When war broke out in August 1914, life for the young men of Britain changed forever. Almost straight away a huge recruitment drive was implemented by Lord Kitchener to encourage men to join the war effort. The propaganda was evidently successful as by the end of the month, around 30,000 men were enlisting every day. Kitchener’s recruitment drive also had an effect on the men of Cambridge University.

In the Michaelmas term of 1913 there were 162 undergraduates at Christ’s College, Cambridge. In the Michaelmas term of 1914 the number had dropped to 82. The success of Kitchener’s recruitment drive had claimed half of Christ’s College’s promising young men. Throughout the four years of the War the College continued to decrease in size and by 1916 the number of undergraduates had halved again to 41. The three pictures below are the matriculation photographs for the year 1913, 1914 and 1916. They illustrate starkly the change in the number of men coming into College.




Despite its diminishing numbers, College life at Christ’s continued as normal in many ways. Sporting life in College was affected the most as, naturally, the fit and able sportsmen had all joined up. Tennis continued to be played, along with some games of football and hockey although for these sports Christ’s had to join up with neighbouring college, Emmanuel to form teams. The 8am Sunday Chapel services were also held jointly with Emmanuel College, with each college hosting the service on alternate weeks. The music society continued to flourish though and the 1915 Lent Term Concert included patriotic songs like ‘Comrades in Arms’ and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, alongside classical items including works by the German composer Brahms.


The outbreak of the First World War had left Christ’s College practically empty. The College magazine for the Michaelmas term of 1914 records that there were 44 sets of rooms vacant and that one whole staircase was completely deserted.

By the beginning of 1915 there were only 80 students in residence but the College soon  filled up again when it started accommodating the military. Around 50 young officers who had come to Cambridge to receive special instructions were billeted to spare rooms throughout the College. Bugle call at 7:15 became a part of daily College life and there was a ban on outside lights in the College. Only a few electric lights were used in hall and the High Table was lit by candles. Games of rugby and football between students and soldiers were played.

In 1916 cadets, in training for commissions, were billeted to Christ’s. These men were seen as the real inhabitants of the College as they stayed for up to four or five months. They took a greater part in College life and joined in games of tennis, swam in the College swimming bath and joined the College choir. The music society is said to have flourished through the collaboration of students and cadets.

Between July and September 1917 F Company No. 2 O.C.B. were billeted to Christ’s. During their time at Christ’s they created a souvenir magazine entitled The Blimp. The magazine contains news about the company and photographs of its soldiers as well as illustrations and creative writing by the men.

The front cover of The Blimp magazine.

Photograph of “F” Coy.

Christ’s Men at War

In the 1914 Michaelmas edition of the Christ’s College magazine over 300 Christ’s men were listed as being engaged in war work. In Lent term this number had increased by 83 and by the Easter term a further 59 names had been added to the Christ’s College war list. Throughout the war years the names of more men who were serving their country appeared on the College war list. In total there were 830 members of Christ’s College who were involved in some sort of war work during the years of the First World War. As well as soldiers, there were also doctors, ambulances drivers, chaplains, munitions workers and members of intelligence amongst Christ’s members.

The College magazine not only listed who was fighting but also published lists of those who had received honours, lists of the wounded and missing and,  unfortunately too,  obituaries of those men who had been killed. The College magazine also had personal accounts of men who were engaged in the War. In the 1915 Easter term edition of the magazine there was an article about the Falkland Islands action written in December 1914 by Norman B. Kent who was Chaplain on board the H.M.S. Kent. Also in this edition was a piece written by T.O. Connett who had volunteered with the London Committee of Americans who provided food for the people of occupied Belgium. In the 1916 Lent and Easter Edition there was an account of ‘an act of conspicuous bravery’ by Rev R.J.P. Peyton-Burbery, Chaplain of H.M.S. Suffolk. Rev. Peyton-Burberry is recorded to have swum out to a steamship called Pollokshields that had run aground during a storm and aided in the rescue of the 33 members of crew on board. He was later awarded a bronze medal for gallantry by the King for his act.

News was also brought back to College directly from men serving at the front as the Master welcomed back Christ’s men who were on leave or who had been wounded. As the quotation below, taken from the College magazine, shows these homecomings were bittersweet.

There are still many visitors, some of them wounded, from the front and from training camps, whose presence helps to keep up the old connections; but the list of those who will not return again has grown much larger since our last number.


Postcard of Christ’s College, 1917. Courtesy of the Cambridge Collection

S.W.P. Steen’s War

We know relatively few personal stories of Christ’s men who were involved with the war. There are glimpses of individual narratives in the College magazine, but sadly most of the war accounts we know are are from the obituaries of Christ’s men who had died. The more famous members of Christ’s have had their war time work recorded as well.

Jan Christian Smuts who matriculated in 1891 served as Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces in East Africa with the rank of Lieutenant-General during the First World War. In 1917 he came to England as the Representative of South Africa on the War Council of the Empire, and was appointed a member of the Privy Council. In this year he also stayed at Christ’s College whilst he was awarded a Honourary Degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Cambridge.

