Military Education Committee The Royal Technical College, extracts from Sacrifice and Service in the War

Enlistment of students

When the call to arms was heard in the autumn of 1914, it was first proposed to form a battalion consisting solely of members of the College, but, at the personal request of Lord Kitchener, and to improve the speed of mobilisation, this laudable ambition was set aside, and it was arranged to co-operate with the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce by providing the “A” Company of the 17th Highland Light Infantry, the Chamber of Commerce Battalion. Many students also joined the Glasgow Highlanders and other regiments with which they had personal associations. By the end of 1914 one thousand members of the College were on service.

He gives twice who gives quickly.

During 1915 a second thousand enrolled, including old students from every part of the Empire, and by July of that year such a number of the scientific staff was on service as was then equalled, the medical services apart, by the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford only among University Institutions of the country. The list contains 3,225 names of students, staff and other members of the College representing nearly every branch of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Not a few of these were engaged on services for which their College training specially fitted them. The School of Navigation provided over three hundred commissioned officers for the Navy. From the Department of Chemistry nearly two hundred men entered the Corps of Chemists of the Royal Engineers; the majority of these enlisted within a fortnight of the receipt of the urgent request from the War Office for men specially fitted to combat the use of gas then initiated by the enemy. Of this noble band, most of whom went straight from the laboratory bench to the trenches, few will ever return, and of those still alive many are broken in health in consequence of their terrible experiences. College mining engineers have rendered conspicuous service in underground warfare, one, a student towards the end of 1915, was a Captain R.E. in the following April, and early in May received the Military Cross at the hands of the King for gallantry in tunnelling operations. Civil engineers have been engaged on bridge, road, and railway construction and water supply, while, of the mechanical engineers, some were drafted to the Ordnance Corps or to the Air Force where their special skill would be utilised. But the greater number of the older members perforce remained at their posts in the armament, shipbuilding, and explosives works of the country; many of these, who cannot be included in the Roll of Honour, deserve that their services should be recorded. One, a student of 1914, was called to Woolwich Arsenal after a brief period of valuable war work in a Clyde shipyard, and in a few months was in charge of a shop with over 3,000 workers; in this capacity he gave his life for his country as sincerely as any fellow-student in the trenches, dying after a brief illness, exhausted by his strenuous and faithful service.

The list shows that in every field of warfare – from Archangel to South-West Africa, in Mesopotamia, at the Gallipoli landings, at Jutland, Zeebrugge, and Ostend – the College was represented, and the awards of Military Honours indicate the effectiveness of their service. The decorations include 3 Victoria Crosses and 339 other Military and Naval Orders and Crosses, besides recognitions from the Governments of France, Italy, Belgium, Russia, Serbia, Rumania, Greece, Montenegro, Egypt, Portugal and Tunis. One student attained the rank of Colonel, two members of the staff and thirteen students attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and seventy- eight students the rank of Major.

Of the staff of the College, three-fourths of those under forty offered themselves early for active warfare, but to those remaining there fell duties scarcely less onerous, as very soon demands arose for the exercise of their most utmost skill and powers of organisation. The Governors had been informed that at all costs they must maintain the general organisation of the College in order that they might be prepared to share in the immense work of reconstruction after the war; they had also to provide for the thousands of evening students retained in the local works, to whom the war had brought a seriousness of outlook which found expression in their almost desperate efforts to carry on their studies, despite long days and nights in the workshops. The day students remaining were few, and were either too young or physically unfit for the Army, but their numbers were soon augmented by Belgian and Serbian refugees, as well as many foreigners, mainly from the Allied Countries and Scandinavia. The maintenance of the majority of the routine classes was therefore still required, and thus there seemed to be little time or energy left to a depleted staff to carry on other work; nevertheless, tasks of great importance were gladly undertaken and carried to a successful conclusion.

War work undertaken in college

In the early days of the war, when the supply of certain drugs ran dangerously short, the chemical laboratories were called upon to manufacture urgently required material, and thus assisted to meet the demand until properly-equipped factories were ready for the work. The College co-operated in the examination of the stocks of Scottish makers and dealers in field glasses and other optical instruments, and this urgent work was so quickly carried out as to be practically and satisfactorily finished when a Government official, himself an old student of the College, arrived to direct it.

Later, tasks of greater magnitude and importance were allotted to the College. It was found necessary to increase the supply of coke for use in blast furnaces, and for this purpose the proximate analysis of practically every coal in Scotland was undertaken and successfully carried out by the Department of Technical Chemistry, and important results obtained. The work involved the examination and testing of hundreds of samples for the Scottish Advisory Committee on Iron and Steel Production of the Ministry of Munitions.

