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Tolkien fans remember the T.C.B.S. on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme
J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916
J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916

As we mark 100 years since the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, Tolkien fans will be remembering the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), the small group of friends from King Edward’s School Birmingham who were tragically caught up by war.

It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. The Allied bombardment of the German lines availed to little as 19,240 British soldiers were mowed down by gun and rifle fire as they advanced.

Tolkien was an officer in the 11th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Fortunately not part of the first Somme assault, they were held in reserve and went on to capture Ovillers a couple of weeks later.

Robert Quilter Gilson, one of Tolkien’s closest friends, died on the first day of the Somme leading his men over the top near La Boisselle.

Geoffrey Bache Smith, another member of the T.C.B.S., later died after being injured by a shell burst just as the Battle of the Somme was petering out.

2nd Lieut Tolkien contracted trench fever towards the end of October and returned to England on 8 November. Out of the four young men who formed the core of the T.C.B.S., only Tolkien and naval officer Christopher Wiseman survived the Great War.

As Tolkien later wrote in the foreword the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, by 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead“.

Below are just some of the ways Tolkien fans will be remembering the T.C.B.S. and the First World War.

Toast the T.C.B.S.

Individuals and local groups such as London’s Northfarthing smial* will be raising a glass in memory of Robert Gilson, G.B. Smith, and the T.C.B.S. as a whole.

* Northfarthing will meet at Penderel’s Oak in Holborn from 20.00 on Saturday 2 July.

The Tolkien Society Seminar

The theme of The Tolkien Society Seminar 2016 – “Life, Death, and Immortality” – was chosen to commemorate Tolkien and the Great War.

It will be held at the Hilton Leeds City on Sunday 3 July. Tickets can be purchased now, or on the door.

BBC Four: War of Words

The BBC will be re-airing “War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme“, which focused on the war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones, Isaac Rosenberg and J.R.R. Tolkien.

It will be broadcast on BBC Four at 21.00 on Sunday 3 July.

Staffordshire Exhibition

The roving “J.R.R. Tolkien in Staffordshire” exhibition is currently at Rugeley Library until Saturday 2 July. It commemorates Tolkien’s time in Staffordshire during the First World War.

After 2 July, the exhibition will be at Great Haywood Memorial Hall between 5 and 10 July.

King Edward’s School, Birmingham Documentaries

King Edward’s School, Birmingham has produced two documentaries – one on Tolkien himself and another on Robert Gilson – to commemorate its former pupils in the T.C.B.S. and their involvement in the Great War.

Tolkien’s Great War

Robert Gilson: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

About the Author: Daniel Helen

Daniel is an Officer without Portfolio and Trustee of The Tolkien Society. Elected in 2014, he is mainly responsible for the Society’s digital operations, including this website.


  • Harm Schelhaas

    The Ennorandirrim, the Middle-earth re-enactment group that has issued from Unquendor, the Tolkien Society in the Netherlands, spent the first three days of July in the Middle Ages, at a ‹Ridderspektakel› — an SCA-style medieval tournament — in Doornenburg, a medieval castle in the East of the Netherlands near the German border, where weather, terrain and throng conspired to bring to mind John Garth’s description of the trenches: “turning the ground underfoot to a grey glue” and Rob Gilson’s complaint: “the only classification of weather that will ever matter to me will be into dry and muddy”.
    [https://www.facebook.com/groups/ennorandirrim/?ref=browser]

    After setting up camp on Friday 1 July at supper I remembered the Battle of the Somme by reading from John Garth’s ‹Tolkien and the Great War› the first two pages of chapter eight, from: “The first of July 1916 dawned with a light mist but with all the signs of a glorious summer’s day.” to: “Gilson spread the soldiers of his ‘dear, stupid, agricultural platoon’ along a hundred-yard stretch of trench, checked his watch, and waved them up the ladders.”

    Then I went to the ‘Inn’ (Smial) Mellonost in the nearby city of Nijmegen, the only smial of Unquendor that meets monthly: on the first Friday, and there read the same section of text.
    [http://unquendor.nl/herberg/mellonost]