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Remembrance 2018: November 1918 from the Archives

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Friday, November 9, 2018

In March 1918, Henry Scott Holland died. Holland was 71, a canon of Christ Church and Regius professor of divinity, and one of the ‘old guard’ who remained here while the younger men – tutors, students, and staff - left to serve their country at war.

But Holland was not a conservative or traditionalist; he was a friend of artists, such as Burne-Jones, and adopted with enthusiasm the reforming ideas of Darwin, Ruskin and J.S. Mill. He was a man of strict ethics, but liberal and respected individual freedom. As a Student of Christ Church, he interested himself in issues of the day and worked tirelessly for organisations such as the Oxford Mission to Calcutta and the Christ Church Mission in Poplar.

Holland was involved with the founding of Lady Margaret Hall, the second college for women in the University. As a canon of St Paul’s, he founded the Christian Social Union which sought to bring the social problems of the East End to the attention of the church. When he arrived back in Oxford as Regius professor in 1910, Holland attracted a large following.

When the 1st World War broke out, he was entranced by the transformation of Christ Church as it was taken over by cadets and officers of the Royal Flying Corps.

Holland was much-loved and appreciated for his wide concerns, both theological and for wide social reform and his determination that everyone should be embraced by the church and the University.  

At his funeral in the cathedral, a cross was placed in his hands by the resident refugee Serbian students, a squadron of airmen stood to attention as his coffin was processed into the cathedral, and an aeroplane passed low over Christ Church in salute.

It was a brief moment in time that showed just how different Christ Church had been during the War. During the early years of the twentieth century, Edwardian Christ Church was modernising, cosmopolitan, sporting, and academically high-flying, but this was all brought to an abrupt end in August 1914.  Everything changed, and Christ Church was affected directly by war in a way unseen since the seventeenth century.

In spite of the continuation of the daily business of education, the hostilities came to dominate decisions as undergraduates, younger fellows, and members of staff disappeared from the darkened quadrangles. In place of students came the military, and refugees from Belgium and Serbia. First, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were, in part, billeted on Christ Church until their more permanent barracks in Cowley were ready; and then Christ Church became home to the Royal Flying Corps from 1915. The chemistry lab was taken over by the Military School of Education.

Canon Holland described the scene at the beginning of October 1916: “Oxford begins next week, and we shall be more entirely a Camp than ever. Our 200 flying-men keep Ch.Ch. alive: and now and again Peck wakes to quite its historic noises”.  

At the beginning of the war, the senior members of Christ Church had decided to follow the King’s example and to give up alcohol for the duration. No gaudies were held from 1916 to 1918 and, when rationing was introduced in 1918, High table meals were reduced, with meat served only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Part of the Meadow was handed over to the Allotment Association.

But the real toll of the war was brought home in the weekly lists of casualties in the Oxford Magazine and in the obituary columns of the college’s Annual Report.

The reports are bald statements of fact, and yet there is a distinct feeling of melancholy mixed with real pride in the courage of the college’s men. Sixty-three men were recorded as dead or missing in the first year of the war, several of whom had been mentioned in despatches. Second lieutenant N.M.K. Bertie was the youngest to be killed in that first year. He was only eighteen, and had not even formally matriculated.

Throughout the war, the cathedral was the focus for cultural activity but always with the conflict as a back-drop. The Yeomanry’s colours were hung above the sub-dean’s chair in August 1914 for the duration of hostilities, and organ recitals were given on Saturday afternoons and Sunday evenings in the summer months to raise funds for the Red Cross. 

On the third Sunday of every month, commemorative communion services for the fallen were held; there were special services at Easter and Christmas for the troops in residence, and regular Parades. The military men occupied at first only the north side of the cathedral but soon khaki began to appear among the choir as the lay clerks joined up. The precentor had already left as chaplain to the 2nd South Midland Mounted Brigade, and chaplains and singers were roped in from other colleges to fill the choir stalls.

Detail from a service card November 1918When the armistice was finally declared on 11 November 1918, celebrations had to be postponed as Christ Church was in the grip of the world-wide influenza outbreak; organist and choristers were all laid low.

The flu pandemic of 1918 infected around 500 million people around the globe, and killed between 50 and 100 million.

A quarter of the British population was affected with 228,000 deaths. Some of the worst-struck areas were in the south Pacific, but the war in Europe, the abominable conditions in the trenches, and the fact that very sick people were transported from the front on crowded trains to crowded hospitals facilitated the spread of the disease.’

Henry Scott Holland, had he lived for a few months longer, would have been delighted to see that Christ Church, with the rest of the University, threw open its doors ever wider to take in returning students, returning staff, and new students – often older men who had served their country and were given a unique opportunity to study at Oxford.

The college had probably never been so mixed, so democratic or so full. Dean Strong commented that ‘the House was never before more conscious of its union and its corporate life’ – a large and broad church and not a ‘colony of cliques’.

The images below, of members of the Royal Flying Corps billeted in Christ Church in November 2017, are used by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum. All images remain © IWM. For more examples search the IWM website.