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Oxford Cadets

December 27, 2011

Earlier this month on, ‘geordie’ mentioned the edition of Sir Orfeo (published 1944) that Tolkien prepared for the naval cadets’ course at Oxford. To this ‘Squire’ facetiously replied: ‘It still staggers me that the Royal Navy, in the middle of a desperate war, trying to train raw officer cadets as quickly as possible for rigorous convoy duty, felt it was necessary to teach them to appreciate Middle English poetry.’ And ‘Morthoron’ added: ‘You never know in the middle of a sea battle when a quote from “Piers Plowman” would come in handy.’ Reading these comments, it occurred to us that although we had dealt with the events of the wartime Navy and Air Force cadets’ courses at Oxford in the Chronology volume of our J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (pp. 258–90), especially as they concerned Tolkien, the first director of the cadet courses for the English School, there was confusion as to their very serious purpose relative to the war effort.

It was, in fact, national policy in Britain during the Second World War that soldiers, sailors, and airmen were better for having experienced, even for a brief time, the rigours of a university education. An editorial in the Times for 21 October 1941 (‘The Student at War’) commented that all of the three armed services needed

to recruit trained minds in a variety and in numbers quite as great as the universities are able to supply. They need men of many highly specialized scientific acquirements . . . ; but they need also men who have profited by that rapid enlargement of mental horizons which is the first gift that a university confers upon its pupils.

In response, the University of Oxford offered short courses to service probationers sent by the Army, Navy, and Air Force, to be conducted alongside more specific military training. The Times reported on 17 December 1942 (‘Oxford University Students: Effect of National Service Bill’) that ‘some students’ would come up to Oxford in January 1943

for a six-months’ naval course, and they will be followed by another set in April; these two sets will overlap. The naval courses will be in addition to those (also of six months’ duration) for Army signallers and R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] cadets which the university has been conducting for more than a year. The Navy and the R.A.F. are allowing short course men to take humane subjects if they prefer them, and it is expected that about half will do so.

Army cadets were restricted to the science and technical curriculums. On 20 October 1943, it was said in the Times (‘Oxford University: Opening of the New Academic Year’) that

the Navy and the Air Force permit, and indeed encourage, their cadets to read subjects other than science; of the naval cadets now in residence three out of four are reading arts (with history and modern languages leading, English and law good runners-up, and a fair sprinkling of classics), and of the Air Force cadets two out of three.

In our Chronology (p. 279) we give the example of Anthony Curtis, who recalled wearing, while a cadet at Oxford, an Air Force uniform for three days each week and an academic gown another three. (His sessions with C.S. Lewis on Paradise Lost made him feel an ignoramus, while Tolkien, his teacher of medieval English, ‘was the soul of affability’.) Another example, from the Royal Navy, was Rayner Unwin, son of Tolkien’s publisher Stanley Unwin. Rayner wrote in his memoir, George Allen & Unwin: A Remembrancer (1999), that after he was called up in 1943, ‘when it seemed that I might constitute what was called “officer-like material” and thus be eligible for a brief deferment on a university short course, I was able to express an absolute preference not only for Oxford but for Trinity College’ where he had been a lodger with the President while working in Blackwell’s bookshop. ‘The six months’ course was a strange mixture of basic training for the armed forces and an academic subject. It had not been my father’s intention that I should go to a university at all, and because I lacked classics I was unqualified for Oxford. But my naval short course let me in, and father was as delighted as I was’ (p. 87). The cadet scheme appears also to have helped to broaden the social basis of entrance to Oxford, drawing in, for instance, the future actor Richard Burton, a miner’s son from Wales. Burton himself did not return to Oxford after the war to take a full degree course, but many short-service candidates did.

The University during the Second World War is well documented in volume 8 of The History of the University of Oxford (The Twentieth Century, 1994). In that period, compared to the First World War, Oxford kept up its male undergraduate population, ‘partly because the need for conscripts to serve overseas was less pressing and partly because the University agreed to host special courses for probationers in the Royal Signals and for army and air-force cadets; 3,000 probationers and cadets had matriculated in the University by 1942’ (p. 48). The six-month programme for cadets in which Tolkien was involved was only one scheme. From May 1941 to December 1942, when the age of call-up into the armed services fell first to nineteen and then to eighteen,

the government allowed male undergraduates in the humanities to defer their call-up for at least twelve months, thus enabling them to complete part 1 of their examinations. But this was on condition that they accept military instruction in the Senior Training Corps or Air Squadron. As a result they would normally spend about nine months at Oxford with two days a week devoted to military training, which now officially took priority over the timetable for lectures and tutorials. In order to ensure for themselves a period at university, pupils began to leave school earlier, and the University allowed them to matriculate at the beginning of the Hilary or Trinity terms. Courses often ran on into the vacations, and the distinction between term and vacation was rapidly disappearing. [p. 175]

