The story of life during the Great War at one of the University of Portsmouth’s predecessor institutions, as glimpsed through the student press.
Although only having opened in 1908, by 1913 the staff and students of Portsmouth Municipal College were already beginning to have a sense of their own history. In the spring of that year, the Old Students Association (OSA) were formed and their successful Christmas reunion was reported in student magazine ‘The Galleon’. The Galleon had itself had only been established in 1911 and the two student unions – separate unions for women and for men – were also rather new.
However, by the Christmas 1914 edition of the Galleon, international events had begun to unsettle life at the college. The magazine included a list of names of men ‘now serving our country’. A planned excursion to the Isle of Wight by the OSA in September 1914 had had to be cancelled because of the war, and the association’s members were joining up. The OSA report that ‘With regard to those of our members who have joined HM Forces we have heard but very little. Our Secretary, Mr Childs, is among the number…We extend our heartiest congratulations to the above mentioned who have come forward so nobly at their country’s call. We wish them god speed’.
In Spring 1915, the college had become rather subdued with a decline in social and sporting activities. The President of the Men’s Students Union, N. Tomsen, lamented the situation. ‘Consider the football. Why was it so little supported? Was it because people may have said we were unpatriotic? Then, if our consciences pricked us, we ought not to be here. Even in the Common Room, such as it is, we seldom have true fun or a real joke. There is far too much suspicion of ill feeling, and I regret to say, some grounds for it.’
A company of cadets had been formed at the college for under-19 year olds with the intention that it would not ‘interfere with a student’s course of study’. It was however intended to ‘prepare him in a military sense during a period in which he is ineligible for joining the Territorial or Regular Forces’. The Municipal College Company of Cadets M Company 2nd C Battalion Hampshire Regiment were led by Captain E.W. Yelf, a member of staff in the college Mathematics, Physics and Electrical Engineering Department. The cadets were to train in outdoor field exercises, and in the winter undertake indoor activities such as learning musketry. The Summer 1915 edition of the Galleon carried a report about their Field Day at Windmill Hill in Horndean which culminated in tea at the Red Lion in Chalton.
The same edition even included an article entitled ‘Life at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich’, the justification being ‘it may perhaps be interest to the readers of the Galleon to know how future Officers are being trained to take their part in the present great war…’ Authorship is attributed to someone with the initials N.A. which may have been N. Andrews, a former President of the Men’s Student Union, who had left the college earlier in the year. The piece describes a typical day at the academy consisting of drills, inspections and lectures, and a crash course in horse-riding. The article concludes on a melancholy note ‘then we shall go to the front ourselves and when we return – if we ever do – it will probably be with very mixed feelings that we shall look back upon our experience at the RMA’.
The OSA describe the difficulties in reaching their members for whom they don’t have a permanent address, many of whom were then in the forces. They also offer their ‘heartiest congratulations’ to their former Secretary Mr Childs who had just been given a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Berkshire Regiment.
By Christmas 1915, the war was endangering the very existence of the Galleon itself. Circulation had fallen and the current price of sixpence was deemed unsustainable. The possibility of switching to annual publication was under discussion. The Old Students Association continued its activities, although in a more muted fashion than before.
Through 1916, more staff and students from the college were serving in the war, and are again listed in the magazine in a roll of honour. The OSA provided updates on its members, many on service, some at the front. This included information about Lieutenant Childs who had gone ‘to France about a month ago. He was given a weeks rest at the base, and then sent to the trenches, where he spent five days and nights. He had a strenuous time and was heavily bombarded.’ Once again, the association worried about getting out of touch with its members.
The cadets trained more young men, but were short of funds themselves and appealed for donations. The cadets are described by Captain Yelf as ‘keenly submitting to discipline in order that they shall not be useless when their age permits them to enter H. M. Force. A large proportion of the cadets in this company will be old enough next year for service. They are giving their time and spending their pocket money to one end’. At the behest of the Higher Education Committee, the Municipal College was now offering courses of instruction in military map reading, signalling and field telegraph.
In Easter 1917 the Galleon had indeed become an annual publication and had needed two fundraising concerts in the last five months to keep afloat. It reported that 35 cadets had left to join HM Forces or to go to national work.
Sadly, the former secretary of the Old Students Association R.J. Childs was never to return to the college. Second Lieutenant Royden James Childs, of the Royal Berkshire Regiment died on 27 July 1916 aged only 23. The ‘old’ students were really not old at all.
As the son of Edward and Elizabeth Ellen Childs, of 14 Claremont Rd, he will be commemorated on one of the many street plaques being placed around Portsmouth to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.
~ Anna Delaney, University Archivist
This piece was written using copies of ‘Galleon’ magazine held by Portsmouth University Archive and Portsmouth History Centre as well as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website www.cwgc.org.
There is more information about the life of R. J. Childs at http://historyinportsmouth.co.uk/people/ww1/childs-rj.htm.