First World War Wadham

Date Published: 13.12.2021

During the First World War, Wadham College saw its student numbers decline by half, dropping to just eight undergraduates in residence in 1917.

Throughout the war, the newly elected Warden, Joseph Wells, continued to publish the Wadham Gazette, sending it to Wadham servicemen along with letters and more practical gifts, like oil of birch for repelling flies. The Gazette and the hundreds of letters received by the Warden from serving Wadham men and their families, detail many very personal war stories.

Soldiers drilling in Wadham's front quad

Wadham College during WW1

At the outbreak of war, student numbers halved and in 1917 there were only eight resident undergraduates, most of whom were foreign students or medically unfit for service. 

By September 2014, some 30 territorial recruits were billeted in the College, and by 1916 Wadham had become a major centre for the training of officer cadets under the supervision of the Dean and Aramaic scholar, Colonel Stenning. (As documented by Jane Garnett in Wadham College 1610-2010, edited by Cliff Davies and Jane Garnett). One pre-war Fellow, E A Webster, joined up and was killed in 1917. The other Fellows shared the Senior Common Room with officer-instructors of the cadets, including Robert Graves, who retained an affection for Wadham after the war.

The mood in College, as in the country at large was pro war, and the enthusiasm with which Wadham men enrolled for service, long before conscription was introduced in 1916, reflects the strong belief in the ‘just cause’. Out of the approximately 500 Wadham men (past and present) who joined up during the First World War, 68 Wadham men died. A war memorial bearing their names is located at the entrance to the Goddard building.

Wadham's war diary

Follow the progress of WW1 through extracts from the Wadham College Gazette, written by Warden Joseph Wells.

Wadham College Gazette, No 52, Michaelmas term, 1914

"The usual silence of the Quad in the month of September was broken this year by strains of 'Tipperary' and by the order to 'Form Fours', and on not a few of the evenings, a large basket of apples found its way to No. VI staircase and came back an hour later empty.  Through the windows of the J.C.R. was observed an unusual bareness, relieved only by close rows of straw bags on the floor, and primitive washing apparatus appeared simultaneously in the back Quad.  The explanation of all this was the arrival of some thirty Territorial recruits with two officers and a sergeant (not forgetting a boy bugler), who were quartered in College for a month or so before term.  The left the College for other billets with regret and send at parting a pretty letter of thanks to the Warden for the College hospitality.  Perhaps the letter should have been addressed to the Cook, to whose capable and gratuitous services the success of their visit was largely due.   If recruits generally attain such a standard of good behaviour and of musical ability, the War Office is to be congratulated.  Certainly the college could not have desired more orderly, cheerful or grateful guests, and their daily shout of 'Wadham' as they pass the College lodge on their way to drill in the Parks is a pleasant sound to hear."

“The all-absorbing interest of this term has been the War. It is not only that so many members of the College are serving; it goes without saying that the life of those who have so far remained civilians has been profoundly modified. In the first place the numbers of the College were about halved; we had 57 up when we had expected about 105….Drilling became the main occupation of the term, and khaki was recognized as academical dress by the Vice-Chancellor’s special order. At Wadham, of course, as in all other colleges, organized games ceased…Wadham’s first name on the ‘Roll of Honour’ is that of Robert Horridge, who was killed at Ypres in November.”

Wadham College Gazette, No 53 Hilary term, 1915

“The death roll of Wadham men is rather a heavy one, and contains the names of several who have served their College and their country long and well…Life at Oxford for those at present in residence is very different from the normal life of term. Every other man you meet is in uniform, and the main energy of the place is directed to drills, march-outs, physical exercises etc….Wadham like the rest of Oxford, has welcomed students whose nationality bars them from the call which has prevailed with our own countrymen. Hence it is pleasant to record that some fragments of the normal life survive.”

Wadham College Gazette, No 54 Summer term, 1915

“Everything is completely overshadowed by the Great War….over 200 of our members now serving, and of these nearly one half are already on active service; the number of those abroad increases weekly….We who are left at home feel as if there was nothing much worth doing here; but we know that it would be the wish of those who are at the front that the old college should prosper, and we have it in our charge, so that it may be ready for them when they come back victorious. May they come soon and come all.”

Wadham College Gazette, No.55, October term, 1915

“Wadham has been since last June, through term and vacation alike, full of officers receiving military instruction under Colonel Stenning. At present we are fuller than ever, with 50 officers in residence…This term we started with thirty three undergraduates; next term we do not expect to be more than 25 at most. Three have already taken commissions, and others will do so this vacation or have been attested. Of those left almost everyone is either not British born or has been rejected as medically unfit. Only staircases I – III are in occupation of our own men.”

