It is February 7th of 1917 and the United States is not yet at war, but Nicholas Murray Butler is holding a rally anyway. He summons the faculty and student body for a general assembly. Thousands of students attend. They join Butler in the school’s gymnasium, surrounded by flags (both of the university and the nation) and as a single mass erupt in “Stand Columbia.” Butler gives a speech about Columbia’s “traditional loyalty to the nation,” concluding with a rousing call: “I feel with perfect confidence that I may promise to the President of the United States in that great duty the unanimous loyalty of Columbia University.” Shouts of “hurrah” and “yes!” and thunderous applause interrupt him.
After the rally thousands of students pledge loyalty and promise service in the event of war. Two hundred students even volunteered to serve as auxiliary policemen. Butler happily telegrams Wilson, pledging again the loyalty of Columbia – and this was before the war even began.
Throughout the next two years, many Columbia students voluntarily signed up for service in various capacities, including active military service. Many did so under Columbia University’s auspices, fulfilling their obligation to the state through their ties to the university.
- The Columbia University Battalion
- The Student Army Training Corps
- Barnard College and the Committee on the Women's War Work
The Columbia University Battalion
Within a month of the declaration of war, Columbia University had its own battalion. Comprised mostly of alumni, the Columbia University Battalion was an elaborate military fantasy and status symbol for the university, whose alumni and administrators it allowed to play war. It was not a fighting battalion.
While the battalion was mostly for ceremonial purposes – its first recorded activities including being present as an honor guard for visiting dignitaries who received honorary degrees, and parading to give farewell to those students crossing the Atlantic to the Western Front – it later was officially inducted into the New York State National Guard. It was not, however, ever sent to the front. Instead, it was based at Columbia University, at a place only referred to as “the Gemot” by surviving materials.
The Battalion was organized into companies when it was absorbed into the state national guard. Each company consisted of 35 “Columbia Men” – in the parlance of the recruiting materials – and 30 others. The “serious minded men” of the battalion desired a camp at which to practice drilling over the summer, and so attended one, at Huntington on Long Island. They paid their own way and voluntarily subjected themselves to military discipline. Afterwards, members were allowed to take classes on military subjects at Columbia University.
There was much pomp and circumstance, even if little of it was necessarily meaningful. The battalion colors, for example, were presented in an elaborate ceremony taking place on South Lawn, complete with a full military band, drills, and the actual presentation of colors by – of course – Nicholas Murray Butler’s daughter. After the presentation, a dinner was provided to donors by Columbia’s alumni Society of the Early Eighties, which also donated money collected through a subscription plan to the colors ceremony. Above it all sat Nicholas Murray Butler, beaming.
Interest in the battalion quickly waned. After the battalion’s presentation of colors in late May of 1917, close to one thousand people had enrolled under its auspices. Less than a month later, however, only about 250 showed up to a meeting. This distressed the administration; as a secretary wrote later, “We have gone over the records of the battalion our office, and it has been rather unsatisfactory work… I do not believe that there is any way at present of determining what became of the 720 men who are not now interested in the battalion.”
Above: Pictures of the S.A.T.C. in action, including one blurry photograph of the campus mess hall in University Hall
R.O.T.C. and S.A.T.C.
Above: a poster advertising S.A.T.C. requirements; Below: a memorandum about S.A.T.C. Columbia University and WW1 Collection, Collections oversize (above); Box 7, Folder 3 (below).
Above: a document about requisitions for S.A.T.C. enrollees; Below: a list of where S.A.T.C students were billeted. Columbia University and WW1 Collection, Box 6 Folder 3.
The war began for the US at the end of April, 1917 – close to the end of the semester. There was accordingly not much time for the students or administration of Columbia University to participate in the war effort as students and administrators; if, as Nicholas Murray Butler said, Columbia was to become “as effective an agent of national policy as possible,” then the students would have to wait a while.
