By Christopher Capozzola
Ninety-six years ago today, on 26 June 1917, over 14,000 American soldiers disembarked at the port of St. Nazaire on the western coast of France. They were the initial members of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the United States’ contribution to the First World War. As America approaches the centennial of World War I, will it remember the doughboys? For their sake—and for ours—we should.
That there would be soldiers in Europe so soon—or soldiers at all—surprised both American military planners and their European counterparts. Battle had been underway for two and a half years when the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. The US Regular Army then included just 128,000 men, and the Germans gambled that American troops would not reach the front in time to make a difference. The French, by contrast, desperately hoped that they would, particularly after a failed military offensive that spring provoked mass mutinies in the French army. President Woodrow Wilson agreed with French military officers that the immediate arrival of even a token force would have “an enormously stimulating effect in France.”
Meeting the AEF at the docks that day was their commanding officer, John J. Pershing, plucked from a military campaign along the Mexican border and dispatched to Europe after just a single meeting at the White House with Woodrow Wilson. There, on May 24, 1917, Wilson and his Secretary of War Newton Baker gave Pershing little guidance on how to conduct the war other than to insist that the AEF’s separate identity “must be preserved.” The Americans would fight as an “associated” power rather than an ally, lest the doughboys become cannon fodder for French or British generals.
Who were the first doughboys? While many were hardened career soldiers from the Army or Marines, Pershing kept some of the best at home to train the raw recruits that the recently-adopted Selective Service Act was about to send to military camps. At least half the men assembled into the Army’s new 1st Division had joined up after the declaration of war, arriving in France with just six or eight weeks’ training. They made a poor first impression. One soldier thought his companions were “less impressive than any other outfit I have ever seen.” The young captain George Marshall found the men embarrassingly ill-trained, badly dressed, and poorly behaved. Pershing, aware of the soldiers’ weaknesses, charitably called them “sturdy rookies.” Pershing was right.
Five hundred of the men who disembarked in France that day were African American stevedores, contractors hired to unload the American ships. Their work was the sign of things to come, as many of the 380,000 black soldiers who later served in France found themselves relegated to secondary service roles and labor battalions. But at St. Nazaire they also mingled with French colonial soldiers from West Africa and the Caribbean; postwar global movements for racial equality were forged on those Atlantic docks.
Many of the soldiers who arrived at St. Nazaire that June remembered the town as eerily silent. “Every woman seemed to be in mourning,” George Marshall recalled. “The one thing we noticed most of all there was no enthusiasm at all over our arrival.” French children and war widows watched quietly, hesitatingly wondering what the AEF’s arrival might portend. Pershing had noticed the same trepidation at the highest levels of the French Army: at a dinner with his counterpart Philippe Pétain, the French general fell into a silent funk, looked up and muttered, “I hope it is not too late.”
It wasn’t. In just 19 months, more than two million American men and women would serve in France, where they played a crucial role in the war’s final stages. Not least of all by shoring up their allies’ morale, a change noticeable just days after the landing at St. Nazaire, as a contingent of the 16th Infantry marched through Paris in a hastily arranged July Fourth parade. Greeted as heroes, they made a pilgrimage to Lafayette’s tomb, where Pershing—never much of a public speaker—asked a French-speaking fellow officer to say a few words in honor of the French soldier who had come to America’s aid during its Revolution more than a century before. Charles Stanton provided one of the war’s most memorable lines: “Lafayette, we are here!”
The soldiers of the AEF have faded from view, America’s first world war overshadowed by its second. On 16 January this year, the U.S. government grudgingly established a World War I centennial commission, insisting that it receive no taxpayer dollars. But as Americans continue to grapple with their role in the world today, it would be worth pausing to remember the history made at St. Nazaire by the first doughboys. We owe those “sturdy rookies” nothing less.
Christopher Capozzola is Associate Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen.