World War I — the war to end all wars — ended 100 years ago on Nov. 11, 1918, with an armistice. For Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary, it was more a time of solemnity than celebration.
There are no records of festivities in the streets like the near-riotous jubilation staged in Newport News. The only newspaper account in Williamsburg of the war ending came six days later. Local churches united at Bruton Parish Church for a community service “to return thanks for victory and peace,” according to a Virginia Gazette report on Nov. 21.
“The building was packed from gallery to chancel, official bodies occupying the box pews in front and the general public the seats in the main body of the church,” the newspaper said. Choirs of various local churches combined for a musical program, which closed with the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” The principal speaker was Dr. J. Lesslie Hall, William and Mary professor of English, who noted the significance of holding the service in old Bruton.
He especially referred to two Williamsburg boys, Bledsoe Hooper and George Clopton, and Nat Jennings of Toano, who most recently “gave their lives to make the world safe for democracy,” the Gazette reported.
In the same edition, the Gazette editorially wrote: “Peace has dawned at last, and a war-mad world has furled the blood-red banners that streamed along far-flung lines and lost themselves in the cannon’s smoke. It came with a suddenness that made the most optimistic gasp with the surprise of it. Even now one cannot realize that over yonder men are not dying and pouring out to war a crimson tide.”
The editorial continued, “A few short days ago we were reading of the turmoil of war, while today we are planning for the glories and the serenity of peace.”
Several months later, on a misty Saturday morning, March 15, 1919, Williamsburg citizens gathered on Palace Green for a memorial service honoring those citizens who died during the conflict. The 3 p.m. program included a poetry reading, prayers, singing and the planting of a row of memorial trees so as “to keep before us the debt we owe” to the fallen. Unfortunately, 100 years later those trees are long gone.
For several years afterward on Nov. 11 — Armistice Day, now Veterans Day — the bells across the city tolled their memorial.
World War I began for America in April 1917, but the impact was great.
At William and Mary, many of the students (it was all male at the time) rushed to join the military, and by the spring of 1918 it was obvious the college was in financial trouble — there were too few students to support the institution. As a result, a bill was introduced into the Virginia General Assembly to allow women to become students.
The bill was approved over the objections of many William and Mary students and alumni. The Flat Hat, the student newspaper, voiced strong opposition and argued that if the measure passed, “the noblest tradition (all male) would be sacrificed.”
After the bill was adopted, the Flat Hat changed its tune and suggested the college “would profit” from coeducation because new dormitories, a dining hall and gymnasium would have to be built.
Williamsburg itself began to change even before American soldiers joined the European conflict. Early in 1916, rumors circulated that DuPont de Nemours & Company planned to construct a munitions plant along the York River, just east of Williamsburg. The formal announcement came in March.
Within weeks a construction boom materialized, home sites began to appear, a spur of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway began to take form, and the DuPont plant site began to develop along with a residential community called Penniman. By the spring of 1918, Penniman boasted a population of 6,000, and a multimillion-dollar plant was completed to produce small and large caliber artillery shells and aerial bombs.
Near the plant, the federal government had purchased land that would become Camp Eustis (later Fort Eustis) across the Peninsula along the James River. Downstream from Penniman land was secured for a naval mines depot.
Will Molineux, retired journalist and historian, wrote a story about World War I, speculating that “only a few shells assembled at the plant may have reached the battlefield in time to be fired before the Armistice.” By the end of November 1919, DuPont began to release hundreds of workers a day.
William and Mary successfully secured a Students’ Army Training Corps in the summer of 1918 that allowed male students to take military training while they were still studying. As SATC members, the students became members of the United States Army, got a uniform and received drill instruction. The formal SATC program began with more than 100 members on Oct. 1, 1918, and folded on Dec. 7, just nine weeks later. The war had ended, and the need for new soldiers was no longer there.
In its Nov. 28, 1918, edition, 17 days after the Armistice, The Virginia Gazette reported that students “just received an equipment of guns (but) the boys never received their uniforms.”
A military ball was held on Dec. 6, the night before the unit disbanded, and the Gazette reported “the first appearance of the SATC in new uniforms, guns and equipment should be the last. But the boys made a fine appearance and marched like veterans” in the parade down Main Street (now Duke of Gloucester Street) prior to the ball.