Indeed, while Butler and the administration urged students to participate in the war effort – and while students did so voluntarily – it was not until the fall of 1918 that the school most formally incorporated into the war machine under the auspices of the Student Army Training Corps, or S.A.T.C.
The S.A.T.C. was a replacement for R.O.T.C., a branch of which Columbia had hosted prior to the new program’s arrival. Its purpose was much the same: to train officers during their time in higher education, to, as one official memorandum put it, “greatly increase the scope of military instruction at colleges and so to provide a larger number of educated and trained men for the army’s needs.” Its scope, however, was much broader than R.O.T.C. – not merely because it had the pull of wartime service, but because its reach extended into the university’s academics. It was not an extension program; it was an alternative school set up alongside the normal Columbia University.
The S.A.T.C. was not originally supposed to be optional. As Butler explained to alumni in a newsletter from October of 1918:
From October 1, 1918, Columbia University will be divided into two parts. It will consist, first, of a S.A.T.C. ... In this S.A.T.C. will be included all those male students of the University who would have ordinarily have been regularly enrolled in the College or in the professional and graduate schools and who, having registered, have been classed as available for military service.
The rest of the college would proceed normally, although Butler was sure to note that the normal courses would receive far fewer resources. The university was committed to pushing students towards service. Columbia University was going to become a feeder institution for the US military –a pre-boot-camp program for the would-be officer class.
This vision, however, did not come to pass. It was only a short while later that the S.A.T.C. was made voluntary. In fact, the decision was published in the same alumni news pamphlet in which Butler proudly explained that it would be mandatory.
Just what was the S.A.T.C? In brief, it was a nation-wide post-secondary education program, a “preliminary school for officers.” At Columbia, it was a weird version of the school run through a particularly militaristic funhouse mirror. It had its own classes – like, memorably, “War Astronomy” and “War Freehand Drawing” – and administrators, though those administrators were military officers alongside Columbia deans (Columbia’s S.A.T.C. was commanded by one Colonel John P. Finley, a meteorologist member of the U.S. signal corps). Columbia faculty taught in its courses alongside military officials.
Students who volunteered to join the S.A.T.C. were legally enlisted, though were on inactive duty for most of the year. At Columbia, they were divided into two sections, A and B, as well as an auxiliary naval unit. Students were tracked and moved towards officer positions by weight of their academic merits and assessed personal character. They were required to take numerous S.A.T.C. classes – including the famed Issues of War class (alternatively the War Aims course), which became one of the foundations for Columbia University’s core curriculum – as well as other classes more specifically geared toward their track. More information about this curriculum can be found in the Curriculum section of this website. These classes were, of course, hosted on campus in university buildings.
Students also were required to drill, and were subjected to military discipline. Members of the S.A.T.C. had a curious designation, “student-soldiers.” They were given uniforms and were quartered at the university in barracks converted from university buildings.
As they were officially enlisted, students in the S.A.T.C. could not be drafted – not exactly. When a student’s number was called, he faced what one memorandum actually referred to as “the day of reckoning for the college man.” At this point, the president of his college (in this case, Nicholas Murray Butler) together with the local S.A.T.C. commanding officer, would determine the boy’s fate: he would either be allowed to continue his studies (if his studies were deemed potentially useful for the war effort), or be sent to an actual officer’s training camp, or, if he was particularly unlucky, would be instead directly enrolled in the military as an enlisted man.
Columbia was very closely involved with the development of the S.A.T.C. on the national level. One of the university’s deans (Dean Hawkes of Columbia College) was the chairman of the program, and other administrative officials also served in its bureaucracy. Columbia University faculty were also uniquely positioned to contribute to its new, nation-wide standardized curriculum, and they did so. In fact, Columbia’s rendition of the S.A.T.C. was taken up as a national model.
The nationalization of the project was not without small cost for the college administration, however, as the government brought with it more orthodox standards. One particularly seemed to be a point of contention: Columbia repeatedly signed up men who had no high school degree. Washington repeatedly begged them to stop.
The S.A.T.C was, at least by the remaining photographic record, fairly popular. Long lines awaited students that wanted to sign up, and the classes, at least pictorially, appear to be full and busy. Close to twenty-five hundred students signed up: 2024 in section A, 211 in section B, and 368 in the naval unit.
Above: Elihu Root reviewing S.A.T.C. drills
While the Columbia University Battalion received a significant amount of fanfare, the S.A.T.C was similarly publicly celebrated. Memorably, some of its introductory drilling exercises were attended by Elihu Root, the former Attorney General. Notes from President Wilson were read, and several administration officials spoke. One concluded:
So we go forth to war, the colleges and universities of the land, a great army of students. So we go forth to war, this University, Columbia – Columbia from her heights looking forth upon the world remembering her past hallowed by new services that the world may be, a place where men may live in freedom. To such a call to arms Columbia replies, “Here am I."
Barnard College and the Committee on Women’s War Work
Above: a flier for the Women's War Work Committee; Below: further information about the opportunities it provided. Columbia University and WW1 Collection, Box 5 Folders 9, 5.
Women, of course, could not directly serve in the military during World War I. Still, this was little impediment to the administration of Barnard College, whose war zeal rivaled that of Columbia College. And it was likewise no small obstacle for many Barnard students, who found in the war an opportunity to pursue their own purposes.
At the war’s outset, Barnard College noted that female labor of the sort that Barnard could provide would be very much in demand in the coming months. Perhaps mirroring Nicholas Murray Butler’s efforts across the street, Barnard also put itself on a war footing. It hosted a Committee on Women’s War Work, with its mission statement as follows:
The central office of the University Committee is, however, mainly engaged with registering Columbia women and placing them with outside organizations for government departments for volunteer or paid war work. Cooperating with this central office the Barnard College Central War Relief Council has jurisdiction over all war activities of the Barnard Undergraduates.
And there were many war activities to preside over, chief among them being supervision of volunteer labor. "Women,” it noted, “will apparently be needed first in the following fields: 1. Emergency Social Service. 2. Bacteriological Work. 3. Farm Work. 4. Clerical Work. 5. Dietitian Service."
One of these things is not like the others. The committee had little trouble filling four of the five fields. It was in the third that there was trouble. The description continued:
For women without special knowledge of agriculture. Unskilled farm labor will be greatly needed. Women in good health can quickly accustom themselves to perform efficiently most kinds of farm work, as experience in England has shown. College students, teachers, and other women may well devote all or part of the summer to such service.
… But not, of course, without preparation. Barnard students who chose to volunteer for farm work were offered nightly gym classes, so they could bulk up in preparation for what was likely the first and last hard labor they’d have to do in their lives.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was of little interest to the students of Barnard College, the daughters of the city’s middle and upper classes. Instead, they were much more interested in social work, clerical work, nursing, and teaching – then traditional middle-class careers for women. They flocked to these less sunbaked fields, volunteering in large numbers. It wasn’t long before the meeting minutes of the Committee on Women’s War Work featured a wry observation: "Miss Gunther says that not many Barnard girls seemed to go to the Food Lectures."
Above: the summary of responses for the Barnard personnel survey. Columbia University and WW1 Collection, Box 5, Folder 5.
There were 235 volunteers with experience in clerical work. There were thirty-eight for farm labor. There were two with factory work experience. There was one, for horse dealing.
Horse trading or not, the Committee on Women’s War Work found plenty of other tasks for the young women of Barnard College. They were involved in Liberty Bond drives, at one point even being given access to 60,000 New York City police census cards and manning booths at Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal. Barnard students worked in a Red Cross workroom and produced 4,500 surgical garments; they were nurses and social workers; they collected books to send overseas and sold stamps for the Knights of Columbus.
And, memorably for some Columbia students, they were also entertainers. Barnard students and faculty operated two facilities, one at Earl Hall, and another at the Columbia University Boathouse on the Hudson – each for “entertainment to soldiers and sailors."
Columbia University and WW1 Collection, Box 16, Folder 17.