Magdalene and the Great War - Armistice Centenary
On the centenary of the Armistice we celebrate, honour and remember the brave Magdalene Members who fought in the Great War, those that returned, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
65 Members of the College were killed or died of wounds sustained in action. This number includes 12 school-leavers who had been accepted as undergraduates but postponed their studies to join the war effort. The 1919 College Magazine recognised 73 Members who were wounded but survived and totals the overall number of Members who participated in the national struggle as 397.
The courage and bravery of many Magdalene Members was recognised at a national level; five were decorated with the Distinguished Service Order and 47 received the Military Cross.
Theodore Kenneth Barlow, Lieutenant of the South Staffordshire Regiment, started a degree in Classics at Magdalene in 1915 but received his commission into the army shortly afterwards. Theodore was both ‘town’ and ‘gown’; having grown up in Cambridge, his name appears on both the Cambridge Guildhall War Memorial and on the memorial in the College Chapel. He was wounded at the Battle of Ypres, but proceeded to see action leading his men in the attack at the Battle of the Somme. The report read: “He lay in a shell hole, cheering on his men, when a bullet hit his chest. Still he kept his head above the shell hole to urge his men on to greater effort; a third wound put him out of action.’ His men succeeded in taking their objective but Barlow died of his wounds in hospital six days later. He was only 20 years old.
Roger Paul Hepburn, 2nd Lieutenant of the Royal Engineers, had graduated with a First Class degree in Natural Sciences in the summer of 1914. The Senior Tutor at the time, Mr Arthur Ramsey, records in his memoirs that when he had returned from an examiners’ meeting in August 1914, three of his tutorial students ‘had left Cambridge at midnight on their motorcycles to offer themselves as despatch riders for service with the expeditionary force. They did not wait to ask leave or to consult their parents, but just left a message to say that they had gone.’ Hepburn was one of the three; he already had an interest in the military as an active member of the University Officers’ Training Corps. Hepburn was a despatch rider on the Western Front for eight months before he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and retrained as a signaller. It was in his work as a Brigade Signals Officer that he was injured on the front line in February 1916. Hepburn returned to the trenches where he was awarded the Military Cross in June 1917, two months before he died of wounds sustained in action.
Magdalene Members served across Europe and beyond, from the frontlines in France to Singapore and Libya. Victor Reeves (1906), a Major in the Dorset Yeomanry stationed in Egypt, became part of the force sent to repel an uprising in Libya. Reeves led the Dorset Yeomanry in what is generally regarded as one of the last true cavalry charges by the British Army, The Charge of The Dorset Yeomanry, at Agagia on 26 February 1916. British military actions were usually underpinned by massive technological superiority, however, on this occasion, the enemy possessed overwhelming firepower while the Dorset Yeomanry charged with sabres drawn. Squadron Commander Major Victor Reeves was among those killed in action during the assault.
With many Members fighting empty College rooms were filled by soldiers on training courses. Magdalene had the privilege of housing officers from the Cheshire Regiment and the Royal West Kents. In December 1916, First Court was taken over by 25 cadets studying for commissions in the Artillery and this increased to almost one hundred cadets in the following months. The gunners recorded that 'owing to the great kindness and consideration of the College authorities, we came to feel ourselves really at home,' to the point where they joked that there seemed almost an incentive to fail the qualifying examination and 'remain another month in these pleasant surroundings.'
The College is unusual in having fewer Members listed on its 1914-18 Memorial than on the 1939-45 Memorial (65 and 129 respectively). This reflects the much smaller size of the College before 1914 and, although the number of Members killed in the First World War was significantly less, the impact on the student body was substantial with 20% killed in the First World War as opposed to 11% in the Second World War.
The 1919 Matriculation of students saw a temporary inflation in resident numbers. The number of freshmen admitted rose from 31 in 1913 to 111 in 1919. Towards the end of the war Naval officers ate alongside returning undergraduates and, thanks to this overlap, Magdalene gained one of its most distinguished Members, Patrick M Blackett (1919). He had served on destroyers and had been sent to Cambridge by the Navy for a refresher course. On his first evening in College, he met future art historian Geoffrey Webb (1919) and future Editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin (1919). This meeting proved to be a life-changing encounter; I A Richards, former literary critic recalled in his memoirs that Blackett said 'He had never before heard intellectual conversation.' He later achieved a First in Physics, the foundation of a scientific career that in 1948 made him Magdalene's first Nobel Prize winner.
As the war came to an end, the soldiers and seamen on training courses returned to their duties. The departing of the Navy was recorded in the June 1919 College Magazine in the poem A Navel Officers Farewell to Cambridge.
A Naval Officers Farewell to Cambridge
When Armageddon’s stormy blast,
To calm hadfall’n away at last,
And only politicians fought,
About theland the soldiers bough
By their blood.
Then, as the sea shall at the last,
Give up the deas that in the past,
She by her wiles hath deftly caught,
And quickly brought their lives to nought
Since the flood.
So gave the Sea to land once more,
Naval officers twentyscore,
And sent them to the ‘Varsity,
To train them to a nicety
For their work.
Two terms we find them at the door
Of knowledge knocking long and sore,
When ends this lengthy brevity,
Exams are a necessity
None may shirk.
Too quick this time has passed away,
Rapidly on there draws the day,
When from our friends we must depart,
And, stung with sorrow’s keenest dart,
We thank them more than we can say,
For all their kindness and the way,
They welcomed us right from the start :
Kindmem’ries of them in our heart
Will ever lie.
The June 1919 College Magazine states 'Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, a certain college consisted of thirty-five undergraduates. Small though it was in numbers ... everybody did something and most people did everything.'
Magdalene College Magazines, 1914-1919
Photos from the Magdalene Archives, E/P/22 and 23