As ever, dear readers, welcome.
We’ve seen this scene not long ago—
Merry and Pippin in the hands of the Orcs, both of them a bit roughed up in their capture. And now things have gotten worse, as a scout for the Rohirrim has spotted them and pursuit will soon begin. Ugluk, the leader of Saruman’s Uruk-hai—whom, if you read last week’s posting, you know that I can see as the equivalent of a tough old British sergeant—
now has to move his men along at a faster rate: “Now we’ll have to leg it double quick.”
He has two burdens, however, in Merry and Pippin, whom the Orcs have been carrying, as he says to Pippin:
“ ‘My lads are tired of lugging you about. We have got to climb down and you must use your legs…’
He cut the thongs around Pippin’s legs and ankles, picked him up by the hair and stood him on his feet. Pippin fell down, and Ugluk dragged him up by his hair again. Several Orcs laughed. Ugluk thrust a flask between his teeth and poured some burning liquid down his throat: he felt a hot fierce glow flow through him. The pain in his legs and ankles vanished. He could stand.”
If we continue with the idea that behind the Orcs is the British Army of 1916, then we might imagine that what Sergeant Ugluk has just done is what was done on a daily basis: he’s issued a rum ration, which came in large ceramic containers, like this one—
(SRD stood for “Supply Reserve Depot”, but soldiers had more creative—and sometimes bitter—translations, like “Service Rum—Diluted” or “Seldom Reaches Destination”.)
Rations were handed out
in very small portions—1/16th of a pint—in the older system an ounce—roughly 30ml—here’s what that looks like.
(And here’s a useful article which will tell you more: https://pointshistory.com/2014/05/29/world-war-i-part-2-the-british-rum-ration/ )
Having gotten Pippin onto his feet, Ugluk moves on to Merry.
“ ‘Now for the other!’ said Ugluk. Pippin saw him go to Merry, who was lying close by, and kick him. Merry groaned. Seizing him roughly, Ugluk pulled him into a sitting position, and tore the bandage from his head. Then he smeared the wound with some dark stuff out of a small wooden box. Merry cried out and struggled wildly.
The Orcs clapped and hooted. ‘Can’t take his medicine,’ they jeered. ‘Doesn’t know what’s good for him. Ai! We shall have good fun later.’
But at the moment Ugluk was not engaged in sport. He needed speed and had to humour unwilling followers. He was healing Merry in orc-fashion; and his treatment worked swiftly. When he had forced a drink from his flask down the hobbit’s throat, cut his leg-bonds, and dragged him to his feet, Merry stood up, looking pale but grim and defiant, and very much alive. The gash in his forehead gave him no more trouble, but he bore a brown scar to the end of his days.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)
This is Orc first aid and it made me think about the medical system which JRRT would have encountered in those bloody days at the Somme, in the summer of 1916.
The obstacles facing the British soldiers once they’d climbed out of their trenches
are almost unbelievable.
First, there was the landscape itself, ruined by endless shell fire from both sides.
Then, as the Germans recovered from the initial British artillery bombardment, their guns might start up again, lobbing high explosives and shrapnel (metal balls spread by shells which were timed to explode overhead) at the oncoming troops.
In front of the advancing troops would be miles of barbed wire
which, it was hoped, had been cut by that initial bombardment, but was not always the case.
And beyond the wire were the many German machine guns, each firing about 600 rounds (shots) a minute,
and sited so that each gun’s fire would cross that of at least one other, doubling the danger of being hit. This would be combined with rifle fire from the enemy infantry
and hand grenades if the British soldiers managed to get close enough.
It is no wonder, then, that casualties were so high. On the first day of the Somme, 1 July, 1916, the British lost nearly 60,000 men killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
If a soldier was wounded close to his own trenches, he might be able to limp or drag himself back, or he might be helped by another soldier, wounded or not,
although there was a certain suspicion among the higher command that this would be an easy way for unwounded men to slip away from the fighting and could be frowned upon. Sometimes captured Germans might be pressed into service to help with the wounded.
(It was a fairly common fact that, once soldiers were wounded, they could be considered as somehow out of the war and both sides could be very gentle with the other side’s casualties.) There were also military stretcher-bearers, whose job was to go out onto the battlefield behind the advancing troops to pick up casualties—which could be a very dangerous job if they got too close to the fighting.
Once back behind their own lines, the wounded came—or were brought—to a first aid station, for immediate treatment and a look-over, to see how badly wounded someone was.
If further treatment was required, wounded men would be conveyed by ambulance—either horse-drawn
to the next medical stop, the casualty clearing station.
A very serious wound would necessitate further attention at a base hospital
(which could be in a converted hotel or chateau, as here) or even a transfer to Britain.
Here’s the whole process done wonderfully in silhouette.
It’s a blessing for those of us who love Tolkien’s work that, although he was involved in the Somme battle and subsequently went through the medical system, he wasn’t wounded by shrapnel
or a German sniper’s bullet,
but by an attacker who favored neither side and whose effects, if rarely fatal, could be long-lasting: a human body louse.
In October, 1916, he was invalided out of his unit, suffering from a number of complaints linked to something called “trench fever”, and eventually shipped back to England, never to return to France. The cause was that louse, which had crawled into the lining of his clothing
to lay eggs.
Within the louse or its eggs was a bacterium which could enter the body through a break in the skin and, once in, produced a wide series of symptoms very nicely depicted here—
With huge numbers of soldiers living so close together and very few chances until your unit was pulled back from the trenches to wash thoroughly and have your uniform properly cleaned, the best the men could do was to try to pick or burn the lice out of the seams, which, considering the huge numbers and persistence of lice, was never very successful.
Ugluk could treat exhaustion and surface head wounds with his rough medicine, but, in 1916, there was no cure for trench fever—in fact, it was only late in the War that lice were firmly identified as a major factor (here’s a copy of a major medical work of the period which seeks to understand what’s going on: https://archive.org/details/medicaldiseaseso00hursuoft see page 180 and following). Mild cases—CS Lewis had one—seemed to cure themselves, but for severe cases, like Tolkien’s, the best that could be done was to send the patient home—which saved him from the bloodbaths to come and gave us The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
As ever, thanks for reading.
Avoid the trenches at all costs,
And remember that there’s always