Discover UTS
Discover UTS First World War Commemorative Project


The University of Toronto Schools opened its doors in September 1910, admitting talented boys who hailed from as nearby as Huron Street and as far away as Melbourne, Australia. In some ways, the school in its early years was a very different institution from the one it has become: all the pupils were boys; the vast majority were Anglican, Presbyterian, or Methodist, and Great Britain was a constant presence in the school’s life - it is hard to imagine any of today’s students cracking jokes about Oxford dons or calling each other “old bean”! But in other ways, little has changed: then as now, UTS students were deeply involved in the school’s government and its extra-curricular activities; they excelled in academics and athletics, winning scholarships as well as rugby championships; they even wrote jokey poems about ancient Greek athletes.

In September 1914, UTS was only four years old, but soon its students, alumni, and masters began to enlist in the Canadian Forces, eager to fight in the war that was unfolding in Europe. Over the next four years, nearly four hundred members of the UTS community would serve in the First World War, leading one former student to comment that “if you want to meet a UTS Old Boy, you have to hunt around London or France - not many left in Toronto.” Of those four hundred, sixty-three would not return.

There were three things that I found particularly striking as I wrote these stories of the sixty-two students and one master whose names appear on the memorial tablet in the school’s main entrance. The first is their youth. Howard Pickering, the Modern Languages master who was killed at Passchendaele, was only thirty-three, and the Old Boys were even younger; many joined up straight after graduating, and some, like Cyril Houston, were still in school when they enlisted. It was easy for my classmates and me to observe, as thirteen- and fourteen-year-old students learning about the First World War, that the soldiers who fought it were little older than we were; it is more difficult to fathom that I, at nineteen, am older than Robert Best, Theodore May, and Don Sisley ever had the chance to be.

Nevertheless, the second thing that struck me was that despite their youth, they left behind full lives. They had jobs as students, bankers, and architects; they had hobbies that tied them to the life of their city, as members of the Y.M.C.A. or of the Toronto Argonauts sports teams, and perhaps most of all, they had their parents, and they had each other. They attended the same universities, worked for the same employers, and worshipped in the same parishes; many enlisted together and signed each other’s attestation papers. In fact, on one occasion, thirteen UTS boys found each other at the Front and had a photograph of themselves taken - a remarkable accomplishment when one considers that they served in different regiments.

The final thing I noted was their determination to serve. Theodore May and Robert Best lied about their ages; Allan Denovan, deemed unfit for duty because of disability, underwent an operation simply to be allowed to enlist; Frank Wood accepted a demotion from Captain to Lieutenant in order to reach the front as quickly as possible. If this eagerness seems baffling to us, that bafflement is largely due to the war they fought. The romantic nineteenth-century image of battle, of heroic generals like Wolfe and Brock and of their gallant men, could not survive the Great War: how could it, when over 66,000 Canadians were killed, and nearly 173,000 returned home wounded, vivid reminders to their families and neighbours that war was now a matter of aeroplanes and barbed wire and gas attacks? The experiences of the UTS boys illustrate the full horror of the Western Front, and it is worth noting that many of their bodies were never recovered and that the overwhelming majority of them are buried an ocean away from their homes - a testament to the appalling anonymity and loneliness of the First World War.

And yet, improbable though it seems, there was camaraderie, and there was heroism, and there was breathtaking courage, all of which come across in the stories that follow just as clearly as do the misery and the tragedy. Hugh Cleal and Laurence Shields were among the 2000 Canadians who refused to yield their position at Langemark when confronted with the first German chlorine gas attack of the war; Robert Hamilton single-handedly saved the lives of several of his men who had been buried by shell fire, and Thomas Leslie Harling was killed while rescuing a wounded soldier. Among the UTS fallen, there were two flying aces as well as winners of the Military Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Croix de Guerre, but the true distinction of the school’s war record and the bravery of its students is found in their stories rather than in lists of decorations. As Headmaster Crawford declared in the early stages of the war, “with the note of mourning is blended the note of triumph.”

Ninety years after the war’s end, its final survivors are dying and it is passing out of living memory. Every day, hundreds of UTS students walk past the World War One Memorial Tablet, sometimes spending a second to note the names, at other times rushing to a first period class. This project is an effort to reconnect these young men’s stories to their names.

Morgan Ring, Class of 2007

"Not without a wrenching of the heart-strings can we contemplate the untimely taking off of these gallant youths. Swiftly is the land being filled with sympathy for the mourners; keenly now can we realize the force of that line from the most compassionate of poets [Vergil]: “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” – “there are tears for the woes of men, and the sad estate of mortals touches the heart”. But with the note of mourning is blended the note of triumph. For theirs was a just cause, theirs a glorious end, and theirs shall be a fragrant memory. They died that liberty might live…. With humility we acknowledge our debt to them, with pride we record their achievements. We like to believe that the spirit they displayed was a reflection of the spirit of this school, which all of them had attended, and some of them had so recently left…"

De Mortuis
Headmaster H.J. Crawford
The Annals, 1914-1916

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