Exactly 100 years ago on April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on the German empire, formally entering World War I. Across the country, young men and women heard the call of duty and leapt into action. The students of Hillsdale College were no exception.
“We will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated,” President Woodrow Wilson said, referring to acts of aggression by Germany in his War Message April 2, 1917. “The wrongs against which we now array ourselves are no common wrongs; they cut to the very roots of human life.”
Hillsdalians in the faculty and the student body connected Wilson’s mission, to “make the world safe for democracy,” to the principles for which Hillsdale College always stood — liberal education, evangelism, and emancipation. In a May 1918 chapel talk, then-college president Joseph Mauck urged students to remember and fight for the ideals of “Christian civilization” and to end the barbarism which gripped Europe.
“The war came to many as a sudden bolt out of the heavens,” Mauck said. “We were stunned. It seemed that the world had lost its moorings and we were adrift in the irrational cosmos. But those who had studied the course of human thought for the last 100 years were not so surprised.”
So many students signed up to help the war effort that the Collegian ran an editorial May 10, 1917, bemoaning the “depopulation of the college.” By May 1918, 192 male students enlisted to serve in the war, and only 12 upperclassmen men remained on campus, according to Professor Emeritus of History Arlan Gilbert’s book, “The Permanent Things: Hillsdale College 1900 – 1994.”
“Hillsdale men and women in particular will not be one step behind other institutions nor out of harmony with the traditions and spirit of the students of 1861,” a Collegian editorial from the week after the U.S. entered the war said. “May every man of Hillsdale act under his highest convictions, thinking deeply and sanely, when he asks himself the question ‘Are you going to war?’”
One of the connections to Hillsdale’s Civil War experience was Melville Chase, a professor who served in the 9th Maine Infantry in 1864 and 1865. While teaching here in 1914 and 1915, he led military training exercises to prepare students for service in the event that the war in Europe came to embroil the United States.
In total, 368 Hillsdale students served in the military or with support organizations like the Red Cross between 1917 and 1919. Eight men died as a result of disease or military action in the course of the war.
“The part which Hillsdale College played in the war cannot be measured in men and women,” an April 24, 1919 Collegian editorial, “Hillsdale’s part in the war,” said. “The spirit which sent them will continue to move and work among us, influencing every Hillsdale student to bigger and better things.”
Hillsdale’s roll of honor from World War I is long. Students fought at Verdun, Chateau Thierry, Soissons, St. Mihiel, Champagne, the Argonne, and countless other bloody fields in France and Belgium. “Over there,” they won distinction and served with valor. For instance, Pvt. Carleton Bailey was one of the 72 Marines chosen to serve as Wilson’s bodyguards during his visit to France at the end of the war.
“If we go over the top with the best of luck and give ‘em hell, that is enough whatever it costs,” Lt. Winter N. Snow ’16, wrote in a letter from “Somewhere in France” in March 1918.
Another Hillsdale student, Lt. Stephen Jessop ’19, won the French Croix de Guerre “for his ambulance work in the front lines,” Gilbert recounted in his book. “As [Jessop] and his driver were taking wounded men to the rear, an artillery shell demolished the ambulance. Although the driver and one of the wounded were killed, Jessop and an assistant carried the other wounded soldiers a mile and a half through heavy shelling to the rear lines. He later spent six weeks in a hospital recuperating from the effects of being gassed.”
Ed Crisp left the college in 1917 to join the Canadian Army’s Gordon Highlanders. According to Gilbert, his unit immediately left for England, where Crisp joined a sharpshooter school. After training, Crisp spent 15 months in France and fought in multiple battles, frequently winning citations for courage under fire. At Passchendaele, he charged with his unit through deep mud to capture German positions. At the Second Battle of Cambrai, Crisp was wounded while firing a machine gun, afterwards spending five months recovering at a hospital in England.
Other Hillsdale students recognized for valor on the battlefield, however, refused to tell stories about their wartime experiences. For example, Sgt. Marcus Bostwick ’17 won the Croix de Guerre for his bravery at the Battle of Chateau Thierry, but always simply told those who asked for an explanation that he did not know how he won it.
“Despite its huge impact on society, here in America, World War I has been forgotten because the veterans are gone,” college archivist Linda Moore said. “Chains of memory break, and by the time children and grandchildren are interested in their parents and grandparents, it’s often just too late.”
Exactly 100 years ago, the republic called upon Hillsdale students to courageously defend their principles in the face of the thunder of artillery and the rapid fire of machine guns. As they did in 1861 and would do again in 1941 and many other times in the institution’s history, Hillsdale College dedicated itself to service worth memorializing during World War I.
Mr. Lucchese recently interviewed professor of history Thomas Conner on the subject of World War I and Hillsdale College: