To mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the Ward Library will be displaying a number of items from the archives and from the Old Library that explore the experiences of Petreans, and of soldiers housed in Peterhouse during the Great War.
The War List of the University of Cambridge 1914-1918 (Carey, 1921) is an important source of information for anyone interested in discovering the names and fates of Cambridge men who served in the armed forces over this period. The book compiles the various college records into one volume and provides details, where possible, of casualties, honours and awards. A digital version of The War List is available to view online through the University of Toronto’s internet archive.
The Peterhouse archives hold a separate war list within one of the chapel record books – this contains a number of signatures of Peterhouse men who served in the 1914-18 war.
A good source for exploring the wartime experiences of Peterhouse staff and students is The Sex, the magazine of the Peterhouse Sexcentenary Club. The Sex often included a ‘Peterhouse at the front’ feature containing the printed letters of Petrean soldiers. These differ widely in tone and cover an array of experiences. Most letters are short and anonymous although some are longer and provide a more detailed sense of soldiers’ experiences. One such is Charles Sproxton’s letter to the Master, Sir Adolphus Ward, written on 2nd May 1915.
Dear Master. – I promised to let you know when I left England, and if the manner of my doing it is with a blunt sump of a pencil on a dirty piece of paper, I am sure you will forgive me when I tell you that I write in a trench where I have been since Wednesday – unshaved, unwashed and absolutely unashamed. In point of fact I write not in the trench […] but in the dampest of dug-outs, where I lay curled up hedgehog-wise […] It is a first-line trench, with nothing between me and the Germans except barbed wire and – what I imagine to be far more effective – a great deal of respect for each other. (The Sex, No. 55, Easter term, 1915, pp.20-21).
The War List of the University of Cambridge (1921) lists Captain Charles Sproxton as a recipient of the Military Cross; he was killed in action 19th July 1917 (p.289).
In addition to letters from the front and records of war losses and commendations, The Sex captures fascinating moments of contemporary Peterhouse history. One of the more light-hearted accounts of Peterhouse during the war is the description of the newly formed fire brigade whose over enthusiasm with the water hose caused some consternation.
High-jinks aside, the forming of the fire brigade turned out to be timely. In the early morning of June 6th 1915, a Zeppelin dropped five incendiary bombs on Cambridge – four of which landed within the precincts of Peterhouse. The resulting fire was limited to the kitchen yard where there was little to kindle it other than:
“a heap of commons, chiefly bread, discarded by undergraduates and spurned by gyps” (T.J.C. Pennierlyne, ‘Zeppelin raid’, The Sex, No. 55, Easter term, 1915, p.24).
Luckily, when the water hose turned out to be too short to reach the fire, the amateur fire fighters were able simply to stamp out the flames.
Another way in which Peterhouse contributed to the war effort was by providing accommodation for officers in training. An entertaining historical record of the soldiers’ experiences of Cambridge and college life is provided in the form of souvenir books such as The White Band (Cambridge, 1917), Echoes of E (Cambridge, 1918) and Graduating in arms (Cambridge, 1917). These books contain poems, photographs, plays and songs written or compiled by the soldiers housed in Peterhouse and Downing College. It certainly appears that the officer cadets enjoyed their time in Cambridge and formed strong bonds with their host colleges, indeed the editors of Graduating in arms write of the, “keen rivalry between the Cadets quartered at Peterhouse and Downing” (1917, p.5). The close tie is apparent in much of their literary output.
What’s in a name?
P stands for three things – Packs, Picks and PEGG ;
E begins Eustace, who brings in the beer.
T are the Trenches at Gog’s which we dig ;
E is the Earth which we excavate there.
R starts off Rifle ; it never is clean,
H is a Helmet, Gas, worn at all times.
O must be Officers ; heavens, they’re keen!
U suggests Uniform (hang these old rhymes).
S are twin Sausages found in our lunch-
E is the Company, yes, the whole bunch.
By F.A. Walkey (Graduating in arms: 1917, p.21)
At the conclusion of the First World War a number of Cambridge colleges found themselves presented with large ceremonial guns as thanks for their assistance with the war effort. Legend has it that the Peterhouse Fellows chose not to display this gift and instead buried it within the college grounds. A current Fellow has since identified its likely resting place. A map of the gun’s location is rumoured to exist, but at present no plans exist to exhume it.