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Cambridge in the Great War

Glynis Cooper
From “Your Towns and Cities in the Great War” series by Pen & Sword.

This book is from an excellent and growing series from Pen & Sword. Obviously, the standard and scope of each book depends on the skill and interests of the author, as well as the characteristics of the town, city or area described.

As residents of Cambridge have long known, it is a city of “town and gown”, with aims of the university, colleges, staff and students often at odds with those of non-university people. Surrounded by rich agricultural soils and watery fens, the city had little industry in the early twentieth century. However, tailors and boot makers changed from making university gowns to uniforms. Products made by scientific instrument makers were in demand for military purposes.

World War One broke out during the “long vac” (univeristy summer vacation)of 1914. Only half the usual number of students came to study at the start of the Michaelmas (autumn) Term, with many students signing up. At this time, there were 21 colleges for male students, while only two colleges, Girton and Newnham, admitted undergraduate women students. Hughes Hall admitted postgraduate women. Lodging houses suffered by the lack of students, although some rooms were taken by billeted troops.

In addition to colleges, Cambridge also has many open areas of common land, including Coe Fen, Coldham’s Common, Jesus Green, Lammas Land, Midsummer Common, Parker’s Piece and Stourbridge Common. These were occupied by troops and horses from units including Army Service Corps, Cambridgeshire Regiment, Durham Light Infantry, Royal Army Medical Corps and West Yorkshire Regiment. The major departure of troops were waved off on 7th September 1914, as they left by railway, heading to what became known as the Battle of Mons.

By the end of September 1914, 200 casualties had been sent to Cambridge from mainland Europe. During World War One, Addenbrookes Hospital was situated in Trumpington Road, in buildings now used for non medical purposes. Such buildings were inadequate for the needs of military casualties. Temporary wooden buildings for occupation by First Eastern General Hospital (Territorial Force) were erected in Neville’s Court of Trinity College and on land now occupied by University Library.

1915 started with River Cam floods. Strangely, a city known for education neglected the education of up to 800 children when their schools were requisitioned by the military. In February 1915, King George V inspected the Welsh Division camped on Parker’s Piece and visited First Eastern General Hospital. Corporal Dewey, killed by a sniper in the same month, was the Cambridgeshire Regiment’s first casualty. Within a few weeks, the regiment had suffered eight fatalities, 20 wounded and five missing in action.

As spring 1915 proceeded, many village fairs and shows were cancelled, due lack of funds, staff and railway services. However, football, horse racing and sailing competitions, and hunting continued. The Boat Race, between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, was cancelled, and did not resume until 1919. There were several Oxford Cambridge Bond Races, raising funds for army and navy ships.

One of the most famous poets of WWI, Rupert Brooke, was a graduate of Kings College, is now remembered for his war poetry, but also for his lines about Grantchester church clock, tea and honey, from his days lodging in the village. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and sailed towards Gallipoli, but died from septicaemia following an infected mosquito bite, on 23rd April 1915.

As the war continued, margarine supplies seem to have caused major issues in the city. Residents continued to support serving personnel by sending clothing and gifts. In the surrounding agricultural land, women took the places of male workers who were serving in uniform. Many groups collected items such as waste paper and metal, before the word recycling was used.

Naturally, the book concludes with a photograph of the soldier walking towards town, while looking over his right shoulder towards the railway station, for any returning comrades. Cambridge University fellows were realising that colleges and courses needed to change as the world had changed.

For completeness, to assist people considering buying this book, I include a list of content below:
1. 1914
2. 1915
3. 1916
4. 1917
5. 1918
Index (brief and incomplete, sadly)

4 out of 5.

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