Carolina Boys Go To War: Part I

When I began forming the idea for The Education of Eve, I knew I wanted to set it in the First World War, and to chronicle the early days of women attending UNC-Chapel Hill.  I learned during my research that the history of UNC during World War I is a fascinating story in its own right.  This series will chronicle the transformation the university underwent during the Great War.


UNC student battalion, 1917

The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.  But war fervor struck the campus even before the country officially entered the conflict.  In January a petition had gone around campus declaring the need for military training.  500 students signed it and by the end of March they were receiving military instruction.  Drills were led by faculty and alumni who were members of the National Guard, and were held for two hours every afternoon on the athletic field. Students also volunteered for additional training in flag signalling and wireless telegraphy.

Two weeks after the US entered the war, the students gave their first exhibition drill.  A crowd of 1,000 packed into Memorial Hall to hear UNC President Edward Kipper Graham speak, so they could learn what UNC’s involvement in the war would be.

The single thought of the University is to cooperate in every intelligent way with the government.  To this end it offered several weeks ago its all–every resource and equipment, means and men.  It organized military training under competent instruction…Our larger task is peace; our immediate task is war. ~E.K. Graham

That summer President Graham sought an officer who had experience with the war to head the newly formed military department in the 1917-1918 school year.  He finally found the man he was looking for in Captain James Stuart Allen, who had fought in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in France before an injury put him out of active service.  Captain Allen would be responsible for instructing students signed up for military classes in musketry, bayonet fighting, trench warfare, signalling, bombing (grenade throwing), and military engineering.

Out of 820 students attending UNC in the fall of 1918, 565 enrolled in the military courses, along with 8 faculty members.  Those not enrolled were either women, men who were disqualified for physical reasons, or men who had to devote so much time to lab work that they could not participate.  Captain Allen requested that Graham acquire as many rifles as possible to use while training.  250 Civil War-era carbines, courtesy of Julius Cone, were used at the beginning of the school year, and later, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels (a UNC alumnus) donated 25 up-to-date rifles.  Land for a rifle range was donated by a Mr. C.L. Lindsay.

The university’s school schedule was altered to fit in large-scale training.  In the President’s Report the new schedule was laid out:

In order to provide the time in what already appeared to be a crowded schedule, we now begin the college day at 8 a.m., the first period for all the six days being given to military work, and two hours every other day from 4 to 6 p.m.  This additional work gives a full day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for practically all undergraduates.

The Report went on to detail the courses offered in the fall ’17 semester:

The courses covered from September 15 to December 20 [1917] included: (1) close-order drill, (2), open-order drill, (3) manual of arms, (4) maneuvers of attack by day and night, (4) construction of trenches, wire obstacles, and shelters.  The lectures dealt with these and other essentials of modern warfare.

Perhaps the most noteworthy accomplishment of the military department was the construction of a trench system for the students to use in practice.  Land was donated by the Order of the Gimghouls (a secret student society formed in 1889) and was located near Raleigh Street, where many of the boarding houses catering to the school were situated.  In the university newspaper, The Tar Heel, an article entitled “Trenches Beginning to Look Quite Warlike” gave details on the work being done:

Capt. Allen says these trenches will be exact duplicates of those in Flanders with not the slightest detail omitted.  The parapets and paradoes will be supported with planks to prevent caving in, “A” supports will be placed and “bath mats” [duckboards] put in.  When all is done modern trench warfare will be practiced and will include relief, which comes at night.  An attack will also be launched at night when sky rockets, lights, and search lights will be used to signal, adding a touch of realism.

It took approximately one month to complete the trenches.  No detail was spared, including barbed wire and dug outs “furnished with all modern conveniences.”  The students staged mock engagements, practiced grenade throwing, and even had local Red Cross relief stations set up to serve coffee and donuts at the “front-lines.”  The Tar Heel reported:

It doesn’t take a strong imagination for one to believe that he is standing in a sector of the front line trenches around Ypres and that the Boche is liable to come charging out of those woods at any moment.  It can’t be helped; the thing looks so real…that particular spot of the erstwhile corn field is now really “No Man’s Land:” even little Judge’s dog keeps away, for his former haunts now look so unfamiliar.

Trenches were not the only location for staged attacks.  Professor William C. Coker (of the botany department) wrote a letter to President Graham complaining of a UNC company that ran through the arboretum one afternoon, doing considerable damage to the shrubbery and other plants. Graham assured Coker that such an act would not happen again.

Bombing practice involved dummy hand grenades hurled at various targets.  The Tar Heel wrote that “grenades of the Mills type which the Canadians have used on the western front with such great success will be used here and every man will be taught the correct way to lob the little machine.”  Bombing practice was often observed on the quad near Franklin Street.  However, students also used their lobbing skills during a snowfall in the winter of 1918, “bombing” the walls of Gerrard Hall with snowballs.

"Bombing" Gerrard Hall

While the 1917-18 school year was military-intensive, it was only a prelude to what would follow.  At the start of the following school year, UNC became a government camp as the Student Army Training Crops (SATC) took over the campus.  Over 150,000 men in 500 colleges across the country were a part of the SATC in the fall of 1918.  Lieutenant G.W.S. Stevens of the US Army took over the university, and under his leadership, dormitories were renamed barracks, the dining hall became the mess hall, and Memorial Hall became known as the Armory.  The liberal arts curriculum was thrown out, and the courses students enrolled in depended on the branch of service they planned to enter.  11 hours of military training and 3 recitation hours in the study of war were required.  A course in military French was even added by the French department.

On November 11, 1918, the First World War ended.  The rigorous military training at UNC finally came to an end in December 1918 when the SATC was demobilized and the university campus finally returned to normal for the spring 1919 semester.

Part II of the series focuses on the changing atmosphere on the UNC campus and how it impacted student life.

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



Filed under Carolina Boys Go To War, Carolina history, World War I

6 responses to “Carolina Boys Go To War: Part I

  1. Very interesting, Diana! Love the photos!

  2. Linda S.

    Great information, but I am still puzzling over “bath mats”. I am also a little surprised by the narrowness of the trenches. I expected them to be wider. In real war conditions, didn’t they sleep in these? It doesn’t look like they could even sit in them without their knees under their chins.

    • Thanks Linda! You might want to check out my post about trench construction, to better understand the dimensions of the trenches. They constructed dug outs for officers to sleep in, which were small rooms underground, and the men also dug small holes into the walls of the trench that they could crawl up in and catch a few hours of sleep. If you look at my Life in the Trenches post, you’ll see that troops cycled out, and were never in the front-line trenches for prolonged periods of time.

      “Bath mats” were a nickname given to duck boards, which were wooden platforms laid along the length of the trench. This kept soldiers from standing in the water located at the bottom of the trench, and warded off the dreaded “trench foot.” Again, my trench construction post goes into more detail about that.

  3. Pingback: Carolina Boys Go To War: Part II | Diana Overbey

  4. Pingback: Carolina Boys Go To War: Part III | Diana Overbey

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