Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Doughboys on the Great War; How American Soldiers Viewed Their Military Experience
Reviewed by Clark Shilling

Doughboys on the Great War; How American Soldiers Viewed Their Military Experience
by Edward A. Gutiérrez
University of Kansas Press, 2014

Training Stateside to Go "Over There"

It is always noteworthy when a historian uncovers an unused primary source that sheds light on past events or attitudes. The author of this book, Dr. Edward A. Gutiérrez, made such a discovery in 2000 while working as an assistant in the Connecticut State Archives. He found virtually unopened boxes containing thousands of questionnaires completed by Connecticut service personnel upon their discharge after World War I.

These questionnaires, called Military Service Records (MSRs), consisted of four pages of questions. Dr. Gutiérrez followed up this discovery with research that found that after the war, states were encouraged to collect war records related to American servicemen and women during the war. Half the states finally established commissions to do this and sent questionnaires to service personnel. The vast majority of these consisted of a simple card with a few general questions about a person's war service. But in the case of four states—Connecticut, Virginia, Minnesota, and Utah—detailed multipage questionnaires were developed. Connecticut's and Virginia's questionnaires were almost identical and the most detailed. In addition to asking about service events, these two states included five questions that required the servicemen to respond with their attitudes and opinions about how their war service affected them. These five questions, taken from the MSRs of Connecticut and Virginia were as follows:

1. What was your attitude toward military service in general and toward your call in particular?
2. What were the effects of camp experiences in the United States upon yourself—mental and physical?
3. What were the effects upon yourself of your overseas experience, either in the army or navy or in camp in France or in England?
4. If you took part in the fighting, what impressions were made upon you by this experience?
5. What has been the effect of all these experiences as contrasted with your state of mind before the war?

Minnesota's and Utah's MSRs did not include these questions; however, Utah did include a section calling for remarks.

Dr. Gutiérrez's research indicates that except for the work of an occasional genealogist, these records, prior to the publication of Doughboys on the Great War, have never been used in any historical research. Service personnel from Connecticut and Virginia returned almost 28,000 MSRs, and of those, almost 1200 were fully completed, including answers to the five questions listed above. These serve as the basis for the research behind Doughboys on the Great War, and the author spent some 14 years going through these questionnaires and writing this book. Dr. Gutiérrez has supplemented the data in the MSRs with memoirs and diaries published by other World War I veterans, such as Alvin York.

First Division Ready to Move Up

The author argues that these MSRs provide a unique look at the attitudes of returning World War I service personnel for several reasons. First is their quantity—Doughboys from the four states of Connecticut, Virginia, Utah, and Minnesota returned roughly 110,000 of the questionnaires in various stages of completion, dwarfing the scale of any other source of doughboy reminisces. Second, they provide a diverse sample, including "old stock" Americans, recent immigrants, first-generation Americans, and African-Americans. Third, and to the author perhaps the most important unique quality, is their timing. Questionnaires were completed between 1919 and 1923. The respondents were still young, with fresh memories, perceptions, and emotions. As World War I receded into history, the contribution of that generation of Americans was largely forgotten. By the middle of the 1930s, many Americans felt that U.S. participation in the war had been a big mistake. It was not until the 1960s and the 50th anniversary of the war that attention refocused on the World War I generation. Efforts were made to interview remaining personnel starting in 1975 by the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). By this time, veterans ranged in age from their late 70s to early 90s. Dr. Gutiérrez quite reasonably argues that by this time memories had faded, emotions had been tempered ,and perceptions had changed. The author contends that the true voice of World War I Doughboys is to be found in the MSRs instead of reflections corroded by the passage of decades.

Using the MSRs, Dr. Gutiérrez examines various aspects of a Doughboy's World War I experience: what motivated them to serve, how training affected them, how the experience of combat impacted them, and what they looked forward to after returning home.

Over and over again and again, one common attitude infuses almost every page. The World War I generation was driven by a simple and innocent sense of patriotism and duty. For those who were "old stock" Americans, in their youth they were greatly influenced by veterans of the Civil War who filled them with stories of romance and heroism from that war. They were also influenced by books such as Stephen Crane's, The Red Badge of Courage, first published in 1894. The easy victory of the Spanish-American War and the speeches and writings of that war's most famous hero and the most influential pre-war American, Theodore Roosevelt, combined to convince them that service in war was a way to demonstrate their manliness, their sense of duty, and their patriotism. They were in effect what historian Richard Slotkin, in his excellent book Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationalism, called them—"sons of Theodore Roosevelt."

Marines After Action

A key feature of American servicemen in World War I was their diversity of origin, religion, and occupation. Dr. Gutiérrez quotes sources showing that almost 500,000 Doughboys in the A.E.F. were foreign born. [Editor's note: This figure seems somewhat high. It would equate to about 25% of the 2,000,000 men who served overseas. Most sources report figures in the range of 18 to 20 percent, which is still a remarkable statistic.] Many more were first generation Americans. Many of these future Americans or newly minted Americans saw service in the war as a way to prove that they were worthy of becoming Americans. Dr. Gutiérrez found this was especially true of Italian and Jewish Americans, two groups that were viewed negatively by a large number of their fellow countrymen. Many wrote that they wanted to pay America back for the opportunity and freedom they had found in their new home. African-Americans hoped their service would lead to the recognition of their rights and more equal treatment at home after the war.

Order Now

As it turned out, the war proved not to be the romantic adventure they had expected. Many used the familiar quote from General Sherman about war being hell, but most valued the comradeships developed during the war, felt the war experience made them a better person, and many said they would answer their country's call to serve if needed again.

The only section of the book that gave me pause was the section on shell shock and its modern namesake, PTSD. In this part the author seems to be editorializing on modern attitudes toward the effects of combat. I don't necessarily disagree with his comments, but I'm not sure of his qualifications to make these statements, and I question what they have to do with a book on World War I servicemen. Other than that, I found this book to be an entertaining and interesting read, opening a long closed window on the attitudes of World War I American serviceman. Hopefully, these MSRs will prove be a valuable source to future scholars of the American experience in World War I.

Clark Shilling


  1. Good review, this is right up my alley.

  2. Thank you for the detailed review.
    I'm following the war at a fairly close 100-year remove, so I won't hit the Americans for a few years, but I look forward to getting to this book then.

  3. Great to hear of a book based on such original sources!

  4. Pennsylvania has a treasure trove of questionnaire responses that are at the Army War College Archives in Carlisle, PA (collected nationally). The questionnaire used asked many similar questions, and added ones such as "Did your training prepare you adequately for your service overseas?" and "What did you think of the quality of leadership while you were in the service?" I spent two days last week at the Army War College reviewing hundreds of the surveys of the 80th Division vets, and some of my favorite responses were to the questions "Was there much consorting with local women (overseas)?" and "What did you think about the enemies, as people?"