County historian Malcolm Graham has revealed in his new book how the city of Oxford was transformed during the Great War. Andrew Ffrench reports AS the former head of the Oxfordshire Studies Centre, Malcolm Graham knew there would be quite a battle among writers hoping to compile new books on the First World War.

He lost the first skirmish, with Jane Cotter getting Great War Britain Oxfordshire: Remembering 1914-18 into print first, with The History Press.

Mr Graham gracefully admitted defeat and his detailed study, Oxford in the Great War, has now been published by military specialists Pen & Sword.

The two authors recently joined forces to give a talk at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock.

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Mr Graham, 66, said: “Jane’s book focuses on the county while I look at the effect of the Great War on the city of Oxford.

“We both spoke at a study day at the museum and the talks complemented each other pretty well, and so do the two books.

“In March last year Pen & Sword contacted Maggie Hartford, then literary editor at The Oxford Times, to see if she could recommend a writer for their Cities in the War series.

“She asked Newsquest Oxfordshire librarian Chris McDowell and he recommended me, which is how I came to write the book.”

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Author Malcolm Graham outside the Examination Schools with his new book

The father and grandfather, who lives with wife Ros in Botley, uses his book to examine how the war affected both Town and Gown. Mr Graham said his research reflected the current interest in family history and fascination with the history of the First World War, prompted by the centenary of its outbreak.

He added: “Strangely enough the First World War had rather been forgotten until a few years ago.

“The National Curriculum in schools concentrated more on the Second World War, but now there has been a complete turnaround and there are coach tours to France and Belgium to see where the battles took place.

“This is just the first of five years of commemorations and we are going to hear a lot more about major battles including Ypres and the Somme.”

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Men from the Volunteer Training Corps marching past the Sheldonian Theatre in 1914

Mr Graham said he wanted his book to focus on how Oxford University colleges were affected by the war and how people in the city responded and contributed to the war effort.

He added: “I’m very pleased with the cover of the book. It’s quite an evocative image of boy scouts in an Oxford troop marching past the Examination Schools in High Street with a Union Jack flag.

“The photo was taken in June 1915, so it’s possible that some of them were conscripted by the end of the war.”

Mr Graham said colleges in Oxford suffered “horrendous loss of life”, with Corpus Christi one of the worst affected, losing about a quarter of its students during the war.

His book gives the impression of an Oxford completely transformed by the war, with university, colleges and other public buildings turned into makeshift hospitals and thousands of war casualties brought in by train to be treated here.

“The city was full of wounded soldiers and manic activity to support the war effort,” said Mr Graham.

As the former head of the Oxfordshire Studies Centre, Mr Graham knew where the best photos were kept, showing Oxford during the war years.

These included evocative images of Oxford volunteers on parade at Balliol College cricket ground in 1914, including the poet laureate Robert Bridges.

Men from the Oxford Volunteer Training Corps are also captured marching past the Sheldonian Theatre in 1914, and in 1915 a photographer in Queen Street snapped a soldier from The Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars saying goodbye to his wife and son in Queen Street as he made his way from Christ Church to the Great Western Railway station.

There are also stunning images from the frontline, including an image of Second Lieutenant HA Le Mesurier protecting himself from German sniper fire by using a periscope to look over the trench wall.

The crack shots in the German army meant it could be fatal to raise your head above the parapet.

“Some of the pictures came from the Oxfordshire History Centre, where I used to work, and some came from the Oxford Journal Illustrated, which ran from 1909 to 1928 and is an excellent resource,” said Mr Graham.

“Support for the war effort was incredible – even the photographer Henry Taunt was involved.

“He was reported to the police for spying because he would tour the county on a quadricycle with his assistant.

“Taunt was an ardent patriot and was actually rather anti-German because German postcards would rival his own in the run-up to the war, and he tried to draw up a list of Germans living in Oxford.”

As well as focusing on how men, women and children were energised to support the war effort, the book also focuses on the bravery of troops on the front line, including troops from the Oxfordshire Hussars and Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

As the death toll grew, the Oxford Chronicle in 1916 noted that the casualty lists revealed the sacrifice of young men from all ranks and social classes across the city.

Mr Graham writes: “Whether serving in the county regiments or elsewhere, Oxonians were involved in a vast struggle which seemed unending, and beyond comprehension.

“For most of them the trenches of the Western Front formed the battleground, but many saw action in other theatres of war, or in the Royal Navy or the air force.

“The conditions in which they lived, fought, and in many cases became casualties of war, were often appalling, but the shared misery inspired a remarkable camaraderie and made more precious those periods of rest and recreation behind the lines.”

Twenty years ago Mr Graham wrote his first wartime study, entitled Oxfordshire at War, 1939-45, but the book is currently is out of print.

Thanks to the centenary of the devastating conflict which began in 1914 his latest war effort could become a best seller.

  • Oxford in the Great War by Malcolm Graham is published by Pen & Sword, price £12.99.

EFFECTIVE GALLANTRY COMPANY

Sergeant Major Edward Brooks was a Headington resident who served in the 2/4th Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light infantry and was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery during a raid at Fayet, near St Quentin, France, on April 28, 1917.

Company Sergeant Major Brooks earned the regiment’s first Victoria Cross of the war and he is remembered to this day in Oxfordshire, with the Army’s Edward Brooks Barracks, in Abingdon, named in his honour.

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Sergeant Major Edward Brooks

In the chapter entitled News from the Front Line, Mr Graham tells how, during the summer of 1917, news that the Victoria Cross had been awarded to Edward Brooks was greeted with great excitement in Oxford and in Oakley, near Thame, his birthplace.

Mr Graham said: “Edward Brooks attacked a machine gun post and dealt with the people in it, killing one or two, and then turned the gun on the enemy as they were fleeing. It was very effective gallantry – afterwards he carried the machine gun back to his own lines.”

Brooks received the award from King George V at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace on Saturday, July 21, and returned to a hero’s welcome in Oxford.

The mayor, Alderman Sir Robert Buckell, met him off the train at Oxford station.

In a welcoming speech, the mayor said: “You have won honours for your native place and for Oxford, and we are proud of this honour which we in a measure share with your deeds and valour.”

After the war Edward Brooks worked at the Morris Motors factory.

Many ex-servicemen in the Oxford area found work in the growing car industry in Cowley.

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