Dalhousie & the Great War: The View from the Front

Image: “An Improvised Desk,” Canadian War Museum

This post is the thirteenth in a series I’m writing about my grandmother Velma Jane Moore’s experience attending Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (I hadn’t planned to write a series. I just keep finding information and perspectives that interest me!)

Velma graduated in 1918, so the Dalhousie campus community was very much affected by the Great War of Nations. The student newspaper, the Dalhousie Gazette, chronicled the war’s effects on the campus community as soon as Canada declared war on Germany in 1914, with calls to eligible young men to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, the establishment of an Officers’ Training Corps, and the formation of a Dalhousie Stationary Hospital for service overseas.

The published lists of students and alumni serving in the armed forces grew longer and longer as the war progressed. Velma’s older brother Fred appears in several of them. By the Gazette’s February 1st issue of 1917, the Honor Roll of names took up fourteen columns over nine pages. By 1918, only 20 of Velma’s classmates from the original 72 would still be enrolled at the University.1

Soon letters from the front began to appear in the Gazette expressing a strong desire to stay connected with the Dalhousie community left behind. The following excerpt provides an example of the role that the Gazette played in keeping spirits up:

“Life in the Trenches”

. . . At present I am seated in a tiny dugout waiting for the mist to rise so that I can observe the Bosche lines through my periscope. It is nearly 48 hours since I have had a wash and thank goodness that a hot bath is one of the comforts back at our battery.

I had a nice surprise the other evening when upon entering my sleeping dugout a Dalhousie Gazette was seen lying upon the blankets. It did not take me long to remove trench waders and coat and jump into bed. There, by the light of a candle resting upon a bayonet, stuck into the sandbag wall, I read it from cover to cover.

R. E. G Roome, P. T. O.2

There was also a strong desire in these published letters to describe the experience of war to let the campus community know what it was really like.  I’ve included a representative selection below:

“Dalhousie Graduate at the Front Writes of His Personal Experiences”

. . . I dislike writing anything about the war. The newspapers probably contain nothing else. I can imagine you read the war news as entertainment and you do not see in it the life and death struggle of an Empire. We hate to face the obvious.

So far I have escaped without a scratch, but Heavens, how I dislike thinking of those who were less fortunate. Only last week one of my best friends a chap by the name of Wardrope from Aberdeen, was shot right beside me. The two of us had returned safely from the rear to the firing line, where we were about to assume our positions when I noticed Wardrope fall. A bullet had passed right through his chest. The body was left lying there. I will always remember the lighted cigarette which remained between his lips even when dead. All these things are in the days work.

S. C., Class of ’003

Image: “A Canadian Grave,” Canadian War Museum

“A letter received from the front says:”

‘The trenches here are simply frightful, a few inches of greasy mud being all over the place. Our trenches are noted for being a veritable death-trap. They are called “Hell Corner” by the Canadians, and “Glory Hole” by the British Tommies.

‘The salient stretches to within a few yards of the German lines, where bomb-throwing by trench mortars heaving so-called “sausages” is indulged in day and night by the occupants of the separate trenches.

‘The sausage and aerial torpedo are not nice, I think they are about two feet long and are fitting with high explosive. If they strike an object true, they move few tons of earth some distance.

‘Sniping is kept up day and night, but we seem to keep even with the enemy.’4

Image: “Shrapnel Bursting,” Canadian War Museum

Hugh S. Moore, M.D., Class of 1915

. . . I am very pleasantly situated in a French town just behind the firing line. I am attached to a field ambulance and we have an old French brewery fixed up as a hospital. If it is necessary we can accommodate about 200 patients and make them fairly comfortable. I have a ward of my own to look after, but I only have about thirty patients. Of course I am a transportation officer also, and have about 60 horses to inspect every day, to see if they are properly groomed and the harness cleaned up.

Just across the street in a wineshop is the belle of the town and one of the prettiest girls in Northern France. She has numerous admirers, of course. 756 English officers was the last count and many French soldiers.

