100 years ago, Loyola College boys dug in to WWI trenches and helped make history
By the time the back-to-school bells chimed at Loyola College (now Concordia University) in September of 1914, war had already begun to rage across the Atlantic.
The Great War, as it was soon to be called, began on July 28, 1914, just over a hundred years ago today. While the battlefields were half a world away from the classrooms where some of Montreal’s brightest young scholars spent their days, the ravages of the war certainly hit close to home.
In 1914, the first ever issue of the Loyola College Review, a comprehensive yearbook of all the events and best work of the school year, was published. Amid sketches for the much-anticipated expansion of the college to Montreal West (now Loyola Campus) and detailings of the college team’s athletic victories, the Review proudly gave accolades to the first of Loyola’s boys who put on their marching boots and left for the front lines of war.
A total of 32 students and alumni, who were fondly dubbed “Old Boys,” went to war in 1914.
At the time of press for the 1914-15 Loyola College Review, “some [had] been wounded, but as yet we have no deaths to mourn.” By the time of the armistice almost five years later, the death toll of Loyola boys reached 34 of the over 275 who went to the Front.
During the school year of 1914-15, the war was on everyone’s minds, but the outlook was optimistic. Even the Loyola Literary and Debating Society resolved against the statement “that the Germans have a better chance of winning this war than the Allies.”
By the time of publication of the following year’s Review, soldiers had dug into their trenches. France was under occupation and Canadians had fought in the First and Second Battles of Ypres, where gas warfare was infamously introduced by the Germans. Turkey had joined Germany, and they invaded Serbia. Italy switched its alliance and declared war on Germany. Germans used heavy artillery shellings in the Battle of Verdun. The Battle of the Somme saw a modest advance for the Allies, at the cost of over 1.2 million lives from both sides.
Back in Montreal, Loyola College felt the effects of its first war casualties.
The 1916 Review lists that 115 students and Old Boys had gone to join the fight, two were confirmed dead, and several were wounded.
The two confirmed dead were Loyola Old Boys Corporal Adrian McKenna and Lieutenant John Howe.
McKenna wrote a letter back home on Jan. 16, 1916 from Belgium, and relayed his excitement at being back with his regiment after an absence. He wrote:
“I know your eyes must be winking and jumping from trying to make this out, so I will say good-night. I am enclosing the stripes off my great-coat. I value them very much, as I have had them since I left Canada. The stains on them are blood from a man who was killed and whom I carried into the trench. Keep them for me till I get back.”
On Jan. 18, McKenna wrote to his brother from his “little dug-out” in the trenches:
“The Huns are quiet this morning. I guess they are getting sick of the war. I had a letter from mother yesterday. She seemed to take it for granted that I was coming home. Much as I appreciate your offer, I wouldn’t dream of going back until I have done my “bit,” and I am glad you didn’t do anything until you heard from me. . . . . . Good bye for a while. It’s dinner time, and I am starving, as usual.”
McKenna never would get back; goodbye for a while was indeed the final goodbye. On Jan. 19 McKenna was the first Loyola boy killed in action, shot in no man’s land just outside of Ypres, as he was carrying ammunition back to his troops.
The Review’s pages from that year, and the years that followed, would increasingly be filled with these first-hand accounts from friends and former classmates at war. The section of the Review dedicated to these “Letters from the Front” was nestled alongside short stories (some telling of war, some not), musings from college boys, prayers, and spreads for every academic, religious, and athletic club on campus. By the 1919 edition, these letters had all but given way to eulogies for fallen friends.
While the war was a constant presence on everybody’s minds at home, the boys at the front often thought of life at school.
A letter from Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) George J. Boyce to a former classmate, written March 7, 1916, said:
“Your thoughtfulness in sending me a Christmas box was very much appreciated indeed. Many thanks from an old friend years’ standing.
How is life with you? You are at the dear old College. God bless Loyola! May it constantly prosper and blossom out into one of the greatest Canadian Colleges! Already, in quality, Loyola leaves nothing to be desired. Let us hope that, with greater facilities, material welfare may be likewise.”
Boyce was awarded the Distinguished Service Order medal in 1919, and his praise as a high-ranking war hero was sung proudly in the Review time and time again during the war years.
The “greater facilities” Boyce describes are indeed the buildings for expansion to the college at what is now Loyola Campus.
Loyola College would be officially moved to the new campus on Sherbrooke Street the following year, in 1917. The old buildings at 68 Drummond St. would then become occupied by the Military Hospitals Commission as a convalescence home for returned soldiers.
Amidst this excitement for a new college stomping grounds, in 1917 the sombre cloud of war hung heavier than it had to this point.
From only two Loyola boys recorded as killed in action the previous year, the casualties marked a total of 14 killed, 24 wounded, and over 175 gone to fight by the time the 1917 Review was published.
The war raged full throttle in that year. The United States declared war on Germany, and joined the Allies on the battlefields. The British launched the third bloody Battle of Ypres. The concept of a “total war” became a reality as German troops bombed British civilians.
A letter from the editor on the first page of the 1916-17 Review reads:
“Our readers will note that a large portion of this number of the Review is fittingly dedicated to our boys at the Front, particularly those who have given their lives to the Empire’s cause. To their families and friends, who have sent us photographs and letters, we offer our sincere thanks.”
The enormous losses from the previous year’s Battle of the Somme had left a sizeable dent in the Allied forces manpower. In response, Canada passed The Military Service Act in August of 1917, which stated that the Canadian government could institute conscription across the country if the need was felt.
The school year of 1917-18 saw many students conscripted, and the college certainly felt the loss.
The Review’s first page for that year reads:
“The demands and alarms of war have played havoc with its ordinary staff and contributors. They have dropped the pen and seized the sword.”
Conscription summoned all young men aged 19 to 23 to the battlefields, where they were to report for duty by April 27. The college had no choice but to entirely close down the philosophy department. Bright young minds stopped debating Aristotle and Machiavelli, and instead prepared to take up battle. Final exams for the year were pushed forward to the beginning of April and the department remained closed from then until the end of the war.
That year, Loyola’s losses numbered 24, almost double from the previous year. Twenty-eight boys were wounded, and one soldier was reported missing, from a total of over 250 Loyola boys at the front.
The pages of the Review were filled with eulogies for fallen friends, death announcements, and letters of condolence. With so many gone to serve, it became harder to keep track of all the Loyola boys who had gone to the front. The Review urged any students or alumni who had news from friends or relatives at war to share it.
The 1918-19 Review was published just before the bells of peace rang out on Nov. 11. By the end of the war, Loyola College had sent over 275 boys off to the battlefields, 34 of whom would not return.
The maple trees that today line the perimeter of the campus on Sherbrooke Street were planted in honour of Loyola College’s fallen WWI heroes.
At 11 a.m. today, please take a moment to remember Corporal Adrian McKenna, Lieutenant John Howe, Colonel-Lieutenant Boyce, and the others who have studied in the classrooms you now do, walked the same halls, shared the same campus, and who fought in this and so many other wars to afford you the liberties you now enjoy.
All information and files c/o The Loyola College Review 1914-19. Special thanks to Concordia’s archives department.
War events timeline according to theworldwars.org.