Wadham College Gazette, No.57, Summer term, 1916

“Our cook, who also attested under the Derby scheme, has been given exemption by the Local Tribunal, so long as the College continues to be a centre of military education. We are sure that all those in College, whether Wadham men or others, who are sustained by Mr Tuck’s skill, will agree that he could not possibly render his country better service than he is doing now.”

Wadham College Gazette, No.58, Michaelmas term, 1916

“The War has told heavily on our College during the last six months; our list of losses has been more than doubled. It is impossible to write as we feel about those who have fallen; they are of our very best, and it seems as if their places could never be filled. In view of the great sacrifice they have made, our life here seems very small and petty; yet we are sure that they and the thousands of Oxford men who are still at the Front, would have us keep things going. May we quote one of our men home last summer from one of the hottest parts of the line in France? He had only twenty four fours in Oxford, and he asked for nothing but to be left to sit in the quiet of the Garden and to drink in its beauty. Oxford is in France, at Salonica, on the Suez Canal, in Mesopatamia, on the High Seas; we who are left at home have to keep the old framework for their return….So far as our own College is concerned, our numbers are down to thirteen, of whom four are American Rhodes Scholars, two are representatives of the old Dutch families in Ceylon, and two come from the Far East, the Malay Peninsula. The five Englishmen have of course all been rejected from service. Were it not for our 150 officer cadets, Wadham would indeed be a place of solitude.”

“The Rev A F C Own (1881) has five sons serving, two as officers, three in the ranks; his sixth when he attested, was now allowed to five up his position on an English railway for active service. Can any other Wadham man beat this record?”

“An old Wadham man whose name we will not give tumbled on a dark night into a shell hole at the Front and came out all smeared with Flemish mud. ‘Non indecoro pluvere sordidus’ was his happy adaptation of Horace. And yet they say the Classics are dead!”

Wadham College Gazette, No 60, Summer term 1917

“All other events in Wadham’s history this term are over-shadowed by the loss of Captain Webster. For twenty years as scholar, lecturer, tutor, Treasurer of the Clubs, he had played a prominent part in our life.

Some men think, or say they think, that the University of Oxford should close down till the end of the war. We do not think that is the wish of our men at the Front; rather may we not take as typical the words of a letter received during the last term? “I hope there is no truth in the talk we hear that Oxford is going to stop. We should think it meant you were losing heart.”

A comment from the Front on the proposal to cultivate the Back Quad:-

March 16 1917

“I am grieved to think of the Back Quad being turned into a Kitchen Garden. It is not a beautiful place, but I fear the thin end of the wedge. The profanation of the Front Quad would be the last straw, though I suggest that shallots and the like be grown in the window boxes this summer. Here we even have a plan for growing potatoes in shell holes, and there actually are a few snowdrops blooming in the battery. Generally speaking we exist without vegetables of any kind.”

Wadham College Gazette, No. 61, Michaelmas term, 1917

“May we quote the following from the letter of a somewhat senior Wadham man at the Front?

'It is more like being at Oxford than anything I have struck since I went down. As a junior subaltern I live with men of undergraduate age; the lingo is a little different to what it was twenty years ago, but I have learned that now, and am a fresher of the freshers. The Wadham Gazette is delightful. It breathes the old world air of Colleges and cathedral squares. I if could, I would tie it on to a shell, and send it to the Boche, to show how little their efforts can ruffle Oxford.'

The Cadets have for some terms past had their musketry range under the north wall of the Fellows’ Garden. During the Long Vacation their field works have extended to the Back Quad; an elaborate sand-bag breast work occupies the grassy triangle outside of No IX staircase, and a real trench has been dug in front of Nos. X and XI."

Wadham College Gazette, No. 63, Summer term 1918

“In view of the shortage of paper and of the increased cost of postage, it has been decided to issue the Wadham Gazette only twice a year, until the end of the war.”

Wadham College Gazette, No. 64, Michaelmas term, 1918

“Though the War cannot be called over, yet we all feel that it is now only a question before the formal Peace is made….Oxford is beginning to revive and Wadham with it. We had seven freshmen this term, compared with none in the October term of last year…. ‘Students’ are to be demobilised at once. Steps have been taken to clear the College of Officer Cadets by the second week in January.

