Queen’s at war

One hundred years ago, armed conflict broke out in Europe, pitting the world’s major countries against each other. In Kingston, a university and its students prepared to join the fight

Private Arthur Thorne Darby.
Private Arthur Thorne Darby.
Supplied by Queen's Archives
Military records of Darby’s medals.
Military records of Darby’s medals.
Supplied by Queen's Archives
Queen’s field hospital in Etaples, France was bombarded during an air raid in 1918.
Queen’s field hospital in Etaples, France was bombarded during an air raid in 1918.
Supplied by Queen's Archives
The Memorial Room lists the names of 189 students and alumni killed during the First World War.
The Memorial Room lists the names of 189 students and alumni killed during the First World War.

Two-and-a-half years after Arthur Thorne Darby left Queen’s, a German artillery shell exploded next to him, driving shrapnel into his chest and hip.

Darby had enrolled at Queen’s as an engineering student in the fall of 1913, but attended for only a semester, having failed his examinations that December.

It was several months after he left the university that global warfare erupted in Europe. On Aug. 4, it’ll have been 100 years since Great Britain declared war on Germany — the beginning of the deadliest, bloodiest conflict in Canadian history.

Darby joined the 58th Battalion as a private in 1916, and later fought alongside 170,000 Allied troops at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in Pas-de-Calais, France. He was hospitalized on the first day of combat on April 9, 1917.

After recovering from his injuries, Darby received a military medal for crossing enemy lines and returning with reconnaissance and a machine gun. After an incident he was forbidden to discuss with his wife, Marilla Darby, he had a bar added to his medal, signifying an additional act of bravery.

“[He] could merely say he was part of a raiding party and they had a bayonet scrap and out of 10 men who went out, only two others besides himself came back,” Marilla wrote in a 1919 letter to the Queen’s Engineering Society.

Darby’s fate soon changed. By Nov. 11, 1918, more than 60,000 Canadians and 189 Queen’s students had been killed in combat, including the young private.

On Sept. 28, 1918, he led his company through a wire entanglement in Cambrai, France, towards German fire. He’d walked “but a few yards”, according to the same letter written by Marilla, when a sniper shot him in the head.

Darby was buried in the Anneux British Cemetery, in the northernmost region of France. He was 24.


Like hundreds of Queen’s students and alumni during the First World War, Darby enlisted in the Canadian army voluntarily.

At the time, Canada’s foreign affairs were guided by London. When the British Empire waged war on Aug 4, 1914, so did its former colony.

Much of Canada’s war effort was driven by volunteers, both by enlisted soldiers and civilians helping on the home front. Churches, charities, schools and women’s organizations helped the war effort in any way they could.

Queen’s contributions to the war were extensive. More than 1,500 students and alumni fought in the First World War, according to historian Kathryn Bindon, and four out of 10 students were in uniform by the end of 1915.

Enlisted soldiers weren’t required to provide their educational background, so there’s no full list of students who went to war.

The dead, however, have been accounted for.

The names of the 189 students and alumni killed during the war are now inscribed in the Memorial Room in the John Deutsch University Centre (JDUC). The Journal and the Kingston Whig-Standard reported their deaths throughout the war.

According to Peter Gower, president of the Kingston Historical Society, Queen’s students would have initially expected a short conflict — something resembling the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, fought over five months between the British Empire and the Zulu kingdom. After 1914, the perception changed.

“Students then knew that they would be in for a much dirtier and messier life in the trenches,” Gower said.

The University’s first contribution to the war effort, Gower said, was the creation of a military training camp at Valcartier, Quebec, which eventually attracted 33,000 volunteers. The Fifth Field Company, composed entirely of Queen’s engineering students, built the camp in 1914.

The No. 7 Canadian General Hospital, run by staff from Queen’s medical and nursing faculties, was established in Cairo, Egypt, to serve soldiers fighting in the Middle East and the African theatre.

Out of 4,140 patients admitted from Great Britain and its allies, 28 died.

The field hospital later moved to Étaples, France, where it suffered at least one air raid, in 1918. Photographs from the bombing show upended hospital beds and the destruction of buildings, turned into rubble.

