Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXX No. 9, September 1-15, 2020

War memories from the annals of the Madras Christian College magazine

by Marilyn Gracey Augustine, Assistant Professor of History, Madras Christian College

S.M.S. Emden

The two global conflicts of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 were fought with advanced science and technology, sophisticated armoury and unprecedented ferocity that threatened the very existence of humanity. They were turning points in the history of many nations as the old-world order crumbled and the new masters emerged. For many the world wars may look like the distant past but their impact is still felt. War memorials across the globe such as the Cenotaph in London, the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier in Paris, Tannenberg Memorial in Germany, National World War II Memorial in Washington, India Gate in New Delhi, the Victory War Memorial in Chennai, scores of war cemeteries and the tributes paid during the anniversaries remind us of the great wars, and the colossal loss incurred by humanity. India, then still a colony, was also driven into these world conflicts. It sent a staggering number of volunteers who sacrificed their lives for the cause. Indians fought shoulder to shoulder in various theatres of war in Europe, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, East Africa and North Africa.

Building damaged by the Emden’s shelling. Courtesy: The Hindu.

The impact of the wars touched the lives of members of Madras Christian College also. This article is a documentation of the life at Madras Christian College during the wars. The MCC Archives, especially the college magazines, have many untold stories and are the main sources for this article.

Oil tanks on fire in the harbor of Madras (Chennai, India) following the bombardment by German light cruiser S.S. Emden on September 22, 1914.(Courtesy: Wikipedia.)

MCC and World War I:

Though the First World War began as a European conflict, it soon involved the entire world. The number of casualties, loss of property, and advancement of technology were so enormous that it is also known as the Great War. Since the inception of the war, the College closely monitored the situation in Europe. Detailed reports on the beginning of the World War had been well documented in the College magazines under the heading Notes of the Month from the year 1914.

Anxiety swept Madras and the College, then in George Town, on September 22, 1914, when, Madras, a tiny city on the world map, was shelled. On that day, SMS Emden, a light cruiser built for the German Navy struck the peace and tranquillity of Madras and triggered an exodus.

Emden, a darling among the German Navy, was nicknamed the ‘Swan of the East’. On the night of September 22, 1914, it sneaked into the port of Madras and turned it’s ten 4-inch guns on the fuel depot. Within 30 minutes the German ship unleashed a 125-round barrage that set the massive oil tanks of the Burmah Oil Company ablaze. It also damaged a vessel in the harbour. The shells scattered as far as Poonamallee High road, Choolai, Casa Major Road and Nungambakkam. Emden then switched off its lights and steamed out of Madras before the shore batteries could get a fix on her. In this episode three people were killed, 13 were injured and a million and a half gallons of oil was lost. Unexploded shells were also discovered and are today kept in the Fort Museum, Chennai. The buildings of the Port Trust, the Royal Madras Yacht Club, etc. were also damaged.

The Madras Christian College was touched by the flying splinters in two places but none was injured. One splinter also penetrated a room in College House and some fell in the College hostels. During this time most of the college students had gone to their homes as the College was closed on 11th September for Michaelmas. However, a considerable number remained in Madras and it was a new experience for those in the city. The report from the College Magazine for the year 1914 gives a vivid description of the scene that immediately followed the bombardment. The following is an excerpt from the report:

“a look out from the College House tower enabled one to witness the excitement caused in Madras by the bombardment which did not last much longer than fifteen minutes. The Kerosene oil tanks spouting smoke and flame and the people hurrying to the beach, on foot, on bicycle and motor cycles, in carriages and motor cars to learn what the matter was without quite realising that it was a bombardment – all this confusion and uneasiness made the night of the 22 September memorable in the annals of Madras.”

The sinking of the Emden near Cocos Island was received with joy and relief by the College. One of the many ships and boats that Emden sunk was the B.I. Boat Chilkana. It was carrying a box of prize books for the College to be distributed among the young graduates following the convocation ceremony. This incident led to the postponement of the prize distribution for the academic year 1913-14. However in February 1915, the bookseller Mr. James Thin from Edinburgh sent a second set of books which were later distributed among the students. Some students asked for permission to give up their prizes so that the money could be sent to the Belgian Relief and to other funds associated with the War. In 1916 the students of the College collected a sum of Rs. 700 as a contribution to the war fund. Some more money was added to it with the help of the staff both Indian and European and came to Rs. 1,050.

A series of articles, poems and other literary works was also published in the College magazine regarding the Great War. To quote a few: Poem of Rabindranath Tagore (1914), England’s Cause is Ours – An Indian Appeal to His Fellow Countrymen by Mr. A. Madhaviah (old student), Rudimentary Reflections of the War by William Miller (1915), Experiences of the War by Mrs. Moffat (1916) and A.G. Hogg’s Christianity and Force, a pamphlet published by the Oxford University Press. E.M. Macphail also wrote a detailed description of an incident he encountered. At the completion of his furlough, Mr. Macphail was returning to India from Marseilles by a ship Magnolia. The vessel was mined by a German ship near Bombay on 23rd June 1917 and Mr. Machphail was severely wounded and was rescued by another steamer. He was later admitted in the St. George’s hospital.

