Life in 1917: World War I enters daily life on UW campus

Photo collage of images of soldiers in World War I and Camp Randall 100 photos
Photo collage of images of soldiers in World War I and Camp Randall 100 photos

A series exploring life in Madison and beyond during Camp Randall Stadium’s first year


“A cable from Paris to the New York Tribune received last week stated that Healy Powell, Ray Williams and Henry Craig, the Wisconsin men who sailed recently to join the French ambulance corps, had been placed with a new unit and sent to the fighting line.”

— Article excerpt from UW’s The Daily Cardinal student newspaper, February 1917


BY MARK MEDERSON | UWBadgers.com Contributor

Scanning the front page of the Daily Cardinal, the University of Wisconsin-Madison student newspaper, on February 13, 1917, one can find that the Badger men’s basketball team narrowly edged Northwestern the night before, 23-21. This was UW’s fourth conference win compared with two losses, putting the Badgers in fourth place in the Big Nine Conference standings.

Page one of the Cardinal also let readers know that the varsity baseball squad would begin training indoors that day, a Saturday. Players would be meeting Coach “Slim” Lewis in the Gymnasium Annex for a “strenuous” indoor training session. Team captain “Oz” Fox, along with Eber Simpson (also quarterback of the football team), were listed as “the two best veterans from last year’s team.” Apparently “Slim” was going to have to fill several spots with new players because some of the previous team members were lost due to “various eligibility rules.”

With only six weeks to go before the United States officially entered World War I, the Cardinal told of a number of male UW students who were already playing a role in the war. The first paragraph of the story read:

A cable from Paris to the New York Tribune received last week stated that Healy Powell, Ray Williams and Henry Craig, the Wisconsin men who sailed recently to join the French ambulance corps, had been placed with a new unit and sent to the fighting line.

According to the Library of Congress website:

Ambulances were still considered high-tech during World War I. This marked the first major conflict in which automobiles could be utilized to move the wounded and dying. Now, countless lives that would have otherwise been lost on the battlefield could be saved. Driving an ambulance enabled Americans to participate in the war before the official entrance of the United States in (April) 1917.

Several famous Americans served in the American Ambulance Field Service (AFS) including Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney.

Photo of soldiers training for World War I
World War I recruits scramble over an obstacle during their training, while others watch in the background. Photo from Wisconsin Historical Society.

 

The Cardinal said that another group of about 10 Wisconsin students were awaiting “their passports and will in all probability sail for France on March 3.” The week before, 18-year-old Gilman Blake had left Madison for New York. He was expected to head for France the next Saturday. Campus fraternities and sororities were spearheading a campaign to raise money for the ambulance corps. The paper noted that:

During the remainder of the campaign greater emphasis will be placed on the non-fraternity students.

By the time football seasoned rolled around in the fall of ’17, America’s involvement in the war was certainly being felt on the UW-Madison campus and in Camp Randall.

As soon as the U.S. entered the war in April, the university suspended athletics on the campus. When the football team began practicing in September, assistant coach, Thomas E. Jones said:

After the suspension of track and football last spring, the prospects for athletics were so uncertain that many students who otherwise would be able to play at this time left school.

 The number of players on the field when practices began was so small that they could not field a complete offense and defense at the same time, according to head coach John Richards. A story in the Cardinal on Sept. 23 quoted a new assistant coach named Stagg who said, “Our prospects in football were never poorer.” The story quoted Stagg again who called the team’s chances, “rotten.”

It should be noted that Stagg was not listed in the 1919 yearbook, which covered the 1917 team, as a member of the coaching staff. Perhaps Coach Richards read Stagg’s comment in the Cardinal and decided they should part ways. Coaches were expecting more players to join the squad as preparation for the season continued.

The 1917 team finished with a record of 4-2-1, 3-2 in conference play. The tie was against Notre Dame. Neither team managed to score a point in the Oct. 13 game at Camp Randall. The Badgers finished third in the conference standings behind first-place Ohio State (4-0) and Minnesota (3-1). Apparently, as coaches expected, more players did show up to join the squad that year. The yearbook picture of the 1917 team shows 23 players — one more than necessary to field a complete offense and defense.

Incidentally, the men’s basketball team would finish the 1916-1917 season with a record of 15-3 overall — 9-3 in the conference. That placed them fourth in the conference. Minnesota and Illinois tied for regular-season conference champions that year.

1918 Wisconsin football team
1918 Wisconsin football team