Community commemoration: the First World War Centenary at Glasgow University

A guest post by Esther Lucy Janes, a postgraduate Information Management and Preservation student, on placement in Archives and Special Collections.

Community commemoration: The First World War Centenary at Glasgow University

As Remembrance Day approaches communities will be preparing to commemorate those who have died in war, even though people cannot gather together.

For Glasgow University this will be the second act of remembrance this year, for on 3March 2020  there was a memorial for the life and death of Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Hamilton Wilson, the last member of the Glasgow University community to die as the consequence of the First World War, exactly 100 years ago that day.

Photo of the Memorial Garden looking up towards the main University building with a faded wreath of poppies, lots of old, weathered little wooden crosses with poppies and a few, clean, bright new ones.

There was a short service in the University Memorial Chapel followed by the ‘planting’ of a cross with a poppy in the Memorial Garden. This was a ceremony that had been carried out for all 781 members of the University community who died in the war and whose names are recorded in the Chapel.

This summer, for my Masters dissertation research, I spoke with people involved in the 2014-1018 Centenary to learn more about what had happened. They described several significant themes.

Commemoration, reconciliation and education

As the Centenary approached, the University set up a Commemoration Group drawing together people from across the institution to provide a co-ordinating role.

 “The group has as a central ethos that the commemoration will not just be a historical reflection but also a reflection of where we are now, and where we are going.  The tenets of the group are commemoration, reconciliation and education.” (Glasgow University WW1 Commemoration Group)

This was the overriding approach for lots of different projects, from academic conferences and research, to community events, public talks and lectures, film showings, exhibitions, concerts and much more  – unfortunately too many to mention them all here but lots are recorded on the University’s Great War Project blog.

Remembering each person

The commemoration started with the University Archives, many years before the Centenary. In 2006 the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele prompted research into the biographies of the University staff and students who had died in that battle, and the stories of their lives were published on the Roll of Honour website.

The Memorial Chapel was very important to the commemorations, though in a video created at the start of the Centenary period, Reverend Stuart MacQuarrie (now retired) emphasised that “Though the Chapel was built as a memorial to the 761 men who died in the Great War, associated with the University, … it is not a place about death, it is a place about life. It’s about every one of their lives.”

If you passed by the main gates on University Avenue you probably saw the Memorial Garden. This prominent spot meant that the commemorations were physically visible both to people in the University to the community in the city of Glasgow.

As the number of poppy crosses grew from the first one ‘planted’ on 25th September 2014 for Captain Harry Ranken, the Garden presented a visualisation of the progression of the War and its impact. In particular, the sudden addition of big batches of crosses following the anniversary of a major military offensive such as The Somme, was mentioned by several people I spoke to, and described by one person as “heart-breaking”. And as new crosses were added, the earlier ones were weathering and then decaying, a natural process that created another layer of meaning and deeper poignancy.

The Roll of Honour research revealed that a German man who was a student at the University before the War had died when serving in the German armed forces. His name was added to the Chapel, acknowledging his place in the University community and demonstrating active reconciliation.

Connecting with the city

This focus on the individuals helped to connect the University Centenary to the wider city of Glasgow community where they had grown up, lived and worked. Sometimes descendants of families of the deceased came to memorials or supplied additional information about their predecessor. School pupils also traced the lives of former pupils who had come to the University before the War.

The Digging In project, a partnership project with Northlight Heritage and Glasgow City Council, constructed and maintained a series of reconstruction trenches in Pollok Park. Not only was this place where the public and school pupils could visit and learn more about the War through open days, talks and other events but this was also an academic research project intended to improve understanding of trench construction and maintenance through experimental archaeology.

The 1916 Women’s Peace Crusade was marked with a march via Glasgow Green, an exhibition, and a conference at Glasgow Women’s Library. The popular Wings to War exhibition marked the centenary of the founding of the Royal Air Force and the University’s place in the story of aviation through the instrumental role of former Glasgow student Lieutenant-General Sir David Henderson.

The University’s connections with Erskine Hospital – founded during the War by Regius Professor of Surgery Sir William Macewen to rehabilitate disabled ex-servicemen – was rediscovered and showcased in an exhibition at The Hunterian. The University Archives Service led a project to catalogue the records of the WW1 patients and make them available online for family historians and researchers. And the University gained two new trees from the partnership – willows to replace the ones Sir William chopped down to get the wood to make artificial limbs!

Thousands of school children came to visit the University during this time. Which, as one teacher explained, meant they could become familiar with it as a welcoming place for them and challenged some of the assumptions they had about higher education. They also took the opportunity to see other parts of the campus, which on one memorable occasion led to the Bute Hall being unlocked just so they could see inside!

Academic and creative responses

Staff, students and departments in the University could use the Centenary as a focus for a specific research and teaching, and for external engagement. Among the projects were those focused on law, aerospace engineering, medical and dental developments, and faith in the First World War. Engineering students had the opportunity to construct a replica of a Bristol Fighter 2 aircraft along with a working flight simulator. Several students volunteered with Archives Services to help with research or support events and exhibitions.

Other projects were entirely student-led and offered creative responses. These included an Instagram project called Letters from a Prisoner of War 1918 which published archived letters between a University professor in a prisoner of war camp and his wife in Glasgow.

The students involved in the Words of WW1 project filmed performances of First World War poems selected by them to present different perspectives on the War, which were accompanied by original music. All the poems are on YouTube, including this one, which won a Scottish student television prize.

Emotional impact and legacy

The Centenary at the University consisted of many overlapping and interconnected projects, activities and events, some of which demanded a lot of additional work, public engagement and out-of-hours events.

But at the core was the six-year commitment to the acts of remembrance for all the people who died between 1914 and 1920. This was often very emotional for the people involved, especially if there were a lot of names to read out or a personal story that was particularly poignant.

For example, the memorial for the German student was particularly moving, as described by one interviewee: “The thing that sticks with me is the German officer cadet crying when we were planting the cross. So he was in full uniform and he was crying….”

The archive research revealed that there were 21 people who had died but who were not commemorated in the Memorial Chapel, so their names have now been permanently added on a new tablet.

Photo of a dark stone tablet fixed in a wall in the Chapel with 21 names carved and highlighted in gold paint. The names are: Brown, Archibald G; Buchan, David; Chalmers, John H; Church, William C; Gollyer, Arthur H; Greenhill, Campbell; MacDonald, Robert S; McIntosh, Alexander F; Mackie, James; Matheson, James; Milne, Alexander J.B; Moore, Arthur; Morrison, Archibald; Morton, Alexander; Nelson, George; Noble, John; Orr, William G.M; Robertson, John C; Schlor, Franz F; Turner, William; Young, Alex.

This work to reveal new stories is a continuance of the legacy left by the University staff during the First World War who kept, updated and preserved the records of the students and staff who served and died.

Described by one person as “an institutional Who do you think you are?“, the Roll of Honour project personifies the University’s role as a guardian of collective memory and honours the community that came before us and which suffered so much loss.

My grateful thanks to all the people who gave their time and shared their experiences of the centenary for my dissertation.


Forward, Remembering Women’s Peace Crusaders – Article by Glasgow Women’s Library

Erskine online

Matthew Bell: The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Wins Big in the RTS Scotland Student Awards – article published on 29th April 2020 by The Royal Television Society

John Rodker, War Museum . From Words of War: hosted on YouTube

Categories: Archive Services, Archives and Special Collections, Library, Reflections

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