Honour, sacrifice, and duty: Student life during WW1

Honour, sacrifice, and duty: Student life during WW1 photo by : Dalhousie Gazette Archives
From the Dalhousie Gazette Archives.
written by Erin Brown
January 12, 2018 11:12 am

In April of 1914, Editor-in-Chief W. McC. Nelson wrote a Letter from the editor that was optimistic about the future for Dalhousie University’s fine men – who had just won the Intercollegiate Debate. (Page 240, Volume 46, Issue 7)

By August, Canada would join the war effort in Europe, sending hundreds of thousands of young men and women overseas to represent their country.

In the September, 1914 issue of the Gazette, the new editorial staff scolds the previous editor in that he let the May, June, and August issues fall through; the new editorial staff scrambled to put together an issue. (Page 338, Volume 46, Issue 8-10)

Mainly, they wrote witty obituaries of a Dr. M. A. Lindsay who sadly died on the Empress of Ireland as he was on his way to England to finalize his divorce.

In October 1914, the Gazette team was back-on-track with a full issue on enlistment: letters from the war front, and what students could do for their fellow Canadians overseas.

  1. B. Coulter, a Medical school graduate to-be of Dalhousie in 1816, volunteered for active service and was recruiting from the Pictou County region.

“Our Motherland is in the throes of a great struggle, the supreme struggle, and what is to be our part in it? Are we going to take no part? Are we going to shirk? Are we afraid? We boast that at Dalhousie we find the very best of Nova Scotia’s youth, that here find the finest mentality, the sturdiest physique.”

“If so, is it not the bounden duty of those who know our country’s past, who see her present difficulties – is it not their duty to secure her future, a future with which liberties of the world are indissolubly interwoven?” (Page 5, Volume 47, Issue 1)

The call to arms was published in the Gazette in October to all professors and students to take up arms, and in doing so, they make Dalhousie proud. At this time the school allegedly had a reputation for being a centre of excellence in intelligence and physique in the province.

And in October 1914, the Gazette published a letter written by then-Dalhousie President Mackenzie titled Dalhousie will do her Duty. (Page 1, Volume 47, Issue 2) President Mackenzie met with a Major Thompson to discuss forming an Officers Training Corp, and was encouraging students to enlist.

The meeting, which gathered “large movements of students” in support, had “awaken all to a vivid realization to the fact that Dalhousie must do her share for the protection and advancement of the interests of our great Empire.”

By the Gazette’s November 1915, the rabble-rousing calls to arms were not as popular, as the Gazette began to report Dal student causalities from the battlefields. The editorial team appealed to family and friends to find the stories of fallen students and alumni.

George Williams Stairs was the first Dalhousie student to die in WW1. (Page 1, Volume 48, Issue 2)

His body lays in an unmarked grave in Flanders Field, where he was buried with men from his battalion.

He was remembered as quiet. A doer more than a talker. And his family had a long history of serving in the Dalhousie community on boards and through alumni groups. His family said that “without fuss or demonstration”, Stairs joined the war effort in 1914 shortly after Britain’s declaration out of a sense of duty.

“And through that hell, our Dalhousian fought until death came, in a flash.”

During the years 1914-1918, some things never changed at Dalhousie.

Exams still went on, and were complained about.

The Mutual Bank of Canada, then Royal Bank of Canada, consistently advertised taking out loans.

Professors continued with classes, and the Student Union fundraised for something nearly every year.

Even the Halifax Explosion, covered by the Gazette in their January 1918 issue, wasn’t enough to stop professors from assigning examinations.

The article titled Not even T.N.T. could stop the exams reports that the faculty “always so tenderly considerate of the students, felt that, in spite of the catastrophe, it would be shameful to deprive them of the Christmas Examinations.”

“Then, lest we grow blasé with inaction, they ordained that lectures should continue through the Examination period. Great was the gnashing of teeth among the afflicted, as the explosion had blown away every molecule of knowledge out of many a normally near-vacuum.”

In a more grieved tone, the Gazette also listed the names of family members lost during the Halifax Explosion who’d had family serving in the war.

By the end of WW1 in 1917, 67 Dalhousie students fighting in Europe had died.

On November 27, 1918, the Gazette team covered the celebrations in Halifax after the news that the armistice had been signed and the Great War was finally over.

“On the historic Monday morning, dozens of students of both sexes joined in the impromptu procession that made Barrington Street resemble New Orleans at the height of Mardi Gras carnival-time.” (Page 1, Volume 50, Issue 13-14)

The article even noted that some Dalhousie students enjoyed themselves so much at the celebrations, they got into a fist-fight with a rival unnamed college – which was welcomed because it was reminiscent of a time when “student were frequently placed on the Crime Book record in the police court.”

Due to a recorded illness of the Editor-in-Chief, Dal students largely controlled the content of issue 13-14, much to the concern of the Gazette’s Business Manager at the time.

The issue is filled with opinion pieces from students, and full of a dry-wit of war times.

In a thank-you note to the medical students of Dalhousie, who tended to the wounded both in Nova Scotia and overseas, a contributor wrote that 1918 was a year “doomed to interruption, much to the joy of the slothful, but decidedly to the inconvenience of those who really want to learn something before they leave Dalhousie.”

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