FEATURE — Winter 2003

"Over There": World War I and Washington University
Base Hospital No. 21. The unit arrived in France on June 12, 1917, and was demobilized on May 3, 1919. At first, it was mainly a tent hospital, but gradually wooden barracks went up. WU Archives

by Candace O'Connor
Excerpted from the University's new history book,
Beginning a Great Work: Washington University in St. Louis, 1853-2003

"For the first time in this building since this world-wide trouble began, I use the word 'war,'" said Chancellor Frederic A. Hall to a hushed crowd in Graham Chapel less than a month after the United States declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917. "The war is on. No one knows how long it will last, nor what will be the experiences of individuals, families, or institutions while it continues."

John Livingston Lowes (1867-1945). Professor of English, then dean of Arts & Sciences, Lowes headed an American Field Service recruiting station, sending 50 men overseas for ambulance service. WU Archives

It lasted 19 months, and during that time University life was utterly transformed by the war effort. First, students signed up by the dozens, leaving behind a smaller, largely female student body; then war-related programs came flooding onto campus, creating a space crisis and overtaxing the few remaining faculty. "In no other place in America did the outbreak of the war cause greater commotion than in the supposedly retired halls of learning," said Chancellor Hall.

In May 1917, the first undergraduates left for overseas service: 16 men, organized by English professor John Livingston Lowes, who volunteered for a six-month stint as ambulance and truck drivers in France. In letters to Student Life, some described their harrowing experiences: day-and-night ammunition deliveries for blistering artillery assaults on German trenches; dangerous trips to ferry the front-line wounded to nearby aid stations, with shells raining all around. The war, exclaimed former student Francis Douglas, "is all that it is cracked up to be, only more so."

Arthur W. Proetz (1888-1966).
Captain Proetz, B.S. '10, M.D. '12, an otolaryngologist, wrote while in France: "I miss a lot of things ...Bell telephones, hot water taps, steam heat, barbers and FRIENDS.... On the other hand, I smoke all I can get, eat onions, snails and horsemeat, confront the rarest, oldest Camembert without fainting."
WU Becker Medical Library

That May, a group led by medical faculty and students—28 officers, 141 enlisted men, 65 nurses—departed for Rouen, France, where they staffed Base Hospital No. 21, the second of some 50 military hospitals organized by the American Red Cross. The University had been planning this effort since 1916, so in April 1917, when surgeon and Base Hospital director Fred T. Murphy received a telegram from the Red Cross asking, "can your Unit go to Europe and how soon?" he answered exuberantly: "Yes—in one week." It took a few weeks longer, but the unit left amid great public fanfare.

The team Murphy had recruited—orthopaedic surgery chief Nathaniel Allison as adjutant; surgeon Borden S. Veeder as quartermaster; Walter Fischel as head of the medical service; Malvern B. Clopton as chief of surgery; Sidney I. Schwab as neurologist; Eugene Opie as pathologist; Lawrence F. Post as ophthalmologist; Arthur Proetz as otolaryngologist; Julia Stimson as chief of nurses—performed extraordinary service. By the end of the war, several had earned decorations for their work: Allison and Murphy the Distinguished Service Medal, Veeder the Order of St. Michael and St. George, and Stimson the Royal Red Cross.

Yet they were almost comically unprepared to become soldiers. They didn't know how to salute; their uniforms didn't fit. "I doubt if half of us knew the difference between a lieutenant and a lieutenant-colonel," wrote Proetz later. Before they embarked, two officers gave them physicals. "Two dozen of us in a little room, from the loftiest professors down, naked as frogs, hopping on the cold floor, being inspected, palpated and auscultated....It was a leveling experience, not the last; it broke down all barriers and taught us to live as one happy family, for the duration."