The College had a prayer and thanksgiving service at 11.00 am on 4th August every year to mark the day when Great Britain declared the war on Germany. On that day the first hour of class was devoted for a discussion and review of the causes and the progress of the war. Moral issues involved in the war were also considered and discussed. On September 1, 1915, a special lecture was organised on the topic Finances of the War delivered by Mr. A. Rangaswami, Sub-editor of The Hindu, at the inaugural meeting of the Associated Societies held in the Anderson Hall. The Chair was taken by Mr. W.B. Hunter, Secretary of the Bank of Madras and a member of the College Council.

The College Magazine also carried an appeal signed by Principal William Skinner asking students of the College both past and present to join the Defence India Force. The Associated Societies of the College met in Anderson Hall to obtain a clear picture of what is exactly needed from them and were addressed by Principal Skinner. Many then present students and the alumni participated directly in the war by rendering their service at the war zones. One striking example was F.W. Henderson, who was the Superintendent of the Fenn Hostel who took a commission in the army during his furlough and proceeded to fight in France. He was also injured in 1916 when he was in charge of heavy guns in the firing line. Some of the other students who fought in the war from Fenn Hostel were V.M. Thaver, Anderson Iswariah, P. Poonoose, P.V. Kallat and Edward Kallat. Poonoose was also injured during combat operations and was admitted in a hospital in London. He wrote a letter detailing the experiences he had in the war zone to the College which was later published in the magazine.

A good number of the then current students participated in the war. The college extended suitable concessions in fees and attendance to them. The following is a list of students who volunteered to join the army as given in the College Magazine in 1917.

Mohomed Abdul Hamid
5th year Philosophy (Honours)

P. Kothandaraman
5th year History (Honours)

P. Mahadevan
5th year English (Honours)

N.R. Venkataraman
5th year English (Honours)

S. Sundaram
4th class Physical Science

C.A. Ganapathi Iyer
4th class History

4th class History

V. Subramanian
3rd class History

C.P. Doraikannu
3rd class History

C. Natesan
2nd class Natural Science

Finally, the 1918 October issue of the College Magazine under the Notes of the Month brings in the information regarding the ceasing of the Great War on all fronts on 11 November, 1918 at 11 a.m.

Madras Christian College and World War II:

The College magazine underwent many changes in the inter war era. In 1921, the magazine ceased to be a monthly and became quarterly. In 1927, a separate section for the contributions of the students was introduced and by 1930 the articles of the students were printed along with other articles. In 1931, a new policy was adopted by which it was decided to make the magazine student centric and a record of what is actually happening in the College. Thus the College magazine was not used as a medium to convey the happenings at the war front.

The magazine refers to the death of three former students of the College while serving the Royal Air Force during the war. S.A. Gnanamuthu lost his life while serving in England, his brother, Pilot Officer Bhaskar Daniel was killed in a flying accident in Northern India and Pilot Officer Frank Moses died after his machine caught fire during an attack by hostile tribesmen.

Brief references to the War were made in College Notes, Christmas message and commemoration address, etc. In the September 1940 issue of the College magazine, under College Notes, the Editor describes the various reactions prevailing among the people regarding the War and how it had created an environment of uncertainty.

The Principal’s report of 1945 with much relief announced the closing of the war, the victory of the Allies, and also places on record that the College during the six years of the fighting of the war functioned undisturbed except for the roaring of the fighter planes overhead. The report also mentions the temporary establishment of a Naval Air Station, ‘HMS Valluru’ (the present Indian Air Force Station, Tambaram) on the Southern boundary of the campus. For the construction of this aerodrome approximately 60 to 70 acres (in one instance it is mentioned as nearly 100 acres) of the College land along the southern fence was used. Since this land was earmarked by the College for future developments, the Principal in his report insisted that the land be returned to the College. He also appreciated the friendliness and courtesy of the new temporary neighbours and said that the college would miss the noise of the aeroplanes. The College Notes also voices the same concern and appreciation for the Naval Air Base established on the College’s southern border. It also expressed gratitude to Capt. H.M.S. Mundy, R.N. and his officers for their unfailing courtesy and helpfulness. The station provided employment to the people of the surrounding villages.

The direct impact of the World Wars was deep in the hearts and minds of the people living in Europe, Africa and Asia. However in spite of being a part of the war, countries like India in general and Madras Christian College in particular did not face the tormenting conditions that prevailed in many other countries. Peace and tranquillity existed on the campus although coated with anxiety and desperation. Life went on as usual unperturbed by the happenings of the outside world. In conclusion I would like to quote a paragraph from Prof. Ernest John Bingle’s speech during Commemorative College Service delivered on 4th February 1944 which sums up the life at Madras Christian College during the War years:

“War has not reached us, despite our blackouts and the noise of friendly bombers. We are tolerably well-fed and we have never gone short; our food situation has never been anything like what has been happening to people we know outside. We have continued to go to lectures, to play games, to have Hall days and tea parties when the world outside is violently disturbed by war, economic distress, political upheaval, under a cloud of doom and uncertainty”.

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