An interesting monument has been erected in Wadham Chapel. Thomas Cyril Bruce Joy was one of our earliest men to fall (he was killed in Mesopotamia in the spring of 1915), and the College has accepted a medallion portrait of him by his uncle, the distinguished sculptor, A Bruce Joy.” (See pictures above).

Wadham College Gazette, No. 65, Summer term, 1919

“Wadham has lost 66 of her sons in the War. Now that Peace has been signed, it is proposed to hold a Memorial Service on the first Sunday evening of next term (Oct 12).”

Wadham College Gazette, No 66, Michaelmas term, 1919

“The ‘reconstruction’ which has been promised everywhere, and which has been realized so rarely, has come to pass in the old Universities; they are both full to overflowing, fuller than they have been in living memory…at the end of 1918 we had 14 men up, this term we have had nearly 140. And the old life has come back with all its vigour. The return of the tide of young life to Oxford has naturally reminded us of those whom we shall never see again, those who by the sacrifice of themselves have saved Oxford and England for the generations to come.”

Wartime letters

Warden Wells wrote to Wadham men in service and their families throughout the war. As a result the College archives contain many hundreds of such letters. Read extracts from war letters relating to five Wadham men below.

Alan A Wright (matric 1908) and commenced service in April 1915, writes from France:

11 August, 1915

“In spite of the terrible nature of this has awakened not only in England but in all the combatant countries a new spirit of manliness and devotion to duty and to country."

"Whatever may be ones views on the desirability of compulsion one cannot but marvel at the vast sacrifices and the magnificent response to the call of duty which have been made voluntarily and almost spontaneously with no pressure but that of conscience or of public opinion.”

13 October, 2015.

“I have been at a base depot for 5 weeks and joined my own regiment about a week ago. We are at present in reserve but are going up to the trenches shortly. There is nothing doing in this part of the line.”

2 June, 1916

“I have been with the regiment now since last October. We were holding the line on the Somme until the end of the year...We are lucky in having excellent billets to come to whenever we are out of the front line.”

29 Sept, 1918. Austin Wright (father) writes from Caterham Valley, thanking Warden Wells for his letter of sympathy.

“It is a most terrible blow to me, he was my only son and more than son, companion and friend, and life will seem very blank without him. I have the consolation that he offered his services willingly, carried out his duties faithfully and well, and seems to have won esteem and affection from all with whom he came into contact. …It was also some satisfaction to know that he did not suffer. He was shot through the head by a sniper and death was instantaneous. His dear wife is very brave and there is a son just over a year old who will be her comfort in years to come.”

Aubrey P Orde Ward (matric 1904) commenced service in April 1916.

24 July, 1915

“I am with one of the Assistant Quartermaster Generals as a sort of learner of Staff Work in the A S C and am in the same building as the Quartermaster General himself…it means a lot of office work but was not to be sneezed at, of course. I had a wonderful trip down the lines of communication with General Boyce, acting as ADC for a week a little while ago…I saw poor Ledger, before he was killed, also Shannon and Corbett. I am constantly meeting Oxford people.”

He then writes from Eastbourne in 28 December 1915

“Thanks v. much for the ‘Gazette’ which is always a welcome sight. The College ‘Roll of Honour’ is getting big, but in relation to the number of Wadham men serving, it is probably less considerable than appears at the first glance. It is sad to see D E Richards amongst the killed – it escaped me in the papers. During my first year I saw a great deal of him and, being on the same stair, we used to lunch together…I have been down here for 10 weeks with appendicitis.”

20 April 1916 he writes from Hazeley Down Camp in Winchester.

“As soon as I had sufficiently recovered from my appendicitis I tried to enlist and after two rejections I was accepted, though not without difficulty, by the Westminsters [Rifle]…The change from civilian life rather astounds one at first, but I have been lucky in my hut mates – all good fellows…we rise at 5.45 and have 9 hours drill a day.”

8 October 1916

"After the usual – perhaps necessary delay (through which I got some 6 weeks foreign service and a second stripe) …I came home as an accepted candidate for admission to an Officer Cadet Battalion when a vacancy occurs. This month sees the Westminsters 3rd year of war begin and I doubt if any Territorial Battalion has put up a better record than our 1st, since it went out to Ypres in Oct. ’14. Barely 30 of the original force survive and since July 1st our casualties have been over 1000.”

