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Princeton University During World War I

By Spencer Shen ’16

On the afternoon of September 24, 1914, President John G. Hibben gave an address to incoming freshman in Marquand Chapel, acknowledging that “the opening of this new academic year…presents to our minds a striking contrast: the peaceful setting of this assembly against the dark background of the terrible European war.” With the outbreak of the conflict only a month before, many Princetonians took Hibben’s call “to the service of the world” to heart. Several joined Canadian regiments and other branches of the Allied military services. Still others volunteered as ambulance drivers for the French Red Cross. A Princeton chapter of the National Red Cross Society formed, with representatives from both town and gown.

By December 1914, students had petitioned successfully for Princeton to offer organized military training. Overseen by what would later become the Committee on War Courses, the program was approved by the University trustees and headed by General Leonard Wood. Over the next two years, more and more lectures were presented by officers of the Army on military history and organization. Tactical excursions were offered and covered skills such as trench and pontoon building, bridgework and road construction, and rifle practice.

Soldiers near Princeton University’s Witherspoon Hall, ca. 1915. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box SP18, Image No. 4378.

After a German U-boat sank the British passenger ship R.M.S. Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 people (including 128 Americans), 116 members of the Princeton faculty signed a formal protest to send U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (Class of 1879). Wilson said that America was “too proud to fight” while continuing to pursue a policy of non-intervention. Meanwhile, Hibben was outspoken in his desire for the United States to get directly involved. Ultimately, the United States did not declare war on Germany until April 6, 1917. The atmosphere at Princeton changed instantly: the University cancelled the schedules of all competitive sports, and within ten days the entire campus was drilling. Between the sinking of the Lusitania and the declaration of war, 166 Princeton men had already left to enlist and 142 had given up academic work to take the first Intensive Military Training Course. However, despite the popularity of a call to war at Princeton, it would be a mistake to assume that every member of the student body supported U.S. involvement.

Lusitania cartoon_MC068_Box_30
“The Day in Germany, May 7, 1915.” Cartoon for Life Magazine by William Henry Walker, May 11, 1916. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 30.

Two pacifist students petitioned President Hibben to use Marquand Chapel for a peace meeting, but the request was denied. “Princeton will not allow the use of its building for anti-war meetings. Nor will the University authorities tolerate pacifist propaganda by students,” reported the Newark Star-Eagle. It was also reported that, while Hibben professed a belief in the freedom of speech, he declared that it was “no time for divided counsels.”

By December 1917, there were at least 3,000 Princetonians in military service, including 117 faculty members. The war resulted in a 63% drop in admissions, and the University found itself with a $135,000 deficit despite trustees having reduced expenses by some $120,000. In order to stay afloat, Princeton opened its campus to the military in 1918, essentially becoming a military college.

D Company on the steps of Princeton University’s Blair Hall, ca. 1917. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP205, Image No. 5411.

Beginning in the fall of 1918, all students 18 years of age or older were enlisted in the United States Army or Navy and could be called to service if needed. The New York Times noted that “this revolutionary change in the course of study and the status of the student will prove of benefit…for it keeps alive and functioning patriotically a well-equipped plant that might otherwise soon have been obliged to close its doors except as a training camp or hospital.” Princeton did not seem to be in danger of closing its doors forever, but opening its doors to the military was a move that nearly all colleges in the country made in order to remain viable.

By the end of hostilities, a total of 6,170 students and 139 faculty had been involved in the conflict. Casualties numbered 117 students and three faculty members. Princetonians received 430 decorations from 13 nations: 227 awarded by France, and 117 by the United States. World War I was at the time a war without parallel—with estimates of over 10 million dead and 200,000 wounded, it was thought to be the war to end all wars—but only 27 years later, Princeton would once again be called upon in the nation’s service.

This post has been adapted by Spencer Shen ‘16 from the FAQ written for our old website by Susan Hamson (2003) as part of the launch of our new website.

Related Sources in the University Archives:

Admissions Office Records, 1854-2001 (AC152)

Annual Reports to the President, 1940-2003 (AC068)

Board of Trustees Minutes and Records, 1746-Present (AC120)

Daily Princetonian

John D. Davies Collection on Hobey Baker, 1908-1969 (AC005)

Davies, John. The Legend of Hobey Baker. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.

Admiral Caspar Frederick Goodrich Papers on the Princeton University Naval Training Unit, 1918-1920 (AC069)

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)

Historical Subject Files Collection (AC109)

Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup (AC117)

Office of the Secretary Records, 1853-2001 (AC190)

Ought Nine War News

Princeton Alumni Publications, Inc. Editor’s Records, 1895-1929 (AC013)

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton in the World War. Princeton: Princeton University Office of the Secretary, 1932.

Society of the Claw Records, 1912-1940 (AC036)

Related Sources in the Public Policy Collections (selected):

American Committee for Devastated France Records, 1919-1926 (MC026)

Liberty Loan Committee Records, 1917-1919 (MC089)

David Aiken Reed Scrapbooks, 1880-1953 (MC100)

William H. Walker Cartoon Collection, 1894-1922 (MC068)

World War I Papers of William Collins Vandewater, 1918-1919 (MC136)

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