Category Archives: World War I

Open Christmas Letter: December 1914

While I was researching the Christmas Truce of 1914, I came across the “Open Christmas Letter” of 1914, a piece of history I had not read about before.  World War I took place between 1914 and 1918, a time in which women in both Europe and America were battling for the vote.  In fact, the war helped the women’s suffrage movement by giving women a chance to step into traditionally male roles as more and more men went off to fight.  Their contributions did not go unnoticed, and both the UK and the US passed women’s suffrage amendments in part due to their efforts.

By December of 1914 it was obvious that World War I would not be a short conflict.  Several German suffragists wrote letters to Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), who published them in Jus Suffragii, the journal for the IWSA.  The letters expressed these women’s desire that the war not divide them and they remain united despite the bloodshed, “by the common striving for the highest object–personal and political freedom.”

Emily Hobhouse, author of the Open Christmas Letter

Emily Hobhouse, author of the Open Christmas Letter

British suffragist Emily Hobhouse read the letters and decided to take action in what would become the “Open Christmas Letter.”  101 fellow suffragists signed the letter before sending it to the US press (because the two nations were at war, the British suffragists were prevented from directly communicating with those in Germany).  The letter, published under the heading: “On Earth Peace, Goodwill towards Men,” offered a Christmas greeting to the women in Germany and Austria: “The Christmas message sounds like mockery to a world at war, but those of us who wished and still wish for peace may surely offer a solemn greeting to such of you who feel as we do.”  It continued with a call for peace among the nations:

Is it not our mission to preserve life? Do not humanity and common sense alike prompt us to join hands with the women of neutral countries, and urge our rulers to stay further bloodshed? …
Even through the clash of arms, we treasure our poet’s vision, and already seem to hear

“A hundred nations swear that there shall be
Pity and Peace and Love among the good and free.”

May Christmas hasten that day..

On March 1, 1915, the German and Austrian suffragists responded to the letter.  Their reply, entitled “Open Letter in Reply to the Open Christmas Letter from Englishwomen to German and Austrian Women,” was signed by 155 suffragists and printed in Jus Suffragii.

To our English sisters, sisters of the same race, we express in the name of many German women our warm and heartfelt thanks for their Christmas greetings, which we only heard of lately.
This message was a confirmation of what we foresaw—that women of the belligerent countries, with all faithfulness, devotion, and love to their country, can go beyond it and maintain true solidarity with the women of other belligerent nations, and that really civilised women never lose their humanity…

Rosa Mayreder, one of those who signed the response to the Open Christmas Letter

Rosa Mayreder, one of those who signed the response to the Open Christmas Letter

This shared hope of peace spurred the IWSA to hold an international peace conference of women in The Hague rather than their regular International Alliance meeting.  At the meeting Julia Grace Wales, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, presented her ideas on bringing about peace, which came to be known as the Wisconsin Plan.  Wales’s plan envisioned an international group made up of neutral nations who would gather in order to serve as mediators between warring countries and also to provide peaceful solutions.  The Wisconsin Plan was unanimously adopted by the 1,150 women who attended the conference, and a delegation was selected to travel to neutral countries and present the plan.  One of these countries was the then neutral United States, and President Woodrow Wilson would later use many of the ideas from the Wisconsin Plan when creating his Fourteen Points.  Through these women’s efforts to bring about peace, they helped to bring about the League of Nations.

Source: Wikipedia


Filed under General history, World War I

A Christmas Truce

German and British soldiers

By December 1914, four months after the start of World War I, the “Race to the Sea” was complete, and two parallel lines of trenches ran from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland.  The devastating effects of modern warfare were becoming alarmingly apparent, and some, such as Pope Benedict XV, called for a truce between the warring countries.  But as we know, the call for a ceasefire went unheeded, and the war would continue for four more years.

However, that first Christmas on the Western Front saw a number of spontaneous temporary ceasefires among the men on both sides of No Man’s Land.