We officers have very nice quarters for our mess. It is a large house formerly owned by a French millionaire, who is now in the French army. The front room is luxurious with easy chairs and beautiful carpets and this is where we eat. We certainly live well–oysters, chickens, wine, etc. Even in the trenches the officers have the very best.5

“A Day Near Ypres”

Lem J. Miller, Class of 1901

. . . Thus the day wears on until about five o’clock when the evening hate commences and lasts for a couple of hours. To-night it seems a little more severe than usual and while we are still thinking about it there comes the faint odor of gas with the stinging sensation in the eyes and air passages. Over to the right the cloud is rolling along, dull red at the bottom changing to a green at the top. The word comes along to “stand to” and we improvise respirators out of handkerchiefs and sleeping caps and make ready in case the attack is directed against us.

This time, however, fortune favors us; the wind changes, driving the fumes back along the German trenches, smothering the occupants and driving them out. Their flight is so hurried that their communicating trench is filled very quickly and many break out across the open. As the cloud rolls on, they are exposed to the direct fire of our field and machine guns. The gas cloud is superseded by one of shell smoke and the escaping Bosches are cut down by the score.

L. J. M., ’016

Image: “Gas Attack on the Somme,” Canadian War Museum

. . . Readers may like to know what we humble privates do in a hospital whose duty is ‘not to reason why but to do and die.’ I shall tell you what things happened today.

At four o’clock a.m., the “Fall in” sounded. We roused ourselves, pulled on our clothes and went to the A. & D. hut. Of course some of the ubiquitous N. C. O’s were around to encourage us in the hurrying. Shortly after the wounded came, some on stretchers and some sitting. The latter were able to walk to the wards while the others were carried by orderlies. About half-past five all were in the wards. Then cocoa was served to us at our mess. At six, patients about to travel were evacuated to England. None went from the ward I am orderly in. We set to work bathing the new arrivals. At half past seven I went down to breakfast. After coming back to the ward I assisted in serving the breakfast to the patients. The other orderly finished washing the new patients and I scrubbed lockers for the rest of the morning. Very romantic, isn’t it?

. . . .

Even with such a gigantic struggle going on so near, life is rather monotonous, strangely enough, it is even more more so at times at the firing-line. . . . I am sorry not to be able to rise above the prosaic and write a glowing letter.

F. B. Fox7

Image: “Casualty Clearing Station,” Canadian War Museum

Online Sources for Letters and Diaries

As I began looking for photographs to accompany this post, I was struck by how many sites there are online for the primary sources so prized by family and social historian alike: letters and diaries. All digitized, all providing first-hand accounts of what World War I was like for those who served in it. If our own ancestors didn’t leave letters and diaries, we can get a good sense of what their war experience would have been like by reading first-hand accounts written by others.

Or can we?  After my initial excitement over the wealth of first-hand accounts and what insights they might provide to family historians, I reread the letters in the Dalhousie Gazette and realized just how significant the differences among them are.

That being the case, before going to first-hand accounts written by others to gain insight into the experience of an ancestor who served in World War I, it would be advisable to thoroughly research his service record first. What branch of service was he in? What was his military occupation? What rank was he? Where was he stationed? Where was he deployed? And, equally important, what were the specific dates?

I will leave you with an example of what I expect was not the experience of the typical doughboy in World War I–a pilgrimage to Canterbury, England of two university men well-versed in British literature and history:

Roy D. MacNutt, Class of 1916

“A Pilgrimage to Canterbury”

. . . Canterbury! There seems to be a charm in the very name. Probably it is due to association. From the time when we first began to study English history, we have continually heard of Canterbury. It has become endeared to us through the writings of Chaucer and the love Dickens shows for it in “David Copperfield.” It was its fascination–historical and literary–that drew us, two Dalhousians to it.

. . . .

[Our lodging] was 11 Canterbury Lane–the dearest little lane and old brick house (only 300 years old) imaginable! It was like living in one of Dickens’ stories to spend a night under that roof. . . . We fell asleep in Canterbury’s moonlight and awoke Sunday morning with the beautiful peal of Cathedral chimes in our ears.

