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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Doughboy Basics: Why They Were Called Doughboys?

A. The Coinage of Doughboy

For us today, and maybe for all Americans who will follow, the Doughboys were the men America sent to France in the Great War, who licked Kaiser Bill and fought to make the world safe for Democracy. 

The expression doughboy, though, was in wide circulation a century before the First World War in both Britain and America, albeit with some very different meanings. Horatio Nelson's sailors and Wellington's soldiers in Spain, for instance, were both familiar with fried flour dumplings called doughboys, the predecessor of the modern doughnut that both we and the Doughboys of World War I came to love. Because of the occasional contact of the two nations' armed forces and transatlantic migration, it seems likely that this usage was known to the members of the U.S. Army by the early 19th century. 

Independently, however, in the former colonies, the term had come to be applied to baker's young apprentices, i.e. dough-boys. Again, American soldiers probably were familiar with this usage, but were also possibly inclined to use it in a mocking fashion. The New World version of doughboy was a linguistic cousin to "dough-head", a colloquialism for stupidity in 19th-century America. Reader Judith Kerman, Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, points out that, in Moby Dick (Ch. 34ff), Melville nicknames the timorous cabin steward "Doughboy." This important 19th-century literary usage suggests a negative comparison of the steward's pale face to the darker faces of the sunburnt whalers and "savage" harpooners. When doughboy was finally to find a home with the U.S. Army it initially had a similar disparaging connotation, used most often by cavalrymen looking down [quite literally] on the foot-bound infantry. 

In examining the evolution of doughboy these pre-existing streams of application need to be kept in mind. There is, however, an absence of literary citations clearly connecting either to the American military. Doughboy as applied to the infantry of the U.S. Army first appears, without any precedent that can be documented, in accounts of the Mexican-American War of 1846–47. 

B. The Doughboy as  an American Infantryman

The First Doughboys Capture Monterrey, Mexico

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cites several sources from the war with Mexico showing doughboy to be a nickname for infantrymen including: 

We "doughboys" had to wait for the artillery to get their carriages over. 

     N.J.T. Dana [An infantryman] 

No man of any spirit and ambition would join the "Doughboys" and go afoot. 

     Samuel Chamberlain [A Dragoon] 

Sources like these clearly put to rest both the oft-stated proposition that doughboy as we mean it here was first applied in the Civil War and also the wilder suggestion that the usage was somehow a creation of the noted "Cavalry Couple", General and Mrs. George Armstrong Custer. Both the Civil War and the Custers did help in spreading the use of doughboy. Clearly from the number of Civil War citations that can be identified, the term became known to a much wider audience because of the size and scope of the later conflict. The Custers, being the shameless self-promoters they were, probably can be credited for popularizing it as well because of its appearance in their published letters. 

Somewhere, however, on the march back from Mexico's Halls of Montezuma, any definitive evidence explaining the new use of doughboy was waylaid. For the next 150 years lexicographers from H.L. Mencken in The American Language to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary would speculate on the reasons for the labeling of U.S. infantrymen as doughboys. Despite their distinguished credentials, these authoritative sources, all have the same dual problem as the present writer: there are just  not a lot of reliable primary sources from that period and, of course, none of us were there. Absent the discovery of new material from the 1840s, an exploration into the origins of doughboy has but one way to proceed—looking at the pros and cons of the plausible theories and weighing the evidence. There are four such explanations each with their school of advocates, each with weaknesses in either evidence or logic. 

U.S. Army Illustration of Infantry and Officer Uniforms
During the Mexican-American War

The Baked Goods Theory: One suggestion is that Doughboys were named such because of their method of cooking their rations. Meals were often doughy flour and rice concoctions either baked in the ashes of a camp fire or shaped around a bayonet and cooked over the flames. This interpretation also suggests the baker's helper tradition of doughboy. Samuel Chamberlain [quoted above] adhered to this theory in his memoir My Confessions. This has to be taken with some reservations, however. His memoir was written after the war in the 1850s and reworked by later editors. 

The weakness of the "Baked Goods" theory lies in the question as to why this would come to only apply to the infantry. Did artillery gunners and quartermasters prepare their food differently? Were the infantry the only soldiers who had to cook their own food in the field? 

The Button Theory:    Adherents of this theory hold that U.S. infantrymen wore coats with unique, globular brass buttons. These buttons are said to reminiscent of the doughboy dumplings eaten by the soldiers and sailors of earlier days and which possibly had become part of American cuisine. In another variation, drawing additionally on the Baked Goods Theory, it is said that the product of the infantrymen's cooking efforts came to resemble the buttons on their uniforms. When I originally published this article, I could find no photos or illustration clearly showing the buttons on U.S. infantry uniforms, c. 1840s.

In February 2002 I was contacted by a museum which displays military uniforms, informing me that US infantry uniforms of the period did, indeed, have globular buttons. I am still awaiting a confirming photos. But even if the claims about uniform buttons are validated, there is still a lack of primary evidence backing up the usage of doughboy in accordance with this line of thinking. 

