University Academics and the First World War

This entry is by Dr James Peters, Archivist at the John Rylands Library and member of the Research Group on University History. It originally appeared on the library’s Special Collections blog, and is reproduced here with Dr Peters’ kind permission.

The First World War not only dislocated the everyday work of the University’s academics, but also undermined some of their cherished beliefs about transnational scholarship. Long-established academic networks between Britain and Germany soon broke down.

At Manchester, few academics were either publicly jingoistic or pacifist; most seem to have agreed with the official policy on the War, and encouraged  students and colleagues to enlist. Some, especially those with German connections, experienced public hostility because of their previous links with belligerent states. One of the most eminent was the physicist Arthur Schuster.

Schuster (1851-1934), who held chairs in physics from 1881 to 1907,  had built up an international reputation for Manchester’s physics department.  He had been born in Germany, but moved to Manchester in the late 1860s, and became a naturalised citizen in 1875. He lived at Kent House, Victoria Park (now part of St Anselm Hall), before moving to Twyford, Berkshire  after his retirement.


Schuster was a passionate believer in international academic co-operation, particularly between national scientific academies, in support of free enquiry and scholarly communication. Like many other British academics, Schuster was a great admirer of the German university system and he helped organise British-German student exchanges in the years before 1914.

This made him a source of suspicion for some once War had broken out. Schuster had to remove radio equipment from his house after being accused of spying, and one of his brothers was forced to issue a public statement declaring the family’s loyalty to Britain.

In early 1914 Schuster had been appointed president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting at Manchester in September 1915.  This was a great personal honour, but unfortunately, Schuster’s  German background was to become an issue.

Anti-German feeling in Manchester had been relatively muted in the early months of the War, but riots had occurred in May 1915, with German shops and homes being attacked. The triggers for these outbursts appear to have been the sinking of the Lusitania and the use of poison gas at the second battle of Ypres.

The British Association meeting became embroiled in these conflicts as this flier indicates.

Schuster (1)

The leaflet was discovered during the cataloguing of the papers of Henry Roscoe, another eminent University academic, who was using his good offices to support Schuster’s presidency.

In the event, the Meeting, which was held at the University, passed off without incident. Schuster’s presidential address, “The common aims of science and humanity”,  was a passionate assertion of the benefits of free scientific inquiry. Carefully avoiding controversy, Schuster hoped that scientists’ support for the War effort would not be self-defeating: “…only through victory shall we achieve a peace in which once more science can hold up her head, proud of her strength to preserve the intellectual freedom which is worth more than material prosperity, (and) to defeat the spirit of evil that destroys the sense of brotherhood among nations”. Poignantly, he learnt on the same day that his son had been wounded at Gallipoli.

Schuster’s experience was by no means uncommon. Academics who were German nationals and of military age faced internment, while others lost their jobs or faced ostracism from colleagues. By comparison, Arvid Johannson, the University’s professor of German and a Baltic German by background, was something of an exception, when he was appointed dean of the faculty of arts in 1916, apparently without controversy.