“We Trust to the Glory of Ultimate Victory”: McMaster University in WWI, part 1

By Adam Rudy

On 4 August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany, committing its far-flung, global domains to a war of the most tragic proportions yet experienced by humankind. On that day, Canada, too, joined the war, though it had little choice in the matter. The generation that came of age during those years—those who lived to see the post-war world—would be forever changed by the war. The experience of the Great War on the campus of a small Baptist university named after its primary benefactor, McMaster, reflected the experiences of a generation of Canadian youth.

By the time the first edition of the McMaster Monthly was released for the academic year of 1914–1915, Canada had already been at war for two months. The Women’s column made a point of expressing their view of the war:

Reverberating still from shore to shore comes the cry of battle, the summons to the brave to help their Motherland. Very near indeed to us is borne the din of the conflict, the roll of drums, the shrill note of the fife. Unhesitatingly have her children answered; from country and from city have they gone forth to battle for the right–we trust to the glory of ultimate victory.1

With zealous rhetoric McMaster students displayed their loyalty to the British Empire, the motherland. But this war was more than a political conflict. One editor proclaimed “it is a holy war—for it is in defence of Christianity itself that we are fighting. Let’s rally to the colors, ye men of McMaster.”2 From their view, Western civilization had been founded upon Christianity and like most Canadians they believed that what they saw as Germany’s godless militarism would destroy the British civilization that they held so dear. It would not be long before many McMaster students and alumni alike stepped beyond the rhetoric into the recruiting office.

Photo from the Canadian Baptist Archives.

Eager to support the cause, McMaster students and alumni discussed how they could “do their bit.” Among the several responses was the formation of the McMaster University Civilian Rifle Association and plans to form an ambulance section of the Royal Army Medical Corps.3 The first “McMasterite,” however, to formally show his support of the war effort, was Rev. J. B. Grimshaw, a theological graduate of McMaster’s class of 1893. He went overseas with the first Canadian contingent as a chaplain.4

Perhaps the most important response to the war was the formation of the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps (COTC) at the University of Toronto, in which McMaster had a company. McMaster and the University of Toronto were adjacent to one another during this time, so it is not surprising that McMaster would participate in the COTC. The Monthly dedicated significant space to describing, in detail, the goings-on of the unit. For example, an early description of the unit not only informed the readers that “their outfit is kept in the basement of the Medical Building” but that “M Company” (that is, McMaster’s unit) would soon be receiving uniforms.5 Judging by descriptions such as this one, there was a great deal of growing interest in the COTC, as the unit became a symbol of McMaster’s contribution to the war effort.

McMaster University Rifle Association letter (click to expand). Scan from Canadian Baptist Archives.

In the early months of the war, before its tragic proportions became apparent, McMaster students were able to maintain a sense of humour in their support of the war. For example, a student society known as the Nip and Tuck persuaded “a large number of the students to pledge themselves to leave the upper lip like a barbed wire fence . . . for a period of three weeks. Any violation of this pledge means a fine of fifty cents.”6 The proceeds from those unable to maintain their pledge “are to go to the Red Cross Society.”7 This fundraiser seems to have been an ancestor of today’s popular “Movember” fundraiser.

The sense of humour exhibited in such fundraisers, however, would soon be replaced by a grim seriousness as the realization dawned on those in the Allied nations that the war would not end quickly. Support in the form of enlistment increased rapidly. One editor of the Monthly wrote “McMaster men are beginning to take up the burden of Empire. Every week brings news of someone who has joined the colours in the great war for the liberation of the world from the curse of militarism.”8 Although, by early 1915, only a small number of McMaster folks, both students and faculty, had enlisted.

J. H. “Happy” Fairchild, who was killed in action November 1916. Photo from the Canadian Baptist Archives.

By October 1916, however, so many from McMaster had enlisted, and the readers had become so interested, that a new column was introduced in the Monthly entitled, “On Military Service.” It soon became the longest section of the Monthly, as it included not only descriptions of the ranks and movements of the various McMaster men in the army, but it also included excerpts of letters sent back by McMasterites. The general tone of these excerpts was optimistic and positive initially. In one letter the writer described his unit as being “excited at having our first ‘baptism of fire.’”9 Such optimism soon disappeared as the excerpted letters began to describe the horrors of the war. One letter, from Captain S. M. McClay told a story of his taking a brief respite with his company’s Padre, when a shell landed nearby and blew off the Padre’s legs below the knees.10 Although the Padre was taken quickly by two men with a stretcher (which they called an ambulance) he did not live to see the next day. The Captain had been wounded as well, but it was less serious.

A letter excerpt from January 1917 described the death of one of McMaster’s own: Gunner J. H. “Happy” Fairchild.11 The letter was written by his best friend and described how a shell shattered one of his legs and both arms and, according to the writer, how on the ambulance trip to the field hospital behind the lines he was perfectly lucid and talked much of the way there. After four hours, however, “his noble spirit passed away.”12 The horrific experiences of living on the front were described in detail: “In the past year I have become accustomed to seeing dead and dying men. You walk on them, you pass scores of unburied ones at times, you even get so hardened you can search them for their identification with little thought, but when you see the life go out of your best friend, then you know war is hell.”13

Endnotes

  1. McMaster Monthly, October 1914, 24.
  2. McMaster Monthly, October 1914, 30.
  3. McMaster Monthly, October 1914, 32.
  4. McMaster Monthly, November 1914, 70.
  5. McMaster Monthly, March 1915, 209.
  6. McMaster Monthly, December 1914, 97.
  7. McMaster Monthly, December 1914, 97.
  8. McMaster Monthly, January 1915, 143.
  9. McMaster Monthly, October 1916, 20.
  10. McMaster Monthly November 1916, 67.
  11. J. H. Fairchild was born in Winnipeg in 1893. He entered McMaster in 1910 but left in 1912 to enter the business world. He enlisted with the 26th Battery, CFA, in July of 1915, and went over to France with that company in January 1916.
  12. McMaster Monthly, January 1917, 168.
  13. McMaster Monthly, January 1917, 168.

Adam Rudy is a PhD student in Church History at McMaster Divinity College. Prior to pursuing this degree, Adam earned a Master of Arts (Christian Studies) from McMaster Divinity College. He is a Member-at-Large with the Canadian Baptist Historical Society.

**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**

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