Episode 99: The 40 Acres During World War I

Host: Joan Neuberger, Professor, Department of History
Guest: Ben Wright, Associate Director for Communications, Briscoe Center for American History

With America’s entry into World War One in April 1917, life immediately changed for many young Americans. Nowhere was this change more evident than on college and university campuses. The University of Texas, with its 3,000 students, was a typical example: the liberal arts were set aside in favor of military drills for young men, and nursing classes for young women.

As we near the 99th anniversary of Armistice Day, Ben Wright from UT’s Briscoe Center for American History, takes a look at World War One on our very own home front: the storied Forty Acres of the University of Texas at Austin.

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Ben Wright’s article in the Alcalde.

The U.S. entered World War I just about 100 years ago. The war started in Europe in August 1914, so quite a bit earlier, but the US declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. People at UT Austin weren’t really thinking much about the war at that point, were they? What was going on at UT in 1917?

UT in 1917 is this small university compared to today — we’re talking about 3,000 students. You know, UT is a rather scrubby tract of land north of the capital complex in Austin. The Tower hasn’t been built yet. The main building is sort of crumbling and falling apart, but is where most of the teaching goes on. It’s nevertheless the largest college in the Southwest. It’s endowed by a million acres of resource rich land. And so there’s this sort of positive hopeful dynamic on campus and and it’s also the place where you go to enhance your studies if you’re a middle class Texan at the time.

It’s also — which has been pretty constant in UT history — it’s a politically vulnerable University at the time. The Board of Regents are political appointees, as they are to this day. The university is embroiled in this power struggle with governor James Ferguson, which is something that remains on the front page of The Daily Texan throughout the latter part of the spring semester in 1917 as much as the war. But it’s something that the war essentially consumes whole, and you see this from the fall of 1917 that the war is really the all consuming context in which we find campus.

So let’s start there. Then once the war started, as you’ve written about in an article in the UT alumni magazine, The Alcalde, once the war started, it had a huge impact on campus didn’t it? What happened first?

We start with the declaration of war by Congress, April 6 1917. The transformation of UT is as sudden as it is comprehensive. It’s more or less overnight. April 7th, classes are canceled. A parade is hastily planned for the Saturday. The Texan declares that everyone is going to war, and so really from the very start you have this coercive element, which is a harbinger of things to come over the next 18 months.

So what did they mean by that, “everybody’s going to war?” Was it that military training was required?

Within two weeks of the declaration of war military training for all students, military classes for all students, are rolled out.

For men? Or for women as well?

So men the men are required to drill. I must say as much as the quo is velum can be emphasized, there was a lot of voluntary involvement as well. The war was enthusiastically received on campus. Women were expected to volunteer with the Red Cross. They were also expected to take accredited classes in things like nursing and hygiene and food conservation. And they played an important social role in sort of sending the man off to camp, sort of collections. There was even a collection at one point to sort of clean up the barracks because they were worried about the vice infesting the barracks and so they were sort of keeping an eye on their, you know, future husbands if you like to make sure that they were behaving themselves.

And what was training like there? There was a school of military aeronautics here.

Yeah. Central Texas, at least this side of the Hill Country is pretty flat and so the weather’s good all round as well. And so across Texas you had a lot of military training activity just because it’s much better to have your basic training in in January, February, November, December in Texas rather than say, in, the Northeast, for, example where the weather is not as kind. But that combination of flat prairie and weather meant that it was it was one of the places selected for a flight school. And the flight school, which is actually at the little campus sort of at I-35 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, it’s one of the war activities that captures the imagination on campus, the idea of people taking to the skies and incredible speeds and altitudes and doing having some during feats of military grander and that sort of thing. Which is interesting because the reality of being a conscript and World War I draftee is that you get sent to a camp in the San Antonio area. You’re enlisted on campus in the barracks here. You live in barracks, you make your bed, you march, you train with a piece of wood because the rifles haven’t arrived, you get bitten by bugs . And you’re bossed around by, I think The Alcalde referred to as unwhiskered officers from third rate colleges. So, there’s an annoyance. UT is a pretty privileged place in 1917, and so these officers get sent and there’s some class struggles there, and there’s a class resentment between the officers and the students that they’ve been charged with. The food is–The Alcalde, I think they’ll call it “alleged food” and “gastronomic atrocity.” So the reality of actually being a sort of military draftee versus being a school of military aeronautics cadet is very different.

Do we know anything about conditions in Europe? About Longhorns who went and fought in France?

