Today marks the centenary of the University of Aberdeen’s students company’s first major battle in the First World War. During the Battle of Loos these men were part of a ‘containing operation’ at Hooge designed to prevent Germany sending troops along the line to the main attack at Loos.
The University of Aberdeen’s company of soldiers was known as ‘U’ Company and was recruited in 1897 as a volunteer battalion. In 1908 the University Company became part of the 4th Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders as part of a reorganisation of army reserves. There were 132 members of ‘U’ Company when war broke out 1914 and, after joining with Aberdeen Grammar School and Robert Gordon’s College Companies, they became known as ‘D’ Company in the 4th Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, however those from the University of Aberdeen were still informally referred to as ‘U’ Company.
‘D’ Company trained in Bedford before being sent to France in July, encountering some initial losses in small fights and from German snipers. However it was September 25th 1915 that was to be the biggest and last battle for the Company.
On the eve of the battle members of a select society from within ‘U’ Company, called ‘The Jock’s Society’ held a meeting. In 1917 an account of this meeting was published by Robert Stewart in the University of Aberdeen’s Alma Mater magazine. Here we see how the student soldiers longed to return to their studies at the University:
‘Supper over, we gathered round the heart of the open fireplace and the past occupied our thoughts. Marischal College, with all its joys and association was discussed, and many a wish expressed that soon, note book in hand, we would again cross the quadrangle. No mention of the morrow was made.’
Lord Kitchener visited to inspect the Gordon Highlanders before the battle and was described by Alexander Rule, a student soldier, as having ‘wished them as much luck as they could expect.’ It is clear that little was done to hide the fact that this was a diversionary attack designed to distract the enemy from the main attack at Loos. Rule describes the attack as being ‘staged largely on sacrificial lines – and one in which we filled the role of the “bloody sacrifice”’.
Nevertheless, the student soldiers played their part in the Battle of Hooge. So heavy were the losses to the Battalion that the ‘U’ Company ceased to exist. The few who had survived the battle were assigned to other regiments and those who were wounded returned home to their studies.
The First World War saw the creation and destruction of many Companies such as ‘D’ Company, which consisted of men from the same area, sports clubs, universities and towns. These were nicknamed ‘Pal Battalions’ and as a result of battles like Hooge, Loos and the Somme, these battalions were banned in 1916 as entire towns and communities were severely affected by one battle.
To learn more about the Battle of Hooge and to see the memorial wall and window visit our new exhibition at King’s College Chapel. The exhibition opens today and will be on display until the end of November. The Chapel is open to the public Monday-Friday 10am-3.30pm.