In the days leading up to Christmas, German and British troops received a number of care packages, both from home and from their governments.  German soldiers decorated their parapets with candle-lit Christmas trees and sang carols, which could easily be seen and heard by the British troops, who were sometimes no more than 30 yards away.  The trees became a conversation piece between the trenches.  As the men spoke of Christmas, mutual goodwill led to carol singing, and in some areas, German and British troops actually met in No Man’s Land (at this point not the shell hole laden muddy nightmare it would later become as the war dragged on).  There they exchanged presents (items taken from their care packages), and in some cases, buttons from each others’ uniforms as a type of souvenir.  There was even an instance of a soccer game that took  place between the two sides.

In all, roughly 100,000 men participated in this unofficial truce.  It is important to note that this number mostly consisted of German and British troops.  The French and Belgian soldiers were not as involved because at this point their land was occupied by the Germans, and any Christmas feelings of goodwill were overshadowed by this fact.

christmas truce

In most cases the men did not receive any discipline for this fraternization.  This was due to the mixed reaction by both the British and German commanders when they heard the news.  Some made clear their disapproval of such actions and the dangers that could come from interacting with the opposing side.  Others did not see any major harm coming of the impromptu ceasefires, and felt that it might give their troops time to strengthen their trench structures, since they did not have to worry about being picked off by snipers or shell fire from the opposing side for a few days.

Some of the ceasefires ended with the close of Christmas Day–though a few lasted until the start of the New Year.  And in some sectors no truce took place at all, providing no respite from the routine of war.

Evidence of Christmas truces in 1915 and 1916 were also recorded.  Private Ronald MacKinnon, a 23 year old from Canada, wrote a letter home about Christmas on Vimy Ridge in 1916:

“I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars.”

Private MacKinnon was killed four months later during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

British and German troops meeting in No Man's Land, Christmas 1914.

British and German troops meeting in No Man’s Land, Christmas 1914.

After 1916, the armies on both sides made a concerted effort to prevent further fraternization with the enemy.  They scheduled bombardments to take place on Christmas Eve so the opportunity to share Christmas tidings would be impossible.  Troops were also shuffled around to different sectors along the Front so that they never became too friendly with the men in the opposite trenches.

Today, the Christmas Truce of 1914 has become legendary.  It gives us a bit of hope for humanity, knowing that even during the horrors of World War I, men from both sides were willing to put their guns aside for a day and offer goodwill towards men they were told to hate, to shoot, to kill.

Sources: First World, Wikipedia

For more, check out this YouTube clip from a PBS documentary, featuring the Christmas Truce of 1914:


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Propaganda Posters of World War I

While the United States did not enter the First World War until 1917, they produced more war propaganda posters than all the other belligerent countries combined: 20 million copies of approximately 2,500 different posters.  The United States’s Publicity Bureau quickly learned that propaganda posters worked as “a silent and powerful recruiter.”

Posters were an excellent way to disseminate news and information in an era before radios were commonplace in homes.  The images were effective, and one did not have to be literate to understand their meaning.

Harry A. Garfield, the head of the wartime United States Fuel Administration, spoke of posters’ ability to get the word out to people:

“I can get the authority to write a column or a page about fuel—but I cannot make everybody or even anybody read it. But if I can get a striking drawing with or without a legend of a few lines, everyone who runs by must see it.”

Some of the most successful poster artists came from magazine and book publishing, which makes sense, as they had been trained to create artwork that was evocative.  And that was the point of propaganda posters–to appeal to one’s emotions and give one cause for immediate action.

Below is a selection of war propaganda posters found in the digital “North Carolinians and the Great War” project by UNC Chapel Hill’s Documenting the American South program.  These posters were widely distributed in North Carolina, and throughout the United States.  You can see the full collection here.

Source: American Posters of the Great War by Dr. Libby Chenault


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Last Dispatches

The Harry Ransom Center (a research library and museum at the University of Austin in Texas) is putting together what looks like a wonderful exhibit to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I.  The new exhibit will tell the story of the war through letters and diaries from soldiers, among other primary resources.  The museum gave The Daily Beast website a look at the final letters from famous English writers, which is posted on their website (visit it here: Last Letters from World War I Literary Heroes).

