Tidbit: Women & World War I

Maura De Chant, Class of 2007, writes:

As I began research for Women’s History Month, I decided to focus on a time that had always fascinated me: World War I. After searching through countless files, looking for clues as to how St. Olaf women actively participated during those turbulent years, I discovered that the women of the Hill were incredibly busy. I was especially drawn to the diary of Agnes Bjorneby Granrud (awarded teacher’s certificate, 1918) whose words help bring to life the experiences of women at St. Olaf during World War I.

Diary of Agnes Bjorneby Granrud, April 29, 1917:

Strange, but I believe I have neglected to mention the declaration of war by the United States against Germany. It happened on Good Friday, strange to say. Somehow it hadn’t affected us much until this last week. The awfulness of it all! If only a miracle would happen to stop it all now before anything more terrible happens

Agnes, who entered St. Olaf in 1916, saw the beginning of the First World War overshadow the end of her first year of college. Her diary entries for the spring of that year, while normally upbeat, contain sobering reminders of the raging World War. The entry continues,

Today has been cloudy and gloomy. Almost everyone seems to be depressingly blue and serious. I have felt it especially this evening. The War is coming very close to home. The boys are leaving by ones and twos, either to enlist or to work on a farm.

St. Olaf was swept up in the patriotic fervor of World War I, and women were especially active in a multitude of war related pursuits. A Red Cross Bulletin noted that 120 out of 260 St. Olaf women were First Aid certified, and 20 were certified supervisors of surgical dressings.

The Red Cross chapter on campus owed much to its founder, Dean Gertrude Hilleboe. Her personal papers reveal extensive communication with Red Cross affiliates around the country, as well as pages and pages of handwritten notes on numbers of surgical dressings made, items knitted, and lists of donations made by St. Olaf women. In her book, Manitou Analecta, Hilleboe records that 18,000 surgical dressings were made in old Mohn Hall.

A Red Cross parade marched in Northfield in the spring of 1917. The following summer, St. Olaf conducted a “War Service Institute” for women, which included classes on the social problems of war, food conservation, and nursing techniques.

Agnes could not have been more correct in her fears that the Ole boys would leave en masse to fight in Europe. Approximately 631 Oles, both current classmates of Agnes and past Oles, served in World War I. Although I could not find a record of how many of those men survived the war, it is safe to say that not all of them survived. Some did make it back however, and 20 of the 73 graduates of the class of 1919 were returning soldiers.

The Manitou Messenger diligently recorded the efforts on the home front, with nearly every issue mentioning another drive or collection sponsored by students, largely women. During the 18 months that the U.S. participated, women Oles mobilized to support the war effort. On February 19, 1918, the Manitou Messenger printed a letter by St. Olaf women addressed to their colleagues:

We women have been ordered into service, too, as never before. To be soldiers, privates in a military body, not to die for our country but to live for her.

St. Olaf women continued throwing themselves into the war effort, but their joy on Armistice Day was short-lived. Literally hours after St. Olaf students learned of the Armistice, they discovered that fifteen men in the Student Army Training Corps had fallen ill to influenza. Less than a month later, four succumbed. As Agnes had written, “The War is coming very close to home.”

Maura De Chant  is majoring in English and History. If interested in providing feedback, please email her at: dechantm@stolaf.edu. For additional information, read Gertrude Hilleboe’s account “War Comes to St. Olaf.”