This series explores Texas A&M history. In honor of the centennial of the U.S. involvement in World War I, we take a journey back 100 years to what life was like on campus during this tumultuous time.
This year marks the centennial of the U.S. entering World War I. With World War I raging in Europe and U.S. involvement not far behind, “war fever” spread rapidly on the campus of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. In anticipation, Texas A&M became the first college in the country to offer its facilities and equipment to the government for war training. From that point until the war ended in November 1918, the campus was in full-blown “war mode.”
When the U.S. officially declared war on Germany in April 1917, cadets were quick to join the war efforts. The university administration excused nearly all of the class of 1917 and other students from classes so that they could enter an officer training course at Camp Funston (later redesignated Camp Stanley), in Leon Springs, Texas. Graduation was also relocated to the training camp that year, and the faculty handed out Honor War Certificates, which did not serve as diplomas, but were given to students in good academic standing.
About 2,000 students from the A&M College marched off to war. Fifty-five of them never returned, making the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
During the war, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas served as a federal army training base. By September 1918, it had trained 4,000 soldiers in specialized skills such as auto mechanics, radio signaling, meteorology, horseshoeing, blacksmithing, carpentry, surveying and topographical drafting. Cadets were getting their normal schooling at an accelerated rate with direct ties to what was going on in the war. Simultaneously, thousands of regular army soldiers were undergoing training on campus.
In the early 20th century, the U.S. Army was small compared to the mobilizations of the European powers. When war was declared, President Woodrow Wilson drafted the Selective Service Act, which allowed the federal government to raise an army for the U.S. entry into World War I through a compulsory military draft.
Texas A&M was already the largest military college in the nation, and even larger than the service academies. Nearly 50 percent of all graduates of the college from the beginning to the end of the war participated as soldiers—the highest percentage of any college or university in the country. For the students who remained on campus, military instruction was increased to 10 hours per week and they were soon joined by regular army inductees.
Service flags were first introduced in 1917 by U.S. Army Captain Robert L. Queisser in honor of his two sons who were serving in World War I. The flags quickly became popular with the public and organizations adopted them, creating larger versions of the traditional flags flown in homes. Traditionally, they had a white field with a red border and a blue star for each person serving in the conflict. A gold star replaced the blue star when someone died in service. About half of the Aggies who died during WWI were lost in combat. The remaining were lost to airplane accidents and influenza.
Texas A&M’s own wool muslin service flag measures approximately 12 feet 10 inches by 25 feet and has an estimated 1,963 maroon stars and 50 gold stars. For some time after the war ended, records stated that 50 Aggie soldiers died in battle but five additional fallen soldiers from Texas A&M were later discovered. According to campus lore, the Texas A&M service flag was sewn in the students’ tailor shop in the basement of the Academic Building. In recent years, five more former students were identified who died during the great war, bringing the total to 60 Gold Star Aggies. On May 29 of this year, a local WWI committee will hold a short ceremony honoring the Gold Star Aggies, including the newly found five.
The service flag was first raised in May 1918 and hung from the fourth-floor rotunda of the Academic Building for 25 years. When the flag was blown down in 1943, it was deemed too fragile to exhibit again. It was stored in a closet in the Academic Building and forgotten until 1970 when James. B. Jones ’71 discovered it while cleaning out a closet in the math department. Jones gave the flag to The Association of Former Students, and it was briefly exhibited in the Memorial Student Center in 1976 before being donated to the University Archives, where it is stored in a climate-controlled environment.
In 1920, Live Oak trees were planted around what is now known as Simpson Drill Field. During a simple ceremony in February of that year, they were dedicated as living monuments to the Aggies who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. Markers that listed the name, class year, site and date of death of the fallen Aggies were added to the trees later.
In 2014, the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives hosted an exhibition called “The Great War: Memories of Service and Sacrifice. A World War I Exhibit Featuring the Aggie Experience”. The exhibition featured books, diaries, letters, photographs, posters and artifacts from the Ragan Military History Collection housed at Cushing Library, as well as materials on loan from private collectors. The exhibition documented the experience of those involved in World War I—American, British, French and German participants alike. Among the items on display were an American Red Cross diary, a 1915 Christmas truce letter, an enlarged image of the Gold Star service flag and a commemorative Texas A&M “Gold Book” pamphlet printed in 1919 to pay tribute to the Aggie servicemen.
You may donate items relating to World War I or other historical Texas A&M items by contacting Greg Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org or (979) 845-1951 or for more information on how to support the Texas A&M Libraries, contact Adelle Hedleston.