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The Great War and St John's

"The First World War was a hugely traumatic period of College history. The war years were wasted years for St John’s"

“The War has affected University and College life so profoundly, has taken away so large a proportion of our numbers, has turned the minds of those who are in residence in directions so different from what are customary, and has seemed to diminish so much the relative importance of academic occupations and attainments, that, even though there are a thousand men in residence in the University and a hundred in the College, the nature of the University and College life seems completely changed”

The Eagle, Easter 1915

It is nearly impossible for those of us living today to imagine how drastically the First World War changed the world. The scale of death and destruction was almost beyond comprehension – it’s estimated that at least 15 million soldiers and civilians died in the conflict and more than 22 million more soldiers were wounded, while nearly 10,000 square miles of land was laid to waste in France alone. It became known in this country as The Great War, and in Germany and Austria as the Urkatastrophe – the original catastrophe.

The effects of the conflict were felt all over the world and, unlike many of the wars preceding it, the First World War had long-lasting effects on civilian communities in many of the countries involved. Like numerous other communities, St John’s College was forever changed by the conflict. Mark Nicholls, Librarian and Fellow of St John’s, explains: “The First World War was a hugely traumatic period of College history. The war years were wasted years for St John’s, and for the University. Many students died in the fighting and hundreds more had their education interrupted. College became a military base with soldiers and officers training here – St John’s operated as part of the war effort rather than an educational institution.”

Troops billeted to St John'sTroops billeted to St John’s pose for a group photograph in front of New Court in their uniform

"The noisy activities of the troops helped to break the unnatural monotony of College life at that time"

When war broke out in the Long Vacation of 1914, many College members quickly joined the war effort and didn’t return for Michaelmas. By the end of 1915 College numbers had dropped from 161 to 116. Life at St John’s during the war was therefore much quieter than usual and now with the national backdrop of war, more austere. Extra-curricular activities like organised sport stopped almost entirely except for a few friendly matches between Colleges, and there were no races, Bumps, or inter-collegiate leagues. Unsurprisingly the festivities of May Week were cancelled, and even College societies remained dormant for the duration of the war. Some societies never recovered and disappeared from College life forever, such as the literary society, the Portcullis.

For those who lived in College things changed significantly during the war. In 1916 St John’s underwent preparations for air raids (which never came) and installed screens around the electric lighting in the Hall. Further lighting precautions were taken by the town’s central electricity station which dimmed the lights throughout Cambridge, including the Colleges, when it was suspected enemy aircraft might be incoming. According to one student writing in The Eagle, the College magazine, it was “impossible to read by this light, and many members of College accommodated themselves with a candle carefully screened in the coal scuttle”. Food also became limited when voluntary rationing was introduced in the College kitchens in 1917 restricting the weekly amount of bread and sugar academic residents could consume.

While staff and student numbers dwindled, new occupants filled some of the emptier parts of College. By the summer of 1915, military regiments had arrived in St John’s – billeted there before journeying to France and other fronts. They initially occupied the sports field and the boat house but by January 1916 the military had “requisitioned” New Court and students living there were relocated to rooms elsewhere. College grounds became the place of daily military drills which was, for some, a welcome addition to the strange quiet of the courtyards. An article in The Eagle in Michaelmas 1917 explained: “Although it was in many ways unpleasant to think that part of College was – with all due respect – in alien hands, the noisy activities of the troops helped to break the unnatural monotony of College life at that time.”

Life within the College walls became an inescapable daily reminder of the conflict. But by far the most affecting consequence of the war for the community of St John’s was the service, and death, of many of its members.

Students outside Senate House

Students outside Senate House on graduation day in June 1915. Some graduated in their academic dress while others wore their military uniform

565 students, staff, and graduates went to war, and nearly a third of them never returned

At the outbreak of war hundreds of staff, students and alumni signed up to military service. The first War List of Johnians serving in the war was published in The Eagle in the Michaelmas term of 1914 and listed more than 400 names. These included recent graduates, Fellows, and twenty four members of College staff including the Head Porter, James Palmer.

