A century ago: extracts from a few pages of Francis Fortescue (‘Sligger’) Urquhart’s personal photo albums, covering the Summer Term of 1917.
There were still Balliol men coming into residence each year during the War: surprising as it may seem now some were overseas students; others were precluded from active service, e.g. Aldous Huxley; most were putting in time before their commissions came through, and the student numbers by the end of each summer term were much lower than in Michaelmas. In addition, the officer cadets billeted at Balliol, Keble and elsewhere for training were welcomed and made to feel part of ‘their’ colleges by the few Fellows still resident.
Urquhart was one of only three dons in residence at Balliol throughout the War, and his unbroken series of informal photographs shows the incongruous juxtapositions of academic, civilian and military life during the period. This post shows a selection reflecting the outward and visible changes made by the war in Oxford, mainly within Balliol.
Many of the officer cadets who spent weeks or months training in Oxford had good memories of their time there. This lighter side of wartime experience easily became family stories that could be passed down. My enquiry records show that some officer training periods have evolved in family legend into full Oxford degrees, several generations of retelling later! The ‘party of sight-seers’ in one photo is visiting New College’s cloisters – is Urquhart acting as their tour guide? Even the pictures of ‘trench digging on Cumnor Hill by 6 OCB A Company’, in their shirtsleeves under a bright Oxfordshire sun and the beady eye of Captain Lang, look worlds removed from the reality, fast approaching for these men, of the mud of Flanders and France.
Individually, the photos are mostly sunny snapshots of happy moments; as a collection, however, the very quality of ‘Oxford idyll’ that seems escapist and almost irresponsible in such a serious time forms not only a fascinating glimpse into an important chapter in Oxford’s history, but a vivid and very personal memorial to lost youth and potential, compiled by a tutor noting the deaths of too many friends and former students.
3 views of John Beverley Nichols. JBN was admitted to Balliol, with Urquhart as his tutor, in Hilary Term (spring term, i.e. January) 1917, and almost immediately entered the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Labour Corps. These photos, only a page apart in the album, show his rapid transition from civilian to military life. Nichols detested everything about the war and his military experience, and was deeply bitter about his father’s curtailment of his Oxford education once the war was over. Nichols does not mention his brief 1917 Oxford period in his memoir The Unforgiving Minute, which indicates that he went straight from Marlborough College to officer training in Cambridge. Balliol Archives FFU 7.50H, 7.52F, 7.52G.
‘A party of sight-seers, March 1917’ – a group of officer cadets and their training officers in the cloisters at New College. Balliol Archives FFU 7.50I
‘Malik, French Red Cross, Summer term 1917.’ Hardit Singh Malik was one of four Sikh pilots in the RFC/RAF), and the only one of the four to survive. Francis Urquhart had been his Balliol tutor, and it was through him that Malik joined the French Red Cross in 1916 – as a stepping stone to the French Air Force, as at that time the new Royal Flying Corps did not accept non-white officers. In 1917 that colour bar was broken, again through Urquhart’s intervention, and Hardit Singh Malik became a pilot in the RFC, later the RAF. This photo may date from a visit a little earlier in the year, just before Malik’s transfer. Balliol Archives FFU 7.52A
Academic and military lives collide: Victor Mallet (Balliol 1911) studied Modern History at Balliol under NS Talbot and AL Smith, signed up with the Cambridge Regiment in September 1914 and served in France 1915-16. He is shown here on leave (or perhaps on business?) from Ireland in 1917 receiving his degree in BA gown and hood, with Army uniform, complete with cane, instead of subfusc and mortarboard. The Mallet family’s archive is held in Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre. Balliol Archives FFU 7.52C
At one point during the term Sligger visits the Cambridge home of Baron Anatole von Hügel (1854-1928) . Von Hügel, a fellow alumnus of Stonyhurst College, had set Urquhart something of an example when, in 1895, he had been a leading figure in the repeal of the Papal prohibition on Roman Catholic membership of Oxford and Cambridge. Balliol Archives FFU7.54B & C
Nevile Barclay plays the organ in Balliol Hall. Barclay enlisted with the 8th London Regiment in May `915, aged 17, and worked in the Foreign Office until November 1918. He enrolled at Balliol in 1916 but his course was much interrupted by war work; he eventually completed his degree in 1921, but did not formally take the BA and MA until 1926. He and JB Nichols became friends during Nichols’ postwar stint in Oxford. Balliol Archives FFU7.54D
The regular Sunday Concert series established by Benjamin Jowett in 1885 continued well into the War, until June 1915, but was then replaced with less formal concerts for which there were no programmes. This coincides with the occupation of Balliol’s premises by No. 6 Officer Cadet Battalion; hundreds if not thousands of Army officer cadets came through Balliol on training courses lasting up to three months.
‘W Robinson in hospital.’ There is no W Robinson of the right vintage at Balliol. Who is W Robinson? a member of another college? someone from the Roman Catholic schools? a former officer cadet stationed at Balliol for training? His dressing gown and slippers on the lawn are reminiscent of similar, yet very different, photos taken at Urquhart’s Chalet in the French alps only a few years earlier. And who took this photo? Urquhart usually notes photographers of individual prints other than himself -though he does not mention whether they used his camera or their own – but from the shadow, whoever took this photo was in uniform. And which hospital is it? from the indications of a downhill slope in the background, I’ll guess it’s in Headington. Balliol Archives FFU 7.54I
‘Trench digging on Cumnor Hill by 6 OCB, “A” Coy. Cap. Lang, Seiler, Velho, Sharp, Shaw, Evans, Darling.’ Urquhart has probably walked out to Cumnor, a regular walking destination of his, to visit the ‘Balliol’ cadets of 6 OCB practising – in what looks like very dry earth indeed – for the mud of France and Flanders. This is one of very few photographs indeed of officer cadets with identifications. Notice Velho’s khaki apron, carefully belted at the right length to protect his kilt. Balliol Archives FFU 7.55B
‘A Company Lecture’: instead of the usual scene of Balliol students taking a break from the Library or celebrating the end of their Finals, here an Army instructor addresses several dozen officer cadets sitting on the grass in front of the ivy-covered Hall in the Garden Quad. This photo appears to have been taken from the top of the Library tower. Balliol Archives FFU 7.55C
Maurice Leonard Jacks (Balliol 1912) had been a student of Cyril Bailey, in Classics, immediately before the war, and one of the early Presidents of the Balliol Boys’ Club. After serving as a 2nd Lieutenant (the most common rank for young University men signing up as junior officers) in the King’s Royal Rifles 1914-16, he was wounded in France in November 1916. As a result, he did not return to battle but became Captain of C Company, No.4 officer Cadet Battalion, based at Keble College in Oxford. This meant he was just up the road from his old friend Urquhart, as well as close to the Jacks’ new family home at Shotover Edge. Jacks and Urquhart collaborated to provide cadets on their days off with walks and explorations by canoe of the surrounding countryside – experiences of Oxford summers in which, except for partial uniform, they could temporarily leave wartime behind. Balliol Archives FFU 7.55K
Balliol Archives FFU 7.57E
This album can be viewed in full online here.