Universities at war
Over the last four years, a team of student and community volunteers have used the University’s Special Collection Archives and online resources such as the Commonwealth Graves Commission website to piece together the stories of the men who worked or studied at Armstrong College, which was then part of Durham University but later became Newcastle University.
A collaboration between Newcastle and Durham universities, the ‘Universities at War’ project was inspired by the plaque featuring the names of the 223 men in Newcastle University’s Armstrong Building.
With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the team has developed a website www.universitiesatwar.org.uk which features profiles of the men including an overview of their military service, their biographical information, what they studied and where they died.
The website also includes interactive maps showing a timeline of the fallen and where the men came from – including places as far afield as Canada and Australia.
Dr Jane Webster, Senior Lecturer in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Newcastle University, said:
“Most people don’t look at the plaque when they walk past it in the Armstrong Building, but the hard work of our students and community volunteers help us all to remember that these were real men, with real lives. The war had an impact in every corner of the world, and the response we’ve had in this project – both locally and internationally – shows that there is still huge interest in telling the personal histories of those caught up in the war.
“Our volunteers have uncovered some fascinating stories – about the life people gave up to go to war, and the sacrifice they made. The stories we’ve been able to collate will help us ensure that the men, and the history of the area at the time, are not forgotten.”
Bringing histories to life
Research by the team played a role in a Remembrance Day service at Newcastle’s Trinity House in 2017. The service focused on those who lost their lives in 1917, at the height of the war. Among the men remembered was 2nd Lieutenant John H. Feggetter who served with the Northumberland Fusiliers.
Born in 1895, John lived in Gosforth with his parents and six siblings. He was 20 when he was commissioned, and saw action at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where he was injured. The following year John was made a Signalling and Intelligence Officer and was awarded the Military Cross for “for gallantry and devotion to duty on April 2nd 1917, near Croisilles, when by his skill and fearlessness he established telephonic communication between the front line and Battalion Headquarters within a few minutes of the capture of an important objective." He was killed in action on 4th October 1917 aged 22.
During the research, the volunteers came across other stories about people connected to the University who played a role in the war. Among these was Ruth Nicholson, a Newcastle University medical graduate who offered her services as a surgeon to the War Office but was rejected for being a woman. Undeterred, she joined Dr Elsie Inglis of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and helped to set up a military hospital under the French Red Cross in an abandoned abbey at Royaumont, 20 miles north of Paris.
Staffed entirely by women, Royaumont was the largest continuously-operating voluntary hospital in France and had treated more than 10,000 patients by the end of the war. Ruth’s niece, Rosemary, got in touch with the Universities at war project and her story inspired archaeology student Sam Wagner to stage the People don’t know about them exhibition in 2017.
In addition to the research itself, Universities at War has included a schools outreach programme, volunteer blogs, two exhibitions, community group partnerships, a student-led documentary project and an oral history project.
Ruth Sheret, an archivist at Newcastle University’s Special Collections and Archives, said: “One of the main aims of this project was to make the research as accessible as possible to schools, community groups, history groups and members of the public so that the stories gathered will not be lost.
“Although we’ve been able to fill in a lot of the gaps, there is still more work to be done. Anyone who has any information about a person who worked or studied at Armstrong College at the time of the First World War should get in touch and help us ensure that the fallen are more than just names on a memorial.”
Explore the data collected so far at www.universitiesatwar.org.uk . Information about Ruth Nicholson is available at blogs.ncl.ac.uk/speccoll/2016/10/29/people-dont-know-about-them-2/
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