William James Battle, professor of classics and university administrator, son of Kemp P. Battle, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 30, 1870. He later moved to Chapel Hill, where his father served as president of the University of North Carolina. He received a B.A. degree from that institution in 1888 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1893. In his first year at Harvard he held a Thayer scholarship, and the last two years a Morgan fellowship.
Battle was a tutor in Latin at the University of Chicago before going to the University of Texas in 1893 as associate professor of Greek. He was promoted to professor in 1898 and was made dean of the College of Arts in 1908. Three years later he was made dean of the faculty, and in 1914 he was elected acting president of the university. His two years as president were unhappy ones because he was severely attacked by Governor James E. Ferguson, who charged that Battle had deceived the legislature and the governor about the university appropriation bill of 1915 and had used state money for purposes other than the items specified in the bill. Ferguson urged that Battle be dismissed from the faculty, but in October 1916 the board of regents declared that the charges against the professor were unsubstantiated. In October 1915 Battle had asked that he not be considered for a permanent appointment as president. When he stepped down in April 1916 the board of regents elected Robert E. Vinson president.
As a result of political pressure Battle left the university in 1917 to teach at the University of Cincinnati. He remained there until 1920, when he returned to the University of Texas as professor of classical languages and chairman of the faculty building committee. He served in the latter position until 1948. In addition to his academic work, he designed the seal of the university in 1901, edited the first student directory in 1900, and founded the first ex-students' magazine. He furnished the money in 1898 to establish the University Co-Op and served as its first manager. The publication of a final announcement of courses was his idea, as was the English comprehension requirement. Battle Hall at the University of Texas was named for him.
In 1929 Southwestern University awarded Battle an honorary LL.D. degree, and he was honored with a second LL.D. degree by the University of North Carolina in 1940. He was a devout member of the Episcopal Church and long served as senior warden of All Saints' Chapel, near the University of Texas campus. He was a charter member of the Texas State Historical Association and served as president of the Texas Fine Arts Association (1920–29), the Philosophical Society of Texas (1941), the Texas Classical Association, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (1919–30), Phi Beta Kappa (Texas Alpha chapter), and the Harvard, Town and Gown, and University clubs of Austin. He retired from active duty in 1948 at the age of seventy-eight but continued to maintain an office on campus as professor emeritus. Books and papers published by Battle include A Sketch of Grace Hall and All Saints' Chapel (1940); The Story of All Saints' Chapel, Austin, Texas, 1900–1950 (1951); and Town and Gown Club, Memories of Past Days (1952).
Battle returned to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in April 1955 and died there on October 9, 1955. In his will he left his property in Austin and his 14,000-volume library to the University of Texas. He also provided means for setting up scholarships for the study of classical languages. He is buried at Raleigh, North Carolina.