by Grace Khuri
2019 marks the hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles (signed 28 June 1919), which officially ended the First World War. At this time of year, and not least during this twilight of the centenary commemorations, we reflect on the subject of sacrifice and its meanings. There are many types of sacrifice, and frequently, soldiers on the Western Front relinquished more than just physical comfort and personal safety. Perhaps less reflected on is the great taxation on emotional well-being and the imagination, which a particularly erudite and vibrant generation endured with dignity and grace.
An individual who represents sacrifice in its many dimensions was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, and one of many lost poets of that generation, Geoffrey Bache Smith. Born in West Bromwich in 1894, the second of two sons of Thomas and Ruth Ann Smith, in 1905 Smith entered Tolkien’s school, King Edward’s in Birmingham (although the two did not meet until 1911, as Smith was several years younger). There, Smith flourished as an academic all-rounder and a very witty and outspoken contributor to school life. He was also a poet, eventually joining the Tea Club and Barrovian Society or T.C.B.S., a school club founded by Tolkien and his oldest school friend, Christopher Wiseman. Smith became a literary light of the group, awakening them (and especially Tolkien) to the importance of poetry. Later, Smith joined Tolkien at Oxford, coming up to Corpus Christi College (Tolkien was at Exeter) to read History in October 1913. In December 1914, Smith enlisted in the army, serving first as a Second Lieutenant with the 8th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry before transferring in April 1915 to the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers; by November, he was posted to France where he initially served as an intelligence officer.
Smith’s poetry and letters poignantly catalogue the reflections of a lively, quick-witted, but also sensitive person’s feelings when thrown into a conflict that was emotionally, mentally, and physically enervating. Poems like ‘Ave atque Vale’ (‘Hail and Farewell’), composed after his enlistment, trace a tangled web of nostalgia, sadness, and a sober awareness of an old existence passing away. It contrasts the changeless beauty of Oxford ‘…evermore the same/ Unto the uttermost verge of time’ with the ephemeral men leaving it for the war: ‘And we, we may not linger here./ A little while, and we are gone’. Later, it reflects on the uncertainty of returning to a beloved, well-known environment: ‘Though nevermore we tread the ways/ That our returning feet have known/ Past Oriel, and Christ Church gate/ Unto those dearer walls, our own’. The ‘dearer walls’ of Corpus Christi, in particular those enclosing its chapel, now hold the engraved name of one whose feet did not return, listed among many others who gave up their lives at Oxford and the bright futures beyond it so others could live to enjoy what Smith and his compatriots would not. So reflects one of Smith’s poems: ‘There be still some, whose glad heart suffereth/ All hate can bring from her misbegotten stores,/ …so England’s self draw breath’.
But there was more to Smith’s sacrifice than simply relinquishing an academic or poetic career. Life on the Western Front was often lonely, stressful, grueling, and fatiguing for a person’s health. During his war service, Smith came to mirror his own depiction of the knight Bedivere in his pre-war poem ‘Glastonbury’—‘weary and travel-stained and sick at heart’. After meeting Tolkien while on leave, Smith writes upon returning to France: ‘Me I have no doubt you found different: more tired and less vigorous’—a revelation indicative of an immune system weakened by unconscionably high levels of stress (he once endured a 60-hour bombardment), poor nutrition, and unhealthy living conditions. Officers also had great responsibility for the lives and welfare of others and were often required to perform duties that were mentally draining. In another letter, Smith laments the ‘sheer vacancy’ afflicting him while serving as Battalion billeting officer, a dull but important role of churning out routine marching orders and going ahead of troops to arrange accommodation. In Tolkien and the Great War (2003), John Garth stresses how such drudgery was ‘contrary to Smith’s guiding spirit’, whose childhood hero was Robin Hood, in his own words an ‘engaging rascal’ who was one of ‘the most living characters in all literature’ (209).
Periods of boredom and creative malaise were offset by emotionally harrowing experiences. While still working as an intelligence officer, Smith had to retrieve papers off of German officers who had been dead for weeks. In another instance, a good battalion friend of Smith’s was wounded and captured by the Germans while taking part in a night patrol through No Man’s Land. Soon after, Smith himself had to lead a small group of men on the same dangerous errand, an endeavor doubtless fraught with anxiety and sorrow, one of many to inspire lines like: ‘So we lay down the pen,/ So we forbear the building of the rime,/ And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time’. Such an environment made it difficult to find time or mental clarity to compose. Even so, Smith still wrote. An increasingly pensive, even philosophical side becomes apparent in his poetry, which, even before the war, was replete with metaphysical treatments of nature and the ancient past, some of which are echoed in images and ideas in Tolkien’s early mythology. The love of natural beauty never disappears even from Smith’s verse written on the Somme battlefields: ‘Now spring has come upon the hills of France,/ And all the trees are delicately fair,/ As heeding not the great guns’ voice’. Despite his talents, Smith was very humble – ‘I do not set much store upon my own powers’ – but set greater value on his friend Tolkien’s potential.
On 29 November 1916, while walking down a village road well behind the lines, Smith was struck by shrapnel from shells fired from four miles away. Although initially only slightly wounded (causing Smith to write cheerful letters to his mother stating he would be home by Christmas), he later developed fatal gas gangrene. He passed away on 3 December, and with him, a beautiful poetic light went out in the world. An unsigned obituary in Oxford Magazine (23 February 1917) memorializes his steady and kind character: ‘An officer is nowadays told in many lectures that he must always consider the welfare of his men before his own. To some this becomes more or less a formula; but in G.B. Smith’s work it was a living principle, and no sacrifice or labour that might further the welfare or comfort of his men was ever begrudged by him’. This also characterized Smith’s relationship with hisclosest friends, especially Tolkien. When Robert Gilson, one of the T.C.B.S. members, died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Smith consoled a devastated and confused Tolkien, who felt that Gilson’s death meant the end of the brotherhood. Heartbroken yet ever-hopeful, Smith stressed the eternal nature of the bond of friendship, imagining that Gilson’s spirit ‘that lies all silently/ In some far-distant and untended grave,/ …Shall leave the company of the hapless brave,/ And draw nigh unto us for memory’s sake’.
It is supremely fitting that the symbol of Smith’s college is the pelican bleeding itself to care for its young. Corpus Christi lost more men than any other college in Oxford during the First World War. It is also an apt reflection of Smith himself, who gave so much to enrich, comfort, and protect others, to the degree that his ‘spoiled sheaf’ of surviving poetry (A Spring Harvest, 1918), with its ‘composite of memories and half-uttered dreams’ was one that ‘scarcely came to harvesting’. It is our task to ‘Save that poetic fire’ that ‘burns in the hidden heart’ and try, as best we can, to emulate the character that fueled it.