Feature: UoB during World War I - Trials & Triumphs | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Feature: UoB during World War I – Trials & Triumphs

In his second instalment, Peter Vessey continues his exploration into UoB during WW1

Not all the call-ups for national service were for combatant roles. In May 1916, the War Office called up Dr. Boulenger to go as Proto-zoologist to Mesopotamia, and Mr Grove to go as Entomologist to the same destination. In their cases the Senate decided, possibly with some relief, that their rate of pay would be such that the university’s previous decision to grant top pay up to academic standards would not be needed. Late in 1917 the Board of Inventions required the services of Doctors Guy Barlow and Horace Keene for unstated service: there are hints in the Report by the Principal to the Court of Governors (February 1919) that they had been trying to develop a form of SONAR. They were definitely reporting to the Admiralty.

Early in 1918, Professor Percy Frankland was sent out to Italy as an advisor on ‘Explosives & Chemical Questions’. The same meeting also recorded that Professor Ashley (Dean of Commerce) was to be attached to the Ministry of Food. In March 1918, Professor Boulton was asked to join a group investigating boring for oil in Britain. Another group had been testing thousands of tar samples from various gasworks looking for usable quantities of toluene and benzene for use in explosives, and Professor Ashley was also asked to join a study group looking at the cost of living during the war.

In May 1915, the Board of Education decreed that undersubscribed courses, such as Town Planning, were to be cancelled. In October of that year, it was decided by the Faculty of Science that any students doing war-related research should be able to count that time towards their degree. A year later it was decided that, in the interests of wartime economy, printed mark sheets would not be issued, and in October 1918, the Senate debated, with no consensus, whether they ought to defer the start of the Spring Term in order to save fuel.

It was decided by the Faculty of Science that any students doing war-related research should be able to count that time towards their degree
In addition to the research into radio mentioned earlier, military research came to dominate much of the University. Oliver Lodge was serving on a standing committee of the Royal Society advising His Majesty’s Government on the applications of science to war. And in May 1916, Professor Lea, and his team, were thanked by the Admiralty, for their work on the properties of light-weight metal tubes which had advanced the design and construction of aircraft.

The gas mask adopted by the army for protection from chemical attacks, was copied from one developed in the School of Mining by Professor Frankland. Prior to this, Tommy’s gas protection consisted of some cotton wool soaked in bicarbonate and tied across the mouth. The soldiers were also provided with a box of gunpowder with a short fuse. This they were to light and throw towards the approaching gas cloud so that the explosion would (hopefully) disperse the gas.

Professor Frankland was heading a team experimenting in chemical weapons. In 1915, having picked up his BSc in Chemistry, Horace Bamford went to enlist. This was turned down, not on medical grounds, but because the authorities wanted him working on the commercial production of Novocaine which was needed in large quantities and had only been obtainable from Germany. He also worked on the production of a chemical weapon believed to be in production in Germany.  Because his obituary was written during the war, this was not named but a hint is given by the statement ‘the magnificent colour which characterised one of the intermediate products’. He died in March 1917 after a short ‘illness’ which was probably caused by being poisoned by the weapon he was developing. Professor John Cadman was also engaged in chemical research, on phosgene: down the model mine! And Professor Burstall was developing efficient radiators for the engines in the army’s tanks.

Needless to say, the military recruitment of students and staff went on and, as the numbers of volunteers proved inadequate, conscription arrived. From its early days, the university had had staff and students enrolled in its own territorial company, ‘U’ Company, the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. This now was supplanted by an Officers’ Training Corps, headed by a succession of Lecturers, supposedly to get the students to match the standard of a Cadet who had studied for six months at Sandhurst.

At the end of 1916, the Army Council ordered that all male students, unless exempted by a Recruiting Medical Board, had to spend time each week in the O.T.C. It was pointed out by Professor Lea, that as the students had no drill hall, they could only parade during lecture time, but the Senate held that, as far as possible, students would be excused lectures and workshops on Wednesday afternoons. Until then, Wednesday afternoons were not given over to students’ sports and activities - in fact the students, and the lecturers, were expected to work a five-and-a-half-day week!

