Few events have shaped the history of this country as much as the First World War. As we reach the 100th anniversary of its outbreak, there has been heightened focus on the re-telling of the war. But the historical facts only offer part of the story; the individual stories of the people involved are what bring the war to life.
By delving into the University’s archives Impact has discovered the wartime issues of The Gong, the University of Nottingham’s first student magazine, which give a unique insight into life at UoN during the war.
From 1881 to 1948 it was known as University College Nottingham, a constituent college of the University of London. The student magazine The Gong was a literary publication, focusing on students’ poems and creative writing, but during the war it also focused on the exploits of the students who had signed up to fight. Of the hundreds who fought in the war, 58 were killed, and 35 badly wounded.
Two Nottingham students who fought in the war were twin brothers Frank and George Reynolds. They joined Nottingham University together in 1912. When the First World War broke out, they both joined up, becoming second-lieutenants in the 9th South Lancashire and the 11th Sherwood Foresters Regiments respectively.
“He was the finest type of fighting officer I have ever seen”.
George fought at and survived the Battle of Gallipoli, from which he wrote a letter to one of his maths professors describing how much “he was enjoying studying mathematical problems on projectiles and probabilities, and also on hydrostatics when the trenches were flooded”. He was killed in April 1916 fighting the Turkish in Iraq. His brother Frank was killed three months later in France at the Battle of the Somme.
Due to the socially elite nature of universities at the time, nearly all the students fought as officers, rather than in the ranks. The Officer Training Corp (O.T.C) had a large presence at universities before the war, and provided a training ground for students wishing to join the military. During the war it took on the additional role of training the new recruits for service, and a majority of students who fought were trained by the O.T.C.
Some students rose high in the military hierarchy. John Meads, a Nottingham local and a Chemistry student at the University joined up as a second-lieutenant to the Sherwood Foresters, and managed to rise to the position of Major.
His war service was an exceptional one; The Gong recorded that he earned a Military Cross “for gallantry in leading a bombing attack” against enemy trenches in 1915. In doing so he was badly wounded, so he was allowed to leave the army and return home. When he was back in Britain he married a fellow Nottingham student, but in the summer of 1917 he joined up once again.
He was soon killed in France, aged 24. In his obituary The Gong described him as “a man who commanded the love and respect of all who knew him. His quiet and unassuming manner covered great strength of character and a cheerful and friendly disposition”.
John Mead wasn’t the only student to be decorated for his actions in the war. Captain Jacob Smith, another Chemistry student, earned a Military Cross and a Distinguished Service Order. The latter he earned leading an attack at the Battle of the Somme, where he fought and killed two enemy officers. After he died from the wounds sustained in that fight, his Colonel wrote: “He was absolutely fearless on all occasions. He was the finest type of fighting officer I have ever seen”.
“Could it be supposed that there was any young man in this university who had not considered his duty in this time of national crisis? Nay”.
The effect the amount of casualties had on the University is clear in the pages of The Gong. In the first few months of the war, before the casualty notices arrived in large numbers, the tone of the magazine was relatively optimistic. A poem was printed in the first issue of the war named ‘To the Shirker: A Last Appeal’ which called for students to join up to defend “the honour of our island shores”.
In the next issue a student wrote a complaint, arguing that there was no need to implore Nottingham’s students to join up, because it was obvious they would do so anyway. “Could it be supposed by any rational being that there was any young man in this University who had not clearly considered his position and his duty in this time of national crisis? Nay, there is no such student in college, so this poem does not serve its object”.
This attitude soon shifted. In 1915, as many of the new recruits began landing in France, the Editor-in-Chief Nina Brameld warned that “a time of great affliction is ahead, of sorrow to be borne, not with grief unworthy of the dead, with the calm resignation that is born of pride and unselfishness”.
