Before the United States formally joined the conflict, many intellectuals in the nation’s major universities, including Columbia’s president Nicholas Murray Butler, were opposed to U.S. intervention. Once Congress declared war in 1917, any previous ambivalence about the war was replaced by a commitment to national service. President Butler established the Student Army Training Corps to support the Army; it was housed in Hartley and Livingston Halls. He also created a smaller campus-based Naval training unit.
The University supported students’ leaving campus to join the war effort by allowing them to receive full credit for courses in which they had enrolled. Bennett Cerf, who later founded Random House, wrote in his memoirs about signing up for extremely difficult courses such as advanced geometry in the term in which he knew he would be leaving Columbia for Officers’ Training Camp. He said that he did this to receive credit for coursework that he would otherwise never have passed.
The University awarded a Bachelor of Arts Certificate for Academic Record and National Service in June 1918 to fifty-seven members of the Columbia College Class of 1918 who had left their studies to join the military. In conferring the degree, President Butler declared that the students were “admitted forever to the roll of graduates of Columbia College,” even though they had not completed their prescribed course of studies. Among the recipients was Chandler Waterman, who had died of wounds in April of that year.
In 1915, even before America officially joined the war, forty-nine graduates of the School of Nursing volunteered to serve with Allied forces in Europe. After the United States declared war in 1917, Columbia medical personnel, in collaboration with Presbyterian Hospital, established the first American base hospital. In addition, a large number of Columbia doctors and nurses deployed to Etretat, France, where Base Hospital No. 2 was established. Some of these Columbians served in a mobile unit, a specially equipped convoy of automobiles that served as a surgical hospital to supplement the existing field hospitals which were often too far from the rapidly shifting front lines to provide effective care to the wounded.
Altogether, more than 2,600 Columbia students, alumni, staff, and faculty served their country during the war. These included more than 350 faculty members and administrators and almost two-thirds of the graduates of the Law School from 1910 to 1918. As many as a third of the graduates of 1918 missed commencement because of military service. Most strikingly, the Dean of Engineering had only one graduate present to receive his degree; the rest of his class had left for the war.
More than 200 Columbians are known to have lost their lives during the conflict. Among the dead were two brothers. James Vedder (Columbia College 1919) was killed in September 1918 in an action that would posthumously win him a citation of bravery. Two months later, his older brother, Harmon Vedder (Columbia College 1918), died just one week before the armistice. The dead also included Amabel Scharf Roberts (Nursing 1916), Columbia’s only female casualty of the war.