Of course, not all Trinity men were from Britain or the Commonwealth and so found their wartime loyalties lay elsewhere. Bertrand Russell’s most famous student at Trinity College was Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian philosopher. After arriving at Trinity in 1911, Wittgenstein had progressed so quickly in his work with logic that Russell declared after only a year that he had nothing left to teach his pupil.
Wittgenstein’s work came to a halt at the outbreak of World War I when he immediately volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army, serving variously on a ship, in an artillery workshop and on the front lines. Decorated for valour for his service on the Eastern front and against the British army, Wittgenstein became a Lieutenant and was sent to the Italian front with an artillery unit. He was captured in 1918 and spent the end of the War as a prisoner of the Italian army.
Wittgenstein compiled the notes (on display) for his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, or “Logical-Philosophical Treatise” while serving as a soldier, and completed the writing while he was in Italian P.O.W. camps at Como and Cassino. This ambitious project was the only book-length philosophical work Wittgenstein published in his lifetime. Though the Tractatus had a huge influence on 20th century philosophy, Wittgenstein himself later criticised some of the ideas in it.
Unlike Russell’s battle of principles against the War and especially against conscription, Wittgenstein’s role in the War seems to have derived from intellectual curiosity as well as a desire to prove his spiritual mettle through hardship. Despite occupying such opposing viewpoints – Allies vs. Central Powers, pacifist vs. combatant, not to mention their differing philosophical tastes – Russell and Wittgenstein remained friends and Russell wrote the introduction to the Tractatus.
David Hume Pinsent
David Hume Pinsent was admitted to Trinity in 1912 and was friends with his classmate R.Q. Gilson. He gained a first-class honours degree in mathematics and then studied Law. Pinsent met Wittgenstein in his first year at Trinity and the two struck up a relationship based on shared interests in music and mathematics. He was Wittgenstein’s collaborator, test subject, friend and lover, and the pair traveled together to Iceland and Norway.
The War broke out while the pair were in Norway, and while Wittgenstein quickly signed up for the Austro-Hungarian military, Pinsent was deemed unsuitable for active military service. Instead, he trained as a test pilot, flying prototype aircraft at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough. On 8 May, 1918 Pinsent was co-piloting an Airco D.H.4 (A7671) – a two-seat biplane bomber piloted by Lt. L.F.D. Lutyens – when the aircraft broke apart mid-air, killing both men. Pinsent’s body was not recovered. Wittgenstein dedicated the Tractatus to Pinsent’s memory.
Despite the widespread patriotic support for the Great War, there were many people in Britain who opposed it for moral, economic or political reasons. Some conscientious objectors (COs) were happy to aid the war effort in non-combatant capacities, while others refused to do any work that would contribute to the war effort. Despite being labelled as “cowards” and “peace cranks”, these individuals risked isolation, abuse and arrest. For some COs, the record of having been to prison for being a conscientious objector followed them for the rest of their lives, keeping them from steady employment. A few COs even died in prison. For many COs, the moral stance against war derived from religion.
For Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), philosophy lecturer at Trinity College, pacifism was the logical conclusion to his belief that the War was contrary to the interests of society and was therefore immoral. In 1915, Russell wrote to The Cambridge Review:
“Behind the rulers, in whom pride has destroyed humanity, stand the patient populations, who suffer and die. To them, the folly of war and the failure of governments are becoming evident as never before. To their humanity and collective wisdom we must appeal if civilization is not to perish utterly in suicidal delirium.”
H.M. Butler, Master of Trinity, struggled with his conscience with regards to the War and openly criticized Bertrand Russell, calling his outspoken pacifism a “dereliction of duty”. However, Professor Simon Blackburn notes, “In the heated, bellicose atmosphere of the time Russell’s unswerving devotion to that principle itself required a great deal of heroism.”
Rex v. Bertrand Russell – JRMB D5/1
Russell and others openly opposed the war from the beginning, and in 1916, with the introduction of Conscription, he authored a pamphlet distributed by the No Conscription Fellowship speaking out against the law and the ways in which it was enforced. After six men were arrested and sentenced to prison and varying degrees of hard labour for distributing the pamphlet, Russell wrote a letter to The Times confirming his authorship and stating that, “If anyone is to be prosecuted I am the person primarily responsible.” He subsequently sentenced to prison under the Defence of the Realm Act and fined £100. The proceedings of that trial were published as the pamphlet displayed here. This conviction led to Russell’s dismissal from his lectureship at Trinity. Later, he spent nine months in Brixton prison for his outspoken pacifism.
