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From New Court to France and the wider world

A fascinating insight into how World War I affected the lives of people at St John’s College is now available to hear online.

The lecture, St. John’s and the First World War: From New Court to France and the wider world, was given by Dr John Slight, a Research Fellow in history at St John’s, at the College’s Donor Day on 18 May. It blends a survey of the British experience of World War I with first-hand accounts and the often tragic personal stories of Johnians who served in the armed forces, or witnessed the effects of the conflict at home.

From New Court to France and the wider world by University of Cambridge

In St John’s and the University, the war created an atmosphere which one author, writing in the College’s magazine, The Eagle, described as the “desolation of the University”. Most sports and social activities were cancelled, and the vast majority of students were called up. The army also took over parts of the College itself, with servicemen billeted in locations including the boathouse and pavilion. Those who remained experienced privations such as rationing, and restrictions on lighting, caused by fear of Zeppelin raids.

The talk draws on the eyewitness accounts of Johnians who saw the shelling of Scarborough by the German navy in 1914, and the downing of a Zeppelin at Potters Bar. There are also first-hand stories from the Western Front, which bring into relief the appalling waste of life that occurred on battlefields such as the Somme, as well as the misery and – as one Johnian put it – “physical fear” many experienced in the trenches.

Reflecting the latest historical research on the war, Dr Slight also looks beyond the  Western Front, and examines the war as a global conflict. We hear about the experiences of Johnians who fought against the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia and in Palestine, as well as members of the College who served in the Darfur and East African campaigns.

Dr John Slight is a historian whose main research interest is the relationship between British imperialism and the Muslim world since 1850. His first book, The British Empire and the Hajj, will be published by Harvard University Press in 2015.