Seeing these last letters in the soldiers’ own handwriting humanizes the war in a way that nothing else can.

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Birdsong: Part II

I’m a bit behind posting my thoughts on part II of Birdsong.  The conclusion of the series did not disappoint.  I know that there have been some mixed reviews about this adaptation, but I felt the production was solid throughout and thoroughly enjoyed it.

One of the main complaints has been the flashbacks to Stephen’s life before the war threaded in throughout his wartime experience.  But as I said before, I think this only strengthened the story.  The horrors of the war are so vividly depicted that the viewer needs a chance to escape to a time before the nightmare began, just as it is likely the soldiers would have done when things became too much to bear.

Stephen going over the top during the Somme Offensive

Birdsong portrays the First World War very well, hitting all of the major notes that made this war so devastating, including the horrendous loss of life during the Somme Offensive.  I don’t want to write too much in the event some of you have not seen it, but I strongly urge you to watch it online on PBS while it is still available.

There’s also a good interview with Eddie Redmayne about his role as Stephen Wraysford which you can read here.

Jack Firebrace & Stephen Wraysford

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Filed under Period Pieces, World War I

Birdsong: Part I

Written in 1993 by Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong is considered a classic of modern English literature.  It tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a troubled young man who falls deeply in love with a married Frenchwoman named Isabelle Azaire in 1910.  The book follows Wraysford into the trenches during World War I, and through his eyes the reader experiences some of the major battles fought on the Western Front.  Millions of copies of Birdsong have been sold worldwide and it is regularly voted one of Britain’s favorite novels.  It is considered so significant, in fact, that it is required reading in British schools.

All that being said, I’ve tried picking the book up twice, and have twice failed to finish it.  It’s a tough read.  I breezed through Part I, the portion focusing on the love/lust relationship that develops between Stephen and Isabelle.  But at the beginning of Part II I was suddenly plunged 45 feet below No Man’s Land into a claustrophobic earthen tunnel with Jack Firebrace, a completely new character that had nothing to do with Part I.  The stark contrast between a forbidden love affair  in the lush Amiens countryside and the gritty, depressing conditions of the Great War was a very jarring adjustment.  I put the book down again, time passed, and it went back on the shelf.

Jack Firebrace listening for enemy tunnelers

Then last night the first of the two-part miniseries based on the book aired on PBS.  I tuned in because I was curious how Birdsong would adapt to the screen.  After all, it’s taken Working Title 13 years to get it there since buying the film rights to the book.  And I have to say, I was very impressed.  Unlike the novel, which progresses in chronological order, this adaptation chose to intersperse the pre-war love story scenes as flashbacks Stephen Wraysford has during the war.  The film weaves between the light and the dark, contrasting the young Wraysford and the hardened soldier he turns out to be, leaving the viewer wondering what caused such a transformation in his character.  In the book we already know by the end of Part I, but the series lets the two stories play out simultaneously, so the viewer is left guessing what happens both in the past and present.

Stephen and Isabelle steal a moment alone together.

The cinematography is beautiful, the actors’ performances solid (Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Wraysford while Clemence Poesy plays Isabelle Azaire), and the war scenes bring the bitter reality of the First World War home (a much grittier portrayal than what you’ll find on Downton Abbey).  I look forward to seeing how it wraps up next week.  This adaptation inspired me to take the book off the shelf.  Maybe the third try’s the charm.

Wraysford at the Front

Be sure to check out this interesting article about the filming (and why it took 13 years to get it on the screen).

See my thoughts on Part II here.

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Carolina Boys Go To War: Part III

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Documenting the American South is a great resource for history nerds such as myself.  The program has provided numerous images and texts that illustrate the history of the South for anyone to access from the comfort of their home computer.

One collection accessible on DocSouth is “North Carolinians and the Great War.”  Here you’ll find multiple journals and letter collections from UNC students who were part of the First World War.  These papers give us a glimpse into the life of a student-turned-soldier.

