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

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Forgotten Soldiers of World War I
Reviewed by David F. Beer

Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America's Immigrant Doughboys

by Alexander F. Barnes and Peter L. Belmonte
Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2018

Country of Origins for Men of an Unidentified AEF Unit in France: 1. Poland 2. Philippines 
3. Mexico 4. Germany 5. Ecuador 6. Turkey 7. Alsace-Lorraine 8. Greece and 9. Austria

When I emigrated from Devon to the United States in 1956 aboard the SS Irpinia, I gave little thought to those who had come before me. Now, much later and with an ongoing interest in the war my grandfather took part in, I'm delighted to have gained, through Forgotten Soldiers of World War I, considerable insight into how early immigrants fared when they came face to face with an America about to go to war in 1917.

We're constantly reminded that the United States is a nation of immigrants. From 1891 to 1914 some 13 million immigrants came here and many for a long time thought of themselves as hyphenated Americans: German-American, Polish-American, Irish-American, and so on. Yet in May 1917 the newly instituted draft called for all men between the ages of 18 and 45 to register.

Forgotten Soldiers is divided into ten chapters which chronologically follow the draftee experience from induction to return after the Armistice. First, however, a Foreword sets the tone of the book by providing useful background information and statistics. The authors estimate that of the four million soldiers in the AEF by the end of the war, some 20 percent were foreign born. This means of the nearly 800,000 immigrants in the ranks, a great many spoke only their native language or spoke English to a very limited extent. Many couldn't read or write in any language.

Poles and Bohemians were numerous among the recruits, and such names as Czsertozc Mjovscek were frequent. As a result, when the first sergeant of one company sneezed while taking roll call, fourteen of his men answered, 'Here' [p.12]. (A common joke at Camp Travis)

It's not difficult to image the difficulties this presented. Yet foreign-born soldiers in the AEF paid the same price as their native-born comrades. For example Rochester, New York, records 609 from that area as having made the supreme sacrifice. Of these, 41 were Italian born and a goodly number of the rest were from Canada, Britain, Germany and Austria (p. 16).

Thus Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Britons, Danes, and many other nationalities were to show up at draft boards to be processed. Eventually the military found itself with considerable numbers of recruits from almost every nation in the world, including Iceland, Montenegro, Jamaica, Brazil, India, and New Zealand. One recruit's place of birth was recorded as "Timbuktu, Africa."

The fascinating story of how these "hyphenated Americans" were classified, processed, trained, and deployed is the subject of the first four chapters of Forgotten Soldiers. The authors provide statistics plus problems and outcomes resulting from this huge influx of "alien" troops. Many situations were unique, but most of these recruits also endured the hardships their American-born comrades did, such as lack of equipment, inadequate training, and the rush to be shipped to France and maybe right to the front line and combat. In spite of cultural or language problems, however, the evidence shows that the vast majority served as faithfully and well as their American counterparts and conspicuous acts of heroism were not uncommon.

Chapter 5 contains absorbing accounts of how foreign-born Doughboys fared in battle, while Chapter 6 gives biographies of some of these soldiers. We are left in no doubt about the international nature of the AEF: Even the Stars and Stripes, published in Paris, France, noted the prevalence of foreign-born soldiers in the ranks. In a 28 February 1918 article, the newspaper reported that the US Army was 'the most international in history'…[ and] that the staff responsible for censoring soldier mail handled on a regular basis letters written in 'twenty-five European languages, many tongues and dialects of the Balkan States and a scattering few in Yiddish, Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Tahitian, Hawaiian, Persian and Greek, to say nothing of a number of Philippine dialects [p. 75].

Half of these letters were likely to be written in Italian, followed by Polish, French, and the Scandinavian languages. In fact much of the material in this book focuses on Italian-born soldiers since the authors had to rely on what archives were available plus private collections, family histories, and unpublished sources, all of which are listed in their bibliography. An in-depth book covering every nationality represented in the AEF at the time would be enormous—assuming such information could be retrieved.

We visit "The Home Front" in Chapter 7. Although at least half of the AEF sent to France didn't face battle, they were essential for support as transport, supply, medical, and various other units. Meanwhile back home parents, relatives, friends, and the general public did all they could by raising liberty bonds, recruiting, and increasing war production. Indicative of the home situation, a poster from the United States Fuel Administration urged increased coal mining in the languages of many of its coal miners: English, Italian, Slovenian, Bosnian, Polish, and German (p.105)

It's not surprising that so many diverse linguistic groups within the AEF sometimes led to unusual "Events and Unique Episodes"—the title of Chapter 8. This makes for surprising reading. We learn about America's "Dutch Foreign Legion" and the Slavic Legion. The prevalence of the name Deluca in its various forms is considered. This group suffered pretty much the same percentage of casualties as the rest of the Army: of some 60 Delucas, two were killed, one died of wounds, six were severely wounded, and one died of disease (p.113). A Mexican Doughboy relates his story, and we learn of the military relevance of Japan, India, and the Danish West Indies. Interestingly, many of the Hello Girls were born in foreign countries, as were several nurses.

A Famous U.S. War Poster by Howard Chandler Christy
The last two chapters cover the end of the war for hyphenated Americans as they returned to the United States. Some confusion and mix-ups were inevitable, as they were for other Doughboys. Some problems arose about where the dead were to be buried. Many foreign-born soldiers received citizenship, some nursed wounds or were hospitalized, and some returned to their country of origin. For many it was hard to land on their feet again, as this announcement in a 1919 newspaper shows:

Angelo Biscardi, bearing seven wounds received in the war, the Croix de Guerre, and honorable discharge papers from the Italian and United States armies, is walking the streets of Chicago seeking employment (p. 168).

Authors Barnes and Belmonte obviously did a tremendous amount of research, which clearly shows. They write with clarity and precision and have given us a wide and deep insight into the lives of the "Forgotten Soldiers" of the AEF. This book is attractive when you first pick it up, with a haunting cover picture and attractive formatting of the contents on quality paper stock. Its 192 pages contain numerous portraits, posters, and photographs, often with a near-sepia tint that invokes the historical nature of the subject. End notes plus a full bibliography and index complete this valuable study of a little-known aspect of World War One.

If you would like to increase your awareness of how foreign-born American soldiers experienced the Great War, this would be a great book to read. If you are interested in further research on the subject, Forgotten Soldiers would be an excellent place to start.

David F. Beer


  1. Excellent. And a lot of us think the Austro-Hungarians had a tough time with languages. Cheers

  2. What a good review. Thank you, David.

  3. anything about the Army Signal Corp, Hello Girls

    1. Hi Lydia,

      On the top left corner of the blog you will see a white box, which is a search engine for the site. Type in "Hello Girls" and you will get some of our past articles.