“We’ve been given a glimpse of the ensuing years,
And these are a few of our hopes and our fears.”
It’s hard to imagine how Philip McConnell, an Iowa State College (University) student in Agricultural Engineering 1914-1917, felt when writing these lines – part of a poem he composed in 1915 – and whether he could have predicted just how large of a ‘glimpse’ it really was. With the recent centenary of the Great War, it’s interesting to look at just how much the young people of the early 20th century – Iowa State alums included – would end up going through over the course of their lives.
My name is Andrew Fackler and I am a freshman at Iowa State University who recently began working as a Student Assistant here in the Special Collections Department. One of the first pieces I was tasked with processing is a scrapbook (circa 1914-1922) created by a former student named Philip Cecil McConnell. McConnell arrived at Iowa State in the autumn of 1914 – right after the onset of World War I (WWI) in Europe. The collection, RS 21/7/260, documents his life from arrival at Iowa State through his eventual draft into the Armed Forces and into his post-war acceptance to the University of California. The ability to view what an Iowa State student’s life was like 100 years ago is truly inspirational, and the scrapbook that McConnell produced captures this time in history beautifully.
Cover of Philip McConnell’s scrapbook featuring the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts seal. (RS 21/7/260, box 1)
McConnell was a student in the former College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts and a member of the Dramatic Club and the Glee Club. His scrapbook documents many of the fun times he had with friends during his Iowa State years, not unlike the students of today. Though he would only attend Iowa State for a couple years before America entered WWI, when McConnell was drafted into the military and sent for training at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.
An entry in Philip McConnell’s scrapbook highlighting his sudden journey from Ames to Fort Snelling. Text reads “The rookie goes from [ISC] to [Fort Snelling].” (RS 21/7/260, box 1)
McConnell’s adventure at Iowa State ended there, but his journey was far from over. Soon after basic training at Fort Snelling, Philip was sent to Nice, France, and spent about a year of training and working there as the war wore to an eventual end. McConnell survived the conflict, but surely the effect of being part of something so large and foreign at such a young age stuck with him.
Training for the Reserve Corps at a school in Nice, France. Philip is pointed out by the blue arrow. Note the bikes that students used to get around. (RS 21/7/260, box 1)
The war eventually came to an end when an armistice was signed in November, 1918, and McConnell was honorably discharged from the Reserve Corps in France in February, 1919. Philip returned to Iowa but would not return to Iowa State. In 1920, McConnell was admitted to the University of California, where he finished his education in 1922. He stayed in California until his passing at the age of 99 in 1995.
McConnell’s life is one of hundreds of millions directly affected by the destructive events of the early 1900s, though not all were documented so well. Philip would go on to see the world ravaged by many more foreign conflicts over the years, as well as other dramatic changes in American culture. Although Philip’s story may not be unfamiliar, it comes to us in the form of a tactile document that concretely connects Iowa State to one of the greatest events in world history, and one that should be remembered.
In his scrapbook, McConnell included his letters of both draft and honorable discharge. Much of the collection includes notes about the images and McConnell’s feelings about them, but he wrote very little of the war itself. The only comment he included about the war is the haunting message:
“Censorship makes the war look pleasant.”
I believe this quote to be disquieting, but it also shows a complex side of humanity. There’s much to be learned from the people of the past, and part of what makes the archives wonderful is its commitment to ensuring those voices will still be heard another hundred years from now.