H.M. Butler to J.R.M. Butler – JRMB A1/99
H.M. Butler wrote to his son, “I never discharged a more painful public duty than in taking action against B. Russell, and I was never more clear as to the necessity in the interest of the college.” This was not a universally approved action and several fellows wrote to the college Council to criticize Russell’s dismissal. He was reinstated as a member of Trinity in 1919 and made a Fellow of the College in 1944.
Blackburn, Simon (2014) “Russell, Wittgenstein, and the First World War”. The Fountain, 18.
“The real strain is the strain of waiting. Always waiting with the knowledge that waiting cannot end the war, and nothing stirring to take our minds away from petty worries. It makes us all grumpy and bad-tempered sometimes, and I know that I am often haunted by the same feeling that I always had in England, that the test is yet to come.” – to Estelle King, 20 May, 1916
“To be caught in youth by 1914”, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote later in life, “was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.” One of those young men was a thoughtful, promising young artist named Robert Quilter Gilson (1893-1916), who had attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham along with Tolkien. Their small group of close friends called themselves the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society, named after the Barrow Stores at King Edward’s, where the group often met), believed that they were collectively destined for artistic and intellectual greatness, and left the school brimming with purpose and promise.
Gilson was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1912, a year behind fellow T.C.B.S.-ite Thomas Kenneth (“Tea Cake”) Barnsley, and read Classics. When the War broke out in 1914, he decided to finish his undergraduate degree and trained as an officer alongside his studies through the Cambridge University O.T.C. Upon graduating with a First Class degree in the Classics Tripos Part I, Gilson was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment, known as the Cambridgeshires. The regiment deployed to France on 8 January, 1916.
At 7:30 AM on 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Gilson led his men over the top near La Boisselle. The German guns, which were supposed to have been destroyed by a week of heavy bombardment by British artillery, were still working. When the Cambridgeshires advanced, the German gunners, shaken but still alive and alert, opened fire. A fellow soldier reported that Gilson walked calmly and steadily forward in front of his men, taking charge briefly after his commanding officers fell, until he himself was killed by a shell burst. On that first day of the Somme, Gilson was only one of 6,380 casualties from 34th Division, the division that sustained the heaviest casualties on the deadliest day of fighting in British Military history.
We have a window into Gilson’s brief life thanks to his prolific and eloquent letters to his school friends, family and his sweetheart, Estelle King, written from his time at Trinity College through to his last days on the Western front.
18 October, 1914
“Cambridge is such a definite idea and so different from anything else that I suppose I really expected to find the same Cambridge this term. It isn’t in the very least the same, and that meant disappointment.” – to his stepmother, Marianne Gilson, whom he called Donna, on 18 October, 1914
On returning to Cambridge for his final year of studies, Gilson noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere in Cambridge as a result of the War that was declared over the Long Vacation. “It is no more a unique place of high spirits and light-heartedness,” he writes, “but just about as pleasant a place as any other in these different days , and one’s friends are just as much one’s friends, even though they too are not the same.” He describes with satisfaction his new rooms in Great Court, which he got by earning a scholarship for the year, and Trinity in general: “I wish you could have seen it this afternoon with the low sun casting long shadows on the bowling green and making John’s a picture of contrasts in sun and shade and colour. And the border along the beautiful old wall is a splendid sight with chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies and scarlet salvias.” His love of Cambridge, and his love of descriptive writing, are evident throughout his letters written during his years at Trinity.
12 January, 1916
“It is very strange to look out from these windows across miles of flat peaceful country and say to oneself that only a few miles out of sight there are strange and terrible things going on that all Europe is watching. It is so unlike everything that one has ever thought of as real.” – to Estelle King on 12 January, 1916
With this letter is its envelope, with a sticker showing that it was opened by the censors. All letters had to pass the censors to ensure that soldiers were not giving away their movements, but Gilson ran afoul of the censors more than once, thanks to his lavish descriptions of people and places. Next to Gilson’s signature is the countersignature of O.H. Brown, a necessity that he resented, writing here, “I so much want to hear of your doings in Holland. Your letters will not be censored by anyone we know.” His ability to write is further hampered, he says on the previous page, by the fact that they have been allowed fewer candles on this night, so he is writing “in the midst of conversation”.