Leaders of Base Hospital No. 21. Meeting at a reunion in 1943 are, from left to right, Walter Fischel, Fred T. Murphy, Malvern B. Clopton, Julia Stimson, and Borden S. Veeder. WU Becker Medical Library

Once in France, they took over a British hospital with 1,350 beds—all but 70 of them in tents—located along a race track near the Rouen rail line. They were 80 miles from the closest units, 100 miles from the front lines. When a soldier was wounded, he was rushed to a "casualty clearing station" for rough dressing, then shipped to the base hospitals for surgery or medical care. "By the time they reached us," wrote Fischel in 1919, "most of these men were badly infected, many of them showing the horrible signs of gas gangrene." The effects of mustard gas were particularly shocking, he added. "It made every one of us feel that we wanted to...get a gun and go out and fight."

Edwin Ernst (1885-1969). At Base Hospital No. 21, Major Ernst, M.D. '12, X-rayed every wounded soldier before surgery, using more X-ray plates than all other base hospitals combined. WU Becker Medical Library

In the end, they treated 61,543 patients, mostly British soldiers: 31,837 medical cases and 29,706 wounded. Their peak time came during the Allied offensive of fall 1918, when their 50-75 patient-per-day load suddenly shot up to 500-600. The result, wrote Veeder afterwards, "was that some of the juniors became competent to handle the most serious cases with rare ability and judgment." Thanks to such on-the-job training, fourth-year medical students were allowed to graduate in March 1918 while still serving—the only class ever to graduate away from St. Louis.

Overall, the death rate among the hospital's wounded was a remarkably low two percent—thanks in part to roentgenologist Edwin Ernst, who X-rayed every soldier before surgery. As time went on, the team's fine work won promotions for some: Murphy became head of the Medical and Surgical Service of the Red Cross; Allison took over front-line orthopaedic work for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF); Schwab directed the first American hospital in France for war neuroses; and Stimson became the AEF's Chief Nurse, supervising 8,000 nurses.

Back home, other medical faculty were also serving. Medical dean Philip Shaffer became the ranking officer of the Food and Nutrition Division of the U.S. Army's Sanitary Corp. As head of the Army's Oral and Plastic Surgery Unit, then the AEF's chief consultant in maxillofacial surgery, Vilray P. Blair earned an international reputation for rebuilding shattered faces. An officer's School for Neurological, Plastic, and Oral Surgery was established on campus, while classes in oral surgery were given by the School of Dentistry.

Students' Army Training Corps.
"During the period of the S.A.T.C.," said the Washington University Record, "there was a noticeably less desirable standard of behavior maintained than is usual at this institution. Smoking and the use of profanity...was observable, whereas under ordinary conditions they are practically absent in those parts of the University frequented by the women students." WU Archives

Across the University, people were leaving for war-time work. Twice David Houston extended his leave of absence, and in December 1916 he resigned from the University altogether; early in 1917, the board named Hall as his replacement. In that same year, President Woodrow Wilson appointed board president Robert Brookings as a member of the War Industries Board, then chairman of the Price Fixing Committee, while David R. Francis was serving as ambassador to Russia. All told, more than 50 faculty members took leaves of absence or spent the bulk of their time on government work.

Amid the patriotic fervor that engulfed the campus, some faculty signed up to fight. In 1914, French instructor Maurice Fauré enlisted in the French army and in 1915 was awarded the Croix de guerre. Many students also enlisted, draining men from upper classes, graduate programs, and the law school. By the end of 1917, 200 faculty and students had signed up, and on December 19 a service flag with 200 stars was hoisted over University Hall. The next day an 83-star flag went up over the medical school. Eventually, 410 graduates and 93 undergraduates received commissions, and 22 students, staff, or alumni died while in service.

