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Oxford in World War I

On the 28th July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, sparking a chain of events which would lead to Britain declaring war on Germany a week later. The First World War had a profound effect on the lives of countless people across the globe, and Oxford was not exempt. One hundred years later, we can examine some aspects of wartime life for those who lived under the dreaming spires.

The locals of Oxford joined the army in droves, as they did across the country, while students at the University applied for commissions as junior officers, with about 170 joining the local Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment before the end of 1914. Even the University’s buildings were pressed into service, being used as hospitals and for cadet training.


This image shows Christ Church Quad in 1917, being used as a drill ground.

Of the 14,561 men listed in the Oxford University Roll of Service, the vast majority served as lieutenants and captains in the army. The commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force from late 1915, Douglas Haig, was himself an alumnus of Brasenose, and was keen to have young patriotic Oxbridge men as officers.


The Quad of St. John’s College was also used for cadet training.

George Butterworth was one such man, though he initially signed up as a private, remarking in his early letters home on tent overcrowding, which meant that fourteen men had to sleep in one tent. While “there are two splendid Birmingham chaps”, there were also “two or three less desirable Londoners, of the shopkeeper class”.


Soldiers march through Broad Street.

Professors at the University were also involved in the war effort, and a number of them produced writing explaining the war to the public. Gilbert Murray, Professor of Greek in Oxford, wrote the pamphlet, How Can War Ever Be Right? in justification of the war. However, his sympathetic treatment of conscientious objectors resulted in him disagreeing with both pacifists and conscriptionists.


Christ Church’s Great Hall hosts a cadet dinner.

It was not just the British Expeditionary Force that benefited from Oxford graduates. More than fifty German Rhodes scholars fought for the German army in the war, among them the expressionist poet Ernst Stadler. When war was declared, Stadler was about to take up a professorship in Toronto, but, since he was a lieutenant in the reserve, was called up to serve with the 80th Field Artillery Regiment. He was killed on 30th October 1914 by a British shell at Zandvoorde.


This student poses in Keble College shortly after his return to Oxford after fighting in Egypt and France, having been discharged due to ill health.

Letters found and submitted to the BBC by Oxfordshire resident Margaret Bonfiglioli tell the story of her grandmother, Violet Slater, a pacifist who lived in Oxford during the war. In her letters, she described being harassed and threatened in the street for handing out pacifist leaflets. She also paints a picture of a city hit hard by food shortages, saying in a letter to her husband, “Edna and I went down last Saturday – I cycled down and got to the Maypole at ten to eight – already there were about 100 people.

“Edna, who walked, got much further back. We got a pound of margarine each and that, with suet, will last about a week.

“Outside, the street was almost full – Liptons on one side and Maypole on the other. Women carrying babies and a long line outside on the road of prams with small children – it was really pathetic as I expect, in the end, some would get nothing – they were eight abreast.”


She also describes how Port Meadow was transformed into an aerodrome for the Royal Flying Corps.

From Belgian refugees at St. John’s College to the conversion of the William Morris car factory in Cowley into a centre for the production of mine sinkers; from practice trenches in Wallingford to the Women’s National Land Service Corps in Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, the war was everywhere. Although academic studies continued for those students who didn’t sign up to fight, Oxford during World War I was a city transformed.

It is difficult to imagine today the true extent to which life was changed for those living in Oxford from 1914 to 1918, but these images and personal stories give us some insight into what it might have been like. Oxford has always liked to think of itself as somewhat separate from the rest of Britain, but during WWI, the Oxford bubble was truly burst. 

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