Last week’s post was inspired by the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. Not that the conflict had a great influence over Lewis’s thoughts when he wrote to his friend, Arthur Greeves, on 26th September 1914. In fact, he didn’t mention it at all. As he was only 15 at the time, this is not, perhaps, surprising.
This week, I thought I would stay with Lewis’ letters and jump forward to 1939 to see what was on his mind one month after Neville Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany.
The period between September 1939 and May 1940 is known as the ‘Phoney War’ as no major land battles were fought between the Allies (Britain and France) and Germany during that time.
This is not to say that the British army was standing still. Proof of this can be seen in what happened to Lewis’s brother, Warnie. After being called up from the reserves, he was sent to Le Havre in Normandy to work at a supply depot. Why were there no land engagements? Perhaps because no army can fight a war before it has prepared for it.
Lewis wrote to Warnie on 2nd October. The letter reached him at Le Havre. It begins in very homely fashion. Lewis encloses a ‘rarity of a letter from Uncle Gussie’ and gives his brother the latest news from the Kilns* – a late friend’s baronetcy has transferred to an American cousin, ‘the children are being ‘troublesome”, and Blanchette has moved in with the Griggs.
Contained with this homely news, however, is the first intimation of war, for the children weren’t Lewis’ but evacuees from London.
After this gentle opening, Lewis turns directly to the war as he informs Warnie of John Tolkien’s unfortunate situation. J R R Tolkien’s eldest son was at seminary but would be obliged to leave as the government had conscripted all men aged 20 – 22 into the army.
It was, as Lewis says, ‘bad luck’ for John, ‘if [the call up] had come a few weeks later he’d have been over the age, and if a few months later, in deacon’s orders’.
Normalcy reasserts itself as Lewis tells Warnie he is currently re-reading Barchester Towers. It is a brief interlude, however, for Lewis quickly moves on to another piece of bad news – thanks to the war, he has lost his university lectureship – worth £200 a year. He admits that it would have expired in 1941 anyway but it is never nice to lose money.
Despite personal and national set-backs, many good things were happening. Lewis alludes to them very lightly when he says wistfully, ‘If only we could both enjoy it in some pleasant place, this is one of the most perfect autumns I ever remember’.
The letter ends with a reference to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which, Lewis tells Warnie, sums up ‘my personal war-aims – ‘During all this evil time Abbot Martin retained his abbacy’… Alas, I have already lost part’.
Fortunately, in the years that followed he would not lose that which was much more important to him than mere money: Warnie (and John Tolkien for the matter of that) survived the war.
* The brothers’ home in Headington, Oxford, which they shared with Janie Moore and her daughter, Maureen