Imagining Oxford

Belgian boys during their play hour in the quadrant of St John's College, Oxford University, where they are being educated by Belgian schoolmasters. By Nicholls, Horace (Photographer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Belgian boys during their play hour in the quadrant of St John’s College, Oxford University, where they are being educated by Belgian schoolmasters. By Nicholls, Horace (Photographer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Oxford Images of World War 1 invites volunteers age 16-15 to turn the clock back 100 years and imagine what life was like for young people in the city and county during the Great War. The outcome will lead to a major outdoor photographic exhibition at the Oxford Castle Quarter in May 2016.

Saturday 7th November 2015 marked the start of our journey on this exciting project. Falling on the same weekend as Remembrance Sunday this felt like an appropriate starting point for reflecting on the past. We had a great panel of speakers who kindly offered their knowledge and expertise to the project. Lots of fascinating stories about life in World War 1 Oxford were discussed with local historian Dr Malcolm Graham. Malcolm also explained how Oxford literally became a ‘Garrison Town’ during this time.  Military historian Stephen Barker presented some poignant accounts of Oxfordshire soldiers through personal artefacts, diaries and photographs – all very powerful stuff.  Dr Jane Potter helped illuminate the story of three Oxford women who recorded and reflected their WW1 experiences through poetry. Thanks also to Dr Adrian Gregory,  Director of  Oxford University’s Globalising and Localising the Great War project, who helped us picture what life was like in Britain in 1914. We couldn’t have asked for a better start to our project!

Cadets headed by a band marching through the Broad Oxford. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cadets headed by a band marching through the Broad Oxford. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the course of the next few months, under the guidance of heritage professionals, our volunteers will continue to explore these themes in local archives, museums and online collections. Their mission will be to interpret the story of young people living in these times through photography and text. The creative choice will be theirs to pursue and develop and mentoring sessions with professionals will help guide their work. In 2016 we will run training sessions on stills photography and exhibitions to arm ourselves with tools to publicly present our work to a professional standard.

Finally thank you to the Heritage Lottery Fund grant who have given us this opportunity to introduce a new generation to this aspect of wartime history, and to keep the legacy, memory and significance of the Great War alive for the younger generation.

Oxford Images of World War 1 is organized by Fete Day Ltd and hosted by the Oxford Castle Quarter.

If you are interested in getting involved in the project as a volunteer, a mentor or would just like to find out more please contact Ameneh Enayat,

Oxford at War 1914-1918

Inside cover page

Inside cover of Norman Sutton’s scrap book CC BY-SA © Liz Beith

On the inside of his scrapbook, Norman Sutton writes: “Pleasant Reminiscences of College and ‘Varsity Days 1913-1914, 1919-1920”.

One page in the album has “The Isis” written across at the top and pasted on the page are a set of charts of the Eights (lists of the boats that took part in the annual intercollegiate rowing regatta). There are three charts for the summer races, one for each of Sutton’s undergraduate years: 1914, 1919, 1920.

The Isis - boat races

Page from Norman Sutton’s scrapbook CC BY-SA © Liz Beith

The dates offer an indication of something that was typical for the time. Like many other young men and women, Norman Sutton left Oxford to serve in the War. He was fortunate to survive and returned to complete his studies. We can get glimpses of his Oxford days through his scrapbook and guess what life was like in Oxford at the time, both before and after the War.  What we cannot see here, however, is what life was like in Oxford while he was away. What happened here during the War?

Oxford at War is a project set up to fill in the gaps left by resources like Norman Sotton’s album and make it easier to find out about Oxford during the First World War. The project collects and makes available information and material that relate to Oxford, the city, the University, and the people, during the War. It uses a model developed in previous projects where anyone who has stories, pictures, letters, or other material is invited to share it through a dedicated platform. The Oxford at War platform ( allows users to type in or upload text, add digital pictures, audio and video, or simply link to material they already have online. Material can then be explored by anyone who visits the site

The Oxford at War project also runs and takes part in events and activities to collect and disseminate information about Oxford during the War, such as the Remembering the Great War collection and digitisation event at the Museum of History of Science (26 September 2015) and the Wikipedia World War 1 edit-a-thon (10 November 2015). The project is part of the University’s First World War Centenary commemorations and activities, supported by the Van Houten Bequest. More information about related resources and activities can be found through the University WW1 Centenary page

If you have something to share but are unsure how to add it to the Oxford at War platform, need help with creating digital copies of your material, want to know about future events and activities or want more information about any aspect of the project or the platform, please contact the Oxford at War team at

Wikipedia: World War 1 edit-a-thon

Are you interested in Wikipedia or the First World War?

