McGill in the First World War

Wes Cross, co-founder of the McGill Remembers Project, looks at McGill's war effort and the impact WWI had on the University
Members of the University Company Regiment on the stairs of the Redpath Museum in 1915

November 11, 1918 arrived in Montreal as a dreary cold day. At the Canadian Pacific Railway telegraph office in Windsor Station the early shift was starting to work through the usual pre-dawn morning messages when one from Europe came in at 6 am: the Armistice, ending fighting on the Western Front had finally been signed.

But amidst the excitement a problem confronted the telegraphers. This was an era before social media such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. In fact, broadcast radio had not even arrived in Montreal. The morning paper early editions had already been printed and distributed. How to spread the news? An enterprising CPR employee had the answer: Dispatch a locomotive in the yards through the pre-dawn city blowing its steam whistle.

Jubilation in the streets

An awakened city understood the signal, and spilled into the streets to celebrate. By coincidence, a Victory Loan parade planned for that very morning unofficially became an Armistice celebration.

The parade of 160 floats, veterans and marching bands made its way down Sherbrooke Street later that morning. It reached McGill at 10:30 am  and was met by cheering students on the steps of the Student Union Building. The Union, now the McCord Museum,  was “gaily decked with flags and pennants.”

The parade was largest event the city had ever seen and there was such relief and energy in the city that a second parade was held a week later. After four years, three months and seven days the Great War was finally coming to an end.

The horrible impact of war

The war left an indelible mark on the world. Death on a scale never seen before, years scarred by tragedy, futility, and devastation. The Canadian numbers were stark: 61,000 Canadians died in the Great War, 172,000 wounded from a country of only 7 million. After the war a further 5,000 would die from war wounds and injuries.

McGill was not left untouched. Thousands of McGill’s men and women assumed roles  as soldiers, doctors, nurses, and providing unfailing support for the war effort in a myriad of ways.

At the start of the war Montreal’s overall population was approaching 700,000, ranking  among the top ten in North America. It was the unchallenged population and economic centre of Canada and had just marked its 275th anniversary. It stood out from most of the rest of Canada, which, in 1914, remained a majority rural population. It was a city of increasing complexity and diversity. The Anglo business elite, although still economically quite powerful, were starting to decline in power and influence. Among this part of the population, in the words of historian Terry Copp, McGill was “the jewel in the crown of Anglo-Celtic Montreal.”

McGillians enlist

At the start of the war there was no effective military force in Canada with only 3,000 professional soldiers at the declaration of war in August 1914. By the end of the war, 619,636 would be in uniform. The McGill community provided over 3,000 enlistments.

Many joined up for patriotic purposes, spurred on by enlistment drives citing “King and Country.” Some succumbed to peer or societal pressure. Some just wanted adventure. In the words of Dr. James Buchan, who enlisted at age 46 and served in the Scottish Rifles, “It isn’t as if I enlisted for patriotism or a sense of duty, or anything like that. I simply wanted to see the war…”. He was wounded in 1916 and spent many years recovering at his home in Northern Ontario.

The University’s official position on the war was made clear in the 1914 Annual Report:

“In common with every right minded Canadian, we realized from the very first that this was to be a war for and about the Empire and we lost no time in actively identifying ourselves with the imperial cause.”

From classroom to battlefield

McGill had first offered military training in 1907 and by 1912 The Canadian Officers Training Corps (COTC) started. In 1913, a provisional armoury was created in a vacant McGill house and November of that year saw the start of a long campus debate about compulsory physical and military training for students.

Later in the war, McGill Principal, Sir William Peterson, noted the change in mood worldwide:  “Like Oxford and Edinburgh, Cambridge and Dublin, McGill too must pay the penalty of her sacrifices. The number of her students has been greatly lessened, and the full efficiency of her teaching staff greatly impaired.”

Enrolment in 1914 was just 1,223  – a number that would decline significantly as the war progressed. From wartime student body overall, the University estimated that 70 per cent of what they called the “recruiting constituency” enlisted. To achieve this level, enlistment incentives were initially offered to Arts students, but soon spread to other faculties.

Throughout the war, the University continued to press for ever greater enlistment numbers. For example, the Committee of Military Studies introduced a policy of compulsory military training for all students in 1916. The requirement was set at one afternoon of training from 4 to 6 pm, and one evening from 7:45 to 10 pm each week. The McGill recruiting schemes drew enlistments from the McGill students, graduates and staff as well as the general population. One of the problems was having a regiment of officer-eligible members where few wanted to be a private. Drawing additional enlistments from elsewhere helped solve this issue.

Setting sail for France

In May 1915 McGill’s most celebrated named unit sailed for France. This was the No. 3 General Hospital (McGill), with the Dean of Medicine, Herbert Stanley Birkett in command. The hospital was fully staffed by officers from McGill’s Faculty of Medicine, and many of the enlisted ranks from the McGill student body. The many nurses who served were graduates of the Montreal General and Royal Victoria nursing programs.

Originally planned to provide 520 beds, the No. 3 General Hospital (McGill) was expanded to 2,100 beds upon arrival. In its three year existence, the Hospital treated over 140,000 soldiers and performed 11,000 operations. Many other McGill personnel worked in field hospitals, casualty clearing stations and field dressing stations. More could be found as ambulance drivers and medical staff  close to the field of battle.

Roll of Honour

The University campus itself also changed after the summer of 1914. Most noticeable were the daily drills by the University Companies. The buildings were given over to war time meetings, research work, storage and lectures. One campus observer reported  “the green grass of the campus has altogether disappeared under the tread of armed men.”

By November 1918, the University joined the Armistice celebrations in Montreal but mourned the loss of so many from the McGill community. The effort to compile a Honour Roll listing the 3,059 known enlistments and the tragedy of  363 fatalities would take a further six years to be completed. The losses felt by the University, the city and the families would never be resolved.

Related websites:

Honour Roll

McGill University Archives: McGill Remembers

McGill Remembers Project


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Wayne Wood
1 year ago

Excellent article.

Alejandro Perez
1 year ago

Genuine question: at the Macdonald Engineering building there is a plaque with students and faculty who perished during the Great War. Yet, a name seems to be erased. Is there a particular reason for this? I am intrigued.

1 year ago

Such deep involvement and commitment by McGill University! I am very impressed and proud.
Yes, excellent article, Wes. Well done.