The Fellowship Series: The Debating Society and WWI

This significant historical event is brought to you by the Fellowship of St Andrews. Owl Eyes will bring you their re-telling of a lesser-known event in St Andrews history.
 
The outbreak of the First World War shook all of St Andrews, the debating society included. I wanted to look more closely into the attitudes of the time, so I delved into the reading room of the Special Collections department and looked through old archives. They told countless stories of war, politics, and debate. From 1914 onwards, the vast majority of debates held in St Andrews aimed to tackle countless moral dilemmas about war and peace, and it has been an amazing experience to view the war through the lens of the debating society. 
 
Yet the society did not approach the war solely from an abstract or academic perspective. When looking through the archives, I encountered a letter of resignation from a committee member who was called up to serve in Earl Kitchener's New Army. Similarly, the society was heavily involved in raising money for Belgian refugees. Despite that, the vast majority of its war-related activities still consisted of debates, and the content of those debates was often rather surprising when seen from a modern perspective.
 
 
Five months after the war began, the debating society discussed conscription and the role of clergy during the war. Yet more interesting arguments began to emerge by December 1914, when politicians' promises ran out. The troops would not return home by Christmas. Both across Britain and within St Andrews, a debate began about the very purpose of the war itself. The topic was whether or not "all disputes between civilised nations" should, after the conclusion of this war, be settled "solely by arbitration". Whilst the proposition speakers bravely stood up and argued for the futility of war and its associated destruction, the opposition characterised war as the pinnacle of civilisation. 
 
According to the archives, one opposition speaker argued that "the development of war synchronised with evolution," whilst another "called civilisation a mere veneer, dabbled in algebraic reasoning, and said that arbitration was merely a matter of not being empowered with the glorious (…) vindication of war." In the end, however, the motion passed by 32 votes to 25, as it was becoming obvious that the debating society, too, was growing disillusioned with war itself.
 
 
Following 1914, the archives of the debating society began to fade. Histories of the society also mention how many of its members were drafted to participate in the war effort. Many never returned from the front. It was not until 1917 that plans to revive the society began to emerge. The new debating society immediately began to discuss matters of war and peace. When the chamber considered if "it would be advantageous to enter into immediate peace negotiations," the motion failed by only one vote, reflecting on the increasing war-weariness of the country and the debating society alike. 
 
Such sentiments seemed to pervade throughout the entire Students' Union, and the women's debating society likewise debated whether or not "internationalism is preferable to imperialism." That motion passed by 39 votes to 32, despite opposition's claims that the British Empire had brought peace and prosperity to many. Subsequent debates tended to tackle more fearsome adversaries than warmongerers: the university administration (ironically, out of fear that the administration would censor further debates about war). Yet by that time, the debating society had sent out a strong message. It had joined the British and European people in their war-weariness, and like many other global leaders, its members began to call for perpetual peace and world government to be established the moment the war was over.
 
Images courtesy of St Andrews Library, Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs, and Axis History Forums. Compiled and edited by Kerri P. 
 

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