A centennial look back on campus life during WWI

After the completion of Memorial Stadium, University President David Kinley marked it as tribute to those who lost their lives in World War I during a dedication in 1924.

By Abrar Al-Heeti

One hundred years ago, much of the world was caught up in the affairs of World War I. Stories featured in local newspapers published before and after the U.S. involvement in 1917 reflected Americans’ concern and interest in the conflict. Articles in The Daily Illini from 1914 referenced professors and students who visited Europe but were taken by surprise when they found themselves in the midst of a war that was beginning to take place.

Articles from that time also chronicled the changes and growth taking place locally. The University and the cities of Champaign and Urbana were expanding, and new buildings were being constructed. Buildings pertaining to military activities, such as the Armory, were erected, as well as recreational facilities like the Orpheum Theater.

These few slices of local history from a century ago give a small glimpse into what was happening in Champaign-Urbana as the U.S. became involved in The Great War.

The Armory, built in 1914 at Sixth and Armory streets, was not the first military training hub on campus. Before its completion, training took place in the “Military Drill Hall,” today known as the Kenney Gym Annex.

“Part of the land grant mandate for the University called for there to be military training for all male students, so that’s why we had to have an armory so units could do marching formation (and) learn how to use artillery,” said Bill Maher, University archivist.

By the time World War I broke out, the University’s student body had expanded, and in turn, the Military Drill Hall was no longer big enough to serve its purpose and accommodate the growing number of men. Therefore, construction began on the current Armory.

When the U.S. entered World War I, the military began looking all over the country for places where they could train their men.

“The University of Illinois was a logical place to do some of that training because it had the facilities,” Maher said. “Therefore, they were bringing in thousands of young men to train them in how to fly a plane, how to repair planes, how to do other kinds of things.”

A second floor was then built inside the Armory, which was made into a barracks for the men to sleep in.

Memorial Stadium was built to honor those from the University who lost their lives in World War I. Columns on the east and west sides of the building are inscribed with the names of 183 men and one woman, a nurse, who died in the war. A plaque was made listing the names of donors who pledged money for the columns.

Winton Solberg, historian and retired history professor at the University, said one column honored Curtis G. Redden, an Illinois native who graduated from the University of Michigan and commanded the 149th Artillery, Battery F, which consisted of men from Illinois.

The stadium was completed in 1923, and a dedication ceremony took place in 1924. In his speech, then-University President David Kinley said the sacrifice of those who had lost their lives made the structure “holy.” Solberg described the address as a “quasi-religious speech” that saw the dedication as a consecration, and said it echoed Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address when Kinley said, “We cannot hallow this structure.”

The Quad hosted a celebration for the end of WWI, after almost 10,000 University students served during the war. Faculty members from almost all departments also served.

Abrar can be reached [email protected].