The Battle of the Somme occurred during World War I.
It was one of the largest and indeed the bloodiest battle of the First World War. J.R.R. Tolkien participated in the battle and witnessed firsthand the carnage, suffering, and terrible losses of life. The result was that it was to have a profound effect on Tolkien's works, most notably The Lord of the Rings.
The battle started on July 1, 1916 after a heavy artillery bombardment on the German lines that had begun a week before on June 24. The battle was intended to be a decisive breakthrough for the allies against the Central Powers, but it did not turn out that way. The battle ended on November 18, 1916. In the space of just over four months, the battle produced over one million casualties and was indecisive and although the allies gained ground (only five miles total) they did not break through the German lines and win the war.
Tolkien's involvement in the battle lasted from July to October 1916 during which he served as a Battalion Signalling Officer to the 11 of The Lancashire Fusiliers. His unit operated mainly in the northern section of the Somme and was stationed in the Beaumont-Hamel, Serre, and Leipzig salient trenches. He was in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge and helped captured the Regina Trench from the Germans for a time. The filthy and wretched conditions of the trenches and areas of battle along with stress caused Tolkien to come down with Trench fever and Trench foot, which put him out of the war permanently.
Aftermath and effects on writing
While in hospital recovering from his diseases of war, Tolkien did much writing where his experiences in the battle were where many of the ideas for the terrible battles of the War of the Ring and the epic Fall of Gondolin, which were outlined in The Lord of the Rings and the Book of Lost Tales. Another theme which grew out of Tolkien's participation in the battle was the struggles of ordinary peoples in extraordinary situations and that the smallest of people can make big contributions and differences. Possibly, Tolkien was inspired by the great potential, bravery, and hardiness he saw in the ordinary low-ranked citizen soldiers that fought in the battle.
- The Somme and Tolkien, a point of view BBC article about Tolkien and the Somme
- John Ronald Reuel Tolkien Personal stories
- A Military Atlas of the First World War, by Arthur Banks pgs. 152-58