The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War was commemorated in 2014.
On July 28th 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist. As Russia mobilised, Germany declared war on Russia and France, invading neutral Belgium and Luxembourg on the way to France. As a result, Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th and so began over four years of fighting which had a devastating effect on many people, changing the world forever.
Following the declaration of war, the grounds and buildings of all the colleges in Cambridge were placed at the disposal of the War Office. Downing College, along with King's, was chosen to house the influx of nurses to staff the newly established First Eastern General Hospital (on the current site of the UL). They started moving into College in the second week of war, staying until term began. The Michaelmas 1914 issue of the College magazine, The Griffin, referred to a "Downing crammed with nurses", commenting "we hear many strange rumours of the College during the days of the Long, and our rooms bear traces of occupants other than ourselves. It must, indeed, have been an unusual sight!"
However, the same editorial gave an indication of the subdued atmosphere in College at the start of the new academic year:
"Looking back to the end of last term, we remember that every prospect seemed good this year; there was no hint of the trouble to come. With four Blues and six May colours intending to be in residence, we looked forward with confidence to great happenings, whilst a fair crop of academic distinction seemed probable. But it was not to be. In August the call came, and the call was answered...One by one the rest came up; in little groups we foregathered, discussing the all-compelling topic, and watching to see who would be with us, and who would not. But those who came up were few; on every hand, we miss the wonted number of our friends. Daily we are reminded of them in untenanted room and silent stair, and the empty seats in Hall speak eloquently of their numbers. So many have gone, so many of those whom the College could ill spare; and still others go. Our thoughts are of them, and, whether on the field of battle, or bearing their part still near at home, our good wishes go with them."
In total, 363 members of Downing College (students, Fellows, alumni and staff) served in the war. They served in the forces of fifteen countries and colonies and in most theatres of war across Europe, Africa and at sea. Thirty-five of these died and fifty-five were wounded. A Roll of Honour commemorating those who died is now online.
The majority of records relating to the First World War are open to researchers, by appointment. The previous Archivist mounted a large exhibition on the war several years ago and compiled a full list of all Downing men who served. Anyone with a particular interest in Downing during the First World War, or a particular individual, would be welcome to contact the Archivist for further information.
The University of Cambridge has produced a short film on the history of the First Eastern General Hospital, which can be viewed here.
The Downing College Association has published a history of 'Downing and the Two World Wars' (2010) by Gwyn Bevan, John Hicks and Peter Thomson. This can be ordered direct from the Association, further details here.