Pioneer of the Manchester History School, renowned medievalist, creator of modern historical techniques, esteemed professor, friend; there is no doubt that Professor Thomas Frederick Tout was all of the above. As an Oxford educated University of Manchester professor in the 1880’s through to the 1920’s, Tout had a profound impact on his students that lasted a lifetime.
As World War One broke and men began to join the army, the University of Manchester can pride herself with providing for the war effort. As university students left for the war, they never forgot Professor Tout. They would converse through letters, allowing them to keep in touch with the city they had grown to love and the university they were so fond of.
These letters demonstrated the loss the University of Manchester suffered in the Great War. It is often forgotten that 300 University of Manchester students were sent to fight in World War One, many never returning home. Imagining leaving the ‘bubble’ of Oxford Road is incomprehensible but for these boys it was reality, with only letters to their history professor to remind them of the world of peace and happiness they had left behind. Behind all the pain and suffering there exists a true sense of friendship, although the formalities never faltered, Tout somehow managed to get the boys to open up to him within the letters, whether they were written on official paper, squared paper, postcards or scrap notebook paper, the students seemed desperate to communicate with Tout and describe their ordeals to find some sort of solace from the crazy world they had been thrust into.
The letters sent from the trenches, the ambulance corps, the army offices, the navy and many other battalions,offers a glimpse into those who sacrificed their lives, education and happiness for the protection of our country.To read the words and imagine the people behind theletters walking the paths we now occupy makes it all the more shocking, we simply cannot relate to the longing and sorrow they must have supressed. The letters are riddled with hope, sorrow, helplessness, panic, fear, reminiscing, joy, betrayal, excitement and every other emotion possible. The letters offer an insight into the minds and roller coaster of emotions University of Manchester students once faced; those who may have studied the same medieval and ancient history that we now study, before having their lives turned into a history book.
There are hints within the letters of their forgotten university aspirations, many refer to the wellbeing of the ‘History School’ whereas John Gregory Edwards actually requested leave in order to attend a graduation ceremony as he feared it would be last chance to see the students together. Joy riddled with irony at receiving their degree results featured in the letters, whereas Mark Hovell had a much more pressing issue. Hovell, talks of the book he is currently writing ‘The Chartist Movement’ requesting that Tout would do him the honour of finishing the edition if he could no longer do so. The sorrow and panic evident in Hovell’s letter is evident. The fate of the second Lieutenant Mark Hovell, 1st Battalion, Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment), now described as a remarkable talent is a tragic loss for the history profession, was killed in action 12 August, 1916.
The letters transform from painting a bleak dreary picture of war, to an optimistic outlook and hope for their return home. This highlights the humanity and individual differences of the people at the other end of these letters, they are just like us. It is easy to stress over an assignment deadline or exam but how would the stress of a grenade or trying to save someone’s life compare? How would a university student be prepared to handle such trauma? To think that these boys had the same hopes and aspirations we now hold is reflected in many of the letters. For example Henry Buckley talks of his hope for an early dismissal, his intention to read once more and re-adopt his dream of an academic career once being acquitted.
It is tragic that only 12 out of the 30 students that wrote to Tout managed to return home and survive the war but Tout’s support did not stop with the war. For the lucky few such as Buckley, M.V.Gregory and John Gregory Edwards who survived the war the correspondence with Tout did not cease. He aided them in their lives after war and remained a source of solace and comfort in their lives.
Many lessons can be learnt through these letters, of course, they tell us how life was at the front line and the types of artillery used and the movements of soldiers. Nevertheless, there ae more important factors that University of Manchester students especially can consider. The first is undoubtedly pride! These alumni of our university, raised the prestige of Manchester by making the ultimate sacrifice, ignoring their talent and dreams, in order to protect our country. The second is a sense of duty that this should instil upon us all, not to enlist in the army, but to do these boys proud, to network and maintain relationships with professors and actively ensure that their wasted talent was not in vain.