Sherman was Right: The Experience of AEF Soldiers in the Great War

Edward A. Gutiérrez, History, University of Hartford


Research Grant, 2011

This project analyses why Americans fought on the Western Front during the Great War. The goal of the research and manuscript is to give voices to the thousands of servicemen and women who served their country, whether conscript or volunteer. American society views the Great War through the lens of the Lost Generation—writers such as Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. First constructed by these authors, the popular image of the war, and the soldiers who experienced it, is one of disillusionment. I humbly admit that I believed the narrative that the violence of the Western Front broke the soldier. I was wrong. While some did psychologically succumb to the horrors of combat, the majority endured, and were proud of their service.

The picture that emerged from the research strikes against the popular notion of the disillusioned doughboy.

At the beginning of the project I expected to confirm the war’s disillusionment narrative, however, after spending over a decade studying the core primary source for the manuscript, I learned the truth. The foundation of this work is 110,847 questionnaires completed by veterans of the American Expeditionary Forces issued in 1919 from four states: Connecticut, Minnesota, Utah, and Virginia. Drawing on these questionnaires, completed while memories were still fresh, the manuscript presents a chorus of soldiers’ voices speaking directly of the expectations, motivations, and experiences they had as infantrymen on the Western Front in World War I. Their experience remains relevant today. Even more relevant since the cornerstone of America’s strategy against terrorism is the infantry, a policy unlikely to fade. In particular, then, we need to understand why individuals volunteer to go to war. And, if reality fails to match expectations—as it did for almost every “doughboy”—we need to ascertain what caused their misconceptions of combat.

The picture that emerged from the research strikes against the popular notion of the disillusioned doughboy. Though hardened by combat, the American Great War veteran is for the most part proud of his service—a service undertaken for duty, honor, and country. Why do men fight? Duty. Throughout history, other reasons have applied, but for the American soldiers of World War I, this reason was paramount.

The grant contributed to the creation of a book that details the uncensored words of American veterans of World War I, and provides a new understanding of the effects of violence upon human beings. The experience of these men and women illuminates not only military history but also sociocultural