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Frequently Asked Questions
Princeton during World War I

In his 1914 address to incoming freshman in Marquand Chapel on the afternoon of September 24, President John G. Hibben acknowledged that “the opening of this new academic year . . . presents to our minds a striking contrast—the peaceful setting of this assembly against the dark background of the terrible European war.” With the outbreak of the war in Europe only one month before, many Princeton men took Hibben's call “to the service of the world” to heart. Many Princetonians joined Canadian regiments and other branches of the allied military services. Still others volunteered as ambulance drivers for the French Red Cross. A Princeton chapter of the National Red Cross Society was formed, involving both town and gown representatives.

By December 1917 students had petitioned successfully for Princeton to offer organized military training. Overseen by what would become known as the Committee on War Courses, the program was approved by the University trustees and headed by General Leonard Wood. Throughout the following two years more and more lectures were presented by officers of the Army on military history and organization; tactical excursions were offered and covered skills such as trench and pontoon building, bridgework and road construction, and rifle shooting practice.

When a German U-boat sank the R.M.S. Lusitania on May 7, 1916, 116 members of the Princeton faculty signed a formal protest that was sent to President Wilson. Hibben was outspoken in his desire for the United States to enter the war, but the U.S. would not declare war on Germany until April 6, 1917. The atmosphere on the Princeton campus changed instantly: the University cancelled the schedules of all competitive sports and within ten days the entire campus was drilling. Within this time 166 Princeton men had already left to join some branch of service, and 142 had given up academic work to take the first Intensive Military Training Course. While a call to war was on the lips of many at Princeton, it would be a mistake to assume that every member of the student body supported U.S. involvement in the war.

Two pacifist students petitioned President Hibben to allow the use of Marquand Chapel for a peace meeting, but the request was denied. “Princeton will not allow the use of its building for anti-war meetings. Nor will the University authorities tolerate pacifist propaganda by students,” reported the Newark Star-Eagle. It was also reported that while Hibben professed a belief in the freedom of speech, “he declared the present no time for divided counsels.”

By December 1917 there were no less than 3,000 Princeton men in service—including 117 faculty. The effect of the war on undergraduate enrollment resulted in a 63% drop in admissions, and the University found itself with a $135,000 deficit--despite the trustees having reduced expenses by some $120,000. In order to keep afloat, in 1918 Princeton opened its campus to the military and became, for all intents and purposes, a military college.

Beginning in the fall of 1918, all students of 18 years of age or more were enlisted in the service of the United States Army or Navy and were subject to be called to service if they were needed. The New York Times noted that “this revolutionary change in the course of study and the status of the student will prove of benefit . . . for it keeps alive and functioning patriotically a well-equipped plant that might otherwise soon have been obliged to close its doors except as a training camp or hospital.” Princeton did not seem to be in danger of closing its doors forever, but by opening its doors to the military, Princeton took the lead in a move that nearly all colleges in the country embraced in order to remain viable.

By the war's end, the total number of Princeton men in the war totaled 6,170 and faculty numbered 139. Of this number, 117 students and three members of the faculty were killed in action. Princeton men received 430 decorations from 13 nations, France awarding 227 and the United States 117. World War I was a war without parallel—its scale of destruction eclipsed all previous wars. With estimates of upwards of 10 million killed and 200,000 wounded, it left much of Europe in severe economic hardship and radically reshaped the political map of Europe. It spelled the end of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires and was the catalyst for the Russian revolution. For many this world war was thought to be the war to end all wars, but only twenty-seven years later the world would be once again be embroiled in war and Princeton would once again be called upon to serve.


Related Sources in the University Archives

Admissions Office Records, 1854-2001

Annual Reports to the President, 1940-2003

Board of Trustees Minutes and Records, 1746-Present

The Daily Princetonian (Student newspaper)

John D. Davies Collection on Hobey Baker, 1908-1969

Davies, John. The Legend of Hobey Baker. (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, c. 1966).

Admiral Caspar Frederick Goodrich Papers on the Princeton University Naval Training Unit, 1918-1920

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series, c. 1850-1996

Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005

Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, 1746-1999. See John Grier Hibben Records, 1806-1986.

Office of the Secretary Records, 1853-2001

Oversize Collection

Princeton Alumni Publications, Inc. Editor's Records, 1895-1929

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton in the World War. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University, Office of the Secretary, c. 1932).

Society of the Claw Records, 1912-1940


Related Sources in the Public Policy Collections (selected)

American Committee for Devastated France Records, 1919-1926

Liberty Loan Committee Records, 1917-1919

David Aiken Reed Scrapbooks, 1880-1953

William H. Walker Cartoon Collection, 1894-1922

World War I Papers of William Collins Vandewater, 1918-1919


Susan Hamson (2003)


Last modified: Tuesday, 24-Apr-2012 13:56:52 EDT