Join us on Tuesday 10th November 2015 when the University of Oxford IT Services are hosting a Wikipedia Editathon on the theme of World War I and Oxford.

WHEN? Tuesday 10 November, 2-5pm
WHERE? IT Services, 13 Banbury Rd, Oxford OX2 6NN

At the event we will learn how to edit existing Wikipedia articles and add new material. We will improve or create Wikipedia articles on World War I topics and highlight the role of Oxford as both a city and a university, in this historical conflict.

Training will be led by Martin Poulter, the Bodleian Libraries’ Wikimedian In Residence.  Expert knowledge about the War or previous Wiki editing experience is NOT necessary, though subject experts and experienced editors are also welcome.

This is a free event, run as part of the University’s centenary activities. Non-University members are welcome. To book a place please visit: (University members) or email (non-University members).


Children in Headington
This item is from The Great War Archive, University of Oxford (; © Tony Godfrey

Picture of Somerville Nurses

Nurses at Somerville
CC BY-SA © Peter Batts

Artists Under Fire

Drawing of soldier in trench

Eric Kennington, Into the Trenches, 1917 image © Ashmolean Museum (WA1919.31.16)

The Ashmolean Musem has created an online exhibition of art on paper created during the First World War. The ‘Artists Under Fire:  Remembering the Great War 1914-1918’ contains a collection of images grouped according to theme, such as ‘Dressing the Part’, ‘Tending the Wounded’, ‘From Dock to Deck’ and ‘In Memoriam’.

[The exhibition] includes a range of images that reveal the effects of the war on soldiers and civilians alike, as seen through the eyes of contemporary artists.

From September 23rd to December 20th 2015, a physical exhibition based on the material will be displayed at the Ashmolean Museum Broadway. This is a rare chance to see the material exhibited, as many items are too fragile to be kept on permanent display. More information about the exhibition at

Those who cannot make it to Broadway can still enjoy the online exhibition at

While They’re Away: The Story of a City at War

The Museum of Oxford is hosting a compelling new play drawn from authentic accounts of life at the home front in First World War Oxford. This original production brings to light the city’s role in the ‘War to end all wars’ and the parallel stories of the local people whose lives it changed forever. Playwright, Jeremy Allen has worked with members of the local community and delved into local archives to uncover the WW1 experiences of a varied cast of characters from Oxford’s past: including Siegfried Sassoon and Lady Ottoline Morrell, as well as many whose stories have yet to be told. City landmarks and buildings take on new meaning as their war-time role is revealed. The drama is performed in the Old Museum at Oxford Town Hall, the site of one of Oxford’s WW1 military hospitals.

An UnderConstruction Theatre production in partnership with the Museum of Oxford. Created as part of the Lost Voices of Oxford’s Great War, a community project to uncover the city’s untold First World War stories. Generously funded by the Heritage Lottery.

7.30pm on 12th and 13th March 2015

2.30pm matinee and 7.30pm on 14th March, £5/£4 concessions, The Old Museum

Ticket office: 01865 305305

Or buy online at

Or in person at the Oxford Playhouse Box Office

While They're Away Play Flyer

Spirit of England: an introduction


Image of the plaque on Pentire Point, north Cornwall, UK commemorating the composition of the poem ‘For The Fallen’

By Robin Darwall-Smith Written for the the Oxford Bach Choir members’ bulletin and reproduced here with kind permission.

In a year that marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the Oxford Bach Choir is performing Elgar’s own reflection on that conflict, his great choral work The Spirit of England. Its title may have led people to fear an ephemeral piece of jingoist flagwaving, but the truth is very different. I will stick my neck out here and say that I think that The Spirit of England is one of Elgar’s greatest works in any genre, and I hope that all of you, whether or not you already love Elgar’s music, will find that you are in for a special musical experience.

Spirit of England is an unusual work in that both words and music were written the middle of a war, and it lets us into the emotions felt by Britons on the home front, impotent to do anything, fearful of loved ones, uncertain of the future, and yet hopeful of eventual victory. One important thing to bear in mind is that, in early performances of this piece, every member of the choir, orchestra, and audience will have known someone close to them who was serving in the armed forces, and, especially in the latter days of the war, most of them will have known someone who had been killed.

