The barrage of World War I centenary events is now upon us, and this month Dunedin commemorates the embarkation of the first troops who departed here for the war in Europe. It seems an appropriate time to think about the impact of the war on the University of Otago.
At the beginning of 1914 there were just over 600 students enrolled at Otago, 70 per cent of them male; a considerable number were part-timers. Numbers attending dropped off rapidly as young men headed off for the front. The chancellor reported at the end of March 1915 that “at least a hundred students are wearing their King’s uniform, and small detachments are constantly leaving to join the reinforcements.” The March 1915 annual reports of the “special schools” revealed the large impact of war. Of the 29 students in the School of Mines, 9 left in August 1914 to become part of the main expeditionary force, and by March a further 5 had joined them on active service. The tiny dental school, which had just 8 students enrolled in 1914, provided 3 of those to the armed forces. The medical school, too, contributed significantly. Like the dental and mining schools, it allowed students who had nearly completed their degrees to finish early, expediting their departure: “In consequence of the demand for surgeons a special final examination was held last August , and sixteen of the fifth-year students who passed either joined the Expeditionary Force or replaced others who did so.”
The university council took great pride in the contribution being made by its students and former students to the war effort. It had been horrified by news of the “wanton and lawless destruction” of the “ancient and honoured University of Louvain” by German troops invading Belgium; many irreplacable books and manuscripts were lost along with buildings. In an October 1914 letter of sympathy to Louvain, the council noted its pride “that many of its own alumni have gone forth to serve as comrades in arms of the Belgians in the cause of freedom and humanity.” An early sign of the tragedy of war can be seen in the minutes of the following month’s council meeting, which record sympathy at the “cruel death of Dr Angus McNab on the battlefield. While in the act of rendering surgical aid to wounded soldiers it has been reported that he was bayoneted by the Germans, although he was wearing the red-cross badge on his arm.” McNab completed a BSc and BA at Otago in the 1890s, and went on to become a medical specialist in London.
In May 1915 the university council recorded its last sympathy motion for war-related deaths, noting its “mingled feelings of sorrow and pride” at “news of the death at the Dardanelles of three students of the University of Otago – Lieutenants R. Duthie, J.S. Reid, and E.M. Burnard.” All three died at Gallipoli. Death at war, it would appear, then became so common that it no longer warranted a special mention: by the end of the war nearly 100 staff and students had been killed. Their names were recorded in the University of Otago Calendar and photographs of “fallen comrades” appeared in the student publication, the Otago University Review, but there was no longer space for recording them in the council minutes. The council did, however, continue to record military honours awarded to university people, sending congratulations to the families of those concerned.
Putting aside the personal tragedies of the many deaths and injuries, the biggest headache the war created for the university authorities was retaining sufficient staff to keep its normal activities going. Of course, they had no idea how long the war would last, and nobody suspected in 1914 that it still had four years to run. When William Phillipps, a demonstrator in biology about to leave on military service, requested 3 years of leave in February 1915, the council resolved “to grant Mr Phillipps leave for twelve months or until the end of the war should the war terminate in less than twelve months.” Deciding whether or not to grant leave, and how long for, was tricky, and once conscription was introduced in 1916 the council also had to decide whether or not to appeal against the calling up of its employees.
There was a particular demand for people with medical expertise, and replacements for medical school staff could be difficult to find. When Percy Gowland, Professor of Anatomy, asked the council in February 1917 if he might proceed to the front, it sympathised, but informed him that “his services are indispensable to the Medical School.” When Gowland was called up in the ballot in 1918, the university appealed. At the same October meeting of the Military Service Board, it appealed against the calling up of William Carswell, surgical tutor and assistant lecturer, and Alexander Kidd, who worked in the anatomy laboratory. Kidd had asked the council for leave to proceed to war, but Gowland stated he was “essential for the proper working of the Anatomical Department.”
Some senior staff did head overseas to the war, often for long periods. Daniel Waters, Professor of Metallurgy and Assaying in the School of Mines, served as an officer in the New Zealand Tunnelling Company for a couple of years; he returned to the university after being discharged no longer fit for service at the end of 1917. Henry Pickerill, Dean of the Dental School, served from 1916 to 1919 with the New Zealand Medical Corps, becoming famous for his pioneering work reconstructing the jaws and faces of those injured by war. The Professor of Surgery, Louis Barnett, joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in Malta early in 1915 and was transferred to the New Zealand Medical Corps in Egypt in October 1915. He returned to New Zealand early in 1917, after the university had convinced the military authorities he was essential to the training of the country’s future surgeons. Thomas Adams, Professor of Classics, enlisted early in 1917 and did not return to New Zealand until 1920, having been seconded for army educational duties in England.
Some subject areas struggled in the war years due to a lack of students. With its dean away and very few students, the Dental School was under threat of closure, but managed to survive the war years before expanding greatly in the post-war period. One casualty of the war was the university’s German language programme. In 1915 lecturer Frank Campbell resigned because he had no students. The council regretted “the loss of a teacher of his experience and the removal, even for a time, of so important a study as that of German from the subjects of instruction within the University.”
A more common difficulty, though, was finding substitutes for staff serving overseas. One solution was to appoint women, who were more readily available and not liable to conscription into the military. Isabel Turnbull became assistant to Adams in 1915; for the three years he served overseas she took on full responsibility for Otago’s teaching of Latin. Gladys Cameron was appointed to teach in bacteriology and public health in 1917, and Phyllis Turnbull as assistant in French in 1918; other women became demonstrators. Outside the School of Home Science, women academics had been non-existent at Otago prior to the war. Now new opportunities were opening to them, though sometimes these were temporary. Women also became more prominent as students during the war years, accounting for almost half of students in 1918 before men took over again in 1919.
The ‘Great War’ clearly had an enormous impact on the university, its staff and its students. It is also clear that the university made an enormous contribution to New Zealand’s war effort, with the council minutes recording numerous students, staff and alumni mentioned in despatches and awarded military honours. For more information about the university and World War I, see this recent article in the alumni magazine, which also features on article about the war commemorations by Professor Tom Brooking.