August Highlight - The University during the War

August Highlight - The University during the War

As the war raged on, students, now serving as soldiers, continued to lose their lives and this was the biggest impact on the University, felt across campus by friends, colleagues and staff. Yet, despite the increasing realities of war, the University remained open, the Court and Senate making provisions for students and staff and acting on guidance from the War Office. The Military Education Committee oversaw matters relating to the medical unit of the Officers’ Training Corps (OTC) and various departments were engaged in research and production in connection with the war. Assistance was also provided by the Aberdeen University War Work Party which was established in the Materia Medica Department at Marischal College, under the direction of Professor J.T. Cash. It produced thousands of war dressings, garments and hospital comforts and by June 1917 its average weekly output was noted as being 3,400 dressings and 420 garments.

An important figure, and one who played a pivotal role in steering the University through the war years, was Sir George Adam Smith (1856-1942), Principal from 1909-1935. He was very supportive of U Company and the OTC, and tried unsuccessfully to instigate the formation of an infantry OTC (in addition to the medical unit) at the University during the war. Two of his three sons were killed in the First World War, a loss compounded by the fact that he had the solemn duty of reading the names of those killed at the annual chapel service.

Student life continued as normal as much as possible. The majority of the student societies were able to continue during the war years, but sporting and social activities were initially curtailed and student politics was suspended, although Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was appointed Rector of the University in November 1914.

The sudden increase in the proportion of female students as men either volunteered or were called up for armed service meant that women soon outnumbered their male counterparts, particularly in the faculty of Arts (by 1917 the student population was almost half that of its pre-war level). Women began to have a more prominent role in student affairs, increasing their representation on the Students Representative Council, and taking over the running of the student magazine Alma Mater. Students also supported the war effort in various ways: in addition to joining the University War Work Party, many undertook fundraising activities such as selling flags in aid of the Belgian Refugee Fund while others served meals to soldiers at the railway station or worked on farms during the summer vacation.

The declaration of the Armistice on the 11 November 1918 was met with great celebrations on campus, and a torchlight procession was held that evening. As the war came to an end serving students gradually returned to their alma mater: men like Eric Linklater (1899-1974), novelist and rector from 1945-1948, who was seriously wounded fighting in France with the Black Watch, returned to continue his studies and took an active part in student life.