A newly discovered photograph reveals J.R.R. Tolkien at fifteen in his school’s new cadet corps—launched in 1907 as nations geared up for war.
Tolkien is one of some 120 unnamed figures in the picture, unearthed by the history department at King Edward’s School, Birmingham. School archivist Alison Wheatley managed to pick his face out of the crowd. The image appears here at a higher resolution for the first time.
A low-resolution version was published last week by the Birmingham Mail and the BBC in reference to a radio item about Tolkien and the First World War. Ambiguous captioning gave the impression that this might show Tolkien with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, the battalion he fought in at the Battle of the Somme in 1916; or that it could be soldiers formerly from the school but pictured during or after the war. Some readers observed that these are clearly boys, not men, and that Tolkien looked far older when he went to war at 24; he also wore quite a different uniform, and (in accordance with military regulations) he had grown a moustache.
So I am pleased to be able to confirm that the photograph was taken on 4 April 1907, and shows the King Edward’s School Cadet Corps when it was newly formed, arrayed for inspection by Field-Marshal Earl Roberts.
I agree with Alison Wheatley in identifying Tolkien in this rather anonymising picture. Apart from anything else, his slightly lopsided ears give it away. Petty details assume a peculiar importance when you are trying to match people between different photographs.
The school records show that Tolkien was a corporal in the Officer Training Corps (as the Cadet Corps soon became known) for his final academic year, 1910–11. Prior to that he was presumably a private, but boys of that rank were not listed.
An article in the March 1907 issue of the King Edward’s School Chronicle announces the launch of the corps:
The long wished for Cadet Corps is at last an accomplished fact. The War Office decided, after many weary weeks of waiting, to consent to the formation of one Company. Long before this appears in print the sounds of musketry will have been heard echoing through the cloisters, and the stentorian tones of the drill instructors will have filled the playground.
The visit of Lord Roberts is reported in the April issue as “the chief event of the present term”.
The original purpose of his coming was the inspection of the new Cadet Corps; but an address in Big School [a huge classroom] was also included in the programme. By 3.45 the cadets were ranged up in two lines in the playground, whilst upstairs Big School was packed, almost to suffocation, with an expectant multitude….
Lord Roberts had distinguished himself militarily in India, Abyssinia, Afghanistan and, most recently, during the Boer War. There, among other victories, in March 1900 he had led the capture of Bloemfontein, Tolkien’s birthplace. Such was his standing that Tolkien’s guardian, Father Francis Morgan, even named his dog “Lord Roberts”. Birmingham was decked with flags for his visit, according to The Times. The school Chronicle continues:
At 3.50 loud cheers in the street outside announced the arrival of Earl Roberts, who immediately proceeded to the playground and there inspected the warriors-to-be: these, we believe, showed to great advantage in their (somewhat painfully) new uniforms.
“Warriors-to-be” was not some innocent fiction. The formation of the cadet corps was a sign of the times—an era when Britain, the established imperial power, was engaged in an arms race with Germany, a state which had not existed before 1871. The corps was set up at King Edward’s School just as the British government was looking into ways of ensuring a supply of officers if war broke out. In 1908, all such school units came under the administration of the War Office. In Tolkien and the Great War I say more about the school’s Officer Training Corps and what Tolkien did in it while the drumbeat of war quickened. But even in 1907, Tolkien’s generation was already on the road to the trenches.
As The Times reported Lord Roberts’ speech to the school that day, “he wanted to see every able-bodied boy learn to shoot his rifle with skill. He wanted every boy to understand that not only was it his bounden duty but an honour and a privilege to defend his country”.
In a speech earlier the same day he had spoken of the edge that rifle expertise had given the Boers. It would be “the height of folly” not to respond to changes in military technology which made close-formation fighting a thing of the past. Now, “each man was often called upon to act and think for himself…. What was needed now was the discipline of self-reliance, not the discipline of the barrack square.”
The irony is that so many future volunteers and conscripts in the Great War—including men we see in boyhood in this 1907 photograph—were mown down in 1914–18 because they were ordered across No Man’s Land exactly as if crossing the barrack square, in the face of machine guns far more deadly than rifles.
Those men included the headmaster’s own son, Robert Quilter Gilson, a close friend of Tolkien’s, killed on the first day of the Somme. His platoon commander recalled: “My very last memory of the attack is the sight of Gilson in front of me, and CSM Brooks on my right, both moving as if on parade, and both a minute or two later to be mortally hit” (my italics; quoted in C.C.R. Murphy’s 1928 History of the Suffolk Regiment).
While researching Tolkien and the Great War, I spent many days at the British Library reading the King Edward’s School Chronicle and trying to form a picture of the young Tolkien and his friends as individuals. It was not a straightforward exercise, because boys’ school magazines like that tended to purvey either po-faced reports of official events, or else tongue-in-cheek banter.
Nevertheless, as I read through the issues covering Tolkien’s time at the school and the years immediately after, a picture began to coalesce, Seurat-like, from the host of tiny details. It was not a picture like the formal one of the 1907 cadets in their painfully new uniforms, but an image of a jostling, exuberant, sometimes brilliant crowd of boys emerging from unremarked childhood into maturity and individuality. I followed the progress of Tolkien’s various circles—members of the rugby club, the literary and debating societies, and especially the thoroughly unofficial T.C.B.S. which came to mean so much to him, to Gilson, and to their friends Geoffrey Bache Smith and Christopher Wiseman. I watched boys win their first school prizes, have their weaknesses anatomised on the pitch, give vent to their oratory on topics from cinema to suffragism, share their passion for the Romantics or Arthurian literature, and go sailing on to Oxford or Cambridge, as if nothing could stop them.
And then, under “Notes and News”, the announcements of prizes, scholarships, and other achievements give way to “The following are reported from recent casualty lists:— Killed or Died of Wounds. Alabaster, F.C. 2nd Lieut., R[oyal] War[wickshire] R[egiment], 1899–1905. Brearley, N.B., 2nd Lieut., R. War. R., 1910–1912. Butler, L.S.L., Pte., R. War. R., 1913. Clarke, E.C.G., 2nd Lieut….”
And so on, and on, and on, for four years.
*Pictures reproduced with permission of the Governors of the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham.