A century later, the shadow of World War I still looms on UT campus.
by Ben Wright
On March 1, 1917, as World War I entered its third grueling year, news of the Zimmerman Telegram broke across America. It caused a national sensation, revealing that Germany had promised Mexico the annexation of Texas in return for a military alliance against the United States. Germany — already fighting Britain, France, and Russia — was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, and fully expected war to ensue with an angry America. A month later, Germany’s hunch proved correct. America declared war.
The telegram lit the touchpaper, and yet, there was no mention of it in the Daily Texan that March — instead, news ran about the Tug-o-War contest’s cancellation (a strong enough rope couldn’t be found), the latest shenanigans in the governor’s fight with the Board of Regents, and a revival preacher’s message to students. War raged unabated in Europe but students like George Peddy, LLB 1920, went to class and Texas Exes like Edward Crane, BL, LLB 1906, went to work, oblivious to the mud, blood, gas, and rot of the Western Front. Even as America hurtled toward it, the war remained far from the collective mind of campus.
The same is true today. One hundred years later, World War I is the forgotten calamity of American history. But it took the Forty Acres by storm, transforming UT into an all-consuming military machine. Students died. Faculty were fired. Speech was censored. Today, the war’s legacy remains present — through the silent monuments and winding landscapes that dominate campus. They point to how the war left an indelible imprint on men like Peddy and Crane, as it would the campus to which they returned.
War Breaks Out
When Congress formally declared war on Wednesday, April 6, 1917, UT’s transformation was as sudden as it was comprehensive. The next day, faculty formed its own military company. Classes were cancelled and a parade was hastily planned for Saturday. “All will walk,” declared the Texan. At the parade, engineering dean Thomas Taylor addressed a crowd of thousands. “There is no neutrality now,” he said, beating an American flag pin on his chest with one hand and wafting a white chicken feather with the other.
The tone was set for the what would undoubtedly be the most dizzying couple of years in campus history. Within a week, military training was compulsory for every student, as were courses in military science. Students who resisted were called “pikers,” handed white feathers — a symbol of ridicule used in England to berate conscientious objectors — or simply dropped from the university rolls. (According to the Texan, 400 students suffered such a fate.) By May 1917, classrooms had been turned into barracks and hundreds of students (including half the football team) had left for the Leon Springs officer training camp, 20 miles north of San Antonio.
Included in that first unit to leave for camp was Peddy. While there, he would have rubbed shoulders with his fellow classmates, as well as alumni, like Crane, a Dallas attorney in his early 30s. Crane arrived at camp with little fanfare, while Peddy and his class cohort were serenaded by the Longhorn band and the university Glee Club in a decorous send-off. But life at Leon Springs wasn’t so staid. According to the Alcalde, “chiggers” entered the Texas lexicon thanks to the plethora of bugs that greeted soldiers. They “declared war on everybody” and made scratching the most popular exercise.
It would be another year until Crane shipped out. Like Peddy, he was by then a captain in charge of his own brigade of troops. Crane’s letters home, which like Peddy’s are archived at UT’s Briscoe Center, recount his “irksome” experience of sailing from New York City to France. The food was ropey and conditions cramped. He spent his 16 days on board reading and chatting, until one day they were nearly sunk by a German U-boat. After dropping 14 “depth bombs,” the sub was destroyed. “Our boys got it in a hurry,” wrote Crane.
Campus Becomes Camp
In the same month that Crane and Peddy left for Leon Springs, the School of Military Aeronautics opened on campus. UT was selected to host the school due to the level terrain to the east and the year-round flying weather. By the end of 1918, more than 6,000 cadets had passed through the program. Over in northern Europe, however, the weather was not so kind.
In September 1918, W.L. Bradfield, BA 1916, flew through a storm while on a reconnaissance mission over Germany. He was forced to crash-land and frantically burned all the maps in his possession before surrendering to locals. He spent the rest of the conflict as a prisoner of war, half-starved and frigid. Other pilots weren’t so lucky. J.J. Goodfellow, a freshman when the war began, was shot down shortly after arriving in France that same September. His last letter home was printed in the Texan: “We are giving them holy hell in unlimited quantities and are kicking their pants … I will write you [again] if I make the hump.” He died in the wreckage of his plane, the first Texan flyer to meet his demise in an aerial battle.
