University Officer Training Corps (OTC) provided instruction for prospective officers in all branches of the army. At the outset of the First World War, former cadets enlisted as officers (and other ranks) and enabled Lord Kitchener to raise his New Armies. The Leeds University OTC was raised in September 1909 by Edwin Kitson Clark, a senior officer in the Leeds Rifles, following an appeal to students from Lord Lucas, the under-secretary of state for war.
Lord Lucas was promoting the new Officers Training Corps scheme, which Richard Haldane, the secretary of state for war, had introduced in 1908 to attract more army officers from the universities and public schools. He had reorganized the existing school and university units and encouraged the formation of new contingents. Henceforth the OTCs received funding from the War Office, instruction from regular officers and non-commissioned officers, and annual inspections.
The Leeds unit was smaller than many others with only 130 cadets in 1914 but had enjoyed continuity in instruction. Lieutenant F. H. Nugent served as the adjutant from 1909 until December 1913, and Sergeant-Major William H. Fear as the sergeant-instructor throughout the pre-war period. The cadets took part in drills, musketry, field days, instructional courses, night operations, and annual camps. In 1914 the camp was held on Salisbury Plain, involving cadets from Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham and Sheffield OTCs. It had to be aborted after the first week when the war erupted.
Prior to the outbreak of the War only 24 cadets had joined the army as officers, and Herbert Read probably spoke for many students in recalling that he lacked ‘any serious motive’ during his days in the OTC, simply enjoying the “possibilities of friendship and youthful enterprise, and an annual camp which was in effect a free holiday”. Such attitudes changed with the onset of war, as cadets, Read included, applied for wartime commissions. Many extra-mural cadets, like David P. Hirsh who would later earn the unit’s only Victoria Cross on 23 April 1917, joined the wartime OTC as a way of securing an army commission.
By March 1915, 239 Leeds cadets had gained commissions and another 47 had entered the wartime ranks. Overall 1,596 members of the University served in the war, about a fifth of whom died.
With thanks to Professor Edward Spiers
Legacies of War team member Dave Stowe has compiled a tribute to the University OTC consisting of a montage of images and newspaper cuttings. To find out more and see the video, click here.