17 October 2017, from France

“I am writing this in a concrete gun emplacement which we are using as Company HQ. Intermittent shelling - practically all by our guns – is going on and the men are nominally ‘standing to’ – time 11pm…I came out in the latter half of April. After leaving the trenches I went down with a sharp attack of PUO= trench fever and got down to a base hospital at Boulogne.  When I re-joined I found my unit preparing for ‘pushing’...By some freak of fortune I was left out of the actual attack – for all specialist officers were left behind and I was practically, though not officially, Lewis Gun Officer…We are now facing a large town which the Boche is supposed to be on the point of abandoning.”

19 December 1917, from Harrowby Camp in Grantham

“I was uncommonly glad to get out of the Cambrai fighting where we had a pretty rough journey…I am likely to be in England for another 3 months, so I ought to count myself lucky to get the worst of winter over at home – climatically it was pretty bad in France when I left."

7 August 1918, from the Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital, Dorset.

“I went down with bronchitis and fever after being 2 days in France and was shipped back to England after being something under 3 weeks out! I was lucky to get sent to this place which is everything that is charming.”

3 October 1918 from Eastbourne

“I return to duty on the 10th after something over 3 months in hospital…The probability is that I shall be stationed at Grantham for 4 months “Home Service” and with a little luck will miss the winter campaign.”

12 November 1918, a postcard from Aubrey’s home informs the Warden of their son’s accidental death.

17 November 1918, from Aubrey’s parents’ home in Eastbourne, a letter from his father.

“We feel simply…paralysed by such an unexpected blow. He was killed on Monday evening by a too low flying aeroplane which struck him on his forehead and killed him at once! He had not good eyesight, you may know, and he was walking with a friend after tea in the dusk, probably mapping out his future.”

Rev GL Porcher, (matric 1903) and joined up in July 1916, writes from Dinder Rectory in Somerset 14 July, 1917

“I am back home on ten days leave after having just completed a year’s service in France and I was particularly glad to receive the Wadham Gazette this morning. Webster’s death is a very great loss to the College…"

"My year in France has been very interesting indeed, for the first seven months I was with the 19th Division and I joined them in the middle of July last year during the Somme offensive. One Sunday I was at Dinder [Rectory, at Wells in Somerset], and on the very next Sunday I was stationed just outside Marmetz Wood in a scene of unspeakable desolation. After that we moved to Belgium and for two months were in and out of the trenches just opposite Messimes Ridge. For a fortnight I lived in “Plug Street” Wood. [Ploegsteert]. In January we returned to the trenches and I was with a battalion in a very uncomfortable corner of Hébuterne for some time. Then we moved a little south, close to Beaumont Hamel…I was transferred to No 2 Stationary Hospital at Abbeville where I have been working up until last week, and I expect to return next Monday.”

John Lithiby, father of J S Lithiby (matric 1911), who commenced service in December 1914 writes to Warden Wells

30 January 1916

“Many thanks for…your kind congratulations on my boy’s name being mentioned in the Gallipoli dispatches."

"I am writing to get another copy of the last Wadham College Gazette. I sent the last to my boy, but I am afraid it went down in the “Persia”. I do not think he is in Salonica, but I do not know where he is. After he recovered from his wound he went back to Suvla and was there for about a month when he got laid up with jaundice. He was sent back to hospital at Alexandria and was there until the 26th December when he left (quite recovered) with a draft of men for a destination that he did not know….He was expecting that his company (of recovered invalids) would re-join the division soon; but he did not know whether the Division was at Salonica, on the Suez canal, or elsewhere. …He always writes cheerfully but from other sources I know that the conditions at Suvla…were at times, very bad….I hope he may continue to miss the many dangers that are always waiting.”

3 February, 1916

“Yesterday we received a telegram from him from Alexandria saying that he had a light wound in the arm. How it was caused and where it was done there is nothing yet to show.”

23 March 1916

“He came home on Monday and is now at the Empire Hospital…His right hand does not work, so he is having a daily course of massage and electrical treatment. The ‘cure’ is not expected to be complete for some four months. Otherwise he is in splendid health and spirits – so glad to be home; but (alas) so anxious to get well and be off again.”

A A Bland (matric 1915) commenced service in April 1916 and writes from France

August 1917

”I have been out here five weeks now and am rapidly gaining fresh if not always pleasant experiences. When out of the line we are pretty comfortable, and when actually in the trenches we are no worse off than other people so I can’t complain….I am still hoping for a speedy end to the war and a safe return to College but the prospect is not always very rosy nowadays.”