Throughout 1917 and 1918 the life of the university was dominated by World War I. Anxiety over the fate of the hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and alumni who entered military service was, no doubt, the heaviest burden; but there was also the tremendous effort the university put into organizing itself to serve the nation and the pressure of doing it in such a short time. For those who remained on campus, there were additional duties, both curricular and extracurricular. More than half of the student body took a military training course in addition to their regular studies. Departments struggled to cover the work of faculty who had left for the military. On top of teaching, the faculty who remained gave their time to numerous boards and committees concerned with the war effort.
Before the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917, the university had already begun to prepare for its involvement. A volunteer brigade of 400 students began drilling, and on 11 January 1917, President E. K. Graham wrote to the War Department, inquiring whether a unit of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps could be established at the university. However, the War Department was soon overwhelmed with the conduct of the war and did not grant the request. President Graham then set about establishing a military training program on the campus at the university's expense. To head the program, he hired Captain James Stuart Allen, an officer in the Canadian army, who had served in France.
Once the military program was up and running, Graham turned his attention to a program of public information about the war. He had already shown himself to be a pioneer in extension work; now he put the university's Bureau of Extension in service to the war effort. The Bureau, headed by L. R. Wilson, relied on the expertise of the faculty; with the help of Professors Branson, Greenlaw, Hamilton, Raper, and others, it began issuing a War Information Series of leaflets concerned with "the causes of the war, the practical relation of the average American citizen to the war, the immediate necessity of winning the war, American aims and ideals in the war, and preparation for material, social and spiritual reconstruction after the war."
During the war, 2,240 university alumni and students served their country in the military branches; twenty-six of them were members of the faculty. Fifteen of these men were killed in action, another eighteen died of disease, and twenty-one others were wounded. Many, many more experienced things they wanted never to experience again. The university did an admirable job of tracking the whereabouts of its men in service and of providing encouragement to them. President Graham wrote to and received letters from many of them.
In September 1918 the War Department finally implemented a program of military training on college campuses. Known as the Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.), it was barely underway in Chapel Hill when the influenza epidemic struck, taking the lives of President Graham and eight others in the town. This first wave of the epidemic was barely passed when the Armistice was signed on November 11. The war was over, though the War Department did not disband the S.A.T.C. until December.