We probably know more about Robert Quilter Gilson than any other 11th Suffolk who died on July 1st. This is because of his great friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien and the extensive collection of his letters held by his family. They have very generously allowed us to photograph and use the content as part of this website and the other activities of the Cambridgeshire Pals Project. We are also extremely grateful for the research of John Garth and his brilliant account of Gilson’s life and experiences recounted in his seminal book, Tolkien and the Great War”, Harper Collins, ISBN 0 00 711952 6.
Robert was born in November 1894 in Harrow, Middlesex, where his father, Robert Carey, was a housemaster at the Public School. His mother, Emily Annie, died in 1907. By 1901 the family had moved to Birmingham where Robert Carey became headmaster of the King Edward’s Grammar School. It was here that Robert Quilter met, and became friends with, J.R.R. Tolkien. Rob, Tolkien and a group of other friends used to meet in Barrow’s Department Store in Birmingham to discuss art, philosophy, politics and poetry and, because of where they met, they gave themselves the name of the Tea Club and Borrovian Society, or TCBS.
In 1912 Rob moved to Trinity College, Cambridge. While at the university Rob joined the Officer Training Corps and took part in a number of pre-war exercises. He felt immediately on the outbreak of war that he should join up, although his father tried to persuade him to wait until he had finished his degree. Rob joined the 11th Suffolks on November 28th, just after 21st birthday.
There were aspects of army life that he did not enjoy, particularly the harsh conditions in camps in the winter months and the anti-German sentiments of some of his contemporaries, but he did enjoy the formal challenges of soldiering. This comment about drill and Ely Cathedral was used both in the bid to Heritage Lottery and in the commemorative event in Ely Cathedral on July 1st 2016:
"The correct thing to do is to be bored, but I confess I enjoyed it. One has to do nothing but what is definite and prescribed, and it is easier to keep discipline than in any other form of work- and it is really useful too and pulls the men together and smartens them up... A whole battalion drilling is really rather impressive and satisfying, especially when it takes place in a huge open field, with a wide view across the fens, and the towers of Ely standing up above the long shiny roof of the Cathedral as clear as if it was only a mile away."
Rob wrote a large number of letters to his family and particularly to his first love, Estelle. The letters chart the battalions movement from Cambridge, to Yorkshire, then Salisbury Plain and eventually to France at the beginning of 1916. There are many references to Rob’s reactions to life in the trenches, the effect of shellfire, his relationship with the men in “Tolkien and the Great War”. One of the most interesting passages is his description of Becourt Wood where the 11th Suffolks were in the weeks leading up to the Battle of the Somme. It was here that their trenches were and Rob wrote :
"There is a wood, not far from the front line, through and round which the trenches wind. It is a pleasant place with many big trees of many kinds, and a ruined chateau with laburnums and pinks and pink may in blossom, and a chestnut avenue, and lawns all overgrown with buttercups.... The wood smelt deliciously fresh in the early hours of the morning and I heard the nightingales. It seems so wonderful that shells and bullets shouldn't have banished them when they are always so shy of anything human."
The 11th Suffolks attacked the German lines in Sausage Valley on the morning of July 1st. There are a number of accounts of Rob’s progress and ultimate death, but it is one of the few deaths recorded in the battalion history:
“A company commander who was wounded wrote: ‘My very last memory of the attack is the sight of Gilson in front of me, and CSM Brooks on my right, both moving as if on parade, and both a minute or two later mortally hit.’”
Rob’s body was found and he is buried in the cemetery in the beautiful Becourt Wood where he heard the nightingales sing.