The Great War Column: The University of Edinburgh, Rudyard Kipling, and the Great War

Written by Ashleigh Jackson.

The University of Edinburgh, like many other institutions across the country, did not escape the Great War unscathed. A Roll of Honour was published in 1921, after the cessation of hostilities, to commemorate the fallen alumni of the university. This record provides a wealth of information for those hoping to research the war and its impact on society.

The introduction of the document is written by J.A. Ewing, the principal and vice-chancellor of the university from 1916 until his retirement in 1929. The duration of his appointment meant he presided over the university during part of the conflict, witnessing the effects of the war on further education first hand. 944 members of the university were killed in action during the war.  The record comprises a ‘Roll of the Fallen’, as well as a record of those who survived the conflict, detailing alumni who served during the war, chiefly concerning those at the front. Where possible, the record includes photographs of alumni [as can be seen above]. The editor has also sought to include personal details such as education, occupation, military service details and where they died.

Upon the outbreak of war, 600 students and graduates received commissions in the army. A significant proportion of university alumni became medical officers, owing to Edinburgh’s large and prestigious medical school. It is clear then, that the war significantly disrupted university life. Notably, Lord Kitchener, who was Secretary of State for War in 1914-1916 was also the rector of the University during this period. As such, his portrait is included in the Roll of Honour, highlighting a significant connection between the university and the First World War.

Interestingly, Rudyard Kipling visited the university in July 1920, delivering a speech which is included at the beginning of the Roll of Honour: “That they turned without fear or question from the Gates of Learning to those of the Grave in order that free men might still continue to learn freedom, is their glory but not their glory alone.”

Kipling captures the great sacrifice made by these men, who fought not only for their freedom but for the freedom of others. Throughout the war, Kipling was a prolific orator, supporting the war effort by calling for recruits.  He is famous for his poetry and short stories but during the First World War, he also became a key propagandist. His articles sought to uphold morale. He stressed the bravery of the soldiers at the front and wrote in an upbeat tone, becoming something of a spin-doctor. When reporting on the Battle of Jutland in 1916 he gave a positive interpretation of the conflict despite huge losses to the British army.

Kipling’s poignant speech at Edinburgh in 1920 connected the fallen alumni through their mutual commitment to academia. He sought to highlight how their sacrifice enabled future generations to ‘continue to learn’. Kipling’s attitude was perhaps at odds with the general feeling of grief that captured the nation after the war, despite victory. This speech, like many of his other speeches, is undoubtedly a piece of propaganda, an attempt to revive a nation paralysed by loss.

This column will endeavour to bring this document to life throughout the coming academic year. Forthcoming articles will focus on individuals from the Roll of Honour, in an attempt to understand the university’s connections to the Great War and the experiences of alumni during the conflict.  The size of the record alone indicates the scale of the sacrifice and the university’s contribution to the war effort.

Book Review: All Quite on the Western Front

The centenary of the First World War hangs over the next few years. This anniversary is prompting new academic writing, literature, television and radio, which reflect on the war and the impact it has on us today. Whilst all these mediums shed light on the events of those dreadful four years and their aftermath, it is important to revisit the sources of the time to unearth the realities of the war, and the experiences of those directly involved.

All Quiet on the Western Front, was published in 1928 and is based on the frontline experiences of its author, Erich Maria Remarque. He was conscripted into the German army in 1917 at the age of eighteen. The text was extremely popular when first published, selling over one and a half million copies in 1929. It was also made into an Academy Award winning film in 1930. The novel is a fascinating source that presents the perspective that most British readers are least familiar with – that of the ‘enemy’, the Germans. Remarque begins the novel with a disclaimer of sorts:

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure… It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.

The text professes the confusing juxtaposition of the extremes of quasi-modern warfare: utter boredom and constant fear of a violent and painful death. The men go from endlessly waiting, smoking, talking and killing millions of lice, to being pushed over the top straight into hand-to-hand combat, fighting to the death with men who mirror them in almost every way apart from their language. Through the exploration of these poles of warfare, the novel encapsulates both terror and tranquillity.

Images in the text veer violently between those of beauty, nature and camaraderie, and those of death, destruction and the immense pity of war. Any reader, at any point in this novel’s existence, will be aware that the Germans lost and were blamed for the war; the allies are seen as the heroes and the Germans generally as a homogenised evil invader. However, All Quiet undermines this by unbinding the blur of ‘evil’ German soldiers into individuals with same hopes, dreams and extreme fear as the opposing armies’. Remarque detaches the common soldiers from those giving the orders, adding perspective and allowing the reader to engage in both sides of the story.

Like much of the literature of the war, All Quiet captures the futility and unpredictability of the conflict. Characters you have got to know through the course of the text are suddenly dead, wounded, or gassed, torn from your imagination as those whom they represent were torn from reality a hundred years ago. Its stark depiction of war made it a censored and publicly burned book following the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933. Nevertheless, it has survived the test of time and still resonates with modern readers. It is a staple of war literature and will remain in the historical literary cannon, I hope, for years to come.

Image: Amanda Slater