Mary Merritt Crawford, Class of 1904, M.D. 1907, served as an ambulance surgeon during World War I, writing home brutally honest letters about such topics as her frustration of spending weeks treating wounded soldiers only to send them back to battle.
Victor Reginald Daly, Class of 1919, was an African-American officer who fought and trained side by side with white men but also endured racism, an experience he later wrote about in his autobiographical novel, “Not Only War.”
Daly and Crawford – both of whom were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government – are among the many Cornellians whose personal histories shed an important light on the Great War and its immeasurable impact on a generation. This week marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into that war, to which Cornell sent 4,598 commissioned officers – more than any other U.S. institution.
“The U.S. entry into the war was pivotal in the United States’ coming out of isolation and moving on to the world stage, and it was pivotal at Cornell as well,” said Anne R. Kenney, who recently stepped down as university librarian and is giving a talk April 18 in Chicago on “Cornell and the Great War” with University Archivist Evan Earle in Chicago. “The Class of ’19 would be very much changed, and too many of them would not live to see their graduation day.”
Within a week of President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war, about 575 Cornell male undergraduates had registered for military service. Their absence – as well as that of faculty and staff members who also enlisted – created a huge void on campus, where student activities diminished, fraternity rushing rules were suspended and dining halls combined.
Female students stepped forward to fill some of the gaps. For the first time, a woman was on the masthead of The Cornell Daily Sun, and women’s sports expanded.
Students, faculty and administrators signed a petition asking the U.S. War Department to establish an aviation ground school, leading to the U.S. Army School of Military Aeronautics.
Cornell was one of six universities to host a ground school. Schoellkopf Hall served as a barracks until growing enrollment necessitated a larger space. Hundreds of future pilots had quarters at the new New York State Armory and Drill Hall, built in 1915. In 1940, the building was named Barton Hall in honor of Col. Frank A. Barton, Class of 1891.
By war’s end, nearly 9,000 Cornellians had served overseas. Among them were Edward Tinkham, Class of 1916, who organized a Cornell unit in the American Ambulance Field Service – the first fighting unit to carry the American flag to the front. Tinkham died in 1919. Five Cornellians were designated “ace” pilots – meaning they downed five or more enemy aircraft – including James Armand Meissner, Class of 1919, who served in the famous 94th Aero Squadron, known as the Hat in the Ring Squadron, led by top WWI American ace Eddie Rickenbacker. The Nieuport 28 in the National Air and Space Museum, the same model Meissner piloted, was painted during its restoration with the same paint scheme Meissner used on his plane.
“There are a great number of fascinating stories involving Cornell during World War I, and it’s impossible to capture them all in single talk. In highlighting just a few examples of actions by the men and women involved with our university at the time, Cornell’s impact becomes clear,” Earle said. “These stories – as well as our collections of historical documents in the University Archives on the topic – are incredibly rich.”
After the war ended Nov. 11, 1918, life on campus slowly returned to its new normal. The Student Army Training Corps – a predecessor to today’s ROTC – was disbanded, and most of its members remained on campus as civilian students. A full college year, from December to August, was announced for returning soldiers. Emergency athletic programs were set up, fraternities were cleaned, and lodging houses reopened.
The West Campus War Memorial was dedicated in May 1931 in honor of those from Cornell who died in World War I. The memorial was unique in that it functioned as a dormitory, with the name of a fallen Cornellian inscribed in every room.
Though 265 Cornellians died in World War I, only 264 names were added to the memorial. Hans Wagner, Class of 1912, was not included because he fought for his native Germany – a decision with which not everyone agreed; a guard was posted to keep people from adding his name to the roll of honor in the building’s tower. Money was raised to build a memorial for him in Germany, but the funds were instead given to Kurt Lewin, a Jewish professor of psychology fleeing Hitler’s Germany, to help bring him to Cornell.
Melanie Lefkowitz is a writer for Cornell University Library.