Tolkien premieres today, a movie that looks at the horrors that legendary author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien endured in World War I and how it may have informed his writing of The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy novels. But while it’s easy to see some elements of World War I combat in the author’s novels, it’s pretty much certain that some elements won’t make it on to the big screen.
(Also, for what it’s worth, the Tolkien Estate has disavowed the movie ahead of its release, so go ahead and assume it’s not a terribly accurate picture of his life.)
Soldiers with the Royal Irish Rifles at Somme in 1916.
(Public domain, British Army)
Human waste overflowed and spread parasites
Yeah, Tolkien’s novels aren’t known for their graphic descriptions of waste management and disease prevention, so it’s unlikely the movie will have to address it much. But the sanitation challenges of trench warfare were overwhelming. Everyone poops, and millions of soldiers pooping in a line generates a lot of waste.
These soldiers would bury or otherwise dispose of the waste whenever possible, but buried waste was susceptible to floating free of its confines whenever it rained. This tainted water would pool in the trenches and spread disease and parasites like helminths, a type of parasitic worm.
Soldiers in a shell hole receive a message from a dog in World War I.
(National Library of Scotland)
Buried under exploding dirt
Troops in the trenches were generally below the level of the surrounding terrain. (It’s the whole reason they dug those trenches.) That protected them from machine gun rounds and reduced the threat of artillery, but it also meant that large artillery shells could move tons of dirt onto them, burying soldiers.
A corporal who fought at Flanders in 1915 was buried three times despite only being hit by shrapnel once. While he was lucky to be found and uncovered all three times, not all of his buddies were so lucky. Trench warfare opened up the possibility of being buried alive.
World War I wounded leave the battlefield at Bernafay Wood in 1916.
(Ernest Brooks, Imperial War Museums)
Treating the wounded
Tolkien likely has the guts to show hospitals in World War I, but the author wasn’t a medic, and so there would be little reason to depict it. But World War I hospitals in the front were terrifying. They had rudimentary sanitation procedures in place and were often overwhelmed by the sheer number of casualties.
During major battles, like when Tolkien took part in the Battle of the Somme, medical personnel couldn’t keep up with the number of wounded. Harold Chapin was assigned night duty in May 1915, but as he described it, that had no real meaning. The medical personnel worked almost 24 hours a day and still couldn’t keep up. One bombardier described waiting three days to get the shrapnel in his leg treated, not an uncommon wait.
Mind-numbing boredom and spotty communications with home
You know those recurring scenes in war movies where some soldier is reading news from home and the bad news causes them to frown for a moment before returning to work? Yeah, that’s actually glossing over it. See, letters could easily take more than a week to move from the trenches to a family in France. London would take a little longer. (Tolkein’s peers from Canada and America would often wait a month.)
That meant news of a sick relative in a letter might actually be already dead by the time the letter made it to the front. An overwhelmed lover lamenting the separation might have already written their Dear John follow up. And there was no guarantee that the soldier would be kept busy enough to prevent them from dwelling on potential catastrophes at home.
So, in addition to the horrors of battle, troops were left in a prison of their own mind, wondering what parts of their life back home survived.
A sergeant in a flooded out trench in World War I France. Floods like these spread disease.
(National Library of Scotland)
The movie might show a little water in the trenches, but most directors are happy with some wet ankles and splashes of mud. That is not what troops in World War I endured. No, they could be so wet for so long that their flesh rotted off. And the water could easily be a foot or more deep, too deep for soldiers to get dry just by dropping some wood into the trench or cutting a little shelf into the dirt walls.
In fact, in November 1915, a private wrote a letter home about his experiences that month when flooding got waist deep in his trenches despite their rudimentary defenses. It was so bad that, as both sides tried to fix their trench works, a German soldier came across No Man’s Land, shared a cigarette with the Brits, and went back east unmolested.
With that bad of flooding, no one could apparently be bothered to fight. The rest of the men on each side climbed out of the trenches to work and just ignored the people on the opposite side.