Reg Little reviews historian Malcolm Graham’s fascinating book Oxford in The Great War

It was envisaged as “a hall of memories” that would proudly stand in the centre of Oxford. The intended purpose of the new building, Robert Buckell, the mayor of Oxford, explained was to “record the patriotism and heroism of local inhabitants and the part they had played” in the Great War.

Remarkably, proposals for an Oxford War Museum were made public in the spring of 1917 while the First World War was still raging.

A war museum committee was set up, agreeing that the museum’s scope would go beyond Oxford citizens serving their country in the forces. Reports were commissioned about the work of the Oxford Volunteer Force, hospitals, Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, the YMCA and the Garden Club for wounded soldiers at Mansfield College.

In an enlightened move, Oxford councillor Miss Merivale was asked to find information about the wartime work of the women of Oxford, while the great photographer Henry Taunt was co-opted on to the committee to gather photographs of the wartime city.

But nothing came of the plans for an Oxford war museum, as local historian Malcolm Graham explains in his new book, Oxford in The Great War.

“The war museum committee was diverted into making plans for a city war memorial in 1919, and St John’s College vetoed the idea of building the memorial hall on college land south of St Giles’ Church because it would obscure views of the church.”

The Oxford War Museum was never to see the light of day. But Dr Graham says its ambition to record the sacrifices and experiences of all Oxford citizens, men, women and children proved to be a major inspiration for his new book, which reveals the full extent to which Oxford was transformed by the Great War.

“It is unclear how much the museum would have taken account the university’s contribution to the war effort,” Dr Graham reflects.

But he notes words written a century ago by another Oxford mayor, W.E.Sherwood: “We have a crisis in which both city and university and indeed the whole empire is involved, and we shall sink or swim together.”

Dr Graham is the former head of the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies and has published extensively on the history of Oxford and Oxfordshire.

Twenty years ago, Mr Graham wrote his first wartime study, entitled Oxfordshire at War, 1939-45.

More than a year ago when the publisher Pen & Sword contacted The Oxford Times to help it find a writer for its Cities in the War series, our librarian Chris McDowell wasted little time in recommending Dr Graham, who lives in Botley.

The 66-year-old local historian was delighted to accept, with the project allowing him to draw on his interest in family history and fascination with the history of the First World War, prompted by the centenary of its outbreak.

“Strangely enough the First World War had rather been forgotten until a few years ago,” said Dr Graham. “The National Curriculum in schools concentrated more on the Second World War, but now there has been a complete turnaround.

“This is just the first of five years of commemorations and we are going to hear a lot more about major battles including Ypres and the Somme.”

Dr Graham said he was particularly keen to show how Oxford colleges were affected by the war and how people in the city responded and contributed to the war effort.

Soldiers and cadets occupied most men’s colleges, which were left virtually empty as undergraduates and some younger dons enlisted, he tells us. Lecture rooms were used for military training and practice trenches were dug in green spaces.

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.

Dr Graham said: “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.”

Then in January 1915, Oxford’s military training role in wartime was formalised 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. Training took place at the University Parks, Wytham Park and Shotover.

The transformation of the Examination Schools in the High Street into the base hospital for the Third Southern General Hospital was the first stage of a process which saw many Oxford buildings taken over as war casualties mounted.

When the first trainload of around 150 wounded soldiers arrived in Oxford, people gathered outside the Examination Schools to welcome them. “Cheers greeted the Allied wounded,” said Dr Graham. But about 40 Germans in their grey uniforms “passed into the schools in complete silence and, it may be added without any demonstration of hostility”.

Oxford Mail:
Oxford Volunteers parade on Balliol College cricket ground, 1914. The group includes the tall figure of Sir Walter Raleigh, Professor of English (second from right). 

He is especially pleased with the book’s cover.

“It’s quite an evocative image of Boy Scouts in an Oxford troop marching past the Examination Schools in High Street with a Union Flag. The photo was taken in June 1915, so it’s possible that some of them were conscripted by the end of the war.”

Dr Graham knew where the best photos were to be found showing Oxford during the war years. Those to have made the book include evocative images of Oxford volunteers on parade at Balliol College cricket ground in 1914, including the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.

Men from the Oxford Volunteer Training Corps are also captured marching past the Sheldonian Theatre in 1914, and in 1915 a photographer in Queen Street snapped a soldier from The Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars saying goodbye to his wife and son as he made his way from Christ Church to the railway station.

“Some of the pictures came from the history centre where I used to work and some came from the Oxford Journal Illustrated, which ran from 1909 to 1928 and is an excellent resource,” said Dr Graham.

“Support for the war effort was incredible — even the photographer Henry Taunt was involved. He was reported to the police for spying because he would tour the county on a quadricycle with his assistant.

“Taunt was an ardent patriot and was actually rather anti-German because German postcards would rival his own in the run-up to the war, and he tried to draw up a list of Germans living in Oxford.”

As well as focusing on how men, women and children were energised to support the war effort, the book also focuses on the bravery of troops on the front line, including troops from the Oxfordshire Hussars and Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

The Ox and Bucks lost 5,878 officers and men during the conflict. Of the 14,792 university men who served in the forces, 2,716 (18.36 per cent) died. The proportion of casualties was even higher at some colleges. At Balliol, 183 (22 per cent) of the 838 men serving in the British forces perished. At University College, 24 per cent died and at Corpus Christi 25 per cent.

“These men suffered disproportionately because they were generally quick to enlist, were fit enough to be placed in the front line and in many cases, served as junior officers leading their men in offensive operations.”

Dr Graham also offers details of the memorial plaques and tablets that were erected in the city, even before the large granite cross was unveiled in St Giles in 1921, after much debate about the most fitting location.

His new book, filled with poignant black-and white-pictures, certainly now stands out as a fitting way to commemorate the sacrifice a century on.

Oxford in The Great War is published by Pen & Sword (£12.99).