Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien trained for the Great War in Staffordshire, spending time at Whittington Heath near Lichfield, at a musketry camp in Newcastle-under-Lyme and then at the WWI training camps on Cannock Chase.
In 1916 he was posted to the Western Front where he fought in the Battle of the Somme. During his time in the trenches, where he served as a signals officer, Tolkien witnessed the use of machine-guns, flamethrowers and tanks for the first time in warfare and saw the effects of shellshock on men pushed to their limits..
One of three great friends who fought in France, only Tolkien survived, though he contracted trench fever after three months on the Somme and was shipped back to Great Haywood to recover.
While convalescing in Staffordshire, the epic fantasy author began his writing career and drew from his experiences in northern France to write his war-torn fantasy stories, though he also reflected his time in Staffordshire in his works’ more peaceful segments. He may have based some of his original ideas for the Shire, the idyllic land of the Hobbits, on the county and one of his early tales references a ‘House of a Hundred Chimneys’ which is based on Shugborough Hall.
Now Staffordshire has commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War with a unique exhibition and guided walks revealing how his time in Staffordshire and the war influenced his writing.
Gill Heath, Staffordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Communities, said:
“Tolkien’s experiences of life in the army camps of Staffordshire and of the horrors of the Somme had considerable influence on his early writing, as well as influencing some of his later work.”
“This fascinating exhibition shows how what Tolkien saw on the battlefield would shape the stories we know today, such as how flamethrowers and tanks became fire-breathing dragons in the novels. And then while recovering, Staffordshire’s beautiful scenery provided the inspiration for the idyllic backdrop to his stories.”
“Both the exhibition and our walks are a great way to find out more and see some of the places that had such a major influence on this amazing author.”
During several weeks living in Gipsy Green cottage, near Penkridge, Tolkien produced some beautiful sketches, particularly two drawings entitled Gipsy Green and High Life at Gipsy Green, copies of which can be seen in the exhibition.
The former is a detailed sketch of their cottage, with its prominent chimneys which can still be seen today, while the latter records, in a series of small sketches, the daily life of the Tolkien family at Gipsy Green as well as some daily happenings on the Teddesley Estate.
Further details on the exhibition are available at http://www.tolkiensociety.org/events/j-r-r-tolkien-in-staffordshire-exhibition-2016/.
‘Gipsy Green’, 1918 – coloured pencil drawing by J.R.R. Tolkien of the house where the Tolkien family had lodgings during 1918. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Tolkien Drawings 86, fol. 22. © The Tolkien Trust 1995