25 – 30 June, 1916
“I wish you could see a deserted garden that I passed the other day – all overgrown with long grass and weeds. It was a riot of bright colours. Larkspur and Canterbury bells and cornflowers and poppies of every shade and kind growing in a tangled mass. One of the few really lovely things that the devastation of war produces.” – to Estelle King on 25 June, 1916
“There are many grand and awe-inspiring sights. Guns firing at night are beautiful – if they were not so terrible. They have the grandeur of thunderstorms.” This letter describing a peaceful deserted garden was written amid the tumult of a week-long artillery barrage of the German front line. This was to be his last letter to Estelle, written from a tent some way from the trenches, where he had the luxury of “being able to walk about over stretches of grass” and re-reading some of her letters to try to conjure up in his mind where she was. “You have managed to give me a wonderfully clear picture of your Dutch surroundings, which is exactly what I want.” He did not sign off the letter and instead closed with, “It is so hateful being cooped up in the trenches – caught in a trap, as it sometimes seems. – Rob.”
“I often think of the extraordinary walk that might be made all along the line between the two systems of trenches. That narrow strip of ‘No Man’s Land’ stretching from the alps to the sea is a most extraordinary phenomenon.” – to his father, Robert Cary Gilson on 25 June, 1916
On the same day, Gilson sent his father a long letter, in which he seems to have been in a reflective, philosophical mood, reflected in the quotation above. He apologised for sending fewer letters lately, and says, “I take your word that a postcard is sufficient to fill a gap when I cannot manage more”. After this letter, on 30 June, Gilson sent his father one final field postcard with statements deleted as appropriate:
“I am quite well. / I have received your parcel. / Letter follows at first opportunity.”
The next day, the Battle of the Somme began.
Many thanks to Julia Margretts and family for the kind loan of photographs and letters and for permission to reproduce them.
John Garth (2003) Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth.
John Garth (2011) “Robert Quilter Gilson, T.C.B.S.: A Brief Life in Letters.” Tolkien Studies, 8(1).
Lt. David Louis Clemetson (1893-1918) was one of a very small number of black officers serving in the British military during WWI. Very little information is known about Clemetson apart from his military record, but this is what research by Trinity Library and College staff has uncovered.
Born in St. Mary, Jamaica, Clemetson attended Clifton College in Bristol, where he served for five years in the OTC. He was admitted to Trinity in 1912, studying Law and rowing in the Lent Bumps. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Clemetson seems to have left his studies to enlist in the Sportsmen’s Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, a unit whose slogan was “Hard as nails”. He was wounded while serving with the Royal Fusiliers, invalided back to England, then transferred to the 24th Welsh Regiment of the Pembroke Yeomanry, at which point he received a commission to serve as Second Lieutenant in October of 1915.
While the Allied forces were joined by hundreds of thousands of soldiers from British Dominions and Crown Colonies such as the West Indies, India, Pakistan, South Africa and Nigeria, Clemetson was one of a very small number of black officers in the British Army itself. The 1914 Manual of Military Law restricted black soldiers and those who were not citizens of Britain from command in the BEF. However, Clemetson and a handful of others gained commissions despite the barriers. These brave men rose through the ranks, fought and in some cases died fighting for Britain in the First World War and it is hoped that a century later their stories will not be forgotten.
Lt. David Louis Clemetson was killed in action in Perrone, France. His name is listed on the British West Indies Regiment memorial in Port Maria, Jamaica and he is buried in Vendhuile, France. He was posthumously awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal.
At the beginning of the War, Colonel Joseph Griffiths, a surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, led plans to build a large open-air field hospital in Cambridge, to be called the First Eastern General Hospital (Territorial Force). Cambridge was an ideal location thanks to its rail connections and the resources available because of the University and Addenbrooke’s itself. Grounds for a permanent structure were identified and work began soon after Britain joined the War, but until those buildings were completed the incoming sick and wounded needed a temporary location.