Part III: Personal Accounts

While conducting research for The Education of Eve, one of the main letter collections I focused on were those of Robert March Hanes, due to the level of detail he used when writing about his experiences.  A member of the class of 1912, Hanes attended officers’ training at Fort Oglethorpe, GA, before being commissioned a captain in the 113th Field Artillery.  His letter collection contains the original envelopes, with the censor inspection seals still easily legible.  The first of the collection is to his boss at the Crystal Ice Company, where he worked as the secretary-treasurer.  He hoped that his absence would not cause too much difficulty at the office, and asked that he be written “if anything at all turns up that you don’t understand.”  From there the letters chronicle Hanes’s time with the army, from training, to the trip over to France, to the front lines, and then, finally, the armistice.  He wrote his wife on November 11:

The greatest day in history!

        Sweetheart a deathlike stillness covers the whole front now and has since eleven o’clock this morning when the armistice went into effect. It is the most unnatural sound to us that could possibly be. All sorts of artillery has been piling into this sector for the past two weeks and things had livened up considerably. There was firing going on all the time day and night by either the Germans or us. So the stillness now seems all wrong, I keep feeling like it isn’t true.

I fired my last shot at exactly eleven o’clock this morning and am keeping the shell case as a souvenir. It is the last shot fired by my battery. I hope the last it will ever fire.

To read more of Hanes’s letters, you can find them on the DocSouth page here.

Wildcats emblem on overseas cap

The collection also includes the diary of William B. Umstead, who later became governor of North Carolina.  Images of his uniform and the equipment he carried during the war are also available to view.  Umstead was a member of the 81st division.  Known as the Wildcats division, Umstead would have been part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which did not end until the armistice was called at 11:00 on November 11, 1918.  You can read Umstead’s diary here, and also take a look at his military gear.

Also featured within the collection are selected letters from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paul Eliot Green (who wrote the outdoor drama , The Lost Colony), who began attending UNC in 1916, but left less than a year later to join the army.  Like Hanes, his letters describe his training experience, and then his service in France.  Green was assigned as “a bookkeeper of sorts,” keeping up with all of the fighting orders, ration reports, and casualty lists.

 Reporting the killed and wounded is my job also. And alas! I’ve marked up several friends whose mothers today are speaking to God about the eternal Why? But withal our losses are extremely light, it appears to me, compared to those of Germany. I must not talk tho, for there is the censor; and even the leaves have ears these days.

        Now as to the hours I work–when and how long, I may answer all by saying that I never keep track of time. Scarcely ever can I give the name of the present day. It may be Monday; it may be Sunday, I don’t know. All I’m concerned with is the day of he month, 21, 22 or 23. Foreign service already has taught me one thing–that 8 hours of sleep are not essential to good health. Yes, and I’ve learned another thing, I was forgetting: the poor tired earth has drunk enough blood within the last four years as to be offensive in the sight of God. Not long ago I was on an old battlefield. We were digging trenches. One could hardly push his spade into the ground without striking a bone of somebody’s body. Yes, horrible; but war. And a few days ago I was at another place where 54,000 men “went west” in one day. Awful! Yes, but war.

After the war, Green went back to UNC.  You can take a closer look at his letters here.

To read more accounts of the First World War, please visit DocSouth’s North Carolinians and the Great War page.

Miss the other segments of the series?  Be sure to read Part I: Training,  and Part II: Student to Soldier.

Sources: A Nursery of Patriotism: The University at War, 1861-1945, DocSouth’s North Carolinians and the Great War


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

Carolina Boys Go To War: Part II

Old Memorial Hall, UNC Chapel Hill

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.

UNC Professors

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.

Class of 1918 in front of South Building

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


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

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

Spanish Influenza Pandemic: 1918-19

The First World War claimed the lives of over 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians.  However, a more devastating killer came in the form of an unseen virus, sweeping across the globe and claiming between 50 and 100 million lives between June 1918 and December 1920.  This pandemic is considered one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.

Unlike many illnesses, the highest  mortality rate from the Spanish influenza was in the 20-40 year old age range.