In the four years of the conflict, 565 students, staff, and graduates went to war, and nearly a third of them never returned. By the time the first War List was published, three Johnians were already listed as ‘killed in action’. Two of them – Donald Rennie and George Evatt who died within two days of each other in November 1914 – were alumni, but the third, Harold Roseveare, was still a student. Roseveare died a month after joining the army on 20 September from wounds received at the First Battle of Aisne. He was 19 years old.

Harold Roseveare was the first of many young students from St John’s to be killed in action. Of the 163 Johnians who died in World War I, one fifth of them were aged 21 and under and died before completing their degrees. The youngest was Oliver Ellis, a pilot with the Royal Naval Air Service, who was only 18 when he was shot down by a German plane in May 1917, three months after being sent into active service.

Back in College the student editors of The Eagle collected all available details of the Johnians who were killed and started publishing a Roll of Honour in each edition of the magazine. Now fascinating historical documents, the Rolls of Honour must have been difficult articles to research and collate. The student journalists would have been covering the deaths of friends, teachers and colleagues, sometimes in graphic detail.

Students at the Cambridge University Rifle Volunteers Camp in Salisbury in 1905. Front and centre (seated on a bucket) is Dr Roger Brownson, a medical graduate of St John’s who was killed in Peshawur, India in 1918

Students at the Cambridge University Rifle Volunteers Camp in Salisbury in 1905. Front and centre (seated on a bucket) is Dr Roger Brownson, a medical graduate of St John’s who was killed in Peshawur, India in 1918

“Besides these two, three other brothers have died for their country, and a sixth one has been crippled for life"

Reading the Roll of Honour reveals the personal stories of the Johnians who died, like the Beechey brothers. Charles and Barnard Beechey both attended St John’s in the late 1890s and studied Mathematics. Soon after the outbreak of war Barnard, the eldest of the two brothers, joined the Army and died shortly afterwards in France. Following in his brother’s footsteps Charles also joined the army, and served in East Africa. On his death in 1917 The Eagle reported “Besides these two, three other brothers have died for their country, and a sixth one has been crippled for life; a terrible toll for one family”.

There are many similarly tragic stories detailed in the Roll of Honour. Stories of students like Frank Blakeley who died aged 20, after only four days after arriving at the front in Mesopotamia, or Philip Alexander who was stationed aboard the HMS Hampshire and survived the Battle of Jutland only to be killed days later when the Hampshire hit a mine and sank. St John’s graduate Dr Roger Brownson (pictured above), joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1914 and served in Peshawar, India, for four years. He died on 20 October 1918 – less than a month before the Armistice was signed.

Although the details make for hard reading they can help us get to know the real people behind the impersonal statistics of the war. On 1 July 1916 the Battle of the Somme began and the British forces alone suffered more than 19,000 fatalities. Two of those men were St John’s graduates – Geoffrey Allen and Denzil Twentyman – while at least 22 other Johnians (including 12 students) died in the following 140 days of the battle. The death of Geoffrey Allen, a Natural Sciences student who became a school master in Dorset after graduating, was not confirmed until after the war. The Eagle reported that he was injured and left on the battlefield with a scout. Allen was killed during the fighting by a bomb, but the scout soldier with him was taken prisoner by German troops and was unable to report Allen’s death until 1918. For two years Allen’s friends and family only knew that he was reported ‘wounded and missing’. His name is the final one listed in The Eagle’s Roll of Honour.

After the war, life at St John’s was never quite the same. Degrees had been put on hold for hundreds of students who fought and only around half of them had survived. Hundreds of College alumni had died, as had several Fellows, and the community found itself reduced in numbers in the most tragic way possible. It was a fitting decision then to install a war memorial in the Chapel ensuring the names of every Johnian who died in the war, and as a result of war injuries, would be carved in stone in the heart of College.

This article was first published in the latest issue of Eagle Eye 

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Published: 07/11/18