The official death figures for the First World War, though incomprehensibly vast in themselves, fall well short of the full tally of fatalities, and give the barest indication of the suffering of soldiers and their loved ones. Today that is borne out anew by a small tangent in the story of Tolkien’s school clique, the T.C.B.S.
I’ve previously described the remarkable chain of events that led to my discovery of missing issues of the Hydra, the journal put together during the First World War by soldiers being treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart Military Hospital. It’s famous now because war poet Wilfred Owen edited it and because the journal also carried poems by his friend Siegfried Sassoon. I’d been led to it in the course of my research into Tolkien and the T.C.B.S., about whom Tolkien and the Great War has much to say. The copies I found had belonged to another figure from Tolkien’s school who hovered on the edge of the group, George Henry Bonner (1895–1929) – a writer who also edited the Hydra but who never found real fame. You can read my original blog post here. What I did not mention in that piece, because his son Austin asked me not to, was the nature of Bonner’s death.
Since then, Austin himself has passed away: he died on 5 February 2015, aged 89, at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, after a short illness. Some brief impression of a life of essential scholarly service at the Bodleian Library can be gleaned from Austin’s obituary at the website of Oxford Today (it’s about halfway down the page). He was also involved in the Fintry Trust, an educational charity, and closely linked with All Saints’ Church in Headington, Oxford. Not the least of his good works was the donation, initially anonymously, of his father’s papers to the archives of Magdalen College, Oxford, where both the Bonners had studied; and of copies of the Hydra to the archives of Craiglockhart held at Edinburgh Napier University.
I have since been contacted by archivist Liz Palmer from Birmingham Library, who has been working with records of the 1929 inquest into George Bonner’s death. With the permission of Austin’s executor, she has prepared an account which gives the final, terribly sad details of how the trenches haunted George Bonner, and led in the end to his suicide.
It’s easy to speculate on Austin Bonner’s motives for preferring not to publicise the cause of his father’s death. I hope he was spared the full details as revealed in the inquest held when he was just three years old. Yet whatever a dutiful son felt, it now seems right that the full story should be told. Otherwise we will seriously underestimate the gravity and awful tenacity of the condition that took George Bonner to Craiglockhart — an underestimate all too easy to make on a casual reading of the Hydra, in which the horror of the war is almost wholly suppressed or sublimated. And so we would miss how George’s story adds to the bigger picture, still so relevant today: the legacy of war trauma. His son suffered from that legacy too, in the loss of a father at the age of four, and doubtless in the struggle to come to terms with it. So, clearly, did George’s mother, who testified at the inquest, and his wife Eleanor, née Ford.
There’s one additional facet to the Bonners’ story which appears neither in my article nor in Liz Palmer’s. I did mention that Austin Bonner was named after an uncle — George’s younger brother, who was in the Royal Flying Corps and was killed in 1917 over France. But the younger Austin also had a middle name, Ralph. That was given in memory of Ralph Payton, who makes more than a passing appearance in Tolkien and the Great War: nicknamed by his friends ‘the Baby’ as the younger of two Payton brothers who belonged to the T.C.B.S., Ralph was killed in 1916 with the 14th Royal Warwickshires (also known as the 1st Birmingham Battalion) in a night assault on high ground between High Wood and Delville Wood on the Somme.
Ralph Payton had been engaged to marry Eleanor Ford, her son told me. In his naming, Austin Ralph Bonner was doubly marked by the war’s tragedy and by his parents’ loss.
Liz Palmer’s research, which throws light not only on George Bonner’s death but also on his happier days, can be read here.