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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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In 1914, why were students marching in the University of Toronto's Hart House under the command of a chemistry professor?

Answer The Canadian Officers Training Corps was established at U of T just after the start of First World War. Within a year, nearly 500 undergraduates, 700 graduates and 70 faculty members were on active service.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

On August 4, 1914, the Great War began. President Robert Falconer was still on a visit to Europe. When he and his wife finally were able to find passage back to Canada in early September, he was interviewed by a Globe reporter. "There was not even a whisper of war," he stated, "everything seemed to be going on in a normal way, even in Hamburg."

The outbreak of war may have caught Falconer by surprise, but the potential for war clearly had been there. In his inaugural address in 1907, for example, Falconer had warned that there were "here and there symptoms that may cause the patriot to fear lest not many hours of our day will have passed before heavy clouds gather." The storm had now burst.

"This is the greatest of moral struggles," he said. "Are there to be democracies ... or will force tower arrogantly above freedom and enslave intellect?"

Falconer's opening address to the student body in September 1914 described the conflict in moral terms. "This is the greatest of moral struggles," he said. "Are there to be democracies ... or will force tower arrogantly above freedom and enslave intellect? The struggle," he went on, "had to come. It is well to have it decided one way or other finally, for our own sakes and for our children's." Growing numbers of students enlisted. Even before Falconer had returned to Canada, about 250 Toronto graduates and undergraduates had left for England.

The first University of Toronto person to die in combat was the Trinity student R.E. Mackenzie Richards, who was killed near Ypres, in France, on November 13, 1914. By the spring of 1915, nearly 500 undergraduates, 700 graduates, and 70 faculty members were on active service. In February 1915, a special convocation was held to grant degrees to nearly 50 of those students who were about to leave for overseas.

Harold Innis Frank Underhill Norman Bethune
John McCrae Thain MacDowell

Harold Innis, top left, later a professor of political economy, was wounded at Vimy Ridge. Frank Underhill, middle, later a professor of history, was wounded on the Somme front. Norman Bethune, top right, who had enlisted in 1914, part way through medical school, was wounded and returned to Canada, and graduated in 1916. John McCrae, bottom left, the author of 'In Flanders Fields,' died on active service in 1918. Thain MacDowell, bottom right, won a Victoria Cross for his actions in capturing two German machine guns.

Most men who did not at first join the active force joined the Canadian Officers Training Corps (COTC), which had been started at the University just after the war began. On October 21, shortly after Ottawa's official recognition of the University of Toronto's contingent, classes were cancelled to allow students to hear an appeal from President Falconer for recruits for the COTC. Within twenty-four hours, more than 500 students had enrolled in the corps, and by early December, 1,800 men were drilling under the overall command of Professor W.R. Lang, the head of chemistry.

John McLennan's official pass for work
John McLennan's official pass for work with the British Admiralty in 1918. McLennan and others from the physics department were particularly active in aiding the war effort.

Classes and laboratories ended every afternoon at 4 o'clock to permit their attendance. One participant recalls marching through vacant farm land north of St Clair Avenue. Later, they drilled in the incomplete Great Hall of Hart House and used the unfinished theatre as a rifle range. Sets resembling a ruined Belgian village, painted by Lieutenant Lawren Harris (later of the Group of Seven), were used on the range.

Sopwith Camel
Sopwith Camel aircraft in front of University College, 1918.


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