At first, aviation captured the imagination of campus, but as the Texan’s “Roll of the Dead” increased in size, an unwelcome seriousness struck home. The Alcalde estimated in the fall of 1917 that the average life expectancy of a private on the Western Front was 30–50 days; “It is up to you to fight like demons during those three months,” wrote Rupert Gillette. But students were dying at home as well. One student bled to death on campus after being hit in the groin multiple times by a machine gun that accidentally discharged during a training exercise. His body was put in a coffin, draped in a flag, and shipped back to his parents in Pennsylvania. Four other students were severely wounded in the incident.
Even so, any doubts about the war were quashed by university authorities who excessively undermined academic freedom. Professor Lindley Keasbey believed the conflict was about “wealth through conquest” and that peace would only come through social democracy. After news of his pacifist activism during the 1917 summer break became public, he was swiftly fired by the Board of Regents. The board also investigated the nationality and immigration status of every faculty member. The audit found no “enemy aliens” (those born in Germany) on the payroll, but that didn’t stop pressure on teachers they deemed suspect.
UT President Robert Vinson assured students that the war was one of ideals being fought on a spiritual plane, while professor Frank Dobie claimed it had ended any academic “babbling of pettiness.” But patience for the war campus was under strain. Campus became bloated with scores of unsightly shacks and tents, hastily built to house student soldiers. They were supervised by “un-whiskered officers from third-rate colleges” who “watched over us closer than our mothers ever did,” sneered the 1918 Cactus yearbook. “Nobody studied, nobody could get enough sugar to keep their disposition from souring.” Meals were dubbed “gastronomic atrocities,” consisting of meat that “only a dog could love” and milk that “came from a faucet instead of a cow.” But they were consumed nonetheless on account of hungry stomachs — no doubt a result of the food conservation program enacted city-wide. “This awful war” understandably became something of a campus catchphrase.
In some ways it was better to be abroad — at least, if you were an officer. In a letter to his mother, Peddy described eating roast chicken in a Paris restaurant surrounded by gorgeous French women (“the most beautiful I’ve ever seen”) while on leave from the front. He also visited Napoleon’s tomb, the Eiffel Tower, and the Jardin de Tuileries. Soon after getting back to his regiment, the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, a de facto German surrender. However, it would be another year before he returned to America. Like Crane, Peddy was sent to Germany for occupation duty. “[I] haven’t the least idea when I’ll be home,” he wrote to his mother.
A Delayed Homecoming
Back on campus, the end of the war was greeted with an enthusiasm that bordered on dissent. Another impromptu parade featured over 5,000 members of the campus community, including students, faculty, aviation cadets, and the “fighting mechanics” stationed at what is now Camp Mabry. By mid-December, soldiers, cadets, and mechanics were all being disbanded. As hard as the war had been for students, many found its rapid demise maddening — some going as far as taking out their frustrations on each other.
On Dec. 7, 1918, a massive fight broke out between Army and Navy recruits. Numerous people were hurt and taken to the hospital, due in part to students hitting each other with broomsticks and pouring boiling water from windows. The Cactus attributed the battle to “their fighting spirit [seeking] an opportunity to exert itself.” Indeed, a generation of war heroes would eventually return to the Forty Acres, but those left behind were “destined never to fight anything more deadly than influenza germs.”
As it happened, influenza was as lethal as trench warfare. Of the 5,000 Texans who died during the war, over a third of them succumbed to the flu epidemic that swept the world in the fall of 1918, killing 40 million people. On campus, the student barracks were converted into hospital wards. Hardly a day passed without multiple deaths at Camp Mabry. To stymie the spread of disease, classes were aired out for 10 minutes between lessons and students were obliged to take their temperature each morning. As the epidemic worsened, classes were cancelled for weeks on end.