It wasn’t just students from the University who were involved, lecturers were as well. Five were killed in total. The lecturer that draws the most attention is Lieutenant William Inchley, an Engineering lecturer; an influential academic, and you can still buy his textbooks today. He fought at the Second Battle of Ypres with the Duke of Wellington regiment, and whilst he was there he wrote several letters to The Gong describing his experiences.
He didn’t avoid the less pleasant aspects of trench life: “The weather has been putrid here: rain, rain and still more rain. The trenches are knee deep in mud and in places waist deep. The physical discomfort is far worse than the fear of anything else”.
“A time of great affliction is ahead”.
He remained cheerful though: “What struck me the most was the nonchalant way in which we all went about. The Germans might have been hundreds of miles away for all anyone seemed to care. We are a very cheery lot, even in the trenches you can hear men making jokes. It must surely be British characteristics to do this under the circumstances. We are all pals out here!”
Unfortunately, mud wasn’t the only adversary he had to face. In 1915 he was killed by one of the first usages of poison gas in warfare. The friend who wrote his obituary concluded: “His death is not only a severe loss to his widow and three young children, but also to his college and country”.
Despite the constant stories of misery and bloodshed, the war had some major, positive impacts on both the country and the University. The most obvious of these is the role of women. As the war progressed they began to find a more prominent place in the public sphere – The Gong itself was edited almost completely by female students by the end of the war.
There is further evidence of this cultural shift in a written account of an inter-varsity debate hosted by Birmingham University, where women’s position after the war was debated. The motion was: ‘The war will strengthen the political position of women’, and was contested by four speakers from Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester and Leeds.
“The responsibilities of the women at the college are indeed great. They must show themselves worthy of the men, for in their hands lies much of the happiness of the nation”.
There was only one female speaker, Nottingham’s Mary Clegg, who was also an editor for The Gong. She concluded her speech by suggesting that women should take over command of the Army Service Corps: “Woman’s thrifty soul would rebel at the waste going on there now!” She won the debate 160 votes to 80.
The editorial of the June 1915 issue also called Nottingham’s women to step up to the challenge of the new world: “The responsibilities of the women at the college are indeed great. They must show themselves worthy of the men, for in their hands lies much of the happiness of the nation. May they prove fit guardians of that for which their brothers are sacrificing so much”.
In November 1918, a notice announcing that the war was over was chalked onto a blackboard in the main hall. The Gong records the reaction in detail: “Peace at first overturned and bewildered us. One lecturer wandered around as if in the maze of some delightful dream from which he desired no hasty awakening. Confused rushing, embracing, dancing and mad merriment had their place in the uncontrolled actions of many a one that day”.
“Peace at first overturned and bewildered us”.
The students of the University were already looking to the future. In early 1918 a League of Nations society was set up at the University, calling for the creation of an international organisation devoted to upholding world peace. In the final issue of 1918 there was a lengthy discussion of the future and the student’s role within it.
The Gong’s Editor-in-Chief Mary Gregory called for “a vision of a world at peace, a peace based on equality and love, the peace of universal progress. This vision, though overwhelming, is needed to give us motive and perspective. In this spring of the new age, let new life thrill our being, and blossom in so many expressions so long checked and choked by the deadly grim terror and shadow of war”.
The Present Day
There are still elements of university life which resemble University College Nottingham back in 1914. The Officer Training Corp, which was so central in training the new recruits, still exists today as the U.O.T.C. It is now based in Beeston, but involves students from all over the East Midlands, focusing on adventurous training exercises and preparing students for future careers in the military.
“Confused embracing, dancing and mad merriment had their place in the uncontrolled actions of many a one that day”.
Edmund Tully*, a third year Sociology student at Nottingham, is a current member of the U.O.T.C. He feels that he has a definite connection with the students of the Great War. “Their actions, achievements and sacrifices are more intelligible to us because they were at the same stage in their lives, and we can better appreciate the challenges they faced and the magnitude of their actions”.
*Names have been changed.
Additional Reporting: Emily Shackleton.
Credit for all images of The Gong goes to the Manuscripts and Special Collections department.