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100th Anniversary: Queen's goes to war

Members of the Fifth Field Engineers pose for a photo at Valcartier, Que., where they set up the first mobilization camp for the First World War. July 28 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the war. Queen’s University Archives

This article is printed in the July edition of the Gazette, which is now available at newsstands around campus.

By Andrew Stokes, Communications Officer

William Falconer Battersby had been out of Queen’s a scant four years when he enlisted to go overseas and fight in The Great War. A member of the class of 1910, Battersby graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science before moving to northern Ontario to work as superintendent at the Big Dome Mine.

When the war broke out, Battersby wasted no time in enlisting. Qualifying as a lieutenant, he was deployed to the Borden Motor Machine Gun Battery (Armored) on Jan. 16, 1915.

Awarded the Military Cross in 1916, Battersby sent a letter home to his mother saying, “I would have liked to have seen all the others remembered as they deserved.” Later promoted to the rank of major, he was killed by a piece of shrapnel on March 25, 1918 and now lies buried at the Vimy Memorial in France.

Battersby was one of 189 Queen’s men who fought and died in the First World War, which started a century ago on July 28.

Though happening half a world away, the war made itself felt on campus. Students not knitting bandages were encouraged to drill and train. Buildings were put to use for the war effort with Grant and Kingston Halls used as military hospitals, Nicol Hall acted as a barracks, and the attic of Theological Hall was used for rifle practice.

A group of student and staff volunteers assembled as the Fifth Field Engineers and performed military training and drills on campus starting in 1910. With the outbreak of war, the unit was sent to Valcartier, Que. where it created a mobilization camp for 30,000.

Administration also responded to the outbreak of war, with Principal Daniel Gordon being especially enthusiastic. He made a personal appeal to students to train and drill so as to be fit for service, and each year he sent Christmas cards to active Queen’s soldiers.

“The First World War quickly became a technological conflict,” says Dr. Allan English, a professor of Canadian military history. “Artillery and map-making were essential, so people with engineering skills were in high demand. Many Queen’s men were going over as officers, so while our total numbers were relatively small, they were in a lot of key positions.”

Queen’s contribution wasn’t limited just to combat, as under the guidance of Frederick Etherington the No. 5 General Hospital was established. This all-Queen’s medical unit became a teaching hospital, training nursing students while operating in England, Egypt and France. Treating thousands of wounded across various theatres of war, the hospital had a tremendous record of care.

The dire casualties of the war were felt on campus as well.

“One in four Canadian families had experienced a direct loss either in wounding or death; the country’s losses were twice what they were in the Second World War,” says Dr. English. “It left a lot of people wondering what the conflict was all about.”

At Queen’s, like with the rest of Canada, a narrative emerged that honoured the service of individuals rather than the achievements of combat.

“Many Queen’s men who served on the front returned to campus. The popular way of thinking about the First World War was that it was a major sacrifice, but one that was worthwhile. People fought and died for a cause that wasn’t well understood, so what really came to be celebrated was the nobility and valour of those who bravely faced danger.”