Archives document life at Lawrence during WWI

By Ollin Garcia Pliego

Although Americans’ opinions were divided, a large number of students at Lawrence showed patriotic and nationalistic sentiments when the United States entered World War I to support the Allies on April 6, 1917.

The Great War, as it was called before World War II, is among the deadliest armed conflicts in history, accounting for around 17 million deaths: about 10 million military personnel and seven million civilians. The trigger for war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Professor of History and Patricia Hamar Boldt Professor of Liberal Studies Paul Cohen explains that people “[were] stuck in the 19th century” because most thought to be in “a war of competitive capitalism, entrepreneurship, the industrial revolution or in fact, in an increasingly global world where the corporations are on the rise and there’s an interlinked economy.”

Technological developments in warfare set World War I apart from previous conflicts. “What it changed for 1914 was the military technology. You have machine guns, big artillery, airplanes, motor cars; all this stuff which is going to make the war much bloodier and much more extended,” said Cohen.

Ideologically, the war was mainly about nationalism. “By 1914, nationalism has become ethnic, hypercompetitive and also overlaid with imperialism … Germany wants to compete with Britain, they want to be nation-states in central and eastern Europe that are rebelling against old empires,” explained Cohen.

President Woodrow Wilson was elected on the promise of not entering the war, but the political scenario switched for the United States because of two crucial events. The first causus belli, or cause for war, was the German sinking of American ships. Cohen explains how:

“The Germans have been carrying out submarine warfare, most famously the sinking of the Lusitania … the Germans were sinking ships for reasons, the Americans were supplying the Allies so the Germans made a calculation … they miscalculated,” and the Americans entered the war.

German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann invited Mexico to fight as a German ally against the United States through the famous Zimmermann telegram. In exchange, the Germans promised to help Mexico recovering the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, lost in the Mexican-American War. The British intelligence intercepted the Zimmermann telegram and passed it on to Washington.

Lawrence profoundly changed with the war. In the book “A History of Lawrence University 1847-1964,” former Professor Emeritus of History Charles Breunig explains the university’s environment after the outbreak of war:

“By June, 40 or 50 Lawrence students had enlisted, gone into YMCA work or entered some form of service, such as work in shipyards or on farms. The following academic year, 1917-18, brought an even greater drop in enrollment. By the fall of 1918, only the arrival of a unit of 400 soldiers known as the SATC, or Student Army Training Corps, enabled the college to keep afloat.”

As with other wars in the nation, life at Lawrence radically changed, but this time, with the presence of 400 military men on campus. When the unit arrived, there were only 36 men enrolled in the university. Every healthy male student was required to participate in the military training and drill, as required by the government.

Later on, food rationing was introduced on campus: “100 of meat per week were saved in dormitories and fraternities by the observance of ‘meatless days’ when soup, beans or fish were served as substitutes,” wrote Breunig.

The Lawrentian reported on November 22, 1917 that “Every Lawrence student has shown by his attitude that he is more than willing to make this small but all-important sacrifice because in so doing he feels that he is having a part in putting the finishing touches on Kaiser Bill.”

Students’ attitudes and anti-German sentiment during the war reflected those of many Americans. For example, there was a great decline in German classes: “Anti-German sentiment showed up on the campus in a 50 percent drop in enrollment in German courses in the fall of 1917,” wrote Breunig. “A year later, only seven students signed up for German courses,” he said.

Former conservatory professor Ludolf Arens, who had become an American citizen ten years before the war, was accused of pro-Germanism. The rumors rapidly spread around campus to the point that President Samuel G. Plantz felt the need to publicly defend him in The Lawrentian.

Anti-Germanism was tied with super-patriotic feelings. “Judson Rosebush, a trustee and former Lawrence professor, organized a Lawrence chapter of the Loyalty Legion … 50,000 in Wisconsin,” said Breunig. Its main goals were to encourage enlistment in the army and navy as well as “to seek out traitors and bring them to punishment, to hold slackers up to public contempt, and to teach and practice a broad vigorous American patriotism,” he wrote.