Glasgow University and the First World War

The Roll of Honour on these web pages is testament to the service of Glasgow University men and women during the Great War. The beginning of the war caught many unaware and the University was unprepared for the loss of staff and students that was to follow. Indeed Principal MacAlister had been holidaying with his family in Germany when the conflict started and was interned for a short time. Once home, however, he played an active part in rallying the troops, encouraging staff and students alike to sign up for the cause.

The reaction at Gilmorehill was positive with many members of the University community signing up immediately. The 400 recruits of the Officer's Training Corps, which had been set up in 1910 in response to hostile relations with Germany, were among the first to be mobilised. The University also made accommodations to assist staff and students who wanted to sign up: the University Court agreed to offer full pay minus army payments to staff, and examinations and graduation ceremonies were brought forward to allow students early completion. An indication of how these steps affected university numbers could been seen with the publication of the first Roll of Honour, printed a mere 6 months on from the start of the conflict; already 1255 university men and women were engaged in war service, 77% of whom were commissioned officers.

Despite the losses already endured, the University was still committed to encouraging its members to do their duty. Before compulsory conscription was introduced in January 1916, Senate had already urged all students who were fit to serve to give the appeal for recruits their most earnest consideration ¹ and had announced that all lecturers and assistants of military age, except those who were qualified medical practitioners, were expected to offer themselves as recruits ². Lecture rooms were also offered up to the War Office to be used for military training and recruitment drives were run at the Union, such as the one run by D. W. Cameron of Locheil for the 6th Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders. The war service of the resulting "B" Company has been documented by those who survived and can be seen in University Special Collections (Ref: MS Gen 1376 & MS Gen 532).

Although student numbers decreased rapidly, the war still caused problems with staffing levels. The range of courses on offer could not be reduced, so the remaining staff had to cover the workloads of those engaged in military service. Such problems were exacerbated by a reduction in funding. Fewer students equalled less revenue from student fees and increased taxation and appeals for war donations lessened the flow of donations gifted by the University's benefactors. These factors coupled with higher prices on essentials due to wartime shortages led to a severe financial squeeze.

The University also faced difficulties in respect to its links with German nationals. In autumn 1915 Mr Bröker, an assistant in German, was interned despite being married to a Scotswoman and having applied for naturalisation. A similar fate was to befall Professor Ludwig Becker who held the Chair of Astronomy. Again, despite his allegiance to Britain, having been a naturalised subject sine 1892, he was perceived as a threat by the State. Initially the Principal and the Secretary for Scotland defended him but in the face of intensifying anti-German hysteria Becker was removed from the University Observatory to a house in Perthshire. On his return the Secretary of Scotland called for his compulsory retirement but the Court flatly refused. Becker was finally able to slip back quietly to his post at the Observatory in late 1920.

The return of the students to the University also posed some initial difficulties. Following the armistice in November 1918 student numbers rose significantly. The University found itself with too many students and those fresh out of school were forced to vie with those returning from war service for the limited places. The medical faculty was under most pressure, especially as the government had agreed to pay the fees of some ex-servicemen.

These pressures led to joint teaching arrangements being made with the Western and Royal Infirmaries and a limit being placed on the number of women being accepted, their level fixed at the rate of pre-war intake. These peak intakes had worked themselves through the system by the early 1920s and teaching began to return to normal.

The First World War had far reaching consequences for the University. The conflict highlighted Britain's weaknesses, demonstrating the need for well-educated men and women. The government realised the important role universities played and gave more state direction in the post-war period rather than allowing universities their pre-war independence. Britain needed to develop strong scientific and research based centres to ensure they could match any perceived enemy. Furthermore, as scientific and medical postgraduate training had traditionally been undertaken on the continent, mostly in German universities, Britain rapidly needed to develop solid postgraduate course of its own.

Universities were to play a significant role in this process, developing not only the research centres and new technologies but also equipping scientists and researchers with the necessary skills. This responsibility was all the more important given the loss of highly educated men and women. 4,506 members of the Glasgow University community served in the war, 761 of whom did not return home. Their legacy can be seen throughout the University, in the memorial Chapel and the numerous bursaries and grants that were given in their memory such as the Music and Chemistry Gardiner Chairs founded in 1919. This website is the latest in the line of memorials to those brave men and women, as a testimonial so that their memory lives on for future generations.


1. SEN 1/1/23, Senate Minutes, 21 June 1915 Back
2. SEN 1/1/23, Senate Minutes, 20 November 1915 Back