Staircases echo hollowly in a deserted Oxford

Undergraduate Sydney Spencer returned to Oxford, leaving his brother Will ready to go to Switzerland to meet his German wife. He was struck once more with the effect the war had had on the university:

16 January 1915
I returned [to Oxford] in the usual way today, to my snug rooms in Southmoor Road. I left all at home fairly cheerful, & all on the way to recovery from sundry colds. Will is very cheerful as he has prospects of reseeing Johanna next week in Basle (Switzerland).

Well, I walked from here to the Oxford Union this evening. In old days the streets would on the first night of term have been thick with men looking out for companions, & the Union lobby would have been just as crowded, & (poor little me) I should not have had a chance of a peep at the telegram board! But last night I did not see a single undergrad all the way down this woad, down Walton Street & so on till I got to the Martyrs’ memorial. When I got to George Street I did catch sight of two! In the Union there were in all about half a dozen! When I was washing my hands, one, an utter stranger, started a conversation with me asking me if I were a “Trinity” man. Heavens, is Oxford so empty this term that strangers have to converse to break the horrid silence? Those blank staring buildings are the warm, homely colleges of other days which used to pulsate with life. Staircases echo hollowly & one almost feels the one & only undergraduate in the place. People almost stare at the sight of the “rag” on one’s back. But, & this is a big BUT, I have a memory of a summer term on the full flood of Oxford’s palmy days when wars were not thought of.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/14)

Oxford whistles with militarism

As the year came to a close, Sydney Spencer of Cookham took time to reflect on his experiences of wartime Oxford

Sunday December 27th
Now I will go back to talk of Oxford during last term. By the end of term the place seemed almost utterly transformed. Almost every man was in karkai [sic]. Lieutenants almost cloyed one’s appetite for seeing “big guns” in the army! Even captains did not make one stare immediately. Some thousands of men were drafted into Oxford about mid term until the place fairly whistled with militarism. The tramp of infantry & cavalry was incessant & bugle calls good, bad & indifferent according to the age & proficiency of the perpetrators assailed one’s ears at early dawn, at breakfast, at midday, at twilight, at dead of night, in fact at times there seemed a regular outbreak of the disease, & the din & clangour was deafening.

We too in Oxford had a Belgian day & the place was turned into a regular continental “carnivalized” (copyright!) city of red, yellow & black. Not a man, woman, child, dog, cat, bicycle, wheelbarrow, motor-car, cycle, lorrie [sic], door knocker or crossing sweeper escaped the attacks – sometimes disagreeably coarse & vulgar – of the women who sold Belgian badges of all sizes from things little more than the size of a hatpin’s head, to the huge bows which covered the motor bonnet! When I went down the Corn at about 8.30 or nine to go to the Union, undergrads had become quite maudlin in their attempts to outdo others in their buying of the Belgian bows. They had them on their shoes, on their caps, pinned on to the ends of their gown tabs, or flaps, or whatever those ugly appendages choose to call themselves & lined their coats & waistcoats with them, & then they came marching along the road in strings, singing & shouting and behaving in fact exactly like silly undergraduates can behave! Altogether they collected in Oxford that weekend about £1,890, so far as I remember.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

Oxford engulfed by soldiers and wounded

Sydney Spencer of Cookham was a close observer of wartime Oxford, where he was an undergraduate.

October 20th
Tuesday afternoon at the Union

I have just got time for a scrappy bit of news before I take tea with Billings, one of our men who lives in Newton Road. There are soldiers & embryo soldiers here, there and everywhere. Oxford’s grey & venerable walls reverberate to the imperative urges of the bugle, her sedate quadrangles are the training ground for her soldiers. In gateways where gowned men used to loll & chat, there now stand stiff sentinels. Our men are seen flying off to lectures in [sic] karkai uniforms, & they are allowed to drop the gown. It is curious to see these men off to parade at 9AM lugging note books & Tacitus & Livy’s which soon they will open on a desk before their austere tutors.

There are lots of convalescent wounded men about. Even Belgian and French wounded are brought here. The officers get their poor hands nearly wrung off. Strangers go up and take off their hats & give what little French they have an airing on the Belgian and French officers in their weird costumes, bow & scrape & smile & doff their gold tassled hats & everybody beams, & everybody is pleased, & “poppa” has said ‘bong jourr Camerade’ to a real live officer, & “ma” doesn’t know what to do with herself in consequence of a dilemma in which she is placed, which dilemma being that she wants to swell with pride & not only fears to, but just can’t, and so on.

Oxford bloods swagger up & down looking like wax work figures in their OTC uniforms, & looking as my indignant Kenneth [Oliphant] says “like nothing at all”. I’m not blaming the men, but he says that these new officers are “just too much the limit” for being duffers at their work, but they will soon get into shape, & my dear old Oxford will have sent, like the Spartan mothers of old, many of the brood she so dearly loves, to serve their country & (we hope) their God by fighting a good cause.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)