Old Yale

Yale and the Great War

World War I—and its end 100 years ago—upended life at the university.

Judith Ann Schiff is chief research archivist at the Yale University Library.

Manuscripts & Archives

Manuscripts & Archives

Uniforms were a familiar sight on campus during World War I. In this photo, the Yale Naval Training Unit parades on Old Campus in April 1918. View full image

On November 11, 1918, the New York Times published the banner headline “ARMISTICE SIGNED, END OF THE WAR!” But no similar headline can be found in the archives of the Yale Daily News. The News had reported in its October 19 issue that it would be the last issue “for the duration of the war.” The article explained that “of the six editors . . . five are enrolled in military organizations, while the sixth is leaving to enlist in the Service.” The impact on the News editorial board was only a small example of how the war had turned Yale upside down.

The university’s involvement predated the American declaration of war in 1917. Yale president Arthur Twining Hadley ’86, a supporter of military education, had expressed his belief in the importance of preparedness shortly after the European War broke out in 1914; he began negotiations to establish an artillery battalion on the campus in 1915. Funds were raised to construct a training facility, Artillery Hall, which was built where Sterling Memorial Library stands today. The effort to raise a National Guard battalion showed how enthusiastic the students were: the minimum requirement was 138 men, but 1,000 volunteered and nearly 500 were recruited.

As soon as the ROTC program was announced in 1916, Yale took part. It became the only civilian college to provide artillery training. By the fall of 1918, Yale was serving as an officers’ training camp and a militarized university. Many students were away on military service, and many non-Yale men were stationed on campus under the jurisdiction of various US organizations such as the Medical Corps. More than 900 students enrolled in the Student Army Training Corps, the major student military group.

The war left few athletes on campus and virtually put an end to sports. By the fall of 1917, only one letterman was left in school. There was no football at all in 1918, and that fall brought the sad news that the captain of the 1915 team, Alex Wilson, had been killed in France.


Just as the war was ending, Yale felt the impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic. As Hadley wrote in his 1918–19 annual report:

The beginning of our work was seriously handicapped by an outbreak of influenza which attacked several hundred of our students. Fortunately the epidemic was less severe at Yale than it was in some other colleges and in almost all army training camps outside of our colleges. We had but three deaths—two among the officer candidates sent here for special instruction, and only one a regularly enrolled member of our student body. As soon as it appeared that an epidemic was imminent and that the Yale Infirmary would not furnish sufficient accommodations for dealing with it, we arranged to use the Cloister [now Warner Hall, 1 Hillhouse Avenue] as an additional hospital for serious cases; while St. Elmo [now Rosenfeld Hall] was fitted up as a convalescent hospital, to which boys could be transferred who had begun to recover and could take care of themselves indoors, but needed to be kept under careful observation. By this means we were able to use the trained nurses at our command for those who were severely ill and avoid the risk of relapse which would have been inevitable it the boys had been entirely discharged from hospital too soon.

The Yale Daily News resumed publication on January 2, 1919, and the next day the newspaper announced General Pershing’s approval of Yale secretary Anson Phelps Stokes’s plan to enable the 20,000 American college men in the Overseas Army to attend European universities during its demobilization. Along with the appreciation of peace came the responsibility to maintain it and improve the world. At the university, the president and fellows needed a solid plan to transform its deteriorating financial and educational situation. Income from government rental of facilities had temporarily mitigated losses caused by years of declining enrollment. The alumni, some already dissatisfied with the time-worn organization of the university in separate schools with separate faculties, facilities, and finances, helped develop a new Yale in “The Great Reorganization” of the 1920s.

The statistics of alumni war service in a time of smaller enrollments and greater health issues are impressive. Nearly 10,000 served; the oldest was William Henry Welch ’70, who was a colonel in the Medical Corps, followed by Montgomery Meigs Macomb ’73, a brigadier general in the Army. Among the younger men, 29 graduated in 1924. Two hundred twenty-seven students and alumni died in the war; their names are inscribed on the Roll of Honor in Memorial Hall. A special memorial service was held in June 1919 to honor Yale’s fallen heroes. Poet Brian Hooker ’02 wrote an ode, performed by the Glee Club and others, that included these lines:

Friends with the hearts of strangers,
Boys with the eyes of men,
Having endured all dangers
And so returned again.

What of the many others
Forever overseas—
Lovers and sons and brothers
Like these, yet not like these?

We who must live salute you
Who have found the strength to die!


    JOHN STEIN, 7:01pm November 20 2018 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Your wonderful article was misleading in one way: some sports survived the wartime hiatus. My father, Harold Stein, arrived on campus in 1917 and joined the freshmen crew as a five-foot three-inch cox. He paraded in uniform on the Old Campus, returning the next year to turn in his uniform and go out for crew again. The coach in the motor launch behind his shell asked what Father was doing back there, Why, I’m a cox, sir. No, you’re not, and so ended Father's athletic career, he having risen considerably towards his ultimate five-eleven frame.

    The Spanish flu that crippled the Yale campus in ’18 also reached and killed my grandfather back in New York City. Upon Father's graduation and ascendance into graduate school, he defied the much of the anti-antisemitism visited on grad students of his ethnicity with his natural sociability, aided by the bootleg whisky his mother's chauffeur brought up from the city.

    He was denied the English Department faculty post he had earned, by all accounts, but gained a beautiful young Bryn Mahr grad from the Yale library and went on to a noble career in the government and academia, helping to launch the new interest in public administration as a worthy topic of study. His professorship, alas, was at Princeton.

    John H. Stein, JD
    Executive Secretary Emeritus
    International Organization for Victim Assistance
    32465 NE Old Parrett Mountain Road
    Newberg, Oregon 97132

    503.554.1552 cell:202.494-8000

  • Susan Stein
    Susan Stein, 3:22pm November 26 2018 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    On Distant Service: The Life and Assassination of Robert Imbrie, my forthcoming book from Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press, is a biography of Robert Whitney Imbrie, Yale law school, 1906. He was one of the longest-serving ambulance volunteers in the Great War, posted to both France and Macedonia--17 months. When the US entered the war, he joined the State Department and served in Petrograd and Viborg, Finland (during the Russian Revolution), Turkey (during its War of Independence) and Persia, where he was murdered.

    Yale-Harvard football scores were enthusiastically received by ambulance drivers at the front. When driver William Woolverton was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery, he hosted a dinner, placing violets by each Yale graduate's plate.

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