World War I claims lives of prominent alumni
Three of the University's war dead were well-known members of the community.
Capt. Alexander Skinker, A.B. '05, was the son of Thomas Skinker, A.B. '63. On the first day of the September 1918 battle for the Argonne Forest, when his company came under devastating machine-gun fire, he ordered his men to take cover while he and a carrier charged the gun emplacement alone. "The carrier was killed instantly," said a citation, "but Capt. Skinker seized the ammunition and continued through an opening in the barbed wire, feeding the automatic until he, too, was killed." He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Capt. Charles H. Duncker, Jr.,   A.B. '14, was class valedictorian, editor-in-chief of Student Life and the Hatchet. "It has been said by some of those who were in authority over him that...he was the most brilliant man who had ever sat in a Washington classroom," a friend said. In October 1918, he was promoted to captain of Battery A of the 340th Field Artillery, just 10 days before he was killed by a German shell near Thiaucourt. The Duncker family paid tribute to him with the 1924 gift of Duncker Hall, the first home of the School of Commerce and Finance and now home of the Department of English in Arts & Sciences.
Lt. James H. Steedman, B.S. '89, was one of the first St. Louisans to leave for military service. An expert on marine engines, Steedman—who had received his Naval commission in 1916—was called up on the day war was declared and assigned to supervise the repair and maintenance of ships. An illness he contracted made him an invalid, and he died in 1921. In 1925, his widow and brother donated the "Steedman Fellowship" in his honor. This award, given every other year, provides nine months of study to the young architect who wins a nationwide competition sponsored by the School of Architecture.

Meanwhile, faculty devised courses to meet war-related needs, such as Dean Alexander Langsdorf's engineering school course on radio communications, or did war-related laboratory work. In 1913, Roland Usher wrote a book, Pan-Germanism, that predicted the war with chilling accuracy and made him a popular speaker, but his anti-German sentiment brought angry demands from the community that he be silenced. In response, Hall made the University's first public statement supporting academic freedom.

Women of the University contributed, too, staffing one Red Cross unit that produced nearly 550,000 dressings in one six-month period; in 1918, Graham Chapel was dismantled to make room for this activity. A knitting unit was established, successful "Liberty Loan" drives took place, and Student Life spearheaded a cigarette drive for soldiers.

In spring 1917, the Fifth Missouri Regiment came to campus, using Francis Field as its drill ground, and the next January student soldiers arrived for woodworking, blacksmithing, and machine shop training. Perhaps the biggest disruption to University life, however, was the October 1918 arrival of hundreds of men in the Students' Army Training Corps (SATC), aimed at training recruits and developing potential officers. The SATC, said the Hatchet, "saved Washington from becoming a girls' college for the period of the war." Suddenly, enrollment skyrocketed; in fall 1918, the University had 1,515 students—a 50 percent increase over the previous year.

All this activity, said Hall, turned the University into "an army post." Except for McMillan Hall, the women's dormitory, every building was used for government purposes. The SATC took over the fraternities and male residence halls, using one floor of Francis Gymnasium as sleeping quarters. Temporary buildings were thrown up along Forsyth: two barracks, a 1,200-man mess hall, and a YMCA canteen, which became the first student union before it was razed in 1920. A third barracks went up northeast of the gymnasium.

On November 11, the war was finally over. The SATC disbanded in December; "Demobilization of S.A.T.C. Unit Great Blow to Washington University Co-eds" read the Student Life headline. The Washington University Union, organized in 1915 to promote the University's social side, proposed a building to honor the war dead, but a memorial plaque went up instead on the wall of Ridgley. In January 1919, the University's first Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) unit was established under former SATC commandant Major Wallace M. Craigie.

During a March 1919 banquet, the Alumni Association honored the University's war heroes, and Hall welcomed home the triumphant veterans: "We have heard it said that the golden age of heroism and bravery was in the past, but let me say that the men now are just as brave and courageous as they ever were....We greet you in tears of gratitude."

Copyright (c) 2003, Washington University in St. Louis

To order copies of the new history book by Candace O'Connor, Beginning a Great Work: Washington University in St. Louis, 1853-2003, visit 150.wustl.edu. The book will be available in winter 2004.