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Friday, 17 May 2013

Nova Scotia's Universities and the War Effort

Throughout World War I, many Canadian institutions and organizations made significant contributions to the war effort.  Nova Scotia's universities and colleges provide one such example.  Despite differences in size and focus, each devoted its skills and resources to meeting the demands of combat.


Dalhousie University, the province's largest higher education facility, organized an Officers' Training Corps (OTC) in October 1914, attracting almost 200 enlistments from amongst alumni and Halifax businessmen.  Throughout the winter of 1914 - 15, the unit trained and attended lectures, many of its members receiving commissions and proceeding overseas for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force over the following three years.

Perhaps Dalhousie's most significant contribution was the establishment of a 'stationary hospital'.  As the only Maritime university with a medical faculty, it was best positioned to provide such a resource.  As early as September 1914, the university offered to staff a casualty clearing station (CCS) for service at the front.  Officials repeated the offer the following spring, but the federal government did not consider such units a priority at the time.

Determined to make a medical contribution, Dalhousie's medical faculty suggested formation of a hospital unit for overseas service.  On September 27, 1915, the federal government officially approved the proposal and organizational work commenced.  Officially designated No 7. Stationary Hospital, the unit's purpose was to "provide a stage [of medical treatment] between the field hospital and those back in Britain and Canada".

A total of 162 personnel - including university medical professors, senior students and nurses - volunteered for service with the hospital unit.  Sixty-seven year old Dr. John Stewart, a prominent member of the medical faculty, was appointed commanding officer and personally led recruits on several route marches.  The old Medical College building at the corner of Robie and College Streets provided facilities for headquarters, barracks and an orderly room, while the neighbouring Maritime School of Business volunteered its dining room and kitchen facilities as a mess hall.

Dr. John Stewart (center) and officers, No. 7 Stationary Hospital (Dalhousie Unit).
Within days of its formation, 30 medical personnel and 80 nurses applied for the unit's 12 officer and 27 nursing sister positions.  Preference was given to individuals with connections to the university as well as nursing graduates from the province's two largest hospital-based nursing schools - Victoria General Hospital (Halifax) and St. Joseph's Hospital (Glace Bay) - as they were the only two institutions in the province with sufficient beds to meet military training requirements.

On December 31, 1915, the members of No. 7 Stationary Hospital entrained at Halifax and travelled to Saint John, NB, where they joined several military units on board HMS Metagama for the journey to England.  The vessel sailed at 9 pm New Years' Day 1916 and was escorted by naval convoy into port at Plymouth, England in the early hours of January 10.  At the time of arrival, No. 7 Stationary Hospital consisted of 15 officers and 26 nursing sisters in addition to 133 non-commissioned officers and 'other ranks'.  Male members travelled by train to the Canadian military base at Shorncliffe while nursing sisters were accommodated at London's Bonnington Hotel.

Personnel spent the following month training at various locations across southeastern England before assuming responsibility for the Shorncliffe Military Hospital and forty subsidiary hospitals in the Dover area on February 5, 1916.  Shorncliffe's 800-bed facility primarily served the medical needs of Canadian soldiers stationed at nearby bases as they completed training in preparation for service at the front. 

After spending four months operating the Shorncliffe facility, No. 7 Stationary Hospital crossed the English Channel on Sunday, June 18 and assumed responsibility for a 400-bed facility at Le Havre, France.  Personnel later established a second 400-bed hospital at nearby Harfleur.  The main hospital treated wounded German prisoners of war in addition to ill soldiers from Imperial units based at Le Havre, while the subsidiary hospital treated 'camp sick' and accidental injuries at a Canadian base and several nearby Imperial camps.

No. 7 Stationary Hospital personnel (location unknown).
At year's end, all unit personnel relocated to Harfleur, where they endured severe winter conditions throughout January and February 1917.  The most difficult challenge was the mud, which one officer described as "deep, tenacious and slippery".  The arrival of spring brought a move to St. Omer, where No. 7 Stationary established a hospital in a chateau at nearby Arques on May 14, 1917. 

Unit personnel now found themselves much closer to combat than their first assignment.  As the front trenches were only 50 kilometres away, the sound of artillery was a daily occurrence and the flash of guns was clearly visible on the eastern horizon at dawn and dusk.  The first patients - a group of wounded German POWs - arrived on June 8, followed by wounded Allied soldiers who were transported to the facility by ambulance, hospital train, and even by barge along a nearby canal.

The arrival of summer provided a rare opportunity for recreation as the unit hosted a large athletic meet in honour of Dominion Day on July 1, 1917.  The highlight of the event was a surprise visit by HRH King George V and his son Edward, Prince of Wales.  Festivities were short-lived, however, as personnel returned to the business of treating wounded soldiers.  Operating so close to front lines was much more hazardous than the Le Havre assignment.  On September 30, German planes dropped bombs on several hospitals in the St. Omer area, but the Dalhousie unit fortunately was not targeted and sustained no injuries.

No. 7 Stationary Hospital remained in the St. Omer area until early 1918, when the massive German 'spring offensive' resulted in unprecedented numbers of casualties.  At one point, almost 800 patients crowded into the 400-bed Arques facility.  As German units advanced closer to St. Omer and artillery shells targeted the area, the unit relocated to Etaples on April 18, 1918, its personnel dispersed to several medical facilities.

Nursing Sisters, No. 7 Stationary Hospital.
One month later - on the night of May 18 - 60 German planes launched a major bombing raid on Etaples, inflicting numerous casualties amongst the various medical units stationed there.  Two members of the Dalhousie unit were killed and an additional two wounded in the raid.  As a result, Stationary Hospital No. 7 relocated to Rouen, where its personnel were once again dispersed amongst existing British hospitals. 