. . . .

It was dinner time and no matter where a soldier is–at meal hour he is hungry and so we looked about for a restaurant. On our way we passed the Sun Inn (built in 1503). It is the “Little Inn” of Micawber where he used “to wait for something to turn up.”

. . . .

. . . [W]e visited Saint Augustine’s Monastery, St. Martin’s Church–the oldest Christian church in Great Britain, built in the time of the Romans, St. Dustan’s Church, the Canterbury Weavers, King’s Bridge and River Stour, Chequer’s Inn on Mercury Lane (where Chaucer’s “Canterbury Pilgrims” stayed). We saw the “House of Agnes” and the “‘Umble ‘Ome of Uriah Heep” and the West Gate and the Don Jon.

By the time we saw all this the Canterbury darkness was again upon us. A good supper and a last walk through the oldest city in English we were soon on the train again and all too soon reached Shorncliff Station.

Roy D. MacNutt, ’16, S. J. Dick, ’198

Image: Kentww1.com, Creative Commons License

1Matt Reeder, “Pomp and Circumstance: Dal Convocation through the Years,” Dal News, last modified June 2, 2016, accessed June 3, 2018, https://www.dal.ca/news/2016/06/02/pomp-and-circumstance–dal-convocation-through-the-years.html.

Photograph of R. E. G. Roome: Collage of Dalhousie Hockey Team – Halifax, Nova Scotia – 1914, Item PC1, Box 22, Folder 7, Dalhousie University Photograph Collection, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

2R. E. G. Roome, “Life in the Trenches,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 8 (March 10, 1916): 1, 8.

3S. C., “Dalhousie Graduate at the Front Writes of His Personal Experiences,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVII, no. 8 (February 6, 1915): 7.

4“A letter received from the front says:,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 4 (December 21, 1915): 13.

Portrait of Hugh Stewart Moore : Class of 1915, File PC1, Box 61, Folder 26, Kellogg Library Photograph Collection, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

5Hugh Moore, “Correspondence,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 5 (January 14, 1916): 7.

Photograph of Lem J. Miller: Photographic collage of the Dalhousie University Arts and Science faculty and class of 1901, File PC1, Oversize Folder 32, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

6Lem J. Miller, “A Day Near Ypres,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 7 (February 22, 1916): 7.

7F.B. Fox, Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 5 (January 14, 1916): 9.

Photograph of R. D. MacNutt: Class of 1916, Item PC1, Box 46, Folder 3, Item 12, Dalhousie University Photograph Collection, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

8Roy D. MacNutt and S. J. Dick, “A Pilgrimage to Canterbury,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 8 (March 10, 1916): 1, 5.

10 thoughts on “Dalhousie & the Great War: The View from the Front

  1. Poor Wardrope. The cigarette may have been his downfall. I was surprised to read that the men would sometimes improvise respirators. That’s awfully risky. And also that the Germans would use gas on a day when the wind might blow it back onto their lines. That reflects an incredible lack of concern for the fighting men, like so many of the tactics and decisions of that war.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicely done! The contrast in experiences is not that surprising. Depending on the factors you mentioned, men might have seen totally different aspects of the war. But they probably also filtered the information they sent back home for various reasons, including not wanting their loved ones to be concerned or even trying to purge their own bad memories or wanting to feel that the hardships they endured had a higher purpose.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It is very interesting the different war experiences people had. It gives perspective to history that we would not know otherwise.

    A couple of them (especially the last) almost sounded as if they were on vacation, NOT at war! Not surprising though as others have said, depending on their circumstances and station in life.

    Thank you for sharing pictures to accompany the stories. The one with the gas floating in the air was very haunting.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s so sad that WWI nearly wiped out a whole generation of young men, and so many of the ones who survived were scarred both physically and mentally. This was an excellent post with lots of insight into the lives of soldiers at that time. (It’s so great that I shared it on my blog’s Facebook page!) My only WWI ancestor is a grand uncle who falsified his birth year so he could serve. I have not researched his service record but this post makes me want to.

    Liked by 1 person

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