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Preparing For The Trenches – Princeton’s Role in WWI

By Anne Levin

Photography Courtesy of The Historical Society of Princeton 

World War I had been raging in Europe for three years when the United States finally declared war on the German Empire on April 6, 1917. By the time the armistice was signed over a year later, this global conflict of massive, devastating proportions had claimed more than 17 million lives.

Among those casualties were 117 from Princeton—some natives; others students from Princeton University. Their sacrifice is commemorated on a semi-circular, marble bench that sits in the triangular park at the corner of Nassau and Mercer Streets. Designed by New York architect and Princeton University lecturer Harvey Wiley Corbett, the memorial was installed in 1925 at a cost of $10,000, raised with contributions from Princeton residents and clubs.

In this centennial year of the United States’ entry into “The Great War,” it is fitting to look back at Princeton’s service and how it affected life on campus and in the town.

The formal declaration of war by President Woodrow Wilson, well known to Princetonians from his days as president of the University, meant the immediate cancellation of intercollegiate sports at the school. Instead, there was Company L, the military unit made up of Princeton volunteers. Locals could watch them training on the University campus and at other locations around town before they were sent off for further training in Camden. The volunteers marched on campus, and down Nassau Street.

There was trench training near Alexander Street. The recruits could be seen demonstrating calisthenics on Brokaw Field. Historic photographs show a group of volunteers on the steps of the University’s Blair Hall, guns balanced between their knees.

An exhibit mounted by the Historical Society of Princeton in 2008 detailed this call into service. “The group included several students who took leave of their studies to enlist,” read a bulletin board at the display. “During the year of 1917, the entire undergraduate body was receiving military training while still in school. Thirty-one instructors and professors also received training and several of them went to the front shortly after the war started. Some even signed up and served under the French Tricolors before America entered the war.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise, there is a character named Allenby, who is the football captain. Fitzgerald, who attended Princeton, modeled him on Hobey Baker, a hockey and football star at the school whom he idolized. Hobart Amory Hare Baker ‘14 was a member of three national championship teams. He worked for J.P. Morgan Bank until enlisting with the U.S. Army Air Service, where he commanded the 141st Aero Squadron. Baker died in December 1918 after a plane he was test-piloting crashed, only hours after he was supposed to leave France for home. In 1921, Princeton named its new hockey arena the Hobey Baker Memorial Rink.

The University’s Mudd Manuscript Library Blog posted an article last year about the school during World War I, adapted by Spencer Shen ’16 from a FAQ (frequently asked questions) posting for the library’s former website. The article details an address to incoming freshman by University President John G. Hibben on September 24, 1914, 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.”

Many students “took Hibben’s call ‘to the service of the world’ to heart,” the article continues. “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, thanks to petitions from students, organized military training was taking place on campus. The program would continue over the next two years, and included lectures by Army officers on military history and organization. Once President Wilson finally agreed to declare war on Germany, “the atmosphere at Princeton changed instantly: Within ten days the entire campus was drilling,” the article reads. “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.”

But not everyone on campus supported involvement in the war. There were pacifists, two of whom asked President Hibben if they could use Marquand Chapel for a peace meeting. The answer was no.

“Princeton will not allow the use of its building for anti-war meetings,” it was reported in the Newark Star-Eagle, according to the blog posting. “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.’ ”

At least 3,000 Princetonians, including 117 faculty members, were in military service by December 1917. “The war resulted in a 63 percent 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,” the article reads.

The Princeton Flying Corps was established in the spring of 1917 on a rented 60-acre field along Mercer Street. One of 45 students chosen to train there was Charles S. Grant ’17. Grant designed and made detailed drawings of a 148 miles-per-hour pursuit plane, which had a retractable landing gear to increase its speed to about 168. He was vice president of the Princeton Flying Club and delivered the first lecture at the University on aerodynamics, according to the publication The Princeton Recollector, which was published by the Princeton History Project.

In June 1981, Grant wrote in the Recollector of his efforts. “I left to join the Army in December 1917, in my senior year (I was out for one year doing practical engineering work and would have graduated in 1918). The Dean would not give me my degree when I offered these plans as my thesis. They gave me a ‘War Diploma,’ but no degree. Later, when I graduated from M.I.T. Officers’ School, I applied again for a degree without any luck. So I have achieved what I have achieved without help from Princeton.”

Grant did earn a degree from M.I.T., however. He served in the engineering branch of the Signal Corps, Aviation Section, and graduated from M.I.T.’s School of Military Aeronautics in July 1918 as a second Lieutenant.

The Flying Corps attempted to obtain government backing, but was unsuccessful and eventually forced to disband, according to the Historical Society of Princeton’s 2012 exhibit. Out of the 45 participants, 27 men saw overseas duty with 20 of them sent to the front lines. The group also included three ‘aces’ shooting down five or more enemy fighters and were given three Distinguished Service Crosses.

The University’s role in World War I is commemorated by a bronze memorial tablet at Pershing Hall, the American Legion Post (now a hotel) in Paris. Given in 1930 by the Princeton Alumni Association, the memorial is adorned with flowers on Veterans’ Day each year to pay tribute to the alumni, students, and faculty who died in the conflict.

By the end of the war, according to the Mudd Library blog, a total of 6,170 students and 139 faculty had served. Some 430 decorations were given to Princetonians from 13 nations, including 227 from France and 117 by the United States. It was supposed to be “The War to End All Wars.”

But of course, it wasn’t.