We get a steady stream from The Daily Texan of happenings, Longhorn happenings, in Europe. There are discussions of flight cadets who graduate and then go to France and battling daring raids on German territory. Whenever a Longhorn dies, it’s reported. And so you have this “Roll of the Dead” column in the Texan which gets longer and longer, which people have increasing misgivings about. As historians we have to be skeptical with the information in the Texan. For example I found one account where they talking about a UT alum who was shot through the heart by a sniper’s bullet which was PR spin, which is common PR spin, that’s what you told grieving mothers. Well, the reality is that people wasted away got caught in barbed wire while people took shots at them. So that raised some skepticism in me. I think a better source often are diaries and scrapbooks which individual soldiers kept and have ended up in UT collections, such those of Edward Crane or George Peddy, and there are several others as well.

So we have letters and diaries from some of the men who fought?

We do yeah, letters home to their mothers. Which again, I think we have to have a certain academic skepticism to what people say, you know, in their letters home to their mothers that they talk about. George Peddy, for instance, talks about dining in a French restaurant while on officer leave. Edward Crane talks about running on the spot while journeying over on a boat from New York to France, and there are references to German u-boats and things like that. But, of course, these are letters to mother and so “We got it, mum, don’t worry about it.” And it’s interesting actually, if you compare Edward Crane who was a field captain in the Texas artillery unit, and he gets sent to Germany after the war for occupation duty and ends up being coming a counter espionage officer. And if you compare has letters home to his counter espionage reports which are full of stories of troops dying from cocaine use, troops being drunk after payday, and German wine shops being sort of sold out of house and home. They’re stories of Sinn Fein propaganda, among anxieties that Sinn Fein are infesting barracks with propaganda.

For Irish independence

Indeed, and the German Bolshevik propaganda is appearing underneath lavatory seats saying things like you’ve got to go because someone’s taking your job.

For the Russian Revolution.

Right. So the sources are interesting because you really have to take a holistic approach if you’re going to paint a reliable picture of what it was really like.

And speaking of then painting a picture, you mentioned earlier that as the roll of men who were killed gets longer and longer, people are becoming less enthusiastic about the war effort. How is The Daily Texan reflecting that?

What you see is–passive aggressively! In short, what what you see, especially in the Cactus yearbooks, which is naturally a sort of retroactive form of aggression against the war where people talk about not having enough sugar to get by, they make comments about unwhiskered officers. You also see a sort of anonymous notice board printed in the cactus where people can criticize the war freely. And they talk about not being able to study and not being able to fight. You see comments like “Belgium got off easy.” And there’s even a comment about one of the officers in charge teaching us how to die as well as live during the flu epidemic. And so you see, you see some rather cutting comment, but of course, it’s after the fact and it’s anonymous, which I think sort of speaks to the rather stifled First Amendment culture you have on campus during the war. We’re talking about a time when professors were fired for pacifism, where pro-war professors were very clear with students that this was a Just War and that they could take a gun in one hand or they needed to take a white feather in the other. You get this very claustrophobic coercive and academically stifled atmosphere emerging during the war.

Were there resistors? Were there men who refused to fight or didn’t want to fight? You mentioned a pacifist.

So the interesting thing about this is there’s not a huge lot of discussion in the Texan, for example, of students actively resisting, I think if you compare that with 1960s student publications where this is very openly talked about and even celebrated, it’s a taboo subject during World War I. There are sort of “just the facts, ma’am” reports of several professors being fired for pacifism. One, a Professor Keasbey, who is a pretty run of the mill social democrat who, during the summer break in 1917, is campaigning for peace in the Midwest and is fired over the phone by the Board of Regents when reports filtered back. There was another professor called Professor Prochish in the German studies department, who was very clear about his patriotism; he wore an American flag on his pin. He was an Austrian born citizen and his situation becomes untenable because, in trying to teach students about German political machinery, he compares the Reichstag to the US Senate and this is seen as an affront–how dare you compare our democratic institutions with their autocratic institutions, and just very quickly unravels from there.

So you see evidence of a very trigger happy campus culture when it comes to open discussion. I think it’s clear from the lack of protest in the Texan, and the way criticism is in hindsight that students got the message there. There is a Texan article that mentions 400 students being dropped from the rolls for not enrolling in military courses and not enrolling in military training on campus. Now, that’s a figure from the Daily Texan. It isn’t a a figure I’ve been able to substantiate with other news reports. And it’s likely that some of it was simply that people just enlisted. They went home and enlisted or they just went home and worked–I’m going to take a couple of semesters off here and go help dad on the farm, or other sorts of clerical errors. But if you think about 400 students out of a student body of 3000, it’s a tremendous amount.