In September 1918, No. 7 Stationary personnel reassembled and moved to Camiers, where they assumed operation of a 1000-bed hospital.  The unit remained in this location for the next five months, treating Canadian wounded during the final days of fighting.  It was here that members received news of the November 11, 1918 armistice.  Three months later, the Dalhousie unit handed responsibility for the Camiers hospital to No. 9 Stationary Hospital (St. Francis Xavier Unit) and proceeded to Le Havre to await passage to England.

Personnel sailed from Le Havre on March 17, 1919 for Southampton, where they remained for one month before departing for Canada.  On April 23, No. 7 Stationary Hospital landed in Halifax and its members were discharged from military service.  Altogether, the Dalhousie hospital unit treated an estimated 60,000 sick and wounded patients during the war - 50,000 in France and 10,000 in England.  It sustained 12 fatalities during its service overseas, while an additional nine members were wounded, several on more than one occasion.

In addition to the medical unit, a total of 585 Dalhousie students and faculty enlisted for overseas service with various military units.  There were 67 known fatalities amongst enlistments, while 44 received decorations for distinguished service.  The number is impressive, considering the fact that total male enrolment at the University in September 1914 was only 308, one-third of whom enlisted for military service by the end of the school year.

War Memorial Gymnasium, Acadia University.

While Acadia University students and faculty did not recruit a specific unit, an estimated 600 to 700 men and women affiliated with the college enlisted for overseas service during the war.  Sixty students joined the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade, primarily the 219th Battalion.  Ten Acadia students joined the 4th Universities Company Reinforcements of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI).  Altogether, 63 individuals connected to the university - 62 men and one woman - lost their lives while serving overseas.  Approximately 80 individuals received military honours, including the only Victoria Cross awarded to a 'college man' from the Maritime Provinces - Acadia alumnus Sgt. (later Brigadier) Milton Fowler Gregg of Mountain Dale, Kings County, New Brunswick.

After the war, Acadia was the only Maritime university to offer one year's free tuition to returning servicemen.  In honour of those who lost their lives in service of their country, the university undertook construction of a new athletic facility to replace a structure destroyed in a 1914 fire.  General Sir Arthur W. Currie, former commander of the Canadian Corps, laid the cornerstone of the new War Memorial Gymnasium on May 26, 1920.

Cornerstone, War Memorial Gymnasium, Acadia University.
Nova Scotia's oldest higher educational facilities, King's College and King's College School, Windsor made notable contributions to the war effort.  More than 400 individuals connected to the schools enlisted for overseas service.  Twelve 'King's men' held commissions with the Imperial Army and Canadian forces, including seven Generals.  Fourteen volunteers sailed with the First Canadian Contingent in October 1914, four of whom were subsequently killed in action. 

The Second Canadian Contingent included 35 King's students and graduates.  Of particular interest were nine students who volunteered for service with the Cycle Corps and a group of twenty who enlisted in the 193rd Battalion, a number that represented about half of the students in residence at King's College at that time.

In total, 67 King's students enlisted during the war years, 10 of whom died while serving overseas.  Twenty-three individuals connected to the schools - students, faculty and graduates - lost their lives in service of their country during the war.


Rev. Clarence MacKinnon, Military Chaplain & later Principal of Pine Hill College, Halifax.
Despite its small size and theological orientation, Pine Hill Presbyterian College, Halifax made significant contributions to the war effort.  Several of its students joined Dalhousie's OTC and a Cycle Corps unit formed by the larger school.  Fifteen students enlisted with the Ambulance Corps, many transferring to fighting units as the war progressed.

During 1915, the first full year of the war, eight Pine Hill students enlisted with the 6th Canadian Mounted Rifles, four joined Dalhousie's No. 7 Overseas Hospital unit, five volunteered for service with Nova Scotia's Highland Brigade and an additional five became members of artillery units raised in Halifax.  By the fall of 1916, the majority of the small school's students had enlisted, most serving overseas.

Altogether, 48 Pine Hill students and faculty enlisted in some capacity during the war, including Principal and Professor H. A. Kent, who joined the Chaplain Service.  Two Military Crosses and one Military Medal were bestowed on soldiers connected to the school, while seven individuals lost their lives in service.  All but seven of the surviving students returned to their ministry studies at the conclusion of the war.

Similar to its Halifax counterpart, the major contribution to the war effort provided by St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish was the formation of No, 9 Stationary Hospital.  Organized in November 1915, the unit served in England and France, returning home to Canada in July 1919. [Details on its service record will be provided in this month's veteran profile.]

Memorial Rink, St. Francis Xavier University.
In total, more than 350 Xaverians enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 33 of whom were killed or died while serving overseas.  Twenty-eight individuals connected to the university received military honours, including four Distinguished Service Orders, eleven Military Crosses, five Military Medals and three Distinguished Conduct Medals.

Three professors saw active service with Canadian, Imperial and American forces.  Two were severely wounded, while the third was awarded the Military Cross for bravery.  At home, university faculty were actively involved in organizing support for the war effort through the Patriotic Fund, Victory Loan Campaign, and Knights of Columbus, who provided service to soldiers at the front.  In February 1922, the university opened its first indoor ice surface - Memorial Arena - in honour of alumni who lost their lives in service of their country.


Hunt. M. S..  Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War - 1920.  Archive CD Books Canada, Manotick, Ont.: 2007.

Memorial Rink, St. Francis Xavier University.  Military Memorials.  National Defence and the Canadian Forces.  National Defence Canada website.

Profile: The First President of Conference.  Maritime Conference, United Church of Canada.  Available online.

World War I.  History of Medicine at Dalhousie University.  Dalhousie University Archives and Special Collections - Digital Collections.  Available online.

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