Initially, patients were brought to the Leys School, but when the pupils were due to return for term, a new location was required. Col. Griffiths gained permission from H.M. Butler, Master of Trinity College, to use Nevile’s Court – the court that is bounded on one side by the Wren Library – as the next interim location. In preparation for the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers, blinds were installed around the cloistered portions of Nevile’s Court to protect the patients from wind and rain, an enclosed operating theatre was constructed and wooden floors were put down to cover the uneven flagstones. Orderlies were housed in tents on the lawn outside the library and cooking for the soldiers was done in the Master’s Lodge. Between August 12 and 30 1914, 250 beds were made ready under the Wren Library for the first convoy of wounded soldiers arriving on the 31st.
Soon, larger tents were required and were erected on the fields behind the Wren to house an additional 250 soldiers. Soldiers who were able to walk spent their time on The Backs, enjoying the fresh air, fishing and the occasional game of football. Local businesses helped the hospital by supplying delivery trucks as make-shift ambulances, and many members of the hospital staff, especially stretcher bearers and the female Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), were members of the local community. Cambridge residents did their part to entertain the soldiers, throwing sweets, cigarettes and small gifts as the soldiers fished in the river.
The hospital was a true collaboration between Town and Gown, as the librarians of Trinity, Magdalene and Corpus Christi Colleges organized a book and magazine drive to create a library for the soldiers in hospital, and a Fellow of the College whose rooms were on G staircase, Nevile’s Court, temporarily vacated his residence to house it. Around 50 newspapers were also donated daily to help keep the injured soldiers entertained during their stay at the hospital.
Finally in mid-October, the permanent war-time location for the First Eastern General Hospital opened its doors in West Cambridge. This hospital was equipped with a 108 foot long kitchen capable of serving 1,700 patients as well as operating rooms, laboratories, store rooms, offices, and sleeping accommodations for orderlies. It stayed open through 1919 and may have treated as many as 70,000 – 80,000 patients throughout the course of the War. After 1919, a housing crisis meant that the huts that formed the wards became council housing, known as the Burrell’s Walk estate, and were subsequently demolished to make way for the building of the University Library in 1928.
After the Hospital left Trinity, H.M. Butler commemorated the occasion with a sermon, praising the humanitarian efforts of those involved. In Nevile’s Court a Hospital, he marvels over the sight of the court being used in such a way:
“It has been a house of mercy to young men, not students… but young men stricken down for the time by no fault of their own but by wounds or accidents, some of them wounded in the fierce battles… where they saw so many of their officers and their comrades destroyed in a moment by the German shells; some of them almost envying these brave companions because they were themselves for some weeks prevented from going to the front and forced to remain in our peaceful England.”
For all the cheer displayed in the photographs and for all the pleasant pomp about it, the hospital was a place to patch men up and send them back to the front lines, as Butler’s last line hints.
Philomena Guillebaud (2014) From Bats to Beds to Books: The First Eastern General Hospital (Territorial Force) in Cambridge – and what came before and after it. Haddenham: Fern House Publishing.
“If you return home safely while your old father is living, it will be truly the crowning joy of his long life.” – H.M. Butler to J.R.M. and G.K.M. Butler, 13 August, 1915
Every family in Britain was touched by the Great War and the Butler family was no exception. Henry Montagu Butler (1833-1918), Master of Trinity from 1886 to 1918, saw the College through the war years while his three sons from his second marriage volunteered to go to war. The letters between father and sons show a glimpse into the lives of a family closely connected both to Trinity College and to the Great War.
James Ramsay Montagu Butler (1889-1975) was born in Trinity College and was known later as a historian and his father’s biographer. He read Classics and History at Trinity and excelled academically, gaining a double first. He was also president of the Cambridge Union, the University’s celebrated debating society. James joined the Scottish Horse Regiment at the outbreak of war and served in Gallipoli and Egypt. In 1916, he joined the War Office as a General Staff Officer (Major). He was mentioned in Dispatches twice during his active service and awarded an O.B.E. in 1919. The youngest brother was Nevile Montagu Butler (1893-1973), who was in Germany at the outbreak of war. On 6th November, the German military authorities began arresting British male civilians between 17 and 55 years of age. Nevile was held in the Ruhleben internment camp along with over 4,000 other foreign nationals who were in Germany at the beginning of the war. Despite the best efforts of his family and friends to secure his release, Nevile was held until March 1915, when he was transferred to stay with a German family and then allowed to leave the country.
