World War I in Washington

By Susan McElrath, Host Committee Member

In honor of the centennial of World War I, we thought we would share a few fun facts about the Great War:

Washington Steel & Ordnance Company (1907-1922)

In 1907, the Washington Steel and Ordnance Co. opened for business. Firth-Sterling Steel Company of McKeesport, Pennsylvania built and operated the 10 acre plant which produced armor-piercing shells for the Navy. The workforce and the output at the plant doubled during World War I, but by 1922, Washington’s only steel plant closed. The plant’s site on Gieseboro Point is now the home of Bolling Air Force Base.


LC Washington Steel and Ordnance

Courtesy: Library of Congress


Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Walter Reed General Hospital admitted its first patients on May 1, 1909. Named in honor of Major Walter Reed, the army physician who led the team that confirmed that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes, the medical center integrated patient care, teaching and research. World War I saw the hospital’s capacity grow from 80 patient beds to 2,500 in a matter of months.


Walter Reed Soldiers

Courtesy: Library of Congress


Camp American University

In 1917, American University (AU) offered the government use of its unfinished campus for army training. At the time, AU only had two buildings Hurst Hall and McKinley. The Army used both buildings during the war years. The army stationed thousands of personnel at Camp Leach between 1917 and 1919. Temporary barracks and tents filled the once empty campus.


WWI Barracks

Courtesy: American University Archives


The government established two separate camps, Camp American University and Camp Leach. The largest operation was the Engineer Officers’ Reserve Corps training camp. Camp Leach also offered training for camouflagers and foresters. By early 1918, over 10,000 troops had trained at Camp American University. Most belonged to special engineer units that were quickly “graduated” and shipped overseas.


Camouflage training

Courtesy: American University Archives


Camp American University was the birthplace of American chemical warfare. Scientists working with the army’s Gas and Flame Battalion (the 30th Engineers) developed gases and apparatuses for use at the front. The 30th were the first American chemical combat troops. The regiment received training in trench warfare and signaling as well as learning to setup smoke screens using special mortars. As of October 1918, the gas service employed 1,700 soldiers and scientists and built 70 temporary laboratories on AU’s campus.



Trench warfare

Courtesy: American University Archives


If you want to learn more about World War I, you might want to visit these exhibits:

 “Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War” at the National Air and Space Museum

“Put on Your Mask, You Damn Fool!” at the National Museum of Health and Medicine

If you are coming early, you can watch The Millionaires’ Unit: U.S. Naval Aviators in the First World War on August 11 at the National Air and Space Museum.

Don’t forget to visit the DC War Memorial in West Potomac Park which commemorates the citizens of the District of Columbia who served in World War I. Authorized by an act of Congress on June 7, 1924, contributions of both organizations and individual citizens of the District provided the funds to construct the memorial. The cornerstone features a list of 26,000 Washingtonians who served in the Great War while the names of the 499 District of Columbia citizens who lost their lives in the war are inscribed on the base.



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