Three waves

The influenza struck in three successive waves.  The first, in the spring and summer of 1918, was relatively mild with a very low death rate.  The deadliest wave hit in the fall of that year.  Soldiers on the front came down with the flu, and were packed into crowded train cars and shipped to crowded infirmaries, which only worked to spread the disease.  This second wave traveled quickly, causing epidemics in communities around the world.  A third wave and final wave occurred in the spring of 1919.

Why “Spanish?”

The pandemic was given the moniker “Spanish flu” because of the perceived notion that Spain was one of the hardest hit countries.  Newspapers in Spain reported openly on the effects of the flu in the country, as Spain’s neutrality in the war meant no censorship had been placed on the media.  The US, Great Britain, France, and Germany would not allow stories to be printed that would lower morale.  In addition, these nations did not want their enemies to read their death tolls from the flu.  As a result, Spain’s coverage of the flu gave the illusion that it suffered more than other countries.


The Spanish flu typically struck suddenly.  A high fever accompanied by body aches sent those afflicted to their beds.  They might also suffer from a headache, sore throat, cough, and sometimes a very bad nose bleed.

The illness was often unpredictable.  Some made a full recovery.  Others died within hours of taking ill.  Then there were some cases in which a patient seemed to have recovered, only to suffer a relapse which was often fatal.


Most treatments offered by practitioners at the time were largely ineffective against the virus.  Patent medicines, available at most local drug stores, were widely prescribed, including Vick’s Vapo-Rub.  While doing research for my novel The Education of Eve, I found that the local newspapers ran weekly ads toting the healing properties of this product against the Spanish flu.  Unfortunately these patent medicines did nothing to help.

Some fell back on home remedies.  Selena W. Saunders of North Carolina followed a trained nurse, offering her assistance.  She noted:

[The flu] struck suddenly, spent itself quickly in a burning three-day fever, often leaving its victim dead. The people lost faith in the remedies they had relied on all their lives, and they became frantic.

Practitioners became desperate, resorting to archaic treatments to help “balance the humors.”  Patients were sometimes wrapped in blankets so that they would sweat, and sometimes cupping was used as a way to bring out the excess blood.

Doctors worked around the clock to help those in their communities, often making house calls.  During the height of the epidemic in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Dr. Wingate Johnson reported that his “days” usually lasted between 30-40 hours.  He would sleep for 4 hours, then call a nurse for more tongue depressors and medicine before going out for another “day” of visiting patients in their homes.

Public reaction

Communities struck by the Spanish flu would often panic.  Selena Saunders described the public reaction in North Carolina:

Some of them locked themselves in their house, and refused to open the door for anyone…. Merchants nailed bars across their doors, and served the customers one-at-a-time at the doorway. We found whole families stricken, with none able to help the others.

Gauze masks were recommended by physicians

Besides quarantining those who were ill, many communities also placed bans on public gatherings in hopes of preventing the spread of the flu.  In some cases even public funerals were banned for fear that mourners would transmit the disease.  Gauze masks were recommended when going out in public, as physicians knew that the spread of the illness came from coughing and sneezing.  Posters were created and distributed, reminding people to cover their mouths when coughing.

Dan Tonkel, who was a child growing up in North Carolina during the 1918 pandemic, remembered how scary that time was:

I felt like I was walking on eggshells. I was afraid to go out, to play with my playmates, my classmates, my neighbors. I was almost afraid to breathe. I remember I was actually afraid to breathe. People were afraid to talk to each other. It was like—don’t breathe in my face, don’t even look at me, because you might give me germs that will kill me…Farmers stopped farming, merchants stopped selling. The country more or less just shut down. Everyone was holding their breath, waiting for something to happen. So many people were dying, we could hardly count them. We never knew from one day to another who was going to be next on the death list.

In November the worst of the second wave was over, and the US Public Health Service sent out reports that the number of influenza cases were declining.  Public panic subsided, and quarantines were slowly lifted, gauze masks discarded.  Public events were once again held, just in time for everyone to gather and celebrate the end of the war.

If you live in the United States, you can learn more about how your state was impacted by the Spanish influenza by going to the US Department of Health and Human Services page about the pandemic.

Sources: World War I Casualties, 1918 Flu Pandemic, The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919


Filed under World War I