A campus history written in war

Attempts to reconcile World War I shaped Queen’s during the post-war period

Football became an integral part of the Queen’s identity following World War I.
Credit: 
Photo provided by Queen’s University Archives, V28-B-RIchS1-1
It was 1919. For the students entering or returning to Queen’s after the Great War, campus wouldn’t be the same.
 
When World War I ended, Canadians began the process of attempting to justify its enormous cost. It was the first large-scale, foreign war Canada had fought in. Sixty-thousand were ultimately killed, leaving a gaping hole in the lives of citizens from coast to coast.
 
In the Queen’s community, many faculty were British and Scottish. They felt it was their duty to rush to Britain’s side in the war effort. Many of Queen’s able-bodied students left to serve. As a result, around 1,500 men and women from Queen’s would leave to fight—a large proportion of the university at the time, according to Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall.
 
When the dust had settled, 189 of them would never come back.
 
In the years following WWI, there was a concerted effort to commemorate the conflict on campus. This attempt to remember the war, and accept the death of so many, became a force that shaped Queen’s.
 
Some students returned from the battlefield with a limp or missing limbs. Others would return with shrapnel embedded in their skin, only to later die of related infections. Many also had emotional trauma from the war, riddled with memories of their fallen cohorts and time in the trenches. 
 
Patrick Edwards, Comm ‘68, told The Journal in an email he remembers his father recounting stories of this time. His father, Hubert, began his degree at Queen’s in 1919. He initially began in Arts but eventually graduated in mechanical engineering. While he was too young to serve, many of Hubert’s classmates had endured the experience of war.
 
Hubert recalled to his son that some former servicemen would mimic the sounds of artillery shells in class, a noise that had terrified soldiers during the war. Sports were one way to deal with the trauma the war left behind. They gave some veterans the comforting, familiar feeling of a military unit.
 
It was also a representation of masculinity. When the war began, men were expected to do the manly thing and go serve their country. Once they returned, sports offered them a similar chance to prove themselves.
 
When all was said and done, some even compared the war to a big sports game. Those on the battlefields did their very best, played their best game, and in the end, some won and some lost. Football in particular provided meaning in a community trying to wrap its head around the horrors of the war, the lives lost.
 
The centre of the newfound interest in football at Queen’s was the newly created George Taylor Richardson Memorial Stadium.
 
The Richardson family, notably James Armstrong Richardson, funded the majority of the stadium in memory of George Taylor Richardson, his brother. 
 
George attended Queen’s and graduated in 1906. He was a strong athlete, playing football and hockey for the Gaels during his university career.
 
After it opened in 1921, the stadium would go on to represent many football victories, with Queen’s winning three consecutive Grey Cups in the 1920s. 
 
It would become a centerpiece of the  Queen’s identity, and the epitome of the era’s prized manliness.
 
The focus on sports became the ultimate manifestation of the male-dominated culture after the war. However, while the men fought battles and drove tanks during war, women came into their own at Queen’s.
 
While some women found work in first aid and medicine, there were many more male students missing from campus in the four years of conflict. In their absence, women were given the chance to assert their strengths and move into areas left vacant by soldiers.
 
During the war, the university looked more like a women’s institution than anything else. 
 
When the men eventually did return home, women were reluctant to give up the new freedoms they’d been granted. Their changed roles during the war were the start of a chain of events that led to them gaining power across campus.
 
Change came with the creation of the Ban Righ Centre in 1926, a female-only residence. While the thought that women needed to be sheltered had been around for a while, the university was reluctant to fund a place to house them during the economic downturn of the ’20s. 
 
In the end, it was female alumni of Queen’s who stepped in, raising money that would go towards the construction of the residence. 
 
It was a change made by women, for women.
 
Ban Righ, while not created in memorium of the war, was a result of newly-empowered women able to act in their own interests after experiencing a temporary reprieve of ingrained gender roles during the war.
 
The changes experienced in society, and Queen’s specifically, also meant the shift of a dominantly Presbyterian and straight-laced campus to a more lively, social environment.
 
After the war, dances, balls, and other social events became staples of everyday life at Queen’s.
 
Whatever happened during the war, upon return there was a sentiment that one might as well enjoy life when there could be another one around the corner. The students became intent on simply living their lives to the fullest while they still could.
 
The school flew into the roaring ’20s with vigour, its legacy now shaped by sociability and enthusiasm.
 
While the idea of a student-centric social centre was around before the war, the conflict put plans to a halt. When those who served returned—and with a larger student body than before—the need for a common area for socializing returned in full force. 
 
It was in this era of school spirit and vivacity that the Students’ Memorial Union was created in 1928, after the necessary funds were raised.
 
Students could gather to have dinner, tea, or simply chat. Even though women had gained new roles and influence during the war, at its inception, the Union was for men only. 
 
It was also home to the room of commemoration, filled with photos of those lost in the war. At the Union, students remembered their fallen peers and attempted to create a sense of community when they needed it.
 
While they did enjoy themselves on their time off, the students attending Queen’s in the wake of the war certainly weren’t lacking motivation in their studies.
 
The Fifth Field Company, another legacy of WWI, was a military unit during the conflict. They’d be a key force in developing the Queen’s bookstore, a fixture on campus today.
 
The Fifth Field Company Engineers, mainly from Queen’s, formed their own military unit prior to the war and went off to fight together. When they went abroad, they built bridges and did excavation work.
 
Upon return, the group would provide the initial financing for the Queen’s bookstore, previously known as Technical Supplies, and would become active alumni in raising money for scholarships. Today, Clark Hall is located where the group initially housed Technical Supplies.
 
This unit, alongside several similar groups, helped bring Queen’s to its current status.
 
When the Fifth Field Unit were back on Canadian soil, they expected things to be the same as when they left. Generally, this was the sentiment among the Queen’s community. There was no imagining otherwise—the country had never participated in a war of this scale before.
 
However, it never would be the same. A campus full of veterans was perhaps the clearest manifestation of the national changes that the war would bring, but only one of many. 
 
In the end, the severity of the war and need to legitimize its sacrifices, along with the new roles for men and women, would shape the lives, buildings, and traditions of modern-day Queen’s.

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