Tolkien scholar John Garth examines the the facts behind a newly discovered photograph dating to 1907 that shows a fifteen-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien with his school cadet corps.
Tolkien at fifteen, a warrior-to-be
by John Garth
A newly discovered photograph reveals J.R.R. Tolkien at fifteen in his school’s new cadet corps — launched in 1907 as nations geared up for war.
Tolkien is one of some 120 unnamed figures in the picture, unearthed by the history department at King Edward’s School, Birmingham. School archivist Alison Wheatley managed to pick his face out of the crowd. The image appears here at a higher resolution for the first time.
A low-resolution version was published last week by the Birmingham Mail and the BBC in reference to a radio item about Tolkien and the First World War. Ambiguous captioning gave the impression that this might show Tolkien with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, the battalion he fought in at the Battle of the Somme in 1916; or that it could be soldiers formerly from the school but pictured during or after the war.
Some readers observed that these are clearly boys, not men, and that Tolkien looked far older when he went to war at 24; he also wore quite a different uniform, and (in accordance with military regulations) he had grown a moustache.
So I am pleased to be able to confirm that the photograph was taken on 4 April 1907, and shows the King Edward’s School Cadet Corps when it was newly formed, arrayed for inspection by Field-Marshal Earl Roberts.