By Shruti Nistandra, Associate Editor
War: a usurper of countless lives; a bearer of loss. Twice in our history, the whole world has been engulfed in the carnage of war, which left immeasurable pain and loss in its wake that will forever hold a place in our hearts and minds. Twice, faced with the tumultuousness of history, the students of Trinity College and the University of Toronto at large, along with countless other valorous Canadians showed inestimable courage as they selflessly devoted themselves to Canada’s war effort. Each year on November 11, we celebrate the armistice, the call to peace, to honour the sacrifices of so many who held the ideal of justice and the love for their country above their own life. They plunged themselves with courage and valiant hearts into wars, the likes of which, can scarcely be imagined by any today.
Each of those men and women had their own lives and their own stories, many of which were blown into anonymity as they populated the stage of war. Today, we seek to remember those students, alumni, staff, and faculty members who stood bravely in the face of the Great Wars.
106 years ago, Trinity College stood grandly as it does today, classes and lectures occurring in its classrooms, filled with students walking in and out of its doors living and breathing the university experience. It was the same Trinity College, yet students held combat training schedules along with lecture timetables, went to rifle practice, and had to learn the calculus of weighing their lives against their duty for their country.
On Aug 4, 1914, Canada was officially at war. President Falconer, the president of the University at the time, addressed the students, effectively giving them a call to action. He described the war as “the greatest of moral struggles” and his words brimmed with strength and confidence, “Are there to be democracies,” he said, “or will force tower arrogantly above freedom and enslave intellect… the struggle had to come. It is well to have decided it one way or other finally, for our own sakes and for our children’s.”
At the outset of the war, the University established the Canadian Officers Training Corps. The Hart House theatre, which had not been completed at the time, was transformed into a rifle range. By December 1914, Professor W.R. Lang, the head of chemistry, was commanding 1800 men from the University in the corps. Every day, the University ended all classes at 4:00 PM so that students could attend the drills, and the academic term ended early allowing students to work at farms and munitions factories. Later, the University also became the training ground of the British Royal Flying Corps.
Over time, as increasing numbers of students enlisted to fight or left to join the war effort in other ways, the feeling of loss began to penetrate the University more deeply and it became “quiet and lonely” in the words of President Falconer. As the war progressed, the University, and especially Trinity College felt its impact in heavier and stronger ways. On November 13, 1914, the University faced its first casualty of war when Trinity College student R.E. Mackenzie Richards perished near Ypres, France during combat. Over the course of the war, 73 undergraduate students and a total of 543 men from Trinity College served in World War I. The women of St. Hilda’s college served as physicians, nurses, administrators and ambulance workers. By early 1915, around 500 undergraduates, 700 graduates, and 70 faculty members from the University of Toronto were on active service.
In these tumultuous times, students felt immense pressure and strain as they were faced with the decision to enlist. Lester B. Pearson, who went on to become the Prime Minister of Canada, attributed his decision to his belief “in the justice of the cause”. For many others, the decision became easier after conscription was legislated in 1917 and, as the professors observed, with the course of action clear to them, students courageously joined the war effort. From 1914-1918, over 6000 people connected to the University participated in the war.
World War I inflicted huge losses on the University. Over 600 people perished and countless more were injured or otherwise affected by the war. 56 men from Trinity College lost their lives, one went missing, 86 suffered injuries, and 149 were the recipients of military honours. Everyone was touched by the war; no one was the same again.
Another 10, 000 people from the University of Toronto served during World War II; the losses were once again enormous.
Today we celebrate all the Trinity College and University of Toronto members who selflessly devoted their lives to their country. Below are just a few of the many students, alumni and faculty members who devoted themselves to the two World wars.
Reginald Prinsep Wilkins
Wilkins graduated from Trinity College in 1914. He was friends with Gordon McMichael Matheson; they both played football and sang as part of the Glee club. During his time at Trinity College, he had been the Editor-in-Chief of The Trinity College Review. He had started as a law student at Osgoode Hall when he joined the war in December 1915. He was killed in the Battle of Bourlon Wood on September 27, 1917.
Gordon McMichael Matheson
Matheson graduated from Trinity College in 1914. He was friends with Reginald Prinsep Wilkins. After graduating from Trinity College, Matheson joined the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine. He enlisted to fight in the war in December 1915 along with Reginald Wilkins. He died on August 11, 1917 at the Battle of Amiens.