Another chemical problem was the organisation of the supply of certain products of coal distillation for the manufacture of explosives. Nearly every gas undertaking in Scotland was placed by the Explosives Committee of the Ministry of Munitions under the chemical control of the College Department of Technical Chemistry. The systematic analysis of tars containing the desired materials, involving thousands of samples, was carried on day by day until the armistice was signed.

For the Chemical Warfare Committee of the Ministry of Munitions there was also carried out research work having reference to other chemical problems, particularly to the improvement of respirators used as a protection against various poisonous gases. The Chemical Laboratories were utilised under the Professor of Chemistry for many other important purposes, including the examination and testing of a chemical mixture for charging shell for the armies in the field.

Training of munition workers

The Engineering Departments undertook, in particular, two important duties, the training of munitions workers and the testing of materials for a great many war purposes. Early in 1915, about forty lathes were lent or given to the College by local manufacturers and by School Boards from their manual training workshops; these were placed in one of the engineering laboratories, and courses of instruction were arranged by Professor Mellanby specifically designed to fit the workers, the great majority of whom were women, for employment in shell factories. Hundreds were thus trained, but subsequently modern machine tools were provided by the Ministry of Munitions, the instruction given was elaborated and extended over a longer period, and women were trained as fitters, turners, machinists, and oxy-acetylene welders, to take their part in the “dilution of labour” scheme organised by the Government. It is due to the workers to state that their diligence and earnestness and their ready response to their highly-skilled Instructors, resulted in the ability to undertake successfully these branches of engineering work to the astonishment of local employers, who remained incredulous until they had tested it by actual experience. Incidental to this training, the College was enabled to prepare a very large number of shell plugs, as well as to carry out more complicated work. The mechanics on the staff engaged during the day in giving this instruction, devoted long overtime hours to the making of munition apparatus and gauges calling for extreme precision and accuracy of workmanship. For example, dies for the manufacture of Lewis Gun cartridges were produce in considerable numbers, accurate at every point to .0004 of an inch.

Testing of war materials

The testing machines in the Department of Mechanics were in almost continuous use during the period of the war for tests under tension, compression, bending, torsion, hardness and impact, of war material of almost every kind, for shells, tanks, guns and gun carriages, bridges and other field structures, aeroplanes, airships, motor lorries, and transport waggons. As many as 22,000 tests were made in one period of twelve months. They included bronzes and gun metal for howitzer carriages, bearings, etc., aluminium for aero-engine castings; armour plate for tanks; landing and other springs, steel tie-rods and R.A.F. wires, fork joints, turnbuckles, tie-plates, wood beams and joints, and complete struts for aeroplanes; quick-setting concrete gun emplacements, concretes for ships, and light reinforced concrete slabs and covers; hemp ropes for tents, etc., steel wire ropes and cables for haulage, mine sweeping and mine laying, telephone cables for observation balloons, and steel ropes for many other naval and military purposes, ranging in construction, size and strength up to ropes requiring the full capacity, 100 tons, of the largest testing machine.

Although these tests were for the most part of a routine character, they include many novel problems of design and construction, and through Professor Longbottom, the College was glad to assist in their solution.

In the Textile Department over 8,000 samples of aeroplane, seaplane, and airship fabrics were tested for the Admiralty and the War Office, and, in addition, a very large number of samples of textile material intended for war purposes was examined and tested for Government contractors. The Head of the Department also acted as a Government Inspector of fabrics and materials manufactured by Scottish firms.

The College buildings were utilised for many military and cognate purposes – by the military authorities for the medical examination of the 17th H.L.I., and subsequently of very large numbers of other recruits; by the Quartering Committee and the Divisional Officers of the Royal Engineers for the South-Western Area as their Headquarters; by the Ministry of Munitions for officers on special duty and for the training of workers; by the Selection and Medical Boards of the Women’s Auxiliary Services for the examination of candidates; by the Joint (Disablement) Committee for the South-West of Scotland for the training of disabled soldiers; by the Ministry of Labour in connection with the demobilisation of munition workers; and, less systematically, by many other authorities for a variety of similar purposes.

It is the hope of the Governors that the energies and resources of the students and the staff, which the war has given them the opportunity of showing they possess, will now find full scope in the work of reconstruction, and they rejoice in the earnestness evinced by the large number of ex-service students now in the College, who are showing the same purposeful determination in their preparation for the tasks of peace as in the prosecution of war.