'Brotherhood of the Damned': Doughboys Return from the World War

By Gosoroski, David M. | VFW Magazine, September 1997 | Go to article overview

'Brotherhood of the Damned': Doughboys Return from the World War


Gosoroski, David M., VFW Magazine


Doughboys, fresh from the trenches of France, brought home a special sense of identity. That sense would influence domestic and foreign policies for the next two decades.

Though America was neutral through the first 2l/2 years of WWI, it certainly wasn't a disinterested bystander. While American sympathies

went to the Allies, so did merchant ships laden with supplies. The ensuing German submarine attacks ensured President Woodrow Wilson would send Doughboys "over there" to "make the world safe for democracy."

Those dispatched to France were a "replica of the country itself," according to Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., a battalion commander at the front and later, principal founder of the American Legion.

A decade after the war, he wrote, "Our Army in France was more representative of the United States than is the national Congress." Massive immigration of the early 20th century made it a classic "melting pot" fighting force. Its ranks included many who achieved greatness, including artillery Capt. Harry S Truman, 33rd President and VFW member.

Only 6,000 Doughboys-including 1,300 VFW members-are still alive, ranging in age from 97 to 116. Though their ranks have steadily thinned, their impact on the treatment of future generations of veterans has been enormous.

Foundation for Service

When war was declared April 6,1917, the U.S. had no modern army to send to Europe. The regular Army consisted of 138,000 soldiers backed by some 74,000 National Guardsmen. Few regulars had combat experience, and the Guard had little or no training.

The Selective Service Induction Act of 1917 established the system for procuring citizen-soldiers for the rest of the 20th century. Some 72% of all who served during WWI were draftees-50% of the men in France were conscripted. In all, the U.S. mobilized 20% of the male population between 18 and 45 (9.2% were black).

Near universal support for the war virtually compelled eligible men to serve. Little resistance emerged to either registration or being called, except from certain left-wing dissidents who objected especially to concurrent U.S. interventions in North Russia and Siberia in sympathy with the Bolshevik Revolution.

Threshold of Hell

The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) totaled just over 2 million men in France, with 1,078,222 (52.4%) actually serving in combat or combat support units. Infantrymen totaled 646,000. The Army Air Service fielded 34,800 men, the Marines 32,385 and the Navy 80,000 sailors in the European Theater.

Expeditionary forces numbering about 5,800 and 10,000, respectively, also participated in campaigns in North Russia and Siberia,1918-19. A U.S. infantry regiment also was dispatched to North Italy late in the war to counter forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

AEF vets were differentiated from those stateside by overseas caps, Sam Browne belts, distinctive unit shoulder patches and gold stripes on their sleeves. Resentment of untested troops intensified, too, when those who arrived in France last were rotated stateside first for discharge. Reasons why were obvious.

The realities of trench warfare were horrifying and nauseating. Cold and wet produced trench foot and respiratory illnesses. Rats, flies and nits carried all manner of potentially fatal diseases.

"In the trenches men lived a life of primitive instincts-fear, hunger, thirst-and with physical extremes, deafening noises, sudden flashes, extreme cold, and agonizing pain," wrote John Ellis in Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I.

"There was a deep affection for everyone who had to endure the same horrors-an uplifting sense of unity and pride in one's own and one's fellows' ability to stand firm in the midst of hell itself," Ellis continued. "Compassion and pride came together to form a brotherhood of the damned."

The no-man's-land between opposing trenches was aptly described by Lt. …

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