By Jennifer Stewart, Club 21 Intern
By the close of 1915, the stark realisation of the incomprehensible reality of the Great War had begun to be fully realised, as the scale of human destruction continued to exceed expectations. With the conflict passing the one-year mark Britain began to understand the need for memorialising her war dead and recognising the sacrifices already made to this conflict, one without comparison. It was steeped in this atmosphere that Glasgow University Magazine published its Memorial Edition on 15 December 1915.
From the outset of the Great War the student-published GUM had commented consistently on the nature of the conflict and reflected the experiences of the students of the University who had both gone to France and stayed at home. However, it was not until the 1915 edition that the war became the sole focus of the publication, and thereby the tone of reverence and solemn respect that it presents is not muted in anyway by the musings of studentdom. It is evident that the impact of the war had transcended the country’s pre-conceived notions of conflict and how to deal with it, and recognition that a memorial edition was necessary now, not at the end of the war, but during it, to acknowledge the crushing debt that the country, and the University, had paid so far. This moment of communal reflection was essential as both the individual loss and the shared bereavement of the University had been too extensive not to be vocalised.
Unlike the regular editions of GUM, which usually began with a section of lighthearted tit-bits, the memorial edition opened with an anonymous poem ‘The Conquerors’. Although the title suggests a tract on epic soldiery and the grand heroism of Britain’s military tradition, this piece arguably deals with the term ‘conquerors’ ironically. Opening with utopic images of Glasgow only to remove the soldier from this peaceful setting in order to conquer or die trying, the poem suggests that within the student body a level of criticism of the war as an imperial conflict of conquest was evident. This justification for the deaths of their comrades is just not a sufficient argument. The rejection of the imperialism of the war is emphasised in the closing stanza:
And ye are more than conquerors, who rest
By rejecting the badge of ‘conqueror’ the author attempts to salvage an essence of the individual from this faceless term synonymous with grand generals and campaigns of subjugation. Here, the author celebrates the men – the men of the University, the men of home – and he will not allow their sacrifice to be devalued. Their protection of the home they have left bodily, but rejoined spiritually must be remembered, and by closing with the image of a rose guarding the resting places on the battlefield, the poem seeks to preserve the memory of the University’s fallen through reunion with nature, and in doing so interestingly foretells the symbolism of the poppy.
The use of nature as a vehicle for remembrance is reiterated with the memorial edition’s second poetic contribution ‘In Memoriam’. Through various references to the flora and fauna and then finally the cosmos, the author is conveying to his readership of bereaved students, that in looking to the heavens ‘we shall see thy spirit [of fallen comrades] in the starlight beckoning’. The comfort to be found in the eternal presence of the souls of their friends demonstrates the level of sadness that was evident within the University by this stage.
This sadness explains the inclusion within the publication of Reverend Reid’s sermon from the University’s memorial service of 24 October 1915. Reverend Reid was not only a minister but also Professor of Divinity at the University, so his bond with the students and compassion in their suffering is heartfelt and true. His sermon, ‘The Reward’, introduces a spirit of optimism with a focus on salvation and eternal glory that awaits the University’s war-dead. The focus on the religious justification and divine support, rare from a student-run publication of intellectual and secular ideals, suggests again the unprecedented scale of the destruction that the war had caused to campus morale and experience: worldly words of commemoration are just not enough. Professor Reid’s sermon is crucial in understanding the power of memory and the urge for memorialisation within the University; he suggests that this atmosphere has essentially caused the campus’ fallen to be reborn. He speaks of there being a ‘tremendous stream of life which flows into our College and our classes from such heavenly places. Our dead are born again in our midst’.
However, what is most poignant about the GUM’s memorial edition, is not the poetic imagery and eloquent statements, but the simple and brutal Roll of Honour. After one year of war it included 95 names and covered 13 pages; the alphabetical roll call of the University’s fallen is stark and reflective in its directness and absence of cluttering commentary. It is simply names, and the endlessness of this list speaks louder than anything. These are names of fellow students and professors, and each is loaded with meaning for the GUM’s readership. As the editors of the memorial edition reflect on the Roll of Honour:
‘[T]hese were men who, each in his own sphere of activity, were of the innermost life of the University, and it is fitting that some record should remain of what they meant to us’
The University of Glasgow Archives holds back issues of Glasgow University Magazine from 1889-2003. GUM is the oldest student publication in Scotland.