On returning to Britain, Nevile Butler received a commission as Second Lieutenant in the Household Battalion. The Household Battalion was formed in 1916 from soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Life Guard and the Royal Horse Guard in order to help fill the emptying ranks on the Western Front. Nevile was lucky to survive; the Battalion sustained heavy losses, including 13 officers, during its 14 months of existence. After the war, he went on to become an ambassador, and was Knighted for his diplomatic services.
“How can I write about this dear, dear most loveable boy?” H.M. Butler to J.R.M. Butler, 21 July, 1916
The middle brother, Gordon Kerr Montagu Butler (b. 1891), was a Lieutenant in the Scottish Horse and fought in Gallipoli and Egypt alongside James. While in Gallipoli, he found out from his father that he had narrowly missed out on being elected a Fellow of Trinity. He received a bullet wound to the thigh in 1915 and died on service in Egypt in 1916. H.M. Butler wrote this letter to James on hearing of Gordon’s death, saying, “Little did I dream when I wrote to you yesterday… that he was no longer with you – no longer to be seen and talked with and laughed with.”
From 1803 to 1916, young military officers had been trained in conjunction with University education through the Officers Training Corps (OTC), forming the National Reserve of officers. However, due to the unforeseen number of casualties in the first two years of the War, conscription was introduced in 1916 and in the same year the Officer Cadet Battalions (OCBs) were formed. With training no longer conducted alongside University education, the OCBs produced 73,000 commissioned officers at locations around the country, including the 5th OCB, based at Trinity and St. John’s.
The OCBs cultivated an atmosphere of peacetime University life through sport, amateur drama productions and humourous magazines. The Blunderbuss (98.b.91.1), the magazine for the 5th Battalion, ran from July 1916 to October 1918, featuring articles, poems, sport results, photographs, artwork and topical humour for the officers in training.
Whilst humour provided a way of coping with the strain of preparing for war, sporting competitions within and between battalions fostered the camaraderie and fellowship that would become emblematic of the British army during the War. Understanding the importance of this bond and of instilling leadership, H. Montagu Butler, Master of Trinity, wrote of the 5th OCB:
“They will feel that they were wise in Training, not only man by man but together in close league, in the hope of being fitted to lead, to command, to influence, to inspire.”
As the War progressed, the tone of the magazine remained the same, but notes of solemnity did creep in along with the publication of lists of dead and wounded. However, the bonds of friendship and duty grew to characterise the British Army during the First World War, thanks in part to institutions such as the 5th OCB.
This year marks 100 years since the start of the First World War, one of the costliest armed conflicts in human history in terms of human life. When Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August, 1914, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) began to deploy almost immediately and life in Cambridge changed dramatically.
Over the five years of The Great War, military khaki took the place of academic dress as the student population fell and the Colleges hosted officers in training, military conferences and wounded soldiers. At night, lights were extinguished in order to avert zeppelin attacks, leaving the streets utterly dark. The economic realities of the war meant civilians had to go without many comforts. The political unrest in Europe meant that labour riots, women’s suffrage, the Russian Revolution and the uprising in Ireland were on people’s minds nearly as much as the War.
Exploring how Trinity College withstood the changes and challenges during the War provides an insight into life on the home front. Meanwhile, members of the College experienced the War in many different ways. This exhibition, while by no means exhaustive, looks to shed light on some of the stories connecting Trinity College and The Great War. We invite you to remember the bravery, fellowship and sacrifice of those involved in this bloody conflict and to learn more about the part that the College played in the years 1914-1918.
“The War of to-day, with its many horrors, its crushing griefs, its lavish but ungrudged sacrifices, its splendid courage… will be one of the great sign-posts in the long tale of our country’s struggles; one of those epochs in which, with a full, a chastened, and a united heart, our people ‘thanked God and took courage.’” – H.M. Butler, Master of Trinity, in a sermon to the College servants on 4 October, 1914
Welcome to the online edition of the Trinity and the First World War exhibition, being held in the Wren Library from July to October, 2014. Here on the Trinity College Library blog you will find the same content that is on display in the Wren, plus expanded content including more information and additional images.As a portal to this content we have created an interactive timeline of the First World War including major historical events as well as dates relevant to members of Trinity who are featured in this exhibition. These events link to exhibition content such as blog posts and images. The other images, videos and links are public domain materials and credit is given for any items to which the Master and Fellows of Trinity do not hold copyright.If you prefer a more straightforward approach to the material, it will be released as blog posts over the coming days.