Soon after the outbreak of war, the poet Laurence Binyon published in the Times a series of poems reflecting on the conflict. At a time when many assumed that the war would be over by Christmas, Binyon showed a prescient awareness that it would be more serious than that. As early as 21 September 1914 there appeared his poem, For the Fallen, which includes these famous lines:

They shall not grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, not the year condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

In December 1914, Binyon published his war poems as a collection called The Winnowing Fan, which became immensely popular: in January 1915, one of Elgar’s friends wrote to him “Why don’t you do a wonderful Requiem for the slain—something in the spirit of Binyon’s For the Fallen?”

Elgar therefore set to work. He selected three poems from The Winnowing Fan out of which to create a halfhour cantata which would chart the emotional journey of the war to date. We therefore start with The Fourth of August, which represents the excitement and apprehension which greeted the outbreak of hostilities. The other two poems swiftly leave that world behind to consider the emotional cost of war. To Women reflects on the feelings of women with loved ones serving on the front, and their uncertainties and fears, while For the Fallen, the longest movement of the three, is a great elegy to the dead themselves.

In May 1916 that the second and third movements were released for performance, but not the first movement. Interestingly, the most optimistic of the poems was also the one that caused him most trouble. In particular Elgar could not bring himself to set a verse in which Binyon described the Germans thus:

She fights the fraud that feeds desire on
Lies, in a lust to enslave or kill,
The barren creed of blood and iron,
Vampire of Europe’s wasted will.

Elgar, like many Britons, was steeped in German culture. His own music owed a great deal to German influence, and he had visited Germany regularly. He had also been encouraged and helped by many Austro- German musicians. It was, at least early on, impossible for Elgar to demonise a nation which he had loved so well.

By early 1917, however, after three increasingly terrible years of war, Elgar’s mood had changed. He now came up with an extraordinary solution to his problem: he based his setting of these words around the music of the Demons’ Chorus from The Dream of Gerontius. He explained his reasons for doing this in a letter:

“Two years ago I held over that section hoping that some trace of manly spirit would shew itself in the direction of German affairs: that hope is gone forever & the Hun is branded as less than a beast … I would not invent anything low & bestial enough to illustrate the one stanza: the Cardinal [Newman] invented … that particular hell in Gerontius where the great intellects gibber & snarl knowing they have fallen. That is exactly the case with the Germans now:—the music was to hand & I have sparingly used it. … The horror of the fallen intellect—knowing what is once was & knowing what it has become—is beyond words frightful.”

In fact the overwhelming mood of The Spirit of England, especially in its second and third movements, is one of a deep compassion in the face of unimaginable losses and suffering, and there is very little militarism about it. In the third movement, when Binyon imagines fallen warriors as they marched off to war “open-eyed and unafraid”, Elgar certainly sets these words to a march, but it is an eerie and ghostly episode. Instead the emotional core of the work is at the end when Binyon compares our memories of the fallen to the stars above, and Elgar rises to a deeply moving and ecstatic climax (sufficiently ecstatic for Elgar to give the first altos a top G sharp at its height: you have been warned), before dying away to nothing.

The Spirit of England made a deep impression on contemporary listeners. The poet Robert Nicholls, who had been wounded in the war, in a letter to a friend, damned “all the people writing about war & soldiers when they haven’t a notion of either. Sensible people like Yeats keep quiet, or express the feelings of noncombatants in the most touching & poignant forms imaginable as Elgar & Binyon. How often the sad last phrases of Elgar’s “For the Fallen” echo despondingly & yet somehow victoriously in my head!”

The Spirit of England ends quietly and uncertainly: a reflection of Britain’s mood in the middle of the war. Even after the war, however, Elgar was in no mood to celebrate. Laurence Binyon wrote an Ode to Peace, which he invited Elgar to set, but Elgar was not interested; instead he wrote the Cello Concerto.

I’ll leave the last word on The Spirit of England to another great composer who wrote a masterpiece inspired by the First World War. In 1969, Benjamin Britten planned to perform For the Fallen at the Aldeburgh Festival. Here is what the composer of the War Requiem made of Elgar’s music:

It has always seemed to me to have in its opening bars a personal tenderness and grief, in the grotesque march an agony of distortion, and in the final sequences a ring of genuine splendour.

The Oxford Bach Choir performance of The Spirit of England will take place in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on Dec 6, 2014.

Several recordings of The Spirit of England can be found, for example on YouTube.

More information about the composer Edward Elgar, the poet Laurence Binyon  and his Ode of Remembrance can be found in Wikipedia.

