Before Tolkien was a member of the Inklings, he was a member of the TCBS. TCBS stood for Tea Club and Barrovian Society, so named because the members had surreptitious tea parties in the school library and also drank tea together at the Barrows Store. The core members of the club were four young men who had attended King Edward's School in Birmingham together, Robert Gilson, the son of the school's headmaster, Christopher Wiseman, J. R. R. Tolkien, and G.B Smith.
The young men all wrote poetry, painted, and drew. They were intellectually ambitious. As a club, they hoped to spur each other on to great accomplishments. However, their youthful ambitions were tragically upended by World War 1. In the summer of 1916, exactly one hundred years ago, all four of them had shipped out to France. They spent their days marching through mud, dodging bullets and shrapnel, and crawling through trenches filled with vermin and lice.
Robert Gilson was the first to die at the Somme on July first, 1916. After receiving the news, Tolkien wrote in a letter to the remaining members of the club, dated August 12, 1916 :
"So far my chief impression is that something has gone crack. I feel just the same to both of you--nearer if anything and very much in need of you--I am hungry and lonely of course--but I don't feel a member of a little complete body now. I honestly feel that the TCBS has ended . . . . Still I feel a mere individual at present--with intense feelings more than ideas of powerlessness"(Letters 10).
G.B. Smith was wounded by a shell on November 29 and died of his wounds on December 3.
Throughout the fall of 1916 Tolkien fought in the trenches, seeing notable action at the battle of Thiepval. He served as a signalman for the Lancashire Fusiliers sending out signals of troop movements, calls for more grenades, etc. On October 25 he visited the medical officer, complaining of a fever. He had contacted trench fever, which was caused by bites from the lice. He was sent home. Since the fever allowed him to escape from the front, it almost certainly saved his life.
Already an orphan, Tolkien lost two of his closest companions that summer. The club they had created with so much youthful energy and hope, was no more. Tolkien only saw Christopher Wiseman a few times over the course of the rest of his life. Perhaps it was too sorrowful for the two of them to meet without the others. If there is something elegaic about the male friendships in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, that sadness is the result of the summer and fall of 1916.
Tolkien's old school, King Edward's has a gallery of photos on the great war as well as a movie about Tolkien's experiences at the front made by students at the school. There is also a film about Robert Gilson. I also recommend Joseph Leconte's excellent article published this June in the New York Times about how Tolkien found Mordor in 1916 during the deadly summer of the Somme.
Caroline is an avid reader, children's writer, and teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and dog. Check out her bio for more!