Propaganda targeted people’s emotions. If men could not be encouraged to enlist, they would be shamed into it. Civilians were pressured to buy Victory Bonds. The enemy was portrayed as vicious brutes willing to commit atrocities in their quest to destroy civilisation.
The Sheaf, the U of S newspaper, though decidedly patriotic, sometimes took a more balanced approach. The students who operated the newspaper tended to be more reflective in their editorials, and became even more so as the War wore on.
President Walter Murray believed men from the U of S should fight together, separate from companies formed from the general population. He led presidents from other western universities in lobbying for a battalion composed of faculty and students.
In February 1916, their efforts were rewarded. Recruits from the Universities of Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba amalgamated to form the 196th Western Universities Battalion.
“The Universities have become militant. Geologists are forming fours. Philosophers rush from muster parade to revolver practice. Professors of mathematics and English literature shout themselves hoarse at physical drill. Chemists are teaching bayonet practice and the mysteries of the Ross rifle…. We are citizens of a great Empire that has stood for self-government that is being tried by fire.”
- Edmund Oliver
The 196th Battalion went to Camp Hughes, Manitoba, for basic training, and from there to England in preparation for deployment to Europe.
However, the 196th was disbanded before it saw action — its members being divided amongst other units as reinforcements. Many U of S soldiers found themselves with other Saskatchewan men in the 46th South Saskatchewan Battalion.
The 46th fought in some of the worst battles, suffering especially high casualties, and earning the name “the Suicide Battalion.” Of the 5,374 men in the 46th Battalion, 4,917 were either killed or wounded.
A particularly costly battle was Passchendaele, where there were 403 casualties from the battalion’s strength of 600 men.
Students initially expressed great enthusiasm for the War and optimism over the British Empire’s chances for military success. Military drills were held on campus, and student enlistment was high — about half the male student population and most of the young faculty served voluntarily.
Many female students held in contempt those men who refused to volunteer.
However, while some students openly criticised the faculty for deserting their classes, they were nonetheless ardent supporters of the War. John Ross Macpherson, for instance, editor of The Sheaf, and a student in the College of Arts, was one such voice. Macpherson served at the Front for three years before he was decorated with a Distinguished Service Order for his bravery — he was killed in action in August 1918.
“The war is still the subject uppermost in the minds of us all. As time goes on and we see many of our own boys departing on the service of their country we begin to realize a little more fully what it really means.”