UBC students taking part in officer training, 1916

Student Soldiers Remembered

The prospect of war was not top of mind in 1908 when the provincial government of Sir Richard McBride passed an act of legislation upon which the foundation of the University of British Columbia was built. But by early 1915 when UBC’s first president, Dr. Frank Fairchild Wesbrook, was immersed in preparations for the inaugural academic session, all of Canada was gripped by the cataclysm that had erupted in Europe.

To his profound disappointment, the plans to build a campus on Point Grey had been postponed immediately following the declaration of war. With tenders for construction returned unopened, UBC was compelled to begin its work in buildings, located in Vancouver’s Fairview district, which had previously been occupied by McGill University College of British Columbia. The vision shared by Wesbrook and Minister of Education, Dr. Henry Esson Young, became further compromised as the war effort drew upon the financial resources of the entire nation, forcing Wesbrook to scale back course offerings, the acquisition of library books and the appointment of faculty.

By the time classes began on September 30 of 1915, a total of 56 former McGill College students were already at the front, and the majority of UBC’s male students and faculty members were enrolled in the Canadian Officer Training Corps, including Wesbrook.

Frank Wesbrook

Frank Wesbrook, UBC’s First President

At the age of 46 and in poor health, he turned out for drill and training five days and three evenings a week in the hope that his medical experience in the field of public health would be of value to the war effort. When the Board of Governors turned down his request for military service leave, on the grounds that he was indispensable to the inauguration of UBC, Wesbrook turned much attention to maintaining morale of his students overseas by keeping in touch with them of affairs at home through letters, and by making plans for their education and rehabilitation upon return.

In early 1916 the Western Universities Battalion was formed, owing to a belief articulated by university leaders in various parts of the nation that students would do well in service with likeminded classmates under their own officers. The recruiting and organization of UBC students (D Company) was entrusted to Major R.W. Brock, the dean of Applied Science. The unit was housed on the campus with drilling, marching and arms training taking place on the neighboring grounds of King Edward High School. D Company joined the rest of the Western Universities Battalion at Camp Hughes in Winnipeg and saw their first action in Europe early in 1917.

Army tents of D Company

Army tents of D Company, Western Universities Battalion, beside Arts building, April 1916

Just prior to their overseas departure, Brock sent a letter to Wesbrook indicating how well the UBC students had fared in training. During an inspection by the Duke of Connaught, Brock explained that His Royal Highness was heard calling out “Well done British Columbia!” as his charges passed the reviewing stand. In a more sobering note, Brock also conveyed a suggestion from soldiers with families that the university consider providing their children with free education in the event they did not return. As D Company prepared to go overseas, faculty and students at home telegraphed: Godspeed and continued success. Our hearts go with you.

Among the Battalion members from UBC was a 20-year-old signalling officer named Sherwood Lett, who resigned his position as the first president of the Alma Mater Society to enlist. A star member of UBC’s rugby team and a future AMS president by the name of Lieutenant Harry Letson also shipped out with D Company, and was fortunate to return after being severely wounded leading troops at Vimy Ridge. Arthur Lord, another outstanding varsity rugby player, was also wounded at Vimy. Lord subsequently served for over three decades as a university senator and member of the Board of Governors along with Lett, who would also serve as chancellor. Faculty members who saw active duty included Colonel Harry T. Logan, an instructor in the Department of Classics and Captain O.E. LeRoy, a member of the Department of Geology who was killed in November of 1917 in the horrific battle at Passchendaele.

Wesbrook eagerly followed any and all news of UBC students and staff overseas, and became increasingly disturbed by the mounting casualties. At the 1917 convocation ceremonies, the graduating class and guests openly wept as the Dean of Arts, Dr. G.E. Robinson, read the names of the 31 students who had died during the year.

By the conclusion of the war, 697 UBC students had seen active military service, 78 of whom did not return. Towards the end of the conflict, Major Brock penned another letter to President Wesbrook, in which he wrote:

Their reputation will be of great benefit to any university men who follow…When the full story can be written, BC, the university and the relations and friends will be proud of their share in the achievement.

Story by Don Wells

Background image: UBC students taking part in officer training, 1916

Sources:
Wesbrook and His University (William C. Gibson, 1973)
Sherwood Lett: His Life and Times (Reginald H. Roy, 1991)
UBC Library Archives