Ridley graduated from St. Hilda’s college in 1895. She was a registered nurse and served in the Spanish-American War as part of the U.S. army from 1898 – 1899. She served at military hospitals in France and England throughout World War I. She served in precarious conditions where field hospitals were often bombarded and shelled. She was the recipient of many prestigious medals and in 1918, she was appointed as a Commander, Order of the British Empire.
Leonora Gregory Allen
Allen studied at Trinity College from 1906-1907. She worked as a nurse at hospitals in France and England. She returned to Canada after the war.
Jeffrey Filder Smith
Smith studied at the University of Toronto Faculty of Arts from 1903-1905. He enlisted for the war in 1916. Smith fought in the battle of Vimy Ridge where he was injured. He recovered and once again joined the war. At the end of June 1917, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. On June 29, 1917, he died of his wounds.
Richard Arthur Mitchell
Mitchell was studying at the faculty of Arts when he enlisted for the war in November 1914; he was 20 years old. He served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. In September 1916, he died in the Somme when he went to help two men who were wounded in Courcelette. He was shot by a sniper as he was returning to the trenches.
Professor Kylie was a history lecturer at the University of Toronto. He trained a company of Trinity, Wycliffe, and St. Michael’s college students. He was killed in a training accident at Owen Sound.
Bethune was a student at the Faculty of Medicine. He enlisted in September 1914 and served as a stretcher-bearer in the army medical corps. He was wounded at the second Battle of Ypres. He returned to Canada, completed his medical degree and then enlisted again as a surgeon in the Royal Navy.
McCrae was a graduate of the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine. He wrote the well-known poem “In Flanders Fields” and brought the experience of war home to all, immortalizing the memories of World War I. He died on active service in 1918.
Pilot Officer Gregory Maher
Maher was a recent engineering graduate from the University of Toronto. He was the first World War II casualty connected to the University. He died in a bomber crash on November 29, 1939.
George Stevenson Cartwright
Cartwright had graduated from Trinity College with a Bachelor of Arts in 1929. He was a Rhodes scholar. He was killed as part of an air operation over Hamburg Germany on November 9, 1942.
Jean Burgess Atkinson, Dorothy Britton, Mary Susannah McLaren
Atkinson was a physiotherapy graduate, Britton was a graduate of Trinity College, and McLaren was an occupational therapy graduate; all three of them died on active service duty.
Everyone who fought in and contributed to the world wars will forever be in the hearts and minds of the University community.
On November 11, 1919, the foundation was laid for what was to become The Soldiers’ Tower at the University of Toronto. The Soldiers’ Tower was built by the Alumni association which also contributed towards scholarships and loans for returned veterans and their families. The names of those who died during World War I are carved on the Memorial Screen. After World War II, more names were carved into the Memorial Arch at the base of the power. There are almost 1200 names carved on the memorial tower. A memorial room inside the tower holds artifacts from the war, memories of a time past; a reminder to never forget.
The Trinity College Chapel also houses a stone memorial that has the names of Trinity College students, alumni, faculty and staff who died during the two world wars carved into it. In 1922, Trinity College dean of residence A. H. Young, and registrar W. A. Kirkwood took the initiative to memorialize each of the 543 Trinity College members who served in the First World War so that the particular identity and specific story of all those individuals never get lost into anonymity as a mere number or statistic. Thus, The War Memorials Volume of Trinity College was created; the photos they left behind in 1922 were rediscovered by Trinity College Archivist Sylvia Lassam who put their glass plate negatives onto the windows of Trinity College on the hundredth anniversary of the armistice.  Those faces now always look into the quad thus forever securing their presence into the hearts and minds of those that pass through the College, now and in perpetuity.
Lest we Forget.
- Canadian Virtual War Memorial. 26 Feb. 2020, www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/2266299.
- Daubs, Katie. “First World War Soldiers and Nurses Are a Ghostly Presence in Trinity College Windows.” Thestar.com, 11 Nov. 2018, www.thestar.com/news/gta/2018/11/10/first-world-war-soldiers-and-nurses-are-a-ghostly-presence-in-trinity-college-windows.html.
- Friedland, Martin L. The University of Toronto: A History. University of Toronto Press, 2013.
- “Trinity Remembers.” Trinity Alumni Magazine, 2014, magazine.trinity.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Trinity-2014-spring-winter1.pdf.
- Trinity Remembers. 10 Nov. 2017, www.trinity.utoronto.ca/discover/news/item/trinity-remembers/.