From December 1942, the University restricted entry to students under eighteen at the time of matriculation. (Christopher Tolkien, it may be remembered, matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, in January 1942, when only seventeen, in order to complete some of his studies before being called up for war service.) This action, the History notes (pp. 175–6),

would have drastically reduced the number of male undergraduates but for the fact that from 1942 onward the University agreed to introduce six-month short courses, free of the normal entry requirements, for service cadets. . . . Short courses, in which military training was combined with part-time study, bore little relationship to the normal honours curriculum. Nevertheless service cadets were matriculated, housed in college and lived under academic rather than military discipline.


Harrison, Brian, ed. The History of the University of Oxford, vol. 8: The Twentieth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

‘Oxford University: Opening of the New Academic Year’. Times (London), 20 October 1943, p. 7.

‘Oxford University Students: Effect of National Service Bill’. Times (London), 17 December 1942, p. 2.

‘The Student at War’. Times (London), 21 October 1941, p. 5.

Unwin, Rayner. George Allen & Unwin: A Remembrancer. Ludlow: Privately Printed for the Author by Merlin Unwin Books, 1999.

  1. December 28, 2011 12:05 am

    Thanks for this! And thanks again for making Tolkien’s Sir Orfeo available for me to edit!

  2. John Magoun permalink
    December 28, 2011 1:52 pm

    Thanks for the additional information. I was partly joking with my “facetious” comment on TORn, because I know the theory of a liberal arts education, and I know enough English history not to discount the power of class traditions in its society. But I was partly serious as well. What we are missing here is not what the upper class thought it was doing during the war, but whether anyone evaluated the results after the war. Did the UK’s war effort actually “profit by that rapid enlargement of mental horizons which is the first gift that a university confers upon its pupils” as the Times insisted it would?
    I found it interesting that the Navy and Air Force, but not the Army, allowed a humanities option to its cadets, and that in the former group, very few were reading the more antique subjects like classics and (I imagine) middle English. Allowing for the “serious purpose” of educating new officers to glimpse what it is to be a gentleman, it does seem to me that Tolkien was giving Sir Orfeo to a few cadets not because the Navy thought they needed it but because he could offer nothing else in the context of the war work that Oxford had claimed for itself.
    John Magoun ‘squire’

    • December 28, 2011 5:05 pm

      One would have to conclude that the war effort did profit by the programme, as the authorities kept it up through the end of the conflict. It would be interesting to read more about it; no doubt somewhere there is an official study or report. The purpose of the short courses, though, was not to allow cadets ‘to glimpse what it is to be a gentleman’ but to acquire, if they could, attributes of character and thought which would be useful in particular to someone in command. Britain seems to have recognized during the war, as a practical matter, the value of broad as well as specialized education, and it continued to recognize the value to society of higher education in its substantial postwar financial support for university students from lower incomes.

      We wouldn’t conclude that ‘very few’ read ‘more antique subjects’ from the article of 20 October 1943, which reports only relative proportions and is only a snapshot. (History at that moment was more popular, but would ancient history not also be ‘antique’? Or the foundations of British law?) The cadets anyway chose their own subjects, according to interest, and anyone reading English at Oxford at that time would have been exposed to the older aspects of English language and literature as a standard part of the curriculum. What was presented to the students also depended on who was left in Oxford to do the teaching, many faculty having left to do war work. One could argue, though, that the study of Old and Middle English requires rigorous and analytical thinking no less, perhaps more, than contemporary subjects, and that was the sort of mental training that the armed services were on record as wanting for their men, as far as it was possible to acquire in so brief a period.

  3. bgc permalink
    January 2, 2012 12:29 pm

    I am a graduate of England’s third university, Durham, and (as well as Oxford and Cambridge) Durham also took officers on short war time courses – many of whom I have met. They certainly enjoyed the experience (usually living in University College/ Durham Castle opposite the Cathedral) and many returned after the war to finish their studies.

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