In the summer of 1916, having completed his BSc in Mechanical Engineering, William Bevon enlisted in the R.F.C. After the usual brief training he was posted to the experimental station on Orfordness, where they were developing fighting tactics, bomb sights, etc. On 17th November 1916 he died in Ipswich Hospital of cardiac failure and was buried in Wolverhampton.

Wednesday afternoons were not given over to students’ sports and activities - in fact the students, and the lecturers, were expected to work a five-and-a-half-day week!
In the second half of the war, the Senate became concerned with the conditions of the prisoners of war, especially the interned civilians. The Foreign Office was to be petitioned to press for their release at least to a neutral country.  For the military prisoners, things gradually improved: a national ‘Prisoners of War Book Scheme’ was formed to send literature out to the camps, and the university’s Mr. J. Woods had been dispatched to Switzerland from whence he was able to travel into Germany to provide dental services to at least some of the prisoners of war.

Early in 1917 a different problem about a prisoner of war arose. The university received a letter reporting the problems facing a civilian, Edward Hales, held in the aforementioned civilian camp at Ruhleben, who wanted to sit the University’s Intermediate Exams. He had passed the Diploma in Secondary Education in 1910 and had been teaching in a German school. The university dispatched a set of the relevant papers, from the summer of 1916 for him to sit under appropriate conditions, and decreed that the time he was spending in Ruhleben was to count towards his degree as ‘war work’. However, his names does not appear in the university’s ‘Register of Degrees’ so either the papers failed to arrive, or he did not pass.

Among the interesting ideas the Senate came up with, in parallel with the offer to refugees, was an offer of free tuition to war orphans. This was passed to the Principal & Deans’ Committee for their consideration. A month later, the proposed conditions were submitted back to the Senate. Free tuition was to be offered to all needy orphans, and the children of those severely disabled, so long as they held matriculation. They would also be expected to ‘study hard and behave well’. They would still be liable for their exams fees, memberships and ‘incidentals’. A few months later, the Principal reported that he had discussed this matter at high-level with other universities and it was felt that, rather than each university doing its own thing with inevitable variations, the matter should be dealt with in a national scheme administered by the government, who never took it up.

In June 1916, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce offered to sponsor a University Chair in Russian Studies; they had already collected £8842 out of a proposed £12,000. In May 1917, the holder of the Chair, Professor Segal, was invited to spend the summer in Russia as a guest correspondent for the Birmingham Daily Post. At the Senate meeting that October, it was proposed that Professor Segal should give a series of (free) lectures about the February Russian Revolution.   But, events overtook them, and, in November, the second revolution occurred, and it was decided that the remaining lectures should be postponed until the Russian situation settled down.

Apart from those who fought and died in the trenches of Flanders, university staff and students were fighting and dying in all sorts of places. Captain Gilbert Johnson, 14th Cycle Corps, was drowned in Italy, possibly in a bathing accident, and Captain Cecil Kidd drowned on duty in Gaza. Seventeen other students and alumni died at the east end of the Mediterranean. In addition, Lt. Oswald Crowther (RNAS) died over Dunkirk, Lt. Oscar Hughes died in Dar-es Salam, and Captain Horace Mann in Nyassaland. Surgeon George Bassett died on HMS Lion at Jutland, Surgeon Albert Tonkinson (HMS Monmouth) at the Battle of Coronel, and Laurence Southerton (HMS Racoon) drowned on the Irish coast in a blizzard.

But remember, for each of those two hundred who died, there were four survivors who returned, finished their studies, and married, often to other students. Some of these were also combatants (or Home Guard) in World War Two.



Published

4th June 2018 at 2:30 pm



Images from

Heritage Calling



Share