How One University Remembers World War I

The college football stadium that served as my home state’s WWI memorial was demolished in 1992, but you can still find World War I memorials at many colleges and universities in this country. I doubt any American institution of higher learning did more to commemorate WWI than my graduate alma mater: Yale University.

Students at Yale had been eager to fight in the so-called Great War — to the point of raising what became the country’s first naval aviation unit a year before the U.S. declared war. (A Yale professor of surgery also established the first mobile hospital unit.) As my graduate advisor pointed out at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry in the war, about 9,500 Yalies ended up serving in the war, with 162 earning the French Croix de Guerre and 13 the British Military Cross.

Beinecke Plaza
Beinecke Plaza at Yale, with its Memorial Colonnade. The dome is Woolsey Hall – all photos CC BY-NC 4.0 (Chris Gehrz)

When I was a Yale grad student (PhD, 2002), I did take a WWI seminar and served as a teaching assistant in a U.S. military history course. But I hadn’t yet cultivated an interest in commemoration. So I don’t remember paying any interest to the commemorative spaces on campus, save it was impossible not to notice the names of battles like Ypres, the Marne, and St. Mihiel carved above the columns in front of the university commons (now the Schwarzman Center).

Ypres and St. Mihiel carved in the Memorial Colonnade
Portion of the Memorial Colonnade

On the north side of the plaza commonly named for nearby Beinecke Library, the memorial colonnade overlooks a cenotaph. Built with money raised by alumni, both features were dedicated in 1927, ten years after the U.S. entered the war.As this 2015 article explains, the battle names are carved so as to “evoke the archetypal inscriptions of ancient Rome.” And as Yale archivist Judy Schiff points out in this brief video, the cenotaph is still where Veterans’ Day services are held each November. Its inscription connects the Great War to the Civil War, cribbing from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

In Memory of THE MEN of Yale who, true to Her Traditions, gave THEIR LIVES that FREEDOM might not perish from the Earth

1914 • ANNO DOMINI • 1918

Yale WWI cenotaph
Yale’s WWI cenotaph

If you leave the plaza and enter Woolsey Hall — where Charles Lindbergh gave his first public anti-war talk in the fall of 1940 (more on that tomorrow) — you pass through Memorial Hall, whose walls are covered with the inscribed names of hundreds of Yale students who have fought and died in wars going back to the American Revolution. That includes 227 who perished during WWI.

Those tablets were dedicated at a ceremony in November 1920. In a poem composed for the occasion, William Rose Benét (class of 1907) acknowledged that the postwar world might think the enthusiasm of 1917 “mere frenzy, a false vision / Betraying us, and these, to ancient night!… We doubt, where these were sure, where they defied / Oblivion with a vague transcending sense / Of some new revelation’s immanence.” But in the end, Benét urged his listeners to take up the mission of the honored dead:

They have charged us with unearthly power to make
The Future—the only tribute they desire.
Can we bear life as they bore night and fire?…

They have fulfilled their bond. It lies with us
Through deeds—not words—to show if they endure
A living light, the spirit of a nation.

When Yale commissioned a two-volume history of its participation in the war (published in 1925), president emeritus Arthur Twining Hadley had little doubt that the sacrifice of those 227 had been worthwhile:

It was their good fortune to die while the inspiration under which they fought was at its highest; when the common aim of the Allies in resisting a militant imperialism, which glorified war for its own sake, had not dropped out of sight in the selfish struggle between different nations which followed the advent of victory.

Thank God, the vision of 1917 and 1918 led us in the right direction. The lives of those who fell in that great struggle were not wasted. Though we have not made international peace secure—and shall not, till courtesy and good understanding between nations have removed the causes of war—we have overcome the peril of triumphant militarism which ten years ago seemed threatening. Though we have not yet made the world safe for democracy—and shall not, till the people as a body have learned to think more clearly on national matters—we have given democracy a chance which it would not have had except for the sacrifices of those who fought and died for it. What these men have given so ungrudgingly has borne fruit a hundred-fold.

Likewise, when Henry L. Stimson (class of 1888) spoke at the 1920 dedication of the memorial tablets, he insisted that the war “furnished to the college the goal of its existence,” since “it is the function of a university to produce leaders for service in the commonwealth.” Secretary of War under William Howard Taft and an artillery officer in 1917-18, Stimson concluded:

We are not here to-day to mourn their deaths. Nothing would so shock the devoted and exultant spirit of their service. We are here to set aside a memorial by which it is our hope that future generations of Yale men may be roused to an emulation of their spirit and their endeavor.

I’ll continue tomorrow with a post on how Yale students ended up opposing Stimson’s efforts to involve the United States in the next world war — even bringing Charles Lindbergh to campus in October 1940 to speak against intervention.