From Special Collections/University Archives: Bucknell and World War I

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 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 were 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 in 1917, 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 had on Bucknell students and the campus at that time. To illustrate how the Bucknell campus environment and its students were impacted and changed because of World War I, the Special Collections/University Archives spring exhibit displays documents, photographs, and artifacts that tells the story of Bucknell and World War I which will be available for viewing through May 2017.

The Special Collections/University Archives exhibit, located on Lower Level I of the Bertrand Library, documents from the university archives collection tells the story of the changes World War I brought to the campus and Bucknell students before, during, and after the war.   . The exhibit includes photographs and documents related to alumni and staff who served in World War I, including two sections of the United States Army Ambulance Service (U.S.A.A.S.), known as the Bucknell section, that give a glimpse into the lives of Bucknellians in military service.

The war ravaging Europe completely upended university life as students knew it. As early as 1915 – while war was confined to Europe without any hint of involvement from the United States – students at the University organized the Bucknell Volunteer Company, a military drilling unit, to show their readiness and support towards any future war effort.

It was not until the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917 that major shifts on campus began to materialize fully. 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 indicating that there was an active effort on the part of the students to enlist.

Besides enlistment in the military, there were many other ways that students became involved in the war effort. In May of 1917, two volunteer ambulance companies, the 524th and 525th, were formed primarily of Bucknell student volunteers and shipped off for training in early June. 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 disproportionate amount of resources, such as food, military equipment, and men, were required from the United States, greatly increasing 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. It began as an initiative by the War Department to mitigate the steep drop in male enrollment in colleges across the country. Students in the S.A.T.C. 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 the old into the modern state that we have come to know today.

The radically different environment that these students lived 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 World War I rose and subsided. The historic records on display from the university archives collections in the Special Collections/University Archives exhibit serve as a reminder to the sacrifices borne by Bucknell students and faculty and why we should continue to remember their will and sacrifice today.




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