Queen’s also volunteered its facilities to the war effort. Grant Hall became a training hall and military hospital until it was restored in April 1919, housing more than 4,000 casualties during the war.

University Historian Duncan McDowall said the expectation for male students to go to war would have been strong at Queen’s.

“An unquestioned pressure was placed on the students and faculty of Queen’s that going to war was the appropriate thing to do,” he said.

While male students enlisted, women joined medical units as nursing sisters, he said, and those who didn’t go to war backed the efforts through donations and fundraising.

According to McDowall, the people most likely to enlist were Anglo-Canadians, many of who had recently arrived. Over 300,000 Europeans immigrated to Canada in 1912-13, just before the war.

“In the case of Queen’s students, many immigrated here from the British Isles,” McDowall said. “They were still mentally part of Britain.”

That strong British presence at Queen’s, McDowall added, would have intensified pressures felt across the country.

“Queen’s went riding this carriage of late 19th-century imperialism, Anglicism and this notion of romantic sacrifice,” he said. “You were going to lay down your life for the country.”

In Oct. 1914, Principal Daniel Miner Gordon addressed students about the war effort and the military training offered on campus.

In his speech, he told students they should train so they could fight “for freedom, for righteousness, for national existence.”

Male students who stayed at Queen’s instead of venturing overseas would have been affected by social pressures, McDowall said — if not always directly.

“You might have found it hard to get a date,” he said. “Word was around that you were going to finish your degree before going off to war.”

Although Queen’s student soldiers made up a miniscule fraction of the Canadian army, they distinguished themselves from others. Queen’s soldiers had distinct thistle collar badges and “Cha Ghèill” was the motto in their army companies.

The university didn’t change politically after the war, McDowall said — but the effects of the war were noticeable.

“The demographics had been skewed — there were more women than men, and it was hard to get married,” he said. Students may also have seen disfigured veterans walking the streets of Kingston, he added, as a reminder of the war.

Several efforts for remembrance were undertaken at Queen’s after 1918.

James Richardson, a wealthy Queen’s alumnus, donated Richardson Stadium in honour of his brother, George Taylor Richardson, a Queen’s graduate who was killed in Feb. 1916 while serving overseas.

In Jan. 1920, the Queen’s Returned Men’s Club started a fundraising campaign for the creation of a Memorial Union, in honour of fallen students and alumni. The Journal urged students to contribute.

In 1927, Queen’s purchased the Students’ Memorial Union building, where the JDUC now stands. The building contained the Book of Remembrance, which lists the names of men and women from Kingston and Queen’s who served in the military.

The fundraising effort had raised $7,000 by Feb. 6, 1920. On that date, the Journal wrote: “We do not say that we won the war, but we did fight it, and in the War Memorial no body of student will claim they alone won the campaign, but all will say they fought for it.”

Queen's and the military today

Today, some students continue to enlist in the military while attending Queen’s.

Chris Parker, ArtSci ’15, is an artillery officer in the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery. When he graduates, he’ll become a Second Lieutenant and a commissioned officer.

During the school year, Parker completes his classes at Queen’s and the Royal Military College, and attends meetings with his superiors to ensure that he’ll graduate.

He’d been interested in joining the Canadian Forces since childhood, Parker said.

“If someone forgets an order, or someone somehow ‘messes up’ then we have each others’ backs, no matter who they are, and no matter what unit they serve,” he told the Journal via email.

Now that Canadian forces focus primarily on humanitarian objectives, Parker said, the First World War has gained a poor reputation — though it’s mostly a matter of perspective.

“The perspective that [we took] was that nationalism and pride were the most important traits of a country during the period,” Parker said.

“A war based on nationalism and militarization would have, at the time, been considered rational and justified.”

To Parker, war is justified when Canada or one of its allies is threatened by a foreign entity, or another nation asks for Canadian help.

“As a G7/8 nation, we have an obligation to help the world, and if we do not meet those obligations, we do not deserve our international status as a peacekeeper and peacemaker,” he said.

Laura Russell

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