For the second year in a row, the football season was wrecked. In 1917, practice had to take place under searchlights after drill duties were completed and an 8-cent war tax was added to each home game ticket. Depleted of its senior players, the team went 2–4. The 1918 season consisted mainly of practice games — no one watched, on account of the city-wide ban on public gatherings.
More people probably saw Peddy play in Germany. When the war ended, Peddy’s unit had been transferred to the Rhineland for occupation duty. As it became clear that American soldiers would be stationed for months rather than weeks, brigades organized band recitals and athletics programs. In another letter home to his mother, Peddy described breaking his vow to never play football again and playing the best game of his life. “The cheering of the crowd when I carried the ball over for a touchdown and won the game for my team made me feel like I was running down the field at Austin again.”
It wasn’t until the fall semester of 1919 that Peddy was back on campus and Crane was back in his Dallas office. By Christmas, all trace of the war was gone, save for the shacks. The following year, U.S. President Warren Harding was elected, promising a return to normalcy. But what was it that had so maniacally gripped the Forty Acres? To where had it retreated? Would it come back one day? In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Solider Returns,” the fictional veteran Howard Krebs had seen some of the war’s fiercest fighting. He “did not want to talk about the war at all. Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it.” Instead of talking, people commemorated.
In 1923, students, faculty, and alumni took it upon themselves to mount a fundraising campaign in order to build a lasting memorial to the fallen Texas soldiers. At 13 acres, the structure was one of America’s largest war monuments: Texas Memorial Stadium (now known as Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium). It took only a year to raise the money, and, perhaps in a veiled reference to the war, the Texan proudly boasted that “no pressure was brought to bear upon any individual.” The stadium opened on Thanksgiving Day 1924, with a resounding victory over Texas A&M.
Perhaps, as Hemingway put it, this was a way of concealing the fact that everyone “had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time.” Crane’s letters home barely mentioned being part of an offensive that suffered over 1,000 deaths while advancing only 20 miles. Peddy’s diary recounted marching past improvised graves and abandoned trenches while enemy observation balloons reported his brigade’s movements and German planes duked it out with anti-aircraft guns over head. At one point, he had to dodge bursting shells. They wrote sparingly about these things, and talked about them even less.
In January 1931, a tablet was made for Memorial Stadium that listed the names of the 5,000 Texans who died during the war. Today, it resides at the corner of 23rd Street and San Jacinto, opposite the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center. At the time, the regents (one of whom was Crane) received the tablet with the following words:
“In war’s distressful days … [they] made ready tender of their lives; they passed undaunted in the dark domain where dread disease held sway; … they sailed upon a sea where unaccustomed perils lay beneath the stormy waves; they dwelt in muddy trenches, [where] fog and rain and spattered with their comrades’ blood; they crawled, at zero hour, from filthy shelter into the blackness of the night to meet the myriad messengers of death. Most have come again to us to receive our homage and share our love. But those whose names are here enrolled are the elect for fame eternal.”
Like the campus to which they returned, the war left men like Peddy and Crane forever changed. Crane was done with war. But Peddy would fight again, serving in World War II. And that conflict, along with the march of time, engulfed the embers of the Great War like a thunderstorm, pushing it to the dark trenches of America’s collective memory. At the time, plaques, poems, and statues helped people make sense of it all. They stand today as a reminder of our amnesia.
Women were expected to play an important, albeit secondary, role in the war. While coeds avoided conscription, they were expected to volunteer for the Red Cross and enroll in accredited classes for first aid, food conservation, and hygiene to avoid influenza. They also coordinated send-off ceremonies for soldiers and organized liberty loan fundraisers. The war also created new opportunities for women. The Daily Texan was badly in need of writers and advertised that “more coeds will be used than ever before and they will have a better chance for advancement.” This was part of a wider set of changes taking place in the Western world during the war that elevated the status of women. According to Dr. Wolfe, a visiting professor who addressed UT’s Present Day Club in April 1917, “Men will have to meet … radical changes in their relationship with women if the women do not care to return to their domestic occupations” after the war.