How the city's colleges enlisted as war raged on

Volunteers marching past the Sheldonian Theatre in 1914 after manoeuvres in the University Parks

Volunteers marching past the Sheldonian Theatre in 1914 after manoeuvres in the University Parks

First published in News

In Wednesday’s Oxford Mail, we told the story of how Oxford’s schools were affected by the oubreak of war as pupils and staff left, with many never to return. Here REG LITTLE looks at how the city’s university colleges gave their bravest and finest, and old buildings became hospitals

THE summer of 1914 had all the usual delights at Oxford University with May Morning, Eights’ Week, college balls, cricket in the Parks and punting on the Cherwell.

Many Oxford students would always cherish that early summer as one of the happiest periods of their lives.

Harold Macmillan, a student at Balliol College who would go on to become Prime Minister, observed that in contrast to the Second, the First World War came unexpectedly like “a bolt from the blue.”

He would later recall: “In the summer of 1914, there was far more anxiety about a civil war in Ireland than a world war in Europe.

“Had we been told, when we were enjoying the carefree life of Oxford in the summer term of 1914, that in a few weeks all our little band of friends would abandon for ever academic life and rush to take up arms. Still more, that only a few were destined to survive a four years’ conflict, we should have thought such prophecies the ravings of a maniac.”

Macmillan was to be among the students and academics from Oxford who had signed up for service by the end of the year.

A few days before the outbreak of war Macmillan underwent an appendicitis operation, and he would curse his luck that he had to wait until the late autumn to join his battalion.

“I had to submit to the heart- breaking experience of hearing from all my friends,who were hurriedly getting themselves into this or that regiment,” he later wrote. “In that bitter period of anxiety lest one should miss the whole affair, I envied them.”

The war for him was to be the most profound experience of his life.

The Brasenose College historian DR Thorpe observes that when it was over Macmillan could not even bear to return back to his old university.

“For years he could not return to Oxford. It was for him a city of ghosts and the memories were too searingly painful. “ By 1918, virtually all Oxford students were in uniform, and the Oxford University Roll of Service lists 14,561 members of the university who served during the war.

Prof Jay Winter, a Great War specialist, estimates that roughly one in five of them did not survive.

The war memorials in St Giles’ and in colleges bear witness to this staggering loss of life.

Dr Stuart Lee said: “The impact of the war on the university was immense. Many of the young students volunteered and served as officers, and unfortunately they paid the price, as the casualty rate amongst such ranks was extraordinarily high.

“Colleges became ghost places, with only the dons and a few students remaining, but even then the war imposed itself as many were used as hospitals for the wounded, as were other university buildings.

“The memorials on college walls tell the tale of the loss, and to their credit also several colleges now record their students who died fighting for the ‘enemy’.”

While students and academics were away at the front, Oxford, however, was far from empty.

Colleges, with their multiple bedrooms, quads and large communal areas, proved ideal for purposes other than housing students, while the countryside around the city provided ample training ground.

Oxford also became a centre of treatment for disabled and wounded soldiers. The Examination Schools were converted into a military hospital and Somerville College became a hospital for officers, including Siegfried Sassoon.

Oriel College provided temporary accommodation for those who vacated their rooms in Somerville.

Merton College housed nurses and New College and University College provided space for recuperating servicemen.

A hundred and fifty Serbian refugees were lodged in Wycliffe Hall from May 1916.

Oxford colleges, facing a financial crisis of their own, displayed both patriotism and good sense by agreeing to accommodate the military.

As early as August 5, the 4th (Territorial Army) Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were billeted in colleges after its detachment from around the country were mobilised.

Balliol, Christ Church, Keble and New College were all pressed into service.

Oxford Mail:

  • Harold Macmillan

Dr Malcolm Graham, whose book Oxford in the Great War is being published in the autumn , said: “Many colleges housed recruits in the early weeks of the war.

“During 1914 and 1915, Exeter College was home to Officers’ Training Corps signallers, and the headquarters of the 2/4th Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and three heavy batteries.

“Oxford’s military training role in wartime was formalised in January 1915 when the War Office sent the first batch of 200 newly-commissioned officers to attend a training course. These men were accommodated at Balliol, Hertford, Keble, Trinity, Wadham and Worcester colleges.”

Oxford Mail:

  • War wounded at New College

Some colleges were to become more like barracks with quadrangles resembling drill squares.

New soldiers were drilled on Port Meadow and learned how to dig trenches on land off St Cross Road.

Instruction in open country warfare and night fighting took place at Denman’s Farm, off Eynsham Road, between Botley and Farmoor.

Training took place at the University Parks, Wytham Park and Shotover.

The university would also lend its academic expertise to the war effort.

Dr Graham tells us: “ A School of Aeronautics was established at Oxford in 1915, initially to train young officers, and later to train about 1,000 cadets.

“The school took over the University Museum and some science departments of the University for teaching purposes.

“Royal Flying Corps cadets and mechanics were quartered at eight colleges. An aerodrome was being built on Port Meadow in June 1916, and the first planes arrived in August.”

Oxford Mail:

  • The Town Hall

As for academic life, that virtually ceased to exist in men’s colleges, with many dons undertaking a huge variety of war work.

Dr Graham found that at Trinity College, the number of undergraduates fell from 150 in 1914 to 14 in 1917, at Exeter from about 50 to seven, and at Oriel from 133 to 10.

The few male undergraduates in colleges between 1914-18 were mostly foreigners, young men below military age and men judged to be medically unfit.

At Magdalen, JB Langstaff noted “the bewilderment and concern with which the dons were contemplating their college, now that practically the whole student body had been snatched away from under them”.

But after the Great War, Oxford University would never be the same again.

BODLEIAN EXHIBITION

THE Bodleian Library is hosting an exhibition until November 2, entitled The Great War: Personal stories from Downing Street to the Trenches, featuring letters and diaries of politicians, soldiers and civilians.
All are in some way connected with Oxford University, from Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to the students who signed up as junior officers, with about 170 joining the Oxford & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry alone by the end of 1914.
The exhibition will offer visitors “new perspectives” on the First World War, its curator has said. 
Mike Webb said these are different from the more well-known views of war poets like Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. 
He said: “It will give them new perspectives about the war. We are used to the view of the poets and memoir writers, but these people’s voices are not so well known so we don’t know their views on the war.” 
He added: “It’s good that people are reminded that these things happened. 
“I think it’s interesting to have as many perspectives as possible and our exhibition is very much an elite view because it’s looking at Oxford students and alumni. They were well-placed in society and had a particular view and we have to put that into the bigger picture.”

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