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G.B. Smith: An Inventory

January 15, 2012

By June 1915, Geoffrey Bache Smith had been in the Army for several months and was in a good position to advise his friend J.R.R. Tolkien on the practical matters of his own enlistment. On ?20 June Smith wrote to Tolkien, detailing at length what the new officer should have in his camp kit (and which he was expected to buy, out of an Army allowance or at his own expense): ‘a bed, bath- and washstand, sleeping-bag, and at least two blankets or rugs; also a hair (not an air) or down pillow, and I rather advise a mattress (cork), and a few other things . . .’ (Tolkien Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford; see The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, pp. 67–8). The ‘few other things’ became many as Smith went on. He also advised where Tolkien should obtain his gear and on fine points of officers’ clothing.

Eighteen months later, Smith was dead, after being wounded by shrapnel and succumbing to gas gangrene. On 11 December 1916, eight days after his death, Smith’s surviving personal effects were recorded in War Office files, now in the National Archives at Kew. Documents like the inventory of Lieutenant Smith’s property given below (from National Archives reference number WO 339/28936, read while researching the Companion and Guide) are of little consequence in the larger history of the First World War, but they help to personalize the conflict by focusing on one man rather than the tens of millions who served; and while this particular document would be of comparatively less importance to a biography of G.B. Smith than his letters and poetry, it serves to reflect the man through the small things that gave him comfort. It suggests, as well, the kinds of personal goods Tolkien himself would have carried during his own wartime service.

Inventory of effects, 11 Dec. 1916

spirit flask
hair brush
3 brushes (shaving) [for applying soap]
4 pipes
note book
tin cont[ainin]g: cigarettes
razor strop
2 packets of tobacco
pocket knife
2 tie pins
3 studs [shirt fasteners]
3 pencils
1 cloth bag
1 comb in case
1 comb
1 officer’s advance book
2 tobacco pouches
glass mirror
2 tooth brushes
shaving stick
metal cigarette case
fountain pen
ink tablet tube
3 identity discs
wrist watch (damaged) and strap
note wallet
postal packet; A.F. [Army Form] W. 3100
cheque book
large note book
2 writing pads
pad cont[ainin]g: correspondence etc.

These miscellaneous items were to be forwarded to Smith’s mother in Grove Crescent, West Bromwich (north-west of Birmingham). They still had not reached her by 26 December, when she wrote to Tolkien.

Notably absent from this list are any articles of clothing or larger pieces of camp kit, or any books that had been in Smith’s possession. It may be that these were only the effects on his person when he was wounded, separate from whatever he may have left at his base. Notably present is plentiful equipment for writing and especially for smoking: four pipes, two tobacco pouches, and a tin of cigarettes!

  1. David Doerr permalink
    January 15, 2012 11:52 pm

    In his biography of Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter writes on the first page of his chapter, “The breaking of the fellowship”:

    “Tolkien arrived At Calais on Tuesday 6 June and was taken to base camp at Etaples. Somehow on the journey his entire kit had been lost: camp-bed, sleeping-bag, mattress, spare boots, wash-stand, everything that he had chosen with care and bought at great expense had vanished without trace into the interstices of the army transport system, leaving him to beg, borrow, and buy replacements.”

    David R. Collins’ biography notes even greater losses:

    “Most young men thought going off to war would be a great adventure, but they soon learned how terrible it was. Out of every 100 soldiers who fought, 63 were killed.”

  2. geordie permalink
    January 16, 2012 3:01 pm

    Would that be Collins’ 1992 edition; a pedestrian re-telling of Carpenter’s biography, aimed at children? Or the revised edition of 2005 – a dumbed-down version of the first edition, with a photo of Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera, captioned as Exeter College’s library? (It also has a ‘did you know?’ spot on the back cover: ‘Did you know that [Tolkien] was almost eaten by his neighbor’s monkey?’)

    I should say that Collins’ book is not a safe source for facts. If we’re going to discuss WWI mortality rates (which is not really what this blog entry is about) then I’d prefer to take as an example something more accurate than Collins’ work, and much more sombre: the Service Book of King Edward’s School Birmingham during the War 1914–1919. This includes a summary table showing that of 1,403 Old Edwardians who served in the war, 226 were killed in action or died of wounds. A further 17 died in performance of duty.

    This was Tolkien’s old school; given that many of the boys would have served as officers, the death rate may have been higher than the average. But dreadful as it is, it’s certainly nowhere near 63%.

    Wayne and Christina, thank you for this – as you rightly say, it does help to personalize the dreadful conflict by concentrating on one man. It’s quite moving.

    • January 16, 2012 10:36 pm

      The figure of 63 out of 100 (which appears in both editions of Collins) does indeed seem inflated. But all statistics related to the First World War are problematic, depending on who is counting and what is being counted. Even in Collins’ statement, does ‘soldiers’ mean British soldiers, or Allied soldiers, or soldiers on both sides? Does ‘killed’ mean only killed in action, or does it also include deaths from disease or accidents? Suffice it to say that the number of deaths, overall in the tens of millions, is far more than the mind can fathom, but we can pray for all while mourning the one – Smith, for instance, or his brother Roger who died eight weeks later, or Rob Gilson on the opening day of the Somme.

      Collins is right, at least, that many young men looked to the war at first as an adventure – the ‘greater game’ (see Chronology, p. 58). In the Reader’s Guide (p. 113) we said that his book was ‘to be preferred for balance and accuracy’: this refers to the 1992 edition, the only edition we had seen at the time of writing, and is meant to say (charitably) that it was the best of a bad lot. The truncated, altered, embellished, inferior text of 2005 is something else altogether. Another of its remarkable ‘facts’ is: ‘As a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Tolkien could be called Sir John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. His wife would’ve been called Lady Tolkien.’ Well, no, he couldn’t, and she wouldn’t, not with a CBE (and Edith had already passed away when it was granted).

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