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100 years later: Peddie in World War I

From the Fall/Winter 2018 Peddie Chronicle

By David Martin, Ph.D.
Latin teacher and school archivist

World War I, then known as “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars,” began in Europe in 1914, but the United States did not enter until April 6, 1917. In the early years, it was hardly mentioned in The Peddie News, except for editorials every few issues. As the years went on the editorials became more frequent, and more and more attention was paid to staffing and training the company of Peddie cadets. After the U.S. entered the war, there were various drives for war bonds and support.

Peddie was serious about preparing her students for military service and created a battalion of cadets in four companies, all drilled under the capable leadership of Captain Mason Ivins of the New Jersey National Guard. When Captain Ivins was called to active duty in 1918, he was replaced by Captain Leslie S. Hyatt, a graduate of the Pennsylvania Military College. Drill was conducted four days a week, and every effort was made to prepare Peddie’s boys for active service if needed.

Peddie battalion WWI

The Peddie battalion prepares for a military drill in front of Longstreet Library (circa 1917).

Peddie’s greatest contribution to the war was her students and alumni. Altogether some 599 former students fought or served in support units out of an estimated 1,000 of military age. Of these, two were killed in action, nine died of disease and five died in accidents inside or outside of training camps. A total of 124 won commissions as officers and 92 served as noncommissioned officers.

Also, ten faculty served in the war. Two were officers, and one was wounded in action. The most noted faculty member to serve in the war was John Plant, Class of 1906, who was Peddie’s athletic director from 1906 to 1926. Plant volunteered to serve in the YMCA Hospital Corps as part of the American Expeditionary Corps in France.

Excitement at a premature rumor of peace on November 7, 1918, became real when the armistice became known on November 10, the day before it was to take effect “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” An “all school meeting” took place at 3:30 p.m. to plan a celebration, which would focus on a huge bonfire that night. The freshmen were entailed to gather all the necessary firewood. Meanwhile, a victory parade gathered in town shortly after supper. The Peddie students marched in a platoon, drawing the cheerleaders in two old buggies. They carried a sign declaring, “We’ve got the Kaiser’s goat.” At 9 p.m. the activities focused on the school’s bonfire, which was attended by townspeople as well as all of campus.

Peddie bonfire WWI

This bonfire was lit on the Peddie campus to celebrate the armistice on November 11, 1918.

Memorial Hall built to honor our WWI troops

Just a few months after the war was over, plans were made to build a new athletic center and dedicate it to our soldiers from the war, to be called the “Soldiers and Sailors Field House.” The focal point was to be a big bronze plaque engraved with all their names. Before long, the plan metamorphosed into a new academic and administrative building, dedicated to the soldiers. Plans for what would be known as “Memorial Hall” were kicked off with a gift of $60,000 from Horace Monroe Swetland, brother of Peddie’s Headmaster Roger W. Swetland. The New Jersey Baptist Convention pledged another $100,000.

WWI plaque in Annenberg Hall

The memorial plaque in the lobby of Annenberg Hall includes the names of Peddie soldiers and support staff who served in WWI.

Groundbreaking was held on December 23, 1923, and the cornerstone was laid on June 9, 1924. The new building was dedicated on November 14, 1925, at the cost of $500,000. Memorial Hall’s focus was the big bronze plaque in the lobby bearing the names of 599 Peddie soldiers and support staff who served in the Great War. It was unveiled by Mrs. C. Weston Bailey, whose son Lieutenant Kenneth Bailey, Class of 1915, had been killed in action while commanding an artillery battery in the Argonne on October 9, 1918. The names of the 15 Peddie soldiers who died in the war are each marked by a star. Another 19 names are each marked by a triangle. They were probably members of the hospital or support services; several served in various capacities in the YMCA war effort, and three others were Peddie female alumnae, probably nurses.

In 1992 the building was renamed Annenberg Hall, and the plaque was moved to the south side of the main lobby.

WWI Peddie Boys in Service

Photos of Peddie boys in service appear in the 1919 Peddie yearbook.

Peddie and the great flu pandemic

The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 is one of the greatest plagues of world history. Known as the Spanish Flu, it killed over 20 million people worldwide. Conditions were ripe for infection because of all the refugees set in motion by the Great War and because of all the troops crowded together in training camps and on battlefields.

The epidemic came in three waves in the U.S., the first in spring 1918, the second and greatest wave that fall, and a follow-up wave in spring 1919. The first attack went unnoticed in the school newspaper, but things grew severe enough by October 1918 that short updates were being posted on the front page of The Peddie News. The October 18 issue reported over 100 cases in Hightstown; as a result, “the churches, schools, and other public places have been closed.” The schools that were closed must have been just the public schools since the Peddie newspaper made no reference to our classes being canceled. No flu cases were yet reported on campus, though three football games had to be canceled for fear of spreading contagion between campuses.

Flu epidemic in The Peddie News

Updates about the influenza epidemic begin to appear in The Peddie News in October 1918.

A week later the total number of cases in town had risen to 150, and a second death was reported. A case was rumored on campus but was later proven mistaken. By the end of the month, Peddie was “proud to say that as yet she has not been visited by one case of the disease.” There were, though, more cases than usual of other illnesses, and as a precaution, a fair number of sick students were confined to their rooms.

The November 6, 1918 issue of The Peddie News broadcast that the flu ban was lifted. Public places and churches were reopened, and public schools were scheduled to open up the next day. Peddie’s school activities appear to have gone on unabated.

No mention of the flu is made during the weaker spring 1919 outbreak. Peddie appears to have escaped the great epidemic that killed over 500,000 people in the U.S. and struck as close as Hightstown.

Some rumors have persisted over the years that the 1918 Peddie-Blair football game had to be canceled because of the flu epidemic. It was not. The 1918 game was played at Blairstown on November 16 and resulted in a 0-0 tie. A later Blair game was canceled in 1944 because of a polio epidemic.

Roberson Infirmary

The Florence A. Roberson Memorial Infirmary was completed in 1918. Horace Roberson and his wife donated funding for the infirmary in memory of their daughter, Florence, who died tragically at the young age of 13. Horace Roberson was named to the board of trustees in 1921 and acted as its president for 26 years. The infirmary was modified to be used as a dormitory and is now home to the college counseling office.