Due to a family connection in College we are fortunate to know the story of S.W.P Steen, a mathematician who was a Fellow at the College for over 50 years. Steen was educated at the Perse School where he became a prefect and member of the Officer’s Training Corps. He took the Examination for Cambridge University and in 1914 was awarded a £40 scholarship to Christ’s College. When war broke out Steen joined up and became a member of the 5th Battalion, Rifle Brigade.  During the battle of the Somme in 1916, Steen received a serious leg injury and was sent back to England. He came up to Christ’s in 1918 to read Mathematics and was classed as a ‘Wrangler with Distinction’ in his degree examinations.  In the mid 20s he spent some time as lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and enlisted as a Special Constable during the General Strike. Steen returned to Cambridge in 1926 as a Kitchener Scholar and became a Fellow of Christ’s and a University lecturer.

S.W.P Steen

(Photograph and information provided by Prof. Bill Steen)

During the First World War, the British YMCA established huts on the Western front that provided soldiers with food drink and free writing paper and envelopes. Cambridge University as a whole sponsored a hut on the front but Dr A. E. Shipley, the Master at Christ’s College during the war, thought that the College could raise the funds to sponsor its own personal hut.

Shipley wrote an appeal letter to interested parties and £700 was raised to build the hut. It was erected in Flanders at the end of 1916 and its official opening took place on 20th January 1917. Shipley was given updates on the hut by members of YMCA staff and it was widely acknowledged that the Christ’s College Hut was one of the best in the area. The appeal letters that Shipley sent to prospective donors and the correspondence between the YMCA and himself can be found in our College archives.

Some of the letters describe the layout of the hut. At one end of the hut was a platform that acted as a stage for musical concerts and a pulpit for religious services. At the other end of the hut was a counter where  items like chocolate and cigarettes were sold. Pictures of the College and the College’s coat of arms were also displayed.  Shipley sent over papers, books and gramophone records. The hut is reported to have been close to the front and far from civilian life and was therefore popular with men on relied who could come to write letters, read books, relax and socialise.

This coat of arms was displayed in the College Hut alongside other College memorabilia.  Its inscription is the only source that tells us about the fate of the Hut.

Amongst the names on the Christ’s College War List is W.H.D. Rouse. Born in 1863, Rouse was over 50 years of age during the First World War and therefore not in active service. Rouse’s war work was at The Perse School, Cambridge where he was Headmaster and in charge of the Officer Training Corps.

W.H.D. Rouse studied Classics at Christ’s College and became a Fellow in 1888. He was famous for pioneering the ‘Direct Method’ of teaching Classics, with Latin and Greek spoken in the classroom and for being one of the founder editors of the Loeb Classical Library.

In the photograph below Rouse is seated in the middle with some of the boarders of the Perse School. Some of the boys are dressed in their O.T.C. uniforms. During the war years boys could wear this uniform instead of regular school uniform.

W.H.D Rouse and the Perse Boys

Rouse left Christ’s College his collection of correspondence and amongst it are a number of interesting letters dating from the First World War. Most of the letters from this period are written by Rouse’s old pupils serving overseas. Over 30 Old Perse Boys wrote to Rouse during this period, and it is fascinating to see how different each boy’s experience of war was. Most of the boys were fighting in France, some writing from the trenches and some from hospitals. Others were in more unusual places. One boy was on the Mine Sweeper, H.M.S. Lucan Express and another was stationed in Bombay. As well as letters from the Perse Boys there are also other letters from this period, which describe daily life in England, America and India during the First World War.


The College War Memorial

On Saturday 29th October 1921 there was a service in Christ’s College Chapel for the unveiling and dedication of the memorial to those members of the College who had died in the war.  113 Christ’s men died during the First World War and their names are handsomely engraved on oak panels that are mounted  to the right of the altar.

We have in our archives a photograph (shown above) which dates from the unveiling of the memorial in 1921, and a copy of the service sheet that was used. The Bishop of Ely, Frederic Henry Chase was invited  to dedicate the memorial. Chase, himself had graduated from Christ’s in 1876 with a degree in Classics, which might explain was such a prestigious figure was present at the memorial service.

The service itself was short and would have lasted about 30-40 minutes. Liturgically it was very simple and dignified and there was an appropriate balance between sobriety and hope.

The lesson was taken from Romans 8: 28-39, which starts:

“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (King James Bible)

The address was given by the  Master, Dr. A.E. Shipley. Shipley had been Master throughout the whole of the War and was the driving force behind building the College YMCA Hut. The address he  gave was printed in the Michaelmas edition of the College magazine in 1922, to commemorate the first anniversary of the dedication of the Chapel memorial. In the address Shipley makes clear that the men who have fallen will never be forgotten and quotes the College’s motto ‘souvent me souvient’ , which he translates as I often recall, – I often remember.

At the end of the service Chopin’s Funeral March  was played. This piece is originally from Chopin’s 2nd piano sonata, but we do not know whether it was played in its original form or whether it was adapted for organ.

There is also a memorial for the six members of College staff who were killed and this can be found in the ante room of the chapel.