Magdalen and the Great War

Magdalen inviteThis term’s Magdalen College Library & Archives Talk will feature Dr Robin Darwall-Smith, Magdalen College Archivist, talking about ‘Magdalen and the Great War’.
Robin will discuss the impact of the First World War on Magdalen
College, and among the themes he will consider are: the College in the summer of 1914; how Magdalen functioned during the war and who was there during this time; what happened to its members on the front; and how the College chose to remember the war afterwards.

Including a chance to see a related exhibition in our Old Library, which was curated by Robin and our Archives Assistant, Ben Taylor.

Monday 24th November (7th week), 17.30 Magdalen College Summer Common Room, Cloisters III
All welcome, RSVP to

Oxford’s new podcast series explores the ‘British’ poetry of World War One.

ww1-poetryThe poetry of World War One has been some of the most important and influential work of the twentieth century. It has shaped our attitudes to war, and has remained ingrained in British cultural consciousness. In this audio collection world-leading experts revisit this important body of work to provide deeper insights into some of the most read British soldier poets, as well as providing new perspectives and introductions to a more expansive canon including Irish works, the poetry of the Empire and women poets.

Produced as part of the Faculty of English Spring School (3-5 April 2014), the series is the first of its kind covering the topic of World War One poetry. It is  available under a Creative Commons license for free download and reuse from iTunes U and the Oxford Podcasts web site.


War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914 – 4 August (part 2)

Harcourt arrived at 10 Downing Street at 11:15 pm. Already there were the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey; the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith; the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill; the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George; and the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna.

The German answer to the British ultimatum is ‘unsatisfactory.’ The British ambassador to Germany, Sir Edward Goschen, has ‘asked for his passports.’ The United Kingdom declares war on Germany.

There is a long discussion as to war tactics. Winston Churchill ‘wants to block Amsterdam & mouth of Rhine, Asquith & Grey insisted that we w[oul]d not violate neutrality of Holland.’

Harcourt told his Cabinet colleagues that he ‘c[oul]d tomorrow destroy or seize g[rea]t wireless German station in Togoland.’

There is discussion about the British Expeditionary Force. Harcourt ‘pointed out dangers of doing this to India & Crown Colonies and home (possible revolution in north). I told Asq[uith] & Grey that this was vital to me. No decision today.’

Harcourt thinks that David Lloyd George is ‘weakening in his peace “convictions” under the impression of mad popular enthusiasm in streets for war.’

Harcourt’s political journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: From Downing Street to the Trenches.

Entry for evening of 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for evening of 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for evening of 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for evening of 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914 – 4 August (part 1)

Writing from notes made on Foreign Office telegrams, Harcourt reports that John Simon and Lord Beauchamp remain in the Cabinet ‘pro tem.’

Britain will fire upon the German dreadnought The Goeben ‘in the Mediterranean if it tries to stop French transports: we are to stop her getting out to prey on our commerce in the Atlantic.’ The Cabinet decided that The Goeben ‘will be warned that if she shoots at French transports we shall sink her.’

The Cabinet is ‘sending an ultimatum to Germany & to have the answer by midnight.’ Harcourt writes that ‘Germany has informed Belgium that her territory will be violated by force of arms.’

The Cabinet discussed the seizure of German colonies. Harcourt advised the Cabinet that it was better to wait and that he was ‘holding back Dominion Exped[itionary] forces for the present & they approved.’

Germany has declared war on France. Harcourt insisted to the Cabinet, with the agreemtent of the Prime Minister, ‘that orders sh[oul]d be sent to our Mediterranean Fleet not to fire on Goeben till we have become at war with Germany. Winston [Churchill] was compelled to send these orders & at once.’

Harcourt writes that ‘there are many German spies here now & have been for a long time: we have full evidence against them & shall seize them at once.’

The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, read out to the Cabinet the ultimatum being sent to Germany: ‘we must have an assurance from Germany – similar to that from France last week – as to the neutrality of Belgium.’ Harcourt reports that Germany is ‘said to have sent an ulitmatum to Sweden & may do so to Norway.’

Foreign Secretary Grey informed the Cabinet of his desire to ‘offer Holland & Norway (as well as Belgium) a guarantee of future integrity if they will remain neutral now.’

The Cabinet received news of a telegram received by the French embassy reporting that German forces are said to ‘have penetrated to Verviers between Liege and German frontier.’

After the meeting of the Cabinet, Harcourt attended a meeting of ‘commerical men’ with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George.

We shall be publishing the second part of Harcourt’s entry for 4 August 1914 to commemorate the centenary of the British declaration of war at 23:00 GMT.

Harcourt’s political journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: From Downing Street to the Trenches.

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).