Students to Servicemen, 1917-1919

Nearly a century ago, the Great War drastically changed the lives of servicemen and their families.  Over 3,000 University of Illinois alumni and students joined the military and Dean Thomas Arkle Clark faithfully corresponded with many students, alumni, and parents about military service, war experiences, and potential University admissions.  Servicemen and their families appreciated Dean Clark’s concern, for in the words of Edmund Allen, “It surely helps a lot to know that the folks at college haven’t forgotten, and it keeps the ties that hold us to the best things in life a little tighter around us.”[1]

Below are letter excerpts from University of Illinois servicemen during the Great War found in War Service Records, 1917-19.

Robert Rea Brown earned his B.A. in Commerce in 1916 and participated in Sachem, Varsity Baseball, the Senior Smoker Committee, Student Government, and the Illio staff. Stationed on the front line trenches during the war, Brown explained to Dean Clark:

Robert Rea Brown
Record Series 41/2/17, Box 1

My experiences include the usual routine of trench life about which you have read so often such as living in dugouts, watching the Boche lines through peep holes, wearing a heavy steel helmet and a gas mask whenever you leave the dugout and having rats run over your bed while asleep.  I really have no fears for the Boche but a rat, commonly knows as a “petit” Boche, sort of give me the creeps.   They make a noise like a troop of cavalry out in the wire at night.[2]

Wounded on the Champaigne front October 4, 1918, Brown sustained a superficial flesh wound to the hip from a German shell.

Lewis Selwyn Webster attended the University from 1914-1917 in the English department, but left to enlist in the Army Air Corps.  On May 9, 1918, the pilot-in-training wrote to his family from Waco, Texas: “In reprimanding one of the flyers the other day for a piece of bad judgement which resulted in a smash up, the Officer in charge told him that he should be more careful with the ships because the average cost per flying minute was about three dollars per minute.  According to that rate I spent about $3000 worth of the government’s money last week. How is that for ‘blowing in the kale!'”[3] He received his commission as 1st Lieutenant June 8th, married Della Frazer of Wheaton, Illinois, on June 15th, and was on his way to Langley Field, Virginia, by early September.

Edmund T. Allen
Record Series 41/2/17, Box 1

Edmund T. Allen, an Agriculture student in 1916-1917 and 1919-1920,  learned to fly at Fort Sheridan in Belleville, Illinois.  Commissioned a 1st Lieutenant, he worked as an instructor at Love Field in Dallas, Texas, supervised multiplane assembly at Langley Field, and spent three months overseas in the technical section. When training in Belleville, Allen declared that “Flying is the greatest sport in the world.  We get about forty minutes a day in the air in two flights.  The rest of the day we spend thinking about our mistakes and how we will correct them.  We also have a Radio class every day.  Everyone must be able to send and receive twenty words a minute before they leave.”[4]

Dean Clark not only corresponded regularly with servicemen, but occasionally sent care packages, including a helmet to Edmund Allen in Lake Charles, Louisiana, University photographs to Robert Brown in Vallendar, Germany, and a hand-knit sweater to Bruce Weirick in Great Lakes, Illinois.  Upon receiving the sweater, Weirick declared it “masculine both in design and heft,”  and a “neat fit.”   After describing his military training experience, Weirick reflects that after the war, he feared he would return “like Rip Van Winkle to other times, other manners, and be known as one of the hangovers from the generation ‘before the war.'” [5] Despite this apprehension, Weirick returned to his studies and eventually taught at the University in the English Department from 1924-1955.

Duncan Oliphant Welty Jr. attended the University from 1914-1916, enrolled in the College of Agriculture.  He pledged Phi Gamma Delta as a freshman, but withdrew soon after the United States declared war.  After enduring repeated rejections from the U.S. service for bad eyesight, Duncan enlisted with the French military and drove a truck on a sector of the Aisne front in the region of Siossons.   Upon the American takeover of this section, Duncan was discharged from the French military for the same eye condition and returned to Paris.   From Paris, he admitted to his parents that “I could get a job here at $25 per week but I can’t figure out that I have any right to live in comfort when out at the front they are living thru hell.” Shortly thereafter, he enlisted in the Italian Army ambulance section of the American Red Cross for six months with the rank and pay of a 2nd Lieutenant at five cents per day.  Writing from Italy in January, 1918, Duncan admitted:

Duncan Welty
Record Series 41/2/17, Box 8

After one has seen a little of war they do not hanker to see action–as from all reports the papers at home give the impression that the boys back there do.  You are perfectly satisfied to wait until you are needed up front–after you once have been there.  Headlines “American First to Fight”–read well–however no one frets to fight.  What we have had of the work here is far from pleasant, it has not been dangerous, but I feel as if I’d rather be in danger than to have to see the pain, suffering, life passing into death, that we have to see in this work.  It all seems so heartless.  No one seems to care.  They say they can’t afford to care, and that you soon get hardened to it.  Perhaps you do. [6]

Five months later, Duncan received an honorable discharge at the completion of his tour of duty.

[1] War Service Records, 1917-19, Record Series 41/2/17, Box 1, University of Illinois Archives.

[2] War Service Records, 1917-19, Record Series 41/2/17, Box 5, University of Illinois Archives.

[3] War Service Records, 1917-19, Record Series 41/2/17, Box 33, University of Illinois Archives.

[4] War Service Records, 1917-19, Record Series 41/2/17, Box 1, University of Illinois Archives.

[5] War Service Records, 1917-19, Record Series 41/2/17, Box 33, University of Illinois Archives.

[6] Ibid.

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