21st Lancers, Bataclava, Cavalry, Charge of the Light Brigade, Edwardian, Great War, horses, King Edward, Medieval, Omdurman, Oxford, Pelennor, railways, Rohirrim, Romans, Scots Greys, Tolkien, Victorian, Waterloo
Welcome, as ever, dear readers.
The late-Victorian/Edwardian world of JRRT’s childhood and youth was full of stirring stories and illustrations of military adventure, from the 1815 charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo
to the disastrous (but glorious) charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854
to the near-disastrous (but also glorious) charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman (1898)
to the expectation of more glorious attacks in the event of a Great War on the continent.
Such images may have inspired him to join a volunteer cavalry unit at Oxford, King Edward’s Horse,
and may even lie behind the charge of the Rohirrim at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
To us, however, it also symbolizes something else: the role of the horse in Tolkien’s world. Its military role was more than simply carrying the glamorous cavalry, however.
It also pulled the guns,
the supply wagons,
as well as carried those in control of it all, from the Kings (after 1901)
to the generals,
and it was the same for all of Europe and the US, as well.
All of which simply reflected that, for all that there were railroads
and the West was crisscrossed with railway tracks,
horses still pulled the world,
as they had from Roman times
and still did, even beyond the Great War.
In our last posting, we discussed a line from The Hobbit : “By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green…”
We suggested that, with that phrase “long ago” and that imperfect tense verb form, “was”, all was no longer so quiet or green and that goblins/orcs, or their modern equivalent in the Industrial Revolution, were eating up the green of the world, as well as the quiet, but we would like to add to that that a major change in transport, which removed the horse almost entirely from the picture, also contributed greatly.
First, of course, it was those railways which cut through everywhere, steaming and smoking and hooting.
These greatly reduced the use of horses for carrying things—and people—over distances.
At the turn of the century, however, a new invention would come to so diminish the employment of horses eventually to the point where they would be thought obsolete.
At first, they were few and far between, available only to the rich for personal use.
The massive production needed for the Great War (1914-1918),
however, encouraged both post-war demand and supply.
As we’ve discussed in previous postings, the Romans had been masters of the paved road.
After the Romans, however, the secret (and the massive amounts of cash, as well as the numbers of workers) to such roads was lost and roads declined into, at best, wide paths—dust baths in summer, swamps in winter.
At best, a road might be “metalled”—that is, covered in loose stone (from Latin “metallum”—here, meaning “quarry”).
In the 1820s, the Scots engineer, JL McAdam, created roads with a crushed stone surface over larger inlaid stones.
Each of these was an improvement over a dirt track,
but, about 1900, the next process arrived, with the use of bitumen and then various petroleum substances to cover the surface and, along with the use of concrete, these produced the roads we still drive on today.
Unfortunately for green and quiet, this rapidly multiplied the decay of both, as cars and trucks and the roads they needed began to spread across the landscape. Imagine, for a man who had been born into the greener and quieter and horsier world of 1892, what this 1930s traffic jam would have been like and you can easily see why he would have believed that goblins and orcs could so harm the peaceful world!
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Recently, we happened upon this very interesting story, which we had never seen before, from the online BBC New, 3 July, 2006. The author mentions “Tolkien’s son” by whom he means JRRT’s second son, Michael.
Many years ago I corresponded with Tolkien’s son, a schoolmaster like myself. He said the Dark Riders in his novel were based on a real recurring nightmare from the Forst World War. Tolkien, riding a good cavlary horse, had somehow got lost behind the German lines,and, imagining he was behind his own trenches, rode towards a group of mounted cavalrymen standing in the shade of a coppice.
It was only when he drew nearer he realised his mistake for they German Ulhans, noted for their atrocities and taking no prisoners. When they saw him they set off in pursuit with their lances levelled at him. He swung his horse round and galloped off hotly pursued by the Germans. They had faster steeds but Tolkien’s horse was a big-boned hunter.
They got near enough for him to see their skull and crossbone helmet badges. Fortunately for Tolkien (and us, his readers)he raced towards some old trenches which his horse, used to hunting, took in its stride. The Uhlans’ horses weren’t up to it and they reined in leaving Tolkien to get away to his own side.
He was terrified and the cruel faces of those Uhlans and their badges haunted him in nightmares for a long time afterwards. Years later, when he was writing his novel, the Dark Riders were the result of that terrifying chase.
Revd John Waddington-Feather, Shrewsbury
There are some odd typos, but we think that the basic story might be true except for the details about the German cavalry. Uhlans are lancers, but lancer cap badges looked like this.
German hussar busbies, however, could have the famous “death’s head” badge.
And German hussars also could carry lances as in this picture from 1915.
German cavalry went to war with covers over their headgear (as in the photo of the hussars), but, if the story is accurate, we might presume that the hussars, for some reason, have shed those covers.