The following excerpts offer a unique personal perspective on the impact of the First World War on life at the University. They are taken from the University of Aberdeen Oral History Archive, a major project to record the memories of those connected with the University.
- George Fraser
George Fraser (1895-1998) MA 1917, MBE
Interview with George Fraser recorded on 12 June 1997 by John Hargreaves.
JH: I think we do forget how precarious the health of many students was at that time. I suppose in a way the war was an additional hazard?
GF: They couldn't get the medical facilities you see. Now the difficulty in the classroom and the thing that hurt me most of all, I had volunteered to go to the war, of course I got rejected each time, and every now and again we were called up again and sometimes in the class a fellow student, my name would be called up, my fellow student would be called up, but I knew I wouldn't be taken. It was my worry, sorrow for this fellow and the tragedy was even after when I became a journalist one of my main jobs was to handle statistics, deaths, people killed and I would see the names of some of those students coming in. That was very, very hard to bear.
JH: You must have felt a difference between 1914 when nobody knew how long the war would last, and 1917 when there cannot have been too many men of your age left?
GF: When the University Company was called up a different set came in but you didn't know how long they would be there. There was always the chance they would be called up. I remember Professor Jack in English, reading the war statements he was almost crying when he called out the names, he was very, very sentimental about these things.
- Daniel Gordon
Dr Daniel Gordon (1901-1993) MA 1921; MB, ChB 1924
Interview with Dr Daniel Gordon recorded on the 21 May 1986 by Elizabeth Olson. He began his studies at the University just before the Armistice was declared in November 1918.
EO: Were you a student at the time of the Armistice?
DG: Yes, I'd only been a month at the 'varsity when the Armistice came and, oh, it was a great spree all up and down Castle up by Union Street and the Gordon's Band came along, and I can't remember the Pipe Major, I think it was Kenny it was his name and he'd a VC. I remember the VC he had and he played up and down Union Street. We had a very happy time.
EO: Were you expected to be called up?
DG: Yes, I was expected to be called up in January, you see.
EO: Ah yes, when you reached your eighteenth birthday.
DG: Yes, when I was, and Sidney Davidson the surgeon who was in our year was waiting as well.
EO: And would you have gone or would you have been able to postpone it for your studies?
DG: By that time, it would have been postponed I think, but six months earlier it would not have been postponed. It would have been the time you see when they were still calling them up. You see, for a time, in 1917 they were calling up the lads at seventeen, not waiting till the eighteen, before the Americans came in, there was more manpower you see, that was the thing.
EO: It must have been very frightening - to have the prospect of going to war at 17/18?
DG: Well, I lost two cousins in 1915, within a week of one another. One was an arts student and his brother was working at home on the farm and they were both in the Gordon Highlanders. The arts student was in the U company of the 4th Gordon’s and he was killed at the age of nineteen and his brother had joined the army, joined the territorials at the age of sixteen in 1914 summer and he was called up right up and he was killed a week later, at the age of seventeen and that was two of the Gordon’s that had gone. Oh no, no, no, I would never have been frightened of being called up.
EO: Would you not?
DG: Oh, no, I wouldn't say so.
EO: Would you thought it was an adventure?
DG: Oh, well, it's the same sort of thing. I was in the army, in the RAMC, in the Second War. I was in that. We'd an OTC at the end of the First War too, quite a lot of fun at that time. Linklater, who was in our year, who became the great author, he was a sergeant and David Levack, who was the radiologist, he was a sergeant and we'd a very happy time then down in Fleetwood and then in the Isle of Man, when we were in the OTC, a whiley after the war.
EO: Yes, was that a new idea then, the OTC?
EO: Or had there always been one?
DG: It was U Company of the 4th Gordon’s before that. It was the OTC...
EO: And what did U stand for?
DG: U Company, University Company I would think. I think it would have been University Company.
EO: Ah yes, and did the young people at that time think that fighting in the First World War was the right thing to be doing? You know when you read the poets afterwards, they look back and the terrible waste that there was. But did it seem like a waste at the time? In, say 1917-18?
DG: At that time, that article that I wrote for our year I said, survivors of the muddiest and the bloodiest war in history, it was, and still it was the muddiest, a dreadful, dreadful time.
- Stella Henriques
Dr Stella Henriques (1899-1988) MB, ChB 1923
Excerpt from interview recorded on 6 September 1986 by Elizabeth Olson. Here Dr Henriques describes the moment students heard the news that the armistice had been declared on the 11 November 1918.
But in the meanwhile, we had the Armistice, I haven't told you. That was 1918 of course, Monday 11 November. And we, I never had the money for a newspaper, none knew that the war was coming to an end. If you hear of things now or read of things they tell you that people were realising the war was coming to an end, but we didn't understand that. It had been going on so long that we just didn't know. And so on that Monday morning when the bell tolled at 11, it just meant to us that was the end of an hour and that the next class would be starting. But as we were at chemistry lab thing we went on for 2 hours so we never moved and then somebody burst in and said "The war's over!" Good gracious. Well, of course, we fled down the stairs and chaos, all work abandoned that day and the men were absolutely dotty, of course, at the thought that it was over. And so - how on earth we managed to acquire the garments - we had a fancy dress march with the torches that night and then, of course, the next day - we were never content - we decided we'd have the day off and the Senatus said "no, you'll go back to work." We said, "no we weren't going", and we didn't go but they had their own way back on us. I know Professor Trail looked at us very soberly and he said "The war is not over yet, this is only an Armistice" but of course we couldn't understand this, we were dotty at the thought of it. Anyhow they had their own back on us, because when they did the exams, they asked the questions out of all the stuff we ought to have been getting the day that we didn't go.
- Gertrude Rennie
Dr Gertrude Rennie (1898-1994) MB, ChB 1920
Excerpt from interview with Dr Gertrude Rennie (nee Lendrum), recorded on 11 March 1994 by Myrtle Anderson-Smith, with Mrs Evelyn Shirran.
AS: I know you went to University after the War had started. Were you aware of any big changes that wartime had caused?
GR: Well, I should say in the social side. We had no social life, really. I mean, we had never any dances, or any functions. And a lot of the debates and all that thing, there was nothing of that nature.
AS: It all closed down because of the War?
GR: They were all closed down, yes. Because there were people always being called up, you see. My brother was called - well, he enlisted, when he was eighteen, after doing one year. And he died of his wounds, like so many of the Seaforths, at Ypres.
AS: So really, it was work and more work, while you were at University. No light relief?
GR: Well, we just had to entertain ourselves. We went for walks. And ninepence worth in the Gallery at the Theatre, now and again. And sixpence worth in some of the cinemas, you know. And that was a great treat, of course. We had no money, of course; we had very little money.
AS: Were there societies still functioning?
GR: One or two, but a lot of them weren't. No. I think the Debater went on for a while, but...
AS: You weren't involved in any of them?
GR: No. We had nothing of that, like they have now. No.