Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tolkien at the Somme

I hadn't realized that Tolkien's WW1 experience was at the Somme, which shared with Passchendaele the honor of the very worst places for a British soldier to be in the Great War. (N.b. "soldier" -- obviously, being on an exploding battle cruiser was no treat either.)

This via Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who points out Wikipedia's casualty figures for the Somme and Verdun -- 1,070,000 and 708,000 respectively. I had thought that Verdun's figure was higher; I'm nearly finished with Prior and Wilson's really excellent book on the Somme, so haven't seen where they peg the casualty total.

... Anyway, back to Tolkien: he was in reserve the cataclysmic first day of the Somme (you still got shelled, just not so heavily), but participated in a July 14 attack that ran into the uncut barbed wire that did for so many; then he later "participated in at least one of the disastrous stormings of the Schwaben Redoubt, an impregnable fortification of the German trenches." Not a happy task to be given. Trench fever took him out of the line in October 1916, while the battle ground on for another month; since his battalion was annihilated at the Chemin des Dames in 1918, the disease may've saved his life.

... Prior and Wilson (300-01) put British casualties at 432,000, German at 230,000 (the latter a ballpark figure). They don't discuss where they get their numbers, but don't seem to regard the British ones as controversial (the German numbers were provided to Churchill by the Germans when he was writing The World Crisis and are deemed probable by Prior & Wilson).

The Wikipedia article on the Somme puts the British (including Dominions) casualties at 419,654 and the Germans at 465,000. The latter number is frankly very dubious, given that the Brits were doing most of the attacking, and smells of the retroactive attempts to justify the battle as an attritional success.

Prior & Wilson's figures yield 662,000 British and German dead; the French dead aren't addressed by them, but the Wikipedia article claims 204,253 (which seems a bit high -- the French participated in the battle, but to that great an extent?). Anyway, that would yield a total of some 866,000 casualties, which is high but not near the 1,070,000 claimed by the Wikipedia article. It is however either way higher than the casualties at Verdun, which Alistair Horne agrees are fewer than the Somme's and somewhat over 700,000: "the accounting in human lives was never meticulous in that war" (The Price of Glory 327).

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