The scale of the impact of the First World War is hard for us to imagine. For a higher education perspective, I do recommend a look at both Tomás Irish ‘The University at War, 1914-25, Britain, France and the United States’ and John Taylor ‘The Impact of the First World War on British Universities : Emerging from the Shadows’. Both explore both what happened during but also the impact after the war.
Taylor notes ‘It is no exaggeration to argue that the First World War contributed significantly in the development of the British public university’ (2018, 336) and this is surely right.
Experience of the War
Although it was the vacation when war was declared, universities started to mobilise their plans to support the war effort. Taylor has retrieved extensive minutes of the plans going into action.
But both Irish and Taylor foreground the destruction of the University library of Louvain on 25 August 2014 as the moment that brought the war into sharp relief for higher education, as Irish says, ‘the images of the burnt-out shell of the university library demonstrated that universities were on the front line; knowledge was literally at war’ (2015: pp15-16)
The next key impact was the mobilisation of men in particular to join the forces. Lord Haldane had been instrumental in setting up Officer Training Corps (OTC) in universities and alumni and students were therefore already in a large potential reserve force. Military Studies had been included in the curriculum, Manchester noting it was ‘adapted to the requirements of officers and others interested in military history’ (Manchester 1908 p179) In the Autumn of 1914, it was the declining numbers of students which showed the growing number participating joining the services.
The modern universities were comparatively small, Leeds reported 1596 members of the university had been active service (Leeds 1920 p46). By contrast, the University of Oxford Roll of Honour contains the names of 14,561 members of the university who served in military or naval services during the war.
The editors note that the university made other contributions, through science and the use of university facilities, but the sombre volume records the enormity of the contribution made by members of the university. Here are list their university details, their service and honours and, regularly through the pages, the names of those who lost their lives picked out in heavy type. Those scant details have now been taken forward by many of the colleges who offer insights into the lives of those commemorated on the memorials, with webpages and social media highlighting that personal contribution.
It was the wider contribution that Morrell stresses, contrasting the famous case of Harry Moseley, the discoverer of atomic numbers, who was shot at Gallipoli, an act that Sir Ernest Rutherford thought was a shining example of the misuse of scientific talent (Morrell 1997 p 6) with the wider scientific contributions to the war.
Rutherford himself undertook scientific work for the government, alluded to in this extract from the University of Manchester’s annual report:
As in the previous year, the ordinary research work of the Scientific Departments has been abandoned, and they have devoted themselves to special service, both advisory and experimental, in connection with the War… In his capacity as a member of the Board on Inventions and Research for the Admiralty, Professor Sir Ernest Rutherford has made special investigations in the Physics laboratory on problems connected with that Board. (Manchester, 1917)
Amongst his other projects, Rutherford had worked out the principles for sonar. Some of the tasks undertaken were as fundamental, but less high profile: W H Perkin, Waynflette Professor of Chemistry ‘led small teams working on making acetone from alcohol, on a non-inflammable rubber coating for airships and on mustard gas’ (Morrell, 1997 p8). When the king visited the University of Leeds he was shown the chemistry laboratories, but also the textiles and leather departments working to enhance soldiers’ equipment.
Taylor provides a full account of the minutes of a deputation to the government held two weeks after the armistice (I’ve previously written a shorter version). It’s an extraordinary account of how universities say what they had contributed, and the opportunities that lay ahead. The education minister, HAL Fisher (who’d been a vice-chancellor until 1916) was among the members of government responding, and he was formative in chartering the passage towards regular state funding through the UGC.
As well as the funding towards universities Fisher, looking back in 1939, also highlighted the importance of funding for ex-Service men to take up places at university.
Yet I believe that, when the history of our English education comes to be written, no single step will be found to have contributed more effectively to the spread of the university idea through England than the decision of the Government in 1918 to allot eight millions to enable ex-Service men to enjoy the privileges of university education… I am in a position to affirm that this large body of students was drawn almost exclusively from families to whom the notion of a university career for one of their numbers would have seemed up to that time foreign, if not fantastic. (Fisher, 1940, p114)
The effects were quickly felt at the universities, at Leeds full time students jumped from 778 in 1918/19 to 1389 in 1920, 640 having received awards from the government ranging from fees to fees and a maintenance allowance of £200 per annum for married men (Leeds, 1920, p53)
The war demonstrated the usefulness of science, and Morrell notes that this now carried the argument at Oxford towards more facilities and more distinct courses. It also had demonstrated the need for more systematic higher training, and UK universities co-ordinated together to shape a new degree, the PhD, to deliver that.
Irish notes that the war also developed a more internationalist approach for universities; staff and student mobility increased. It also drove the formation of the National Union of Students, predicated on the need for international cooperation after the war.
Students the world over have a common bond in the great, universal asset – Knowledge. Of all Internationals, Knowledge in its widest sense is the greatest. Every gain in the field of Knowledge is a profit to Humanity. Success is achieved not at the expense of our neighbour, but to his advantage. Hitherto the intellect and learning in our Universities has held itself too much aloof from the everyday life of the nation. It is time that the spirit of Team-work, which permeates every phase of our University life, was introduced into the affairs of Nations. If the students are co-operating to-day, surely there is hope for to-morrow! (Macadam, 1922)
We have remembered the loss of life at the centenary of the armistice, but it is worth remembering that the impact on the universities was deep and long-lasting. They committed themselves to the service of the country, and the country started to fund them for it.
Craig E & Gibson M (eds), 1920, University of Oxford Roll of Service, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Fisher, H A L, 1940, An Unfinished Autobiography, London, Oxford University Press
Irish, T, 2015, ‘The University at War, 1914-25, Britain, France and the United States’ London, Palgrave Macmillan
Macadam, I, 1922, Youth in the Universities, National Union of Students
Morrell, J, 1997, Science at Oxford 1914-1939, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Taylor, J, 2018, The Impact of the First World War on British Universities : Emerging from the Shadows, London, Palgrave
University of Leeds, 1920, Fifteenth Report 1918-19, Leeds,
University of Manchester, 1908, Calendar, Manchester, Manchester University Press
University of Manchester, 1917, Calendar, Manchester, Manchester University Press