The University Goes to War, 1914

James Peters writes:

The start of the new academic year seems an appropriate time to reflect on how the First World War affected The University of Manchester exactly one hundred years ago.  Documents and publications in the University Archives reveal some surprising details about the upheaval caused by the outbreak of war.

When Britain declared war on 4 August 1914, the University was in the middle of the Long Vacation. Students had returned home for their holidays, unaware of the unfolding dramas of European diplomacy. When they returned to the University in late September, the campus was already witnessing changes to the very lives of staff and students.

An important source of information about the War’s impact is the Manchester University Magazine, the main University publication of the time. Reading the issues from 1914 makes clear how unexpected and dramatic was the breach with Germany, a country which had enjoyed considerable intellectual and cultural prestige in pre-War Manchester. Before the War, students often travelled and studied in Germany and wrote up their experiences for the Magazine. For example, in the June 1914 issue, there was a humorous student article on “Reminiscences of Germany”, but the next issue in October 1914 included an article describing a narrow escape from detention in the German city of Aachen.

Student opinions about the War can also be tracked through the Magazine. Initially, these appear to have been ‘patriotic’ but relatively subdued. Gradually, more outspokenly pro-War articles appeared, some calling for the internment of German residents. During the early months of the War, there were few reports of pacifist opinions or activities in the student body, although some students were criticised for expressing ‘defeatist’ opinions. A letter to the Magazine in December 1914 criticised students who had informed him “England had gone into the war only to try and collar Germany’s trade… (and ) it was all bunkum to talk about our honour.”

The campus was slowly transformed by the War. Male students drilled in the Main Quadrangle or on the sports grounds, some lectures  were suspended  to facilitate training, ‘Freshers’ social events were cancelled, and the University authorities counselled  students to exercise strict economy for the war effort. Some students became involved in relief work for Belgian refugees, who began to arrive in Manchester in late 1914, and for whom a University Committee for Reception of Belgian Professors and Teachers was established.

Students in the University Officers’ Training Corps (OTC) would have been the first to be “called up”. The OTC was engaged in annual training exercises on Salisbury Plain when War broke out, and some went into active service almost immediately. The OTC commander, Charles Paget Lapage (1879-1947),  a well-known Manchester doctor, kept an album of photos of this period, which shows students drilling in Main Quadrangle and participating in training exercises in the Cheshire countryside.

Students drilling at the University in 1914, C.P. Lapage photo album.
Students drilling at the University in 1914, C. P. Lapage photo album.

A different perspective emerges in the papers of John Graham (1859-1932), the warden of Dalton Hall, and a leading Quaker intellectual. During the War, Graham emerged as a prominent pacifist, defending local conscientious objectors, and editing the pacifist journal Conscription and Conscience. His letters from 1914 reveal deep disquiet about the War, and unease about the possible introduction of conscription. However, at this stage, even he was prepared to support military action in certain circumstances, as he told his son, he would have “no objection to serving under the Government, that is under the military machine, if the country was invaded” (letter to Richard Graham, 16 October 1914, J. W. Graham Papers).

In the succeeding months, the University would become ever more embroiled in the “military machine”, as students joined up or undertook voluntary service, and University staff were recruited for war-related work.  Further posts are planned in the coming months on the University’s evolving response to the War.

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