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In Memoriam: remembering the First World War at U of T

Archivist Harold Averill on the war that changed the world

When Hart House was used as shooting range, this painting of a Belgian village by Lawren Harris was used for target practice (all photos courtesy University of Toronto archives)

They called it The Great War. The War to End All Wars. A conflict that killed, wounded and maimed millions of soldiers and civilians, destroying empires, transforming the world’s political and economic structures and spreading heartbreak and loss from the tiniest of Canadian villages to the most powerful cities on earth.   

On July 31, 2014, members of the public and the University of Toronto community will gather at Varsity Stadium to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War. In Memoriam, a remembrance of the sacrifices of 1914-1918, will bring together renowned historian and U of T professor Margaret MacMillan, the Massed Band of the Canadian Armed Forces and General Thomas J. Lawson, chief of the defense staff. (Register for free tickets.)

When Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, Canada  was caught off guard and ill-prepared – and so was the University of Toronto. (See the video of a recent exhibition at U of T’s Thomas Fisher Library.)

Writer Jelena Damjanovic spoke with U of T archivist Harold Averill recently about the war, the University’s role and the rich trove of material found in such places as the records of then-president Robert Falconer who was knighted for his war effort.

What kind of information about the First World War is available in the U of T Archives?
The annual president’s reports talk about the changes on campus, the number of students who are signing up to go overseas, the impact this has on the facilities, the demands on the space on campus by the military, which started out fairly modestly in the fall of 1914, but by the spring and summer of 1918 the military had probably taken over about 75 or 80 per cent of the campus. There was hardly any space for students.

We also have collections of letters students sent home to their parents from the front or the University while training with the Canadian Officer Training Corps (COTC), which was set up at the beginning of the war to facilitate the basic training of students and prepare them to be sent overseas to Europe. Those letters allowed us to get a human perspective into what role the students were expected to play, how they viewed the war and to a certain extent what happened to them.

There is also a very good collection of photographs and our press clipping files provide information about students, faculty and staff that fought in the War. The Memorial Room in the Soldier's Tower beside Hart House also houses a collection of photographs, medals and mementoes of wartime service. 

Was the military training on campus made up of U of T students?
There were several levels of military involvement on campus. The COTC consisted of students who were still registered on campus and taking courses here, but doing military training during term. At the end of the academic year they would often head off to Europe.

Some of the people in the Overseas Training Company had no official connection with the University, but needed to take courses on campus to gain certain skills, particularly in engineering, for instance, to gain information about ballistics.

And then in the spring and summer of 1917, the Royal Flying Corps established itself on campus. The U.S. was just beginning to get into the War, so a lot of Americans were sent up here to get basic training. The result was that the University was flooded with young Americans, not just soldiers.

Gene Lockhart had a fair bit of training at U of T. He would later become a quite well known movie star in the U.S., but in 1917 he was all of about 20 or so. Amelia Earhart trained on campus for several months, between 1917 and 1918. And then there was William Faulkner, who signed up with the Flying Corps.

Incidentally, the Hart House Theatre, which was added during the War, was used as a shooting range at the time. Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven painted a Belgian village on paper, which people used for rifle practice. The drawing is long gone although there is a photograph of it. (See above.)

What do people search for when going through the U of T Archives on WWI?
People look at various aspects of the War. Sometimes it’s just photographs, sometimes maps. We have a selection of trench maps from First World War, brought back by faculty who went overseas, like James Roy Cockburn who was a faculty of Applied Science and Engineering and his sister, Harriet Macmillan, who was a medical doctor with a degree from old Trinity Medical College. She joined the Serbian Relief Fund and in 1915 was with the Stobart Unit, a 65-tent mobile field hospital run by Mrs. Mabel St. Clair Stobart and staffed entirely by women.

There’s a certain number of current-day students searching their grandfathers or great grandfathers, because you have four or five generations of the same family attending the University of Toronto. Some families go back to the 1860s.

People are also interested in Harold Innis, (pictured at left in a photo courtesy U of T Archives) who was a McMaster student, but trained on the U of T campus within the COTC. 

Innis suffered a hip injury during the War and probably would have died if he hadn’t had a big notebook in his pocket that stopped some of the shrapnel.

We have that notebook and you can see (photo at left by John Guatto) where the shrapnel has ripped through from one side to the other.

What were some immediate and lasting effects of the War on the University?
The work that was done at the University of Toronto during the War hastened the move from a purely teaching university into a combination of research and teaching, evolving more into research over the years.

Of course, any academic program that was being taught on campus was dramatically influenced by the War, either because suddenly there was no one to teach it or the nature of the program changed. And new programs were introduced, like massage therapy. One of the people who taught it was a young man [Donald McDougall] who had been blinded in France and had learned massage therapy in Britain. His family was from Canada, so he came back to Toronto, taught massage therapy here, became a student in the history department after the War, got a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and came back to Toronto as a full-fledged member of the history department.

The country as a whole learned a lot from the First World War and didn’t repeat some of the mistakes. In the First World War everybody was encouraged to sign up immediately. In the Second World War the government intervened and said if you’re going to university we need you for research, so the death rate in terms of the student population was much lower.

Also, after the Second World War, the Canadian government paid the university education of any returned soldier who wanted to go to university. This was not done during the First World War and created enormous hardship for many. The U of T in the Second World War started planning in 1943 for the eventual aftermath of the war and how it was going to manage things.

What was the Varsity War Supplement?
The Varsity War Supplement was published by the Students Administrative Council and it was designed to raise money as an annual publication for the Canadian No. 4 General Hospital which the U of T equipped and sent to Salonika in the summer of 1915. It gives a very broad perspective of what’s going on at the University and Toronto with good photographs. It also talks about what’s going on in other Canadian universities for the war effort and gives an international perspective by looking at what is being done in universities in England and in parts of Europe, with a fair emphasis on the Balkans.

U of T's Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History and the Munk School of Global Affairs with support from the Canadian Armed Forces present: 1914-1918: In Memoriam, an event that will commemorate the sacrifice of Canadian men and women in World War I with distinctive military band performances, military formations, and commentaries.