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#181 The International Conflict That Called Up Norwich Students Before WWI

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, Military Milestones

What became known as the Mexican Border Crisis of the 1910s is often overshadowed by another massive international conflict—World War I. But at the time, more than half of the Norwich student body volunteered to serve in the campaign at the southern U.S. border.

A series of military engagements took place on the U.S.-Mexico border during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. The clashes reached their peak between 1914 and 1919 in a conflict known variously at the time as the Mexican Border War, Campaign, or Crisis.

In 1916, Pancho Villa’s forces faced off with the American cavalry in the climactic Battle of Columbus near the New Mexico border. The American troops were led by none other than Colonel Frank Tompkins, a former Norwich commandant whom the cadets had nicknamed “Tommy.” He was wounded in the battle and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his valor at Columbus. He served as commandant again shortly thereafter, and would later serve the university as a trustee until his death.

Tompkins was far from the only Norwich man called to the border. The Norwich University Archives has a record of 79 alumni who served in the Mexican Border War. In July 1916, as the conflict reached its peak, the Record reported that “at least 90 per cent of the cadet corps has volunteered to serve with the 1st Vermont Cavalry at the border or in Mexico. Only a few under eighteen and some others whose parents objected have not joined.” The article goes on to emphasize that such service was not compulsory as a result of their membership in the Corps of Cadets; all students over 18 reported to Fort Ethan Allen, where they were given honorable discharge from the Vermont National Guard if they did not wish to serve.

With a total student body of 145 in 1916, the figure of 90% may have been exaggerated, or there may be names missing from our roster of 79. Those that have been identified include Leonard “Steamer” Nason, a popular student and a prolific fiction author later in life; Harold “Soup” Campbell, who went on to a truly impressive career as a military aviator in both world wars; Edward Brooks, future three-star general and commander of the Second Armored Division during World War II; and Ernest Gibson, who served in the United States Senate and whose son, also a Norwich alum, was the 67th governor of Vermont.

These students gamely interrupted their studies in order to serve at the border; many would also be called away just months later to serve in World War I. You can consult the Index to Norwich University Newspapers to uncover stories about NU service in the Mexican Border War.