As the War dragged on and casualty numbers grew, student opinions about the conflict became increasingly ambivalent. Some, who may have been partly motivated by a desire to avoid the aggressive recruitment campaigns at the University, returned to their family farms, choosing instead to help sustain crop production for the military.
One father wrote about his son to President Murray: “… he says he must either enlist or give up his studies and come home. He says the place has gone ‘crazy’ over enlisting and from all accounts I think he has used the right word.”
Towards the War’s end, students abandoned their romantic beliefs about the conflict, but they did not stop backing the war effort. The importance of supporting “the boys” overseas was never a subject open for debate.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge is considered as one of the defining moments in the formation of Canada’s identity. Victory came at a great cost, but also marked the first time that Canadian troops fought independently from the British forces.
During the monotony between battles, men attempted to bring a sense of normalcy to their lives. Recognising this need, Cpt. Edmund Oliver the first history professor at the U of S, President of St. Andrew’s College, and Chaplain to the Western Universities Battalion, created the “University of Vimy Ridge” in December 1917.
The UVR’s purpose was to provide soldiers with knowledge and skills which would allow them to reintegrate into society. The UVR not only educated soldiers, but also brought a sense of hope for the future.
“The Vimy Ridge University scheme has many adjustments to make, but we men welcome the scheme and will take as much advantage as possible of its advantages. Dr. Oliver is working like a horse, he has the enthusiastic support of leading men in our Division, and I am sure he will make things go with a swing.”
Rather than staying in one spot, the UVR followed the troops, staying just behind the Front. This created logistical challenges, including finding locations to conduct lectures, moving classes up and down the 30-mile front line, supplying materials, and finding instructors.
“The trouble is to chase around and discover a room, steal chairs, find lights, keep cheerful and deliver the goods. We have got results not because we are University people, but because we have walked our legs off and overcome every obstacle that has presented itself.”
However, his efforts were rewarded. In February 1918, Oliver announced that nearly 4,000 soldiers had taken part in classes, over 6,000 had attended lectures, and over 4,000 books had been loaned in a single week.
The German offensive in March 1918 ended the UVR. However, the University of Vimy Ridge had given soldiers valuable skills and knowledge.
“Well, our reading room is so full that there are lots of boys standing up, and more are coming in through the door. I have just counted thirteen standing up because there is no room to sit down. ...Gilmour has gone out to steal some chairs.... Seven more boys have come in — twenty are standing up.... I glance up and there a fellow stands with a gasmask in his hand reading Tennyson....’
— Edmund Oliver