Pittsburgh and World War I: The Stories

During the early 20th century, Pittsburgh was the eighth largest city in the United States and a major industrial center. World War I began in 1914, and the United States, which had previously taken a neutral position, officially declared its involvement in April 1917.

From that point on, Pittsburgh supported the war effort by providing people (soldiers), medical staff (in the Army hospitals), products manufactured here, and more, helping to bring the war to a successful conclusion for the Allies in November 1918.

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Do you have an interesting story about World War I--an ancestor who served, or other experience or anecdote you'd like to share? Please send them to us. Photos and art welcome, too. We will be glad to consider them for posting here.



Thomas Enright

A Pittsburgh soldier is one of
the the first U.S. casualties

About 116,000 Americans were killed during World War I, thousands were injured and hundreds never returned home. One of the first to lose his life in battle was a Pittsburgher.

Bloomfield native Thomas Francis Enright, the seventh-born child of Irish immigrants John and Ellen Enright and the first in his family to be born in the U.S., came into this world on May 8, 1887. He grew up on Taylor Street and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1909, starting what would be his new life as a career soldier.

By the time the U.S. joined World War I, Enright had already spent eight years as a member of the military, eventually earning the title of expert cavalryman. At one point he even served under legendary General John J. Pershing during his mission to find and capture Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

A few years later, following a brief visit home to Pittsburgh, Enright re-enlisted in the Army in Fort Bliss, Texas and was sent to France as part of the first U.S. troop convoy. There, he served as a member of the 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed “The Big Red One” after the large numeral one on its shoulder patch. In 1917, while his unit was stationed near Artois, France, Enright, a Private, was one of three members of his unit killed during an attack by the Imperial German Army. The other two were Corporal James Bethel Gresham of Evansville, Indiana and Private Merle Hay of Glidden, Iowa.

During the course of the war, many of the Pittsburgh soldiers stationed in France who died in action were buried there in military cemeteries. Although Enright was initially buried near the battlefield near Artois, two years later his body was returned to Pittsburgh where, on July 16, 1921, the city honored him with his casket lying in state at Soldiers & Sailors Hall.

His funeral procession was led by a horse-drawn gun caisson, along with 500 ex-military members of the Pittsburgh Police and Fire departments, to a packed St. Paul’s Cathedral where Bishop Hugh C. Boyle celebrated a funeral Mass for him. Enright was then reburied with full military honors at St. Mary Cemetery in Lawrenceville, and a wreath from his former commanding officer, General Pershing, was laid upon his new grave and final resting place.



Downtown Pittsburgh, 1917

Pittsburgh's industrial powerhouses
support the war effort

Pittsburgh’s industrial powerhouses also played major roles in the war effort. In those days, the city was one of the epicenters of American industry and home to such major companies as the United States Steel Corporation, Westinghouse, and the Aluminum Company of America, along with the research facilities at the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, Carnegie Tech, and the Mellon Institute.

An abundant local supply of coal powered the steel and glassmaking monoliths, evident in a number of photographs from that era that depict Pittsburgh as a smoky city. In her book Pittsburgh in World War I: Arsenal of the Allies, author Elizabeth Williams wrote that a visitor once described Pittsburgh as "hell with the lid off.”

While local skies may have been dark and smoke-filled at that time, it’s well documented that Pittsburgh industry played a major role beginning in the early months of World War I, and eventually was stretched to capacity by demand.

Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, later PPG, produced optical glass used to make optics for a variety of military items including fire direction telescopes range finders, cameras, and binoculars. The company’s output ranged from lenses and prisms to complete instruments for the Army and Navy. In those days, Pittsburgh Plate Glass was the country’s second largest producer of optical glass. Before the war, the United States was dependent on European sources, particularly Germany, for chemical dyes and optical glass. Since the beginning of World War I, though, the European sources had dried up, so American science and industry were forced to solve a highly technical problem—during wartime, no less—that was critical to the success of U.S. forces.



Pitt's Student Army Training Corp line up on O'Hara Street in Oakland, 1917
. Photo: Digital Research Library, University of Pittsburgh.

Barracks built at Pitt to support the war effort, 1918
Photo: Digital Research Library, University of Pittsburgh.

The University of Pittsburgh pledges
its support to the war effort

Pittsburgh has long been renowned for its academic institutions and excellence. For its part, the University of Pittsburgh began supporting the war effort before the U.S. even entered the war in April 1917. 

On March 27, 1917 at the direction of the Pitt Board of Trustees, Samuel B. Linhart, secretary of the University of Pittsburgh, sent a letter to President Woodrow Wilson placing “all the available resources of the University  which the Government of the United States may require, in case of threatened or actual war, at the disposal of the Government.” Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker, replied with gratitude.

Several prominent Pittsburghers supported Pitt’s involvement; among them, philanthropist Mrs. Elizabeth Burd (Thaw) Collins, who donated $25,000 to the University in April 1917 to provide equipment for a base hospital at the Mongazon Seminary in Angers, France. Shortly before the U.S. entered the war, 46 Pitt physicians and 50 medical students volunteered to set up and staff the hospital prior to the troops’ arrival.

In addition, members of Pitt’s faculty and staff, along with students in science programs, were assigned responsibilities in support of the war. By January 1918, 88 faculty members and 450 students were serving as soldiers or staff for the War Department. Some faculty members headed Federal departments that focused on administration of the department’s science and engineering functions, while chemists at the Mellon Institute (then part of Pitt) were assigned to gas defense work.

At the same time, Pitt’s School of Economics was training men to work in the supply division of the Ordnance Department and the Engineering Department began teaching classes that focused on gasoline engine maintenance of the Standard B “Liberty” Truck. By April 11, 1918, 2,200 men were being educated at Pitt to support the war effort.

Because military training was now mandatory for all male students, Pitt established a program through which draftees would receive military training while taking their classes. The university shortened lectures and scheduled classes that would be over by 4:00 p.m. to accommodate new, early evening military drills.

While men were undergoing military training, female students were now required to devote at least four hours each week to national service activities, and students, faculty, faculty members’ wives, and staff were encouraged to volunteer for various war activities. The Red Cross Auxiliary made surgical dressings and knitted garments for soldiers while the Red Cross Home Service Institute offered training to support military families, and the Women’s Liberty Loan Committee sold bonds.

Pitt students wrote a letter to President Wilson suggesting that students at all colleges volunteer to work on farms. The “Pittsburgh Plan,” as it was briefly called, suggested that “Europe will have to rely on the harvests of America to ensure a robust food supply for the war and our allies.” The War Garden movement, as it became known,  encouraged cultivation of small gardens as well as volunteers to bring in the harvests from local farms and classes in preserving food.



The Pittsburgh Agreement is signed, 1918

Czechoslovakia becomes a nation
...in Pittsburgh

On May 31, 1918 in Pittsburgh, a memorandum of agreement, "The Pittsburgh Agreement," was signed between members of Czech and Slovak expatriate communities in the U.S. indicating intent on both parts to create an independent Czechoslovakia.

The signing took place during a meeting of the Czechoslovak-Slovak National Council at the Loyal Order of Moose Building on Penn Avenue, downtown.

History was was made on October 18 of that year when the agreement’s primary author, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, declared Czechoslovakia’s independence. A few weeks later Masaryk was elected as the first president of Czechoslovakia.


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