The Great War’s reach and visual history

I’m preparing an exhibit on World War I, which has been something of a challenge given that I knew little about it before embarking on this project. Like many exhibits, it fell in my lap–a private collector offered to loan us a set of stunning WWI posters to display in the library. With the WWI centennial upon us, it seemed a perfect opportunity to showcase our collections related to the war. But, since I’m new in my job, there were the obvious first questions: What collections do we have? And what stories can I tell with them?

It turns out that there is a strong connection between Cleveland and the history of the war. Newton D. Baker, the Secretary of War, was also a Mayor of Cleveland and a Western Reserve University (WRU) trustee. His papers are at the Western Reserve Historical Society. The Lakeside Unit, the first US military contingent deployed abroad, was a medical unit organized by Cleveland surgeon and WRU faculty member George Crile, and consisted of many medical personnel from the Cleveland area. The Dittrick Museum on campus is actually currently displaying a wonderful exhibit on the Lakeside Unit.

We have quite a bit of material in our special collections related to the war as well. Particularly notable are the Benedict Crowell papers. Crowell was the Assistant Secretary of War and also served in the capacity of Acting Secretary of War. The collection contains a great deal of correspondence and other records related to the prosecution of the war. Notably, there are several letters from Woodrow Wilson to Crowell addressing various war-related matters. Other relevant holdings in special collections are described here.

I’ve become particularly interested in all the material we have related to the war in the university archives. I’ve been wondering: How did American universities respond to the war? What was the experience like for students? The answers I’ve been uncovering have been quite interesting. With the US declaration of war, both the Case School of Applied Sciences and Western Reserve University changed dramatically. The declaration came on April 6, 1917, and by the end of the month, both universities were requiring students to participate in military drills in order to prepare them for service. Many students and faculty enlisted in the summer, and universities struggled to maintain operations during the 1917-1918 year.

During the summer of 1918, the government considered lowering the mandatory draft age to 18 from 21, which would have emptied universities nationwide. Many university administrators, including those at Case and WRU, protested that the US would need educated men to lead the country in peacetime. The army was also discovering an increasing need for educated personnel, such as engineers, doctors, and dentists. Thus, a compromise was reached: the Student Army Training Corps (SATC). In the fall semester of 1918, all eligible male students remaining on campus at Case and WRU were actually enlisted in the military at the same time they were enrolled in the university. The military paid their tuition, and built barracks near campus for them to sleep in. They drilled daily, and were marched to class. Class time was the only time they were considered students. The rest of the day, they were soldiers in training. The plan was to allow them to receive an education, while also preparing them for military service, and establishing formal relationships between institutions of higher education and the war effort. Many men of college age still chose to enlist. The government began issuing propaganda telling them that the best way to serve their country was to stay in school, where they could still wear a uniform and participate in the military. We have hundreds of pieces of correspondence between university officials and the US government arranging this program. Considering that these were only two of many universities participating in the SATC, this gives a sense of the immense bureaucracy of the war effort.

letter from woodrow wilson to benedict crowell Wilson_letter_19180905_2

Above: Images of a letter from Woodrow Wilson to Benedict Crowell, about Wilson’s desire to fully control foreign propaganda related to the war. One of many letters related to the administration of the war in our collections. (From the Benedict Crowell papers, currently housed in the KSL Manuscript collection.)

I’m very interested in how students reacted to all of this. Reviewing student newspapers, I found little about the war in student newspapers until the US entrance in 1917. This surprised me, given that there was quite a bit about the war in Europe in major American newspapers at the time. After April 1917, the student coverage of the war effort seems quite flippant, focusing mostly on the fun of drilling, wearing uniforms, and carrying rifles. I’m sure this voice in the papers doesn’t tell the whole story of the students’ reaction to the war, especially as some of their enlisted and deployed classmates were wounded or killed, but due to the nature of our institutional archives, there is less personal documentation of the student reaction to the war than the administrative reaction to the war. The yearbooks from Case and the various colleges of WRU vary dramatically in their presentation of the war. The WRU yearbook from 1918 is somber, while the Case yearbook from that year looks more or less the same as those in other years, with some added pictures of military drilling. I haven’t yet looked at other student publications.

There are a number of challenges for me in building this exhibit. The material isn’t exactly the problem–it’s incredibly rich. As anyone who has ever done archival research knows, history is messy, complicated, and fragmented. There are so many small stories represented in the archives. For example, the US Army assigned a military instructor to WRU to train SATC students. The army was supposed to pay his salary, but the individual involved actually tried to hustle the university for more money. That story probably won’t make it into my exhibit, because I have no way to represent it visually–it’s just something traced through reading a series of plain documents in folders. The immensity of the war effort bureaucracy that I described above is one of the most interesting things about the WWI story that I’ve uncovered through this project, but again, how do I communicate that visually? Stacks of archival boxes just don’t make for a compelling exhibit.

And most importantly, how do I represent the students accurately and honestly? I don’t believe that student publications represent the full spectrum of student thought on the war, though of course they are important documents. We don’t have many unpublished documents from students that might provide access to a more unguarded voice.

Exhibits are about 3-dimensional artifacts. When one works with collections that are primarily textual in nature, it’s a real challenge to build something that will both engage visitors and teach them something interesting. I am always looking for ways to communicate the richness of the exhibit research process through the reductive lens of the exhibit itself. Suggestions welcome. 🙂


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