IN the summer of 1914, Exeter College celebrated its 600th anniversary with a feast, a service of thanksgiving and a ball. But within a few weeks the festivities were overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War.
Now, 100 years on, the college is making sure that the Fallen are not forgotten. Andrew Ffrench reports

WHEN JRR Tolkien arrived as an undergraduate at Exeter College in 1911 he had no idea of the horrors that lay ahead for him and his fellow students.

Within a few years, he and his contemporaries were transported to the Western Front in France and and many of them did not come back.

Tolkien survived and went on to gain fame by writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but he never forgot his time in the trenches.

Over the four years of war, Exeter College would suffer loss and devastation not witnessed since the Black Death in the college’s early years.

Our top stories

JRR Tolkien came up to Oxford to read English Language and Literature and of the 58 students who came up that year, 23 were killed – the highest casualty rate of any year group.

Of 771 Exonians who served in the First World War, 143 died, 113 of them on the Western Front.

Their mortality rate, 18 per cent, was the Oxford average, much higher than the national average of 12 per cent, mainly because so many of these young men swiftly became lieutenants or second lieutenants.

The death toll was high, considering the average number of freshers each year at the college was between 40 and 50.

Oxford Mail:

  • Frances Cairncross

Earlier this month Frances Cairncross, Rector at the Oxford University college in Turl Street, ensured that the war dead are not forgotten, as the college marks its 700th year.

She and college chaplain the Rev Andrew Allen made a special pilgrimage to visit the war graves of college students who lost their lives in Italy, Northern France and Flandes.

At each grave, they remembered those who died with a sprig of rosemary from the college gardens, tied with ribbons in the college colours.

Other members of the college community, including students and alumni, have been visiting graves in other locations so that every Exonian killed in the First World War is remembered.

After starting out on September 8, Mrs Cairncross said: “When you have spent the last 10 years dealing with undergraduates you know what these men were like.

“It’s dreadful to think of the slaughter.

“In 1916 the Rector of the day, Lewis Farnell, had a nervous breakdown – he just could not take it.

“It is very beautiful and peaceful, but the overall effect is mindblowing.”

The Rector, whose journey finished on September 12, added that the college also wanted to remember three men - Cosmo Lewis Duff-Gordon, Humphrey St Barbe Sydenham, and Harold Ernest Whiteman, who were accepted to study at Exeter and died before they could matriculate.

Mrs Cairncross, who last year walked from Exeter Cathedral to Exeter College to launch the 700th anniversary celebrations, added: “We don’t know where the college staff who died in the war are buried.

“So we want to raise the money to put up a memorial in the chapel to the college staff.

“The college didn’t start to get back to normal until the 1920s. It was very difficult during the war as we became a military base.”

The commemorative plaque in the chapel was designed by Reginald Blomfield, who studied classics at Exeter College and was an architect and garden designer and designed war memorials and war cemeteries.

He also designed the iconic Cross of Sacrifice, one of which stands in most Commonwealth war cemeteries.

Ms Cairncross became Rector in 2004 and has held the role for just over one per cent of the life of the college.

She was previously a journalist, first on The Guardian and for 20 years on The Economist. She will retire as Rector at the end of September.


Oxford Mail:

Tolkien, in the middle row, second from right, with other members of an Exeter College club, before the war; Top row from left: Allen Barnett (survived); Lieutenant Michael Windle, of the Devonshire Regiment, died aged 23 in September 1915 at the Battle of Loos, Captain GS Field (survived); Second Lieutenant Osric Staples, of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, died aged 23 in action near Loos in September 1915, Lieutenant Robert Gordon, of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment), killed in action in France aged 23 in August 1916.

Middle row, from left: Private Walter Brown, of the London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles), died in action aged 24 in October 1917, Lieutenant Colonel Werner Massiah-Palmer OBE, of the Northumberland Fusiliers, died aged 33 in February 1919 from an illness, C Cullis (forced to resign from Officer Training Corps on health grounds); Second Lieutenant JRR Tolkien (survived); Lieutenant John Mackreth, of the Royal Engineers, killed in action in France, aged 23 in September 1915.

Front row, from left: Captain Harold Trimingham, of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles and Tank Corps (survived), Major Lionel Thompson (survived).

IN JUNE 1915, JRR Tolkien applied to join the Army at the Oxford recruiting office.

The following month he became a second lieutenant and was appointed to the 13th Service Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

In June 1916, Tolkien was shipped to France and his C Company was sent into action in the Battle of the Somme.

In July Tolkien served two five-day duties on the frontline. In October his battalion was inspected by Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander at the Battle of the Somme.

Shortly afterwards, Tolkien suffered trench fever and was repatriated the following month.

In 1917 Tolkien faced a series of medical boards but was never declared fit enough to return to the frontline.

ANN Nursey arrived at Exeter College in 1979 to study psychology and philosophy.

Oxford Mail:

  • Ann Nursery

Her great uncle Laurence Hibbs had been a student there before her.

The history scholar came to Exeter College in 1913, joined the Army in 1914 and died in 1916.

A Second Lieutenant in the Jersey Company of the 7th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, he is thought to have died from blood poisoning.

His grave at Lapugnoy Military Cemetery in France is one of those that the college Rector has visited.

Mother-of-three Ms Nursey lives with her husband, Angus Phillips, in Summertown, and works for Age UK in Oxfordshire.

Earlier this month Ms Nursey, visited the college to see her great uncle’s name on the college chapel memorial.

She said: “My great-uncle was from Jersey and came here for a year before he joined the Jersey Militia.

“It’s touching to know that the Rector has made this personal visit to the graves.

“The scale of what happened and the impact on soldiers’ families is overwhelming.”

Oxford Mail: World War 1 OM banner

  • OTHER Oxford University colleges are going through their archives to research the history of students who fought in the First World War.

In May a Europe-wide project that began at Oxford University received the backing of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Europeana 1914-1918 makes digital copies of material related to the First World War and makes them available online.

It follows the model of Oxford University’s Great War Archive, which digitised more than 6,500 items from the British public between March and June 2008.

Europeana 1914-1918 extended the project across Europe, and more than 90,000 items have now been added to the website.

Oxford University is still involved in the wider project, helping to run family history roadshows across Europe.

Ms Merkel said in a podcast: “I am happy that many people participate and that history also becomes more comprehensible – this is a great thing.”

She added that such a project makes clear that it is “better to negotiate 20 hours longer and talk, but never come back to such a situation in the middle of Europe”.

Dr Stuart Lee, of Oxford University’s English Faculty and IT Services, said it was wonderful to see an Oxford-initiated project being picked up and discussed by one of the main leaders of a European country.

He added: “The centenary of the First World War offers us an important opportunity to reflect on the war but also to challenge prejudices across Europe, and Oxford's Great War Archive project which led to the Europeana 1914-1918 initiative had this as one of its main aims by allowing the public to expose material they had held for nearly a century and explain its importance.”

The archive has already led to interesting discoveries, including two postcards written by Adolf Hitler in 1916. Anyone who has items relating to the First World War is invited to send them to

Do you want alerts delivered straight to your phone via our WhatsApp service? Text NEWS or SPORT or NEWS AND SPORT, depending on which services you want, and your full name