“Any young man with courage and guts would obviously want to serve the Empire,” said historian and U of T professor emeritus Desmond Morton to the newspaper. “If you didn’t want to serve, you lacked guts. We all know how young men respond to that.”
In its patriotic fervor, U of T became a hub of military activity between 1914 and 1918. “The university was so heavily involved in the war effort that everyone was focused on one goal, which was to win the war,” said Kathy Parks, chair of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee. Sports seasons were suspended until 1919. Fraternities were closed. The Faculty of Medicine organized two military hospitals and professional faculties such as engineering and dentistry became involved. The Canadian Officers’ Training Corps operated on campus. U of T professors gave hundreds of war-inspired public lectures throughout the city.
When the 1915 school term began, enrollment was down by 650 men. Six hundred more were absent by September 1916, and another 600 left by next January. By the time conscription was imposed in 1917 by the Military Service Act, it had little effect because there were so few fit men left to serve.
University grounds and buildings were heavily utilized by the military. The Royal Flying Corps established a training centre for the Dominion in the spring of 1917 and put its headquarters in Toronto. They took over the front and back lawns, parts of the Engineering Building, Convocation Hall, most of Burwash Hall, and the University Residences. Hart House acted as a kind of epicentre.
Even before the interior of Hart House was finished, it was filled with military activity. Five different battalions operated from Hart House, and according to Facilities Manager and resident Hart House historian, Chris Lea, the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and upper halls were previously used as infirmaries. In the upper gym, workshops were given on how to build planes. Here too was Canada’s first rehabilitation centre, originally designated for returning veterans.
And of the honourable and courageous but faceless people whose names are inscribed in the walls of Soldiers’ Tower, some figures stand beside them, and yet above them as heroes in our memory. Men like John McCrae, author of In Flanders Fields, Lester Pearson, Frederick Banting, and Capt. MacDowell, one of two members of U of T awarded the Victoria Cross. Capt. Macdowell crossed into enemy territory and with assistance of two runners, captured two machine guns, two officers and seventy-five men. One of those guns is now in Soldiers’ Tower.
As the war came to its end, plans began for its memorialization. Soldier’s Tower formed the centre of these plans, its symbolism heightened by its central location on campus, to link University College and Hart House.
In 1918, at his fall commencement address, President Falconer expressed the conflicted nature of his time, which was a mixture of victorious delight and disillusionment. “It came upon us with a terrific suddenness. We had to face it as best we might. We have lost many of our best ... Canadians have clothed themselves with glory until the very end.”
Whatever its lasting importance, something of that war is not entirely lost on us. In some way some of us have learned meaningful ways to remember. Prof. Morton asked, “Who worries about the widows, the mothers, the family members, the children who are left without fathers who can help them in their future?”
Lea answered, “Those guys, they gave a big piece of their life, they put themselves in harm’s way -- they did it because they were thinking about me, and they were thinking about you, and we weren’t even born yet.”