Update: in summer 2018 this blog post was later expanded to a full essay, with the hope of publication, and this expanded footnoted version is now freely available here in PDF.
I’ve been able to find more details about the claim made in the current gallery exhibition J.R.R. Tolkien & Staffordshire 1915-1918: A Literary Landscape (Shire Hall Gallery in the centre of Stafford, 25th October – 16th November 2016). I had been interested to read, in the exhibition’s press-release, that Tolkien had done some of his First World War training at Newcastle-under-Lyme in North Staffordshire.
I’ve since found this handy snapshot showing the map made by artist Hannah Reynolds (pictured) for the exhibition. It seems that Tolkien was indeed at the “musketry” training camp at Newcastle-under-Lyme. The dates for this, given on the map, are from 27th – 30th September 1915. Zoom in to the photo for the readable details.
Having spent the weekend saying goodbye to his close friends at a hotel in nearby Lichfield, early on Monday 27th September 1915 Tolkien set off from his Lichfield camp into North Staffordshire. One assumes Tolkien led a march with his detachment of men, the distance being around 20-miles on fairly direct roads. If they marched rather than took a train, as seems very likely since they were doing basic training, then the logical half-way halt would have been at Stone. There Tolkien no doubt kept an eye out, on his map and on the road, for the early Mercian hill-fort (of King Wulfhere, whose chief priest was named Jaruman — a name very similar to Saruman). Tolkien was fascinated by early Mercia, and the fort is difficult to miss as it dominates the ancient river-crossing just north of the town of Stone.
Tolkien and his men would then have continued walking northwards, through the increasingly impressive wooded landscape around Trentham, until they eventually arrived at the rifle training camp near Newcastle-under-Lyme. In 1915 the detachment would have been able to use the lanes and roads without fear of motor traffic. They were lucky to march on the 27th, as the 28th was very wet across England.
The above map represents Newcastle-under-Lyme by using a picture of the town centre’s Territorial Force Barracks. The Barracks did indeed serve a local militia that had specialised in rifles for many years. Yet the town-centre Barracks could not have been where the firing of the “musketry training” was actually held.
Where then was Tolkien’s musketry camp? I was lucky enough to dig up the book Gooch of Spalding, Memoirs of Edward Henry Gooch 1885-1962. His military memoirs were kindly published by Gooch’s relatives in 2010, and Gooch usefully gives the exact details of the range and even its relationship to the camp at Lichfield in wartime…
Towards the end of the interview, the adjutant remarked, “Well now, I have got to punish you [Gooch] in some way. How would you like to command the Butts at Newcastle-under-Lyme?” giving a knowing wink as he said it. […] “There was no [rifle] range at [Whittington Heath, near] Lichfield and officers and men of the division went to Newcastle to fire their course [i.e.: test their training using live ammunition] before proceeding overseas. Officers came with detachments for a week’s musketry, then returned to their battalion, another lot taking their place. There was a competent sergeant-major [stationed at the Butts] to arrange everything, which relieved the officer of much to worry about.” (Gooch of Spalding, Memoirs of Edward Henry Gooch 1885-1962, un-paginated)
This was early 1915. The book shows that Gooch was in command of the Butts from the spring until July of that year, when he was sent to France.
The site of Tolkien’s camp is thus “The Butts” [meaning of the name] about two miles south-west of Newcastle-under-Lyme. The site had come to be a musketry camp when, in 1877, the Sneyd family estate had… “given land for the Butts, a rifle-range near or on Westlands farm, Newcastle-under-Lyme”. It thus seems quite possible that Tolkien never even saw the Barracks building in Newcastle-under-Lyme town centre, since wartime tents at the Butts were the likely accommodation in late September 1915. On the other hand, perhaps there were a few mornings when the camp’s junior officers would have gone to the Barracks for some specialist instruction in handling weapons? But we shall probably never know, now.
By laying the map over a modern satellite image one can show that the firing lines of the rifle and pistol ranges now sit under a mundane 20th century housing estate (the red lines, which have been slightly shifted off-line so that you can see the relevant bit of the photo), although some of the rifle range line looks like it may currently run through / along the south edge of a primary school’s grounds.
There is still an adjacent sloped area at The Butts, too steep to build on, which today can be seen abutting the western edge of the estate. This sloped area is still known locally as the Butts or Butts Walks. A local contemporary description of it says that…
“The Butts is a lovely steep hillside of green open space and large woodland overlooking a large residential area. It can be seen from around the Borough, is an excellent viewpoint over most of the urban area and [has views] to the Peak District [foot]hills 15 miles away.”
“Hills” must here mean views of the far outlier peak of Mow Cop, as the upland rise of the Peak District itself is (for some reason) never visible behind. Nevertheless, this outlier hill was likely to have been Tolkien’s first glimpse of the upland country to which Gawain returns, in which the hero has his final encounter with the Green Knight. Gawain would be his first major academic publication, in 1925. However, a straightforward influence is unlikely here, since at that time the scholarly consensus on Gawain was that the geographical setting of the story was uncertain. All that could be said for sure was that it resembled works that were… “written at Hales in south-west Lancashire, not many years earlier than 1413. This resemblance, however, only goes to show that the dialect of the copyist was of Hales in south-west Lancashire”.