 'Seamus'
JTR Review of MS 1195
Tolkien and the Zeppelins
October 2, 2020
This essay was an engrossing read, despite (or perhaps because of) its
massive detail, and
I heartily recommend its publication. Even if it lacks a significance
to Tolkiens writing (and the author accounts for this lack admirably
on p. 24), it is significant to Tolkien studies because it significantly
broadens our view of Tolkiens service at the Humber Garrison at
such a crucial time in his life (think of the twin nexus [its an
uninflected plural; I looked it up] of his relationship with Ediththis
was where she dancedand his first writing of his legendariumthe
two biggest elements of his life, one could argue). I must admit that
I had been one of those readers of Tolkien who treated his posting at
Humber as if it were light duty for an invalided officer. The scrupulously
documented picture that emerges from this sensational article gives us
a different picture, a fuller picture, a picture more likely to be closer
to the truth than our previous composite. And if there are any details
that might still be contested (as is inevitable), this essay offers clear
warrant for every claim.
Particularly impressive is the essayists triangulation of all available
resources in the absence of direct accounts; the diary of the nurse at
the outpost, the military regulations of the time (as much as corporals
complain about military bureaucratic paperwork, historians rejoice in
it), all contribute to the scenario.
It might be objected that the history of the Zeppelin warfare in the region
before Tolkiens stationing there, and the heavy technical detail
about Zeppelins overburdens the Tolkien-oriented reader who is waiting
for the Tolkien connection that comes later. I would disagree, and I would
consider the essays structure just right: the detail pays off later,
and Ithink on the contrary that front-loading the more sensational aspect
of this materiala reassessment of the nature of Tolkiens service
at Rooswhile it is probably the way I would have presented itwould
not have been as striking as this essays admirable restraint and
academic humility in holding those observations until the conclusion.
The title Tolkien and the Zeppelinsappropriately terseis
enough to signal to the reader that the Tolkien stuff is coming.
I lost track of the number of times that this essay subtly corrects previous
biographical claims simply by bringing military records to bear (see particularly
footnotes 10, 12, 27, and 38).
The more precise dating of Tolkiens attachment to the garrison (p.
12), and of his rank (acting vs. substantial lieutenant) are not the least
of these small touches that enhance this essay. Both John Garth and Hammond/Scull
will have to consider seriously some slight revisions in future editions
of their work because of this article. The tone is deftly academic throughout
the essay, though for me such a colloquial proverb as you do not
keep a dog and bark yourself (p. 16) is worth the entire essay.
I cannot think of a submission to The Journal of Tolkien Research in recent
years which has, despite a narrow focus, offered so much to Tolkien scholarship
(and biography is an important part of the scholarship even if it never
touches on the writingthough I doubt not that Tolkienists will be
mining this essay for insight on the flying mounts of the Nazgûl
in Lord of the Rings). I recommend its publication in The Journal of Tolkien