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Webmatters : J.R.R. Tolkien: Friends - Robert Quilter Gilson

J.R.R. Tolkien

Robert Gilson

The grave of Robert Quilter Gilson
The grave of Robert Quilter Gilson

One of JRR Tolkien’s closest friends, Robert Gilson was born on 25th October 1893. His father had been the headmaster at King Edward’s School, Birmingham where he and Ronald Tolkien had met. When war broke out he was studying at Trinity College Cambridge.

He applied for a commission on 27th November 1914 hoping to join the Cambridgeshire Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment (The 11th Battalion). His medical examination reports him as being 5’10”
tall, 34” chest and weighing 156 lbs.

He succeeded in his choice of unit and on 7th January 1916 the 11th Bn Suffolk Regiment embarked for France as part of 101st Brigade of the 34th Division. Now a full Lieutenant, Gilson was in C Company.

His battalion was positioned near Becourt on 1st July 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The other brigades of the 34th were those of the Tyneside Scottish and Irish who were to be subjected to a terrible mauling trying to take the village of La Boisselle.

Going forward with his men, Gilson was reported by Cpl Hicks of C Company as having been hit by a shell.

He is buried in Becourt Cemetery.

His death came as a blow to Tolkien who saw in it the collapse of their old club. Another friend Geoffrey Smith wrote to Tolkien to say that their TCBS would endure but five months later Smith himself was killed.

War Diary

11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment

1 July 1916


Battalion commenced to leave BECOURT WOOD and proceeded to jumping off places in DUNDEE AVENUE and NEW CUT B and in MONIKIE STREET.

Battalion all in position with Bn HQ in a dugout near junction of DUNDEE AVENUE with ARBROATH STREET & NEW CUT B. The Bn was considerably delayed in getting into position owing to the right of the 102nd Brigade extending too far to the right.

The mine opposite left of 101st Brigade was exploded.

The infantry assault was launched. The Bn followed the 10th Lincolns from our assembly trenches down into SAUSAGE VALLEY and across to the German lines. Owing to the failure of the 102nd
Brigade on the left to capture LA BOISSELLE our advance from the moment it left our assembly trenches was subjected to a very heavy fire from machine guns from LA BOISSELLE. In spite of the fact that wave after wave were mown down by the machine gun fire all pushed on without hesitation though very few reached the German lines.

4 July 1916

Casualties during the action were as follows:

  Officers Other
Killed 5 148
Wounded 12 387
Missing 2 75

5th July 1916

Brigadier General Gore commanding 101 Infantry Brigade wrote to the battalion.

Dear Colonel Somerset
…theirs was the hardest task of any, having the furthest to advance before crossing our own front line in face of a deadly fire, their courage was magnificent as in spite of wave after wave being mown down they fearlessly pressed forward towards their objective and got well into the German line but unfortunately their numbers were too few in the end to gain it…