One thing that you’ve wrote about that has some resonance for today has to do with Regents’ activity checking up on the faculty. So can you tell us a little bit more about this You wrote that they checked the nationality and immigration status of every faculty member?

Yes, so there were resolutions passed that enemy aliens couldn’t be on the payroll.  There was an audit of enemy aliens–

And how are they defined?

–as German born. It’s not clear how they widen the net. This gentleman press Prachish that we talked about was Austrian born. He was criticized for his writings. Austria was an ally of Germany, but the US declared war on Germany and was at war with Germany. So, that might have been what saved his bacon for a few years. But, yeah, there’s this audit of campus to make sure. They also do an audit of the immigration status of people and they find that there are professors who, like myself today, are green card holders and have not took the plunge, so to speak, and they’re gently encouraged to get moving with citizenship to show which side they’re on.

Do people want to commemorate the war right afterwards, or do they have a sense that this is a tragedy, we should just move on? What sort of efforts were there?

The pendulum swings in the sense that as soon as the war finishes, quickly, life returns to normal somewhat in 1919. And you almost get the sense of people coping by not talking about it, and just getting on. In fact, there’s a Hemingway character call Howard Krebbs–It’s a short story by Hemingway–and he gets at the mentality that–the story is about this returning soldier, in fact it’s called A Soldier Returns. And Krebbs, the lead character, did not want to talk about the war after all, “later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it.” So this is very sort of suggestive of the “get on with it attitude” that rises up.

But then you see a change sort of in the 20s where UT students, faculty and alumni work together to create the largest World War I monument in Texas, and possibly in the nation, which is the Texas Memorial Stadium today, our football stadium. Thirteen acres, several stories high, this is the student faculty and alum-led Memorial.

The other World War I Memorial on campus is the Littlefield Memorial Fountain which is pretty unique in the sense that it’s not simply a World War I monument, it’s a World War I and Confederate monument fused into one.

When was that built?

That was commissioned in 1918, the sculpture was created in the ’20s and it was finally put together in 1932, being unveiled in ’33. So it’s definitely a World War I monument. If you go to the Littlefield Fountain the symbolism is clearly World War I. You’ve got this ship being towed over the Atlantic Ocean by wild horses of war carrying the goddess Columbia, which symbolizes American freedom, and there’s Army and Navy characters as well. I mean it’s this tremendously evocative allegory of American involvement in World War I.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that most people walking by it today don’t recognize the symbols as being connected with World War I.

Right, absolutely.

Well we can tell from listening to you that you’re from England-


where in pretty much every town, every city, there’s at least one memorial for World War I. So many people were killed, it had such a huge cultural impact and that seems very different than the commemoration of World War One in the United States. Is that something that you’re that you’re conscious of?

I think this is something I want to spend my academic life trying to get to the bottom of, which is the difference between commemoration of World War I in America as compared to Europe. World War I gets swallowed up in the American mind by World War II. Before that, if you see this in the 20s and the 30s, you see it in the reaction against Wilsonianism in the 1920s. You see in the way that, really by the late ’20s, every liturgical denominational church–Presbyterians, Episcopalians–had made public statements repenting of the war fervor. World War I ends up with this sort of Vietnam-like dynamic, wherein this wasn’t our business, it cost tremendous amounts of money and lives, and it just completely disrupted our way of life at home. Roosevelt, I think, has a lot to do with putting that kind of sentiment to bed and then obviously, World War II is, at least as its portrayed in our cultural memories, this fabulously successful war on tour where America is the world’s savior,

In Europe, I think, World War II remains seen through this sort of World War I lens, where it’s almost seen as the comeuppance we deserved for being idiots thirty years previous. Whereas I think the way Americans think of World War II, they don’t think of World War I very much at all on a collective memory level. It’s fascinating how differently they’re perceived.

Yeah, it’s really a fascinating comparison from village to village, town to town, city to city country to country. In the Soviet Union. Also the memory of World War I was somewhat muted after the revolution and the Civil War.

Yeah, I hadn’t thought how … World War II in Russia is known as the Great Patriotic War.

Yes, and in a way every town — in Russia anyway — has a memorial that looks like the World War I memorials in England and France. They’re everywhere. Everybody lost people everywhere. 

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