The Academic World in the Era of the Great War

Ideas Space, Trinity Long Room Hub

14 August 2014

Colleagues, Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

You are all very welcome to Trinity College, the University of Dublin, for this important conference, which has been co-organised by Trinity and the University of Montreal.

In organization and design, it’s a truly international conference, with speakers coming from Australia, the United States, Germany, Norway, Britain, Canada, France, Belgium and Russia. And that’s as it should be since the Great War affected so many countries, and so many university communities around the world.

This centenary year of the war has been remarkable, globally, for the depth and quality of commemoration and scholarship. Countries have been paying tribute to the many who died in the war or were affected by it, and researchers have been looking anew at evidence to determine what happened and why it happened.

The commemorations and research are international, and yet distinctive to each country. If I may take the example of Ireland – our experiences of commemoration are particular because we have come to it later than perhaps any other European country.

Our focus, as a country, was firmly on the nationalist struggle - on the 1916 Rising and the war of independence – because this led to the republic we have today. The 140,000 Irish men who enlisted in the British army during the First World War were not part of the nationalist story, and were written out of history until near the end of the century, when key commentators and researchers performed an important act of excavation and reinserted these men into the narrative of Ireland’s history.

In 1991 our then President, Mary Robinson – who is now Chancellor of this university - attended an Armistice Day service in St Patrick’s Cathedral, wearing a poppy. And five years later Mary Robinson’s successor, President Mary McAleese, joined Queen Elizabeth at the unveiling of a new Flanders monument to the Irish dead.

These important acts prepared the way for the commemorations this centenary year which have been, I am glad to say, full and comprehensive. Two weeks ago a Cross of Sacrifice was unveiled in Glasnevin cemetery, remembering the Irish soldiers who lost their lives in the two world wars. And all year the print and broadcast media have been running features on the war and on Ireland’s contribution. All this has a special resonance because it has taken so long to come about.

And it has a very particular resonance for Trinity. This university has a stronger association with the First World War than has any other institution in Ireland. In total, 3,079 Trinity students, staff and alumni served in the war - a third of them were medics serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps. 471 died and are remembered on the walls of the Hall of Honour in Front Square.

Members of Trinity staff were also engaged in important war work. At tomorrow morning’s session, Dr Tomás Irish of this university will speak further on Trinity during the First World War.

Trinity has been central to Ireland’s centenary commemorations. Last month we hosted, on campus, a World War One Roadshow – the programme included music, poetry, drama, talks and lectures, and families were invited to bring their war memorabilia onto campus to be examined by experts and then photographed for an online European archive.

Even 25 years ago, had Trinity hosted such an event, there might have been barbed comments from some quarters recalling Trinity’s support of the British war effort. Fortunately we are now the beneficiaries of what the distinguished historian, and Trinity graduate, Professor Roy Foster has called “a more relaxed and inclusive definition of Irishness.”

I know that every country’s and every university’s experience of war and commemoration is distinctive and unique. I mention Trinity’s and Ireland because we are here today, and because the story of this country and university shows how the legacy of the war can evolve. At this conference we are examining the past, but – as is always the case with cataclysmic historical events – we are also looking at our present and to the future.

This conference is crucial to understanding the part that universities played in the war, and the effect of the war on higher education. Even if each country’s experience was unique, there was, equally, a shared, communal experience. The experience of academics and universities, even when on opposite sides, is comparable. Over the next few days, we remember and recreate the effect of the war on the academic world from America to Russia, from Canada to Ireland.

The war was all-encompassing in scope. It required the mobilization of entire societies, and it required specialists to apply their expertise to new problems. Such specialists were frequently found at universities - disciplines from History and Law to Chemistry and Medicine proved crucial to war efforts. In Trinity, the Professors of Geology, John Joly, of Botany, Henry Dixon, and of Chemistry, Sydney Young, played particularly crucial roles in the war.


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Over the next two days, papers will address how States sought to mobilize scholarship to help the prosecution of the war, how scholars engaged in war issues, how they sought to frame a future peace, and how the international community of scholars was fractured by the national hostilities brought about by the war.

Other papers will look at the way in which the war changed the world of higher education. Universities were at the heart of the societal and cultural mobilization for the war (through research, the enlistment of staff, students and alumni, and the use of university facilities for hospitals, public meetings and education). Because of the war, new links were forged with government and industry that would alter forever the ways in which universities functioned, and their relationship with the State.

These are large and important themes. The organisers deserve great credit for the depth and variety of the programme – it is rich, stimulating, inter-disciplinary and trans-national. I congratulate the organisers, Dr Tomás Irish of our School of History and Humanities, and Dr Marie-Eve Chagnon of the University of Montreal. I thank the funders – including the Canadian Government, and the Irish Federation of University Teachers.


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The war affected each country differently. In the aftermath, the experience for victors and vanquished was very different. But there was parity of experience – a parity of suffering for those who lost sons, brothers and fathers on all sides.

It is, I think, appropriate that the keynote lecture, by Professor Martha Hanna of the University of Colorado, is on a subject that touches all universities. She will speak on “The Mobilization of McGill University's Medical Faculty, 1914 – 1918”, thus reminding us that a hundred years ago, and still today, it is universities’ medical expertise that is particularly mobilized during wars.

Without the expertise and concern of the doctors, nurses and surgeons trained in universities, without their courage in going to battlefields to offer succour, the effect of war, then and now, would be even more grotesque.

It is, as I’ve said, impossible to look at the Great War, without considering the present and the future. The papers in this conference on international law, the League of Nations, and pacifism – all these are issues that reach right into our own time and remind us that universities must be part of the movement to prevent war. As President Higgins has put it in an Irish Times interview: “I don’t invest”, he said, “World War One with any heroic tendency in terms of what its purpose was. There isn’t a single serious scholar who suggests that this war was initiated to achieve any great purpose or that it was allowed to continue and escalate for any great purpose”.

If war is politics or diplomacy by other means, it always represents a failure and breakdown of normal means. To quote the Irish poet and one of our graduates, Michael Longley: “War is the opposite of civilization”. Through research, education and international collaborations, universities must contribute to the maintenance of civilization.

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In Trinity, as, I am sure, in all your universities, many of our disciplines and modules are overtly concerned with preventing war. Equality issues, gender identity, immigration, constitutional reform, international development – all these are subjects which gain their urgency from the spectre of what happens when they are ignored or ill-attended to. It’s fair to say that many academics, including those here today, have given their careers to producing research that can be used to prevent wars; they have dedicated themselves to educating young people to consider themselves as citizens responsible not only for their own careers and happiness, but for the civilized progress of the world.

But it would be at once unpardonably complacent and ahistorical to make grandiose claims for universities. At this conference, nobody needs reminding that the greatest academic and scientific societies of the era - Germany and Britain - launched the worst war up to that time. Acknowledgement of that is something we must keep close to us.

The poet, W.H. Auden, writing on 1st September 1939, at the start of the second war of his lifetime, wrote:

“All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie
[…]
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame”.

It may seem like a modest claim – that all we have is a voice and a small affirming flame feeding into ironic points of light. But it’s not, I think, a bad metaphor – it is a realistic one – of what civilized people and universities can do to protect against descent into darkness and barbarity.

I wish you all a stimulating and successful conference.

Thank you.

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