The Pipe Clay Theory: During the 19th century American enlisted men used a fine whitish clay called pipe clay to give "polish" to their uniforms and belts. It was a less than perfect appearance enhancer, however; in rainy weather the saturated clay came to look "doughy". Infantrymen would be more vulnerable to this effect as their comrades kicked up mud and dirty water from the many puddles they would march through. One reader has offered a variation on this from the memoirs of General Tasker Bliss. The general writes that flour [dough?] was used for this whitening function by the infantrymen along the Texas border from where the invasion of Mexico was launched. 

The Pipe Clay theory, championed in the 20th century by Mr. Henry Mencken, has plausibility, but lacks documentation. [General Bliss's variation is a singular report that might have been subject to distortion over time, so it also needs corroboration.] On the main point, shouldn't there be some description of troops marching in the rain, looking "doughy", to support this? Besides, the routes the infantry took in Mexico tended to be dry and dusty rather than wet and muddy and this leads us to the final of the four theories. 

The Adobe Theory: In a nutshell—in marching over the parched terrain of the deserts of Northern Mexico the infantry stirred up so much dust that they took on the look of the adobe buildings of the region—hence, [after a few phonetic adjustments] doughboys. The cavalrymen who rode horses, the artillerists who rode caissons, and the quartermasters who rode wagons were all mounted above the worst of the dust cloud. It is also easy to visualize them collectively indulging in a little disparagement at the expense of their suffering colleagues. 

Americans Marching in Northern Mexico

This theory has possibly the best "fit" to the facts of the campaign in Mexico as known, yet it has no backing from the historical record. It appears to be the product strictly of 20th-century speculation. Nevertheless, it is the favorite theory of doughboy chronicler Laurence Stallings and of this writer as well. The modern day Oxford English Dictionary Supplement takes a reverse slant and suggests that the marching infantry pounded their dirt pathways into dough, but that does not quite ring true to anyone who has visited Mexico. In the northern parts, if it's not paved, it's dusty. 

C. From Chapultepec to the Rhine

For the next 70 years following General Scott's capture of Mexico City, doughboy, despite its uncertain origins, was used—sometimes mockingly—as a nickname for the American infantryman. It appears in firsthand accounts from the Civil War, the campaigns on the frontier and the Philippine Insurrection. "Doughboy Drill" became synonymous with close-order infantry drill and supplies of prophylactics for soldiers on pass became known as "Doughboy Kits." 

Far from Mexico
Doughboys of the 102nd Infantry in France

Yet when the Great War and America's entry into it came, the usage of doughboy changed dramatically and we are left with some additional doughboy mysteries. Somehow, in a mere 19 months, Doughboy became the universally popular nickname of all the American troops sent to Europe pushing "Yanks" [recall that in the hit song "Over There" it was the "Yanks" who were coming...] and the newspaper publisher's inspiration of the moment, "Sammies", [after Uncle Sam] to the sideline. 

Most interestingly, in World War I, doughboy became generalized in application, no longer limited to the infantry. All the army combat branches, aviators, logistical support troops and even the U.S. Marines [to their chagrin] were individually and collectively labeled Doughboys

It seems to have been a bottoms up movement. In their letters home and their diaries volunteers, draftees and national guardsmen of every specialty just began referring to themselves as Doughboys. Their overseas newspaper, Stars & Stripes, freely used and advocated the term as well. I was also shown a quote recently indicating that General William Siebert, influential first commander of the 1st Division and later chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, strongly encouraged the usage of doughboy

And there is one final puzzle or maybe a bit of magic about the use of doughboy from the Great War up to today. Doughboy came to belong exclusively to the 4.7 million Americans who served in the Great War. The Army continued using some of the slang terms like "Doughboy Drill," but the troops of the 1920s and '30s, for the most part, did not use the term to describe themselves, nor did the public. In the Second World War the Doughboys' sons called to arms in stupendous numbers would be alternately known as the Yanks and GIs. Possibly the sad Bonus Marcher incident of the early 1930s [the veterans were all former Doughboys] played a role in de-popularizing the usage, but maybe America just decided the name "belonged" to the boys of the First World War. 

My 2009 Surprise. Eleven years after I wrote the original version of this article I was asked to be the master-of-ceremonies at an event at the National World War I Memorial in Kansas City honoring Mr. Frank Buckles, who is the lasting surviving American Doughboy of World War I. It was a very moving experience for me, I've thought a lot about the great generation for whom Mr. Buckles has been such a wonderful representative since I wrote this piece.

Sources and thanks: This article originally appeared in my website The Doughboy Center in 1998. It has been modified numerous times since then. I consulted every dictionary I could find in the Contra Costa County, California Library System.  A special thanks to the 200+ people who have written me over the year with suggestions for the article and the thousands who have thanked me for making this material available. This article is cited and in a number of books and websites (often without attribution, but that's OK). Also, I must remember a Great War Society Member, the late Gerry Devereux, who kept asking me why doughboy became so darn popular in the First World War, forcing me to write the original piece.. MH


  1. Did add to the discussion:

    And Libbie Custer too.

  2. Enjoyed your article...but wonder if Doughboy in it's original meaning meant someone who was a bit softer "In the head" or who couldn't be trusted to do anything really requiring a lot of ended up in the infantry? Or maybe softer in nature.,not as aggressive as the infantry men?

    1. That last sentence should read' Or maybe softer generally in physical strength or aggressiveness...not as aggressive or as effective as Calvary?