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Life During Wartime

A century later, remembering Cornell’s contributions to WWI

ROTC drills on the Arts Quad in 1917

ROTC drills on the Arts Quad in 1917

Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections

One hundred years ago this spring—on April 6, 1917—President Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration that would launch the nation into war, and propel the University to action. Within a week, 575 Cornell undergraduates had registered for military service; by the end of the war a year and a half later, almost 9,000 students and alumni would enlist. Of these, more than 4,500 were commissioned officers, comprising 2 percent of all officers in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps—more than from any other single institution, West Point included.

The University’s strong military roots trace back to the Morrill Land Grant Act that enabled its founding. That law, enacted during the Civil War, mandated that land-grant schools provide instruction in military tactics along with subjects like agriculture and engineering. Military training has been part of the Cornell curriculum ever since, first through the Cadet Corps and now in today’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Johnson Museum WWI exhibit

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Though the war raged thousands of miles from the Hill, it had dramatic effects on campus. In September 1917, the incoming freshman class was almost a third smaller than usual. Fraternities were nearly half empty. Sports were cancelled and clubs went dormant. Tensions sometimes ran high. Students vandalized the home of a Swiss-born, pacifist faculty member who declined to buy Liberty bonds; a Latin professor moved to have a colleague in the German department expelled from the Town and Gown Club—on the grounds, as Morris Bishop 1914, PhD 1926, wrote in his History of Cornell, “that any reader of the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung was a traitor.”

Many on campus worked to aid the war effort from the home front. Cornellians observed “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” to conserve food for the troops. The College of Agriculture took a leading role in ag management statewide—running a campaign for food economy, maintaining “victory gardens,” and organizing an agricultural census. The Department of Home Economics helped lead the movement for household thrift, demonstrated home canning techniques, and disseminated recipes adapted for wartime shortages of staples like sugar. In 1917, Cornell became one of six campuses nationwide to host the Army’s School of Military Aeronautics, which taught subjects like radio engineering and aerial photography, and hundreds of male undergrads juggled coursework with ROTC drills. “In the muddy middle of the roads marched the columns, the army boots stamping the rhythm, the sergeants barking ‘Hep,’ the campus dogs also barking in their own rhythm and bounding with delight,” Bishop wrote. “The quadrangle was the scene of incessant reviews, with pup tents rising and promptly struck, with rifles neatly stacked, with packs ever rolled, unrolled, and rerolled.”

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3 thoughts on “Life During Wartime

  1. As a retired US Airforce Fighter Pilot I’m thrilled to have been apart of the Cornell history.
    Go Big Red!

    Dave Evans
    ILR,, Class of 1964

  2. An excellent feature for Memorial Day 2017. Well done, thank you.

    Steve Lantz ’92

  3. My grandfather, while not a Cornellian, taught aerial photography for the Army Air Corp (the predecessor of the US Air Force) at Cornell during the war.

    Attached is a photo of him, William Jacobi (my maternal grandfather), and of the entire group. It was taken in front of what I believe is Barton Hall, based upon the stone and the window frames. Taken April 24, 1918.

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