The outbreak of the First World War was one of the most shocking events to unfold in the course of human history. Through the entanglement of various military and diplomatic ties, a group of rouge Yugoslav nationalists sparked what was arguably the first modern war, as well as the most devastating military conflict to date.
As we near the centennial of the United States’ involvement in the war, it is clear that the severity of the conflict and the dramatic changes it brought forth are often lost on us. In our current age, as student and faculty members in a rural collegiate setting, it is hard to fathom the dramatic hold that the war on the spirit of the times.
As early as 1915 – while war was raging in Europe without any hint of involvement from the Unite States – students at the University organized the Bucknell Volunteer Company to show readiness of support towards any future war effort. It was a preliminary program that began as many became worried that the U.S. would be dragged into the conflict.
It was not until the United States entered the war in 1917 that major shifts on campus began to materialize. That year, the Selective Service Act was drafted in order raise a force of around one million soldiers to prepare for conflict in Europe. The act required compulsory military registration for men between 18 and 45 and had various other provisions for service requirements based on different occupations or whether or not one was enrolled in college.
Bucknell was required to send at least 25 students – a number that was based on a student population of around 524. An article from the Bucknellian dated May 14th, 1917 noted that at the time over 48 students had voluntarily enlisted and that there was an active effort on the part of the students to enlist.
Besides enlistment, there were many other ways that students became involved in the war. In May of 1917, a volunteer ambulance company was formed and shipped off for training in early June. A second unit, Company 525, arrived in France in January 1918 and the group was awarded the French Croix de Guerre – a medal for foreign troops serving on French soil – for their bravery and heroism.
Meanwhile, much of the farmland in the surrounding Union County was used to grow food for the larger war effort. As many parts of Europe were destroyed or abandoned during the war, there was an increased need to feed and clothe the millions of troops fighting in Belgium and France. A disproportioned amount of resources was pushed on to the United States, greatly increased the need for labor in the country just as many able-bodied men were shipping off overseas.
Many students were encouraged to work on farms for half or full days once a week. The Bucknellian reported in May of 1917 that “farmers in the vicinity of Lewisburg were invited to avail themselves of the students service” because many students were the sons of farmers or had previous farming experience. Residents of Union County – including members of the University – were required to limit electricity and kerosene usage on Mondays and even to have “wheatless days” in which families would voluntarily forgo foodstuff.
Towards the end of the war in October 1918, the University began admitting students into the Student Army Training Corps (SATC). It began as a massive initiative by the War Department to mitigate the steep drop in male enrollment in colleges across the country. Students in the SATC would be considered active duty members of the U.S. Army while being allowed to continue their studies on campus.
This program was intended to create a curriculum of strict military exercises and rigorous courses in mathematics, engineering, and chemistry – seamlessly blending military and civilian life into one program that would create trained officers in the event of future wars. Nationally, there was a large push towards subject areas that would benefit the military, an emphasis that can still be seen on this campus today with the prominent College of Engineering and the focus on science and mathematics.
World War I brought unprecedented destruction across the world and was a shock to many people that witnessed it. From the old Europe of Empires and Kings was born a new era that was dominated by reconstruction and movement forward. Between the years 1915 and 1920, the University – and the nation at large – witnessed an incredible shift away from the world of old into the modern state that we have come to know today.
The radically different environment that these students live through shows us how much our current academic and social life has been refined to give us the atmosphere that we have come to know today. Whether you look at academic standards, the physical layout of the campus, or emphasis on certain fields and subject areas, no aspect of this University went untouched as the tide of the First World War rose and subsided.
The Special Collections/University Archives has an exhibit that is dedicated to educating the community about the University’s involvement in World War I. The exhibit is on Lower Level 1 of Bertrand Library and will be open for the remainder of the semester.