Student life at UNC-Chapel Hill was transformed by the United States’s entrance into World War I. The university encouraged students to become soldiers not only through military training (see Part I of the series), but also through the philosophy it adopted. The school embraced the idea that the war was necessary for the defense of democracy, a concept that was imparted on the student body.
Part II: Student to Soldier
Soon after the United States declared war on Germany, famed journalist Frederick Palmer spoke to a packed house in Memorial Hall about his experiences on the Western Front. Students and residents alike filled the room, eager to hear Palmer’s first hand account. UNC’s newspaper, The Tar Heel, reported on the lecture, stating that Palmer “sketched the general progress of the war” using “many delightful anecdotes,” one of which being:
Everybody is cheerful at the front. Bullets kill a pessimist just as quickly as an optimist.
The Tar Heel went on to state “It is rare indeed that a single man can hold an intelligent audience for three hours.”
UNC students were already engaged in military training, but the United States’s entrance into World War I intensified the war fervor spreading across campus. This desire to be part of the war effort was fully supported by UNC faculty.
At the opening of the 1917-1918 school year, Dean Stacy addressed the students, stating:
Hitherto, the University has thought and existed as a community practically independent and uninfluenced, but now the University must think in terms of world thought, and govern its course, not by our own desires, but by the needs of our country.
UNC President E.K. Graham commented on the drop in student body numbers:
Youth is the raw material used by both the colleges and the war. Whatever losses we sustain, we accept as the necessary consequences of this grim fact.
During the previous spring and summer, many students had attended officer’s training at Camp Oglethorpe, in Georgia. UNC faculty voted to give full credit to students who enrolled in the camp before finishing the term. Former UNC students made up one-tenth of the overall number attending the camp, and over 200 of them received commissions.
In addition to the students, eleven faculty members enlisted over the summer.
The war impacted the school in other ways. Due to the amount of time devoted to military pursuits, varsity football was cancelled for the season. The Tar Heel reported:
A vast change has come over our athletics since last year. The time necessary for military training has made it impossible for inter-collegiate football to be carried on, and so our team will not have a chance to repeat last year’s most successful season. Practically the whole student body, however, has registered for the course in military science.
President Graham also noted this in his President’s Report:
In order to get the time for the drill and the ground space necessary, and to enable the students to concentrate their interest on the military training, the major athletic schedules were cancelled.
It is high praise for the genuine worth of the military instruction and the spirit in which it has been conducted to be able to say that the college community has apparently not missed the previously absorbing interest of intercollegiate football.
A September 28, 1917 Tar Heel article expressed this new attitude adopted by many UNC students soon after beginning their military science courses:
There is a spirit of seriousness which strengthens the morals of the whole student body seriousness bred of responsibility. It has expressed itself in a constructive manner in campus customs. College might strike a new and deeper note than had been sounded before. Tardiness at meetings and classes has been reduced by half. Fun and pleasure there is in plenty; but it is rid of its boisterousness.
This spirit cannot be called the result of military training. But military training has disciplined it, and directed it into constructive channels.
Uniforms soon replaced civilian clothes, though the university did not provide them. Students went out and purchased their own so that they could look the part of a soldier while drilling. Bonfires and pep rallies were still held, but instead of “Beat Duke” rallies, there were “Beat Germany” rallies. The Carolina boys took part in Liberty Loan parades, demonstrating the skills they had gained through their military instruction. At least one Liberty Loan parade had a collegiate feel, with a large bonfire outside the Franklin Street post-office.
As the school year progressed, more and more UNC students enlisted to join the fight in Europe. The Tar Heel kept the student body informed of which Carolina boys, both past and present, had joined up. Carolina’s yearbook, the Yackety Yack, decided to devote their annual issue to the school’s military training, and reiterated the university’s philosophy towards the war. Fortunately for historians, this book provides a great deal of source information about this era at UNC, as well as a wealth of photographs (which are not found in the Tar Heel).
When graduation day arrived in June, 1918, the graduating class had been “cut to fifty or sixty due to the men leaving for service,” according to the Tar Heel, which added “still they will all be here in spirit and will have all the regular exercises.” Men who had gone off to fight were mailed their diploma and Bible, which were given to each student during commencement.
A total of 2,240 UNC students, faculty, and alumni served in the First World War. Out of that number, 15 men were killed in action, 18 died of disease, and 21 were wounded. By the spring of 1919, UNC-Chapel Hill had returned to its normal school schedule, and military training was abandoned. But the Great War had left its mark on the history of the university, and on its students.
Part III of the series describes the war experiences of some of UNC’s students.
Sources: Carolina Goes to War: A Lesson from Campus History, 1915-1919 by Glenn Hutchinson, A Nursery of Patriotism: The University at War, 1861-1945, UNC Archives/North Carolina Collection