TEAM GUEST BLOG NUMBER SEVENTEEN – Heloise Mezen

This month’s guest blog comes from Manifold Press team member Heloise Mezen, our resident fact-checker.

Oxford, the Great War – and me …

It’s hard to imagine how different Oxford was one hundred years ago.  For those of us who attended Manifold Press’s Queer Company event,the abiding memory of the town – as opposed to the jollity within the walls of the Jam Factory – is probably of road works, crowds and traffic.

But we are in 1914 now: there is almost no motor traffic, for a start. William Morris has a motorcycle factory in Longwall Street, and has purchased the former Military College in Cowley to use as a car factory; but it has been commandeered for the manufacture of mine-sinkers.  Of the colleges, four – Lady Margaret Hall, Somerville, St Hugh’s and St Hilda’s – and one Society, the Home Students (later St Anne’s College) are for women, but their intake is strictly limited. Women will not be admitted to be full members of the University until 1920 (beating Cambridge by 27 years).  Most of all, by the end of 1914, the university – and town – have been emptied of young men.

Some of those young men are famous now, although they weren’t then.  In 1915, J.R.R. Tolkien (Exeter) graduated, and was commissioned into the Lancashire Fusiliers.  C.S. Lewis (University, 1916) had to postpone his studies when he was gazetted into the Somerset Light Infantry.  Robert Graves was on his way to take up a place at St John’s when the war broke out; he too joined up, despite being half-German and a pacifist.  Edmund Blunden had been offered a scholarship to Queen’s, but went to war instead, not taking up his place until 1919.  T. E. Lawrence, on the other hand, had already graduated from Jesus and in 1914, thanks to an award from Magdalen College, was working for the British Museum at a dig in Carchemish, poised and ready for his war-time activities in the Middle East.  John Buchan (Brasenose, 1895) was commissioned into the intelligence corps, while Balliol graduate Hardit Singh Malik (1912) in 1915 became the first Sikh pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.

The Town had its part to play in the war too: there was a Royal Flying Corps training aerodrome on Port Meadow to the north, where flyers practiced bombing with bags of flour and the grazing cattle had to be moved every morning to clear what passed for the runway.  At the Oxford University Press, May Wedderburn Cannan, daughter of the Press’s manager, had trained as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in 1911, and went out to Rouen in 1915; she wrote of her childhood and the war years in Oxford in Grey Ghosts and Voices (1976).

On the Gown side, many of the university buildings were so empty of young men that they took in guests: the Exam Schools on the High Street housed the 3rd Southern General Hospital; Keble College became the base for an Officer Training Corps; St John’s College welcomed Belgian refugees; from 1915 Oriel College, only 10 of whose 133 undergraduates were still in Oxford, housed some of the young women of Somerville College in St Mary’s Hall (‘Skimmery’). Somerville itself had been taken over as a hospital for officers by the Radcliffe Infirmary next door.  One of those officers, in 1917, was Robert Graves; another was Siegfried Sassoon, recovering from gastric fever, who described his lodgings as ‘very much like paradise.’

Paradise it may have been, but Constance Savery (1897-1999, Somerville 1917) recalled seeing a notice in the dining hall to the effect that “Officers are requested not to throw custard at the walls”, while Somerville’s most famous Great War alumna, and arguably Oxford’s most famous VAD, Vera Brittain, thought that Somerville made a better hospital than it did a college.  By this time, half of Somerville’s young women were in ‘Skimmery’ and the other half in lodgings.  Vera was already planning, as described in her Testament of Youth, to suspend her studies in order to nurse.  (For a recent blog-post on the death of Vera Brittain’s brother, see here).

The War cut deep into Oxford: of the 14,792 University men who served, 2,716 died – just over 18%.  At Corpus Christi College, the death rate among the men who served was one in four.  New College had more of its alumni killed in action than any other Oxford college.  After the war, against considerable opposition, the College Warden, Dr Spooner (yes, that Dr Spooner, of the spoonerism), insisted that the college’s German dead should have a memorial in the college chapel along with the English dead.  It was the 1920s before the tablet was unveiled, but the German scholars have their memorial too.

New College.jpg

So: there is Oxford, there is the Great War: what about “me”?

My first recorded connection to Oxford in the Great War begins with Cicely Williams who, in 1916 aged 23, came to Somerville from Jamaica to take up the place that she had deferred for family reasons.  She read medicine, a subject recently opened to women thanks to the dearth of young men available to take the course.  Then, in 1918, the Armistice was signed.  Soldiers and nurses returned from dangers that would have seemed unimaginable four years ago to a regime where the men were expected to be in college before the ten past nine curfew, and the women were chaperoned on every possible occasion.  In Skimmery, only a wall separated the Somerville women from the returned and exuberant Oriel men.

The Somerville log-book records that “On the night of Thursday June 19th 1919 certain members of Oriel JCR expressed their desire to return to S Mary Hall in a somewhat unusual but practical manner. After prolonged bombardment on the intervening wall a breach was effected through which several undergraduates jumped into the quad.”  Somerville’s Principal, Emily Penrose, arrived on the scene promptly; after consultation with the Provost of Oriel, Somerville’s Senior Common Room agreed to “guard the hole throughout the night” in hour-long shifts.  One of the students who flanked Miss Penrose in her chair was Cicely Williams.  I know this, because, when I met her in 1982, Cicely told me herself (she was a remarkable woman who lived to be 98, no mean achievement considering two-and-a-half years of captivity in Changi Gaol).

I met Cicely because we were fellow-alumnae of Somerville, although I matriculated some sixty-four years after she did.  Somerville has been digitising its archive, and among the photographs and papers is this one.


By kind permission of the Principal and Fellows of Somerville College

The College lawn looks more overgrown, and West Building considerably more ivy-covered, than it did in my day; but the nurse on the far left is quite clearly resting her hand on the windowsill of what, for three years, was my room.  It is oddly unsettling to look at this picture and remember myself on the other side of that open window; as if I were being haunted in reverse.  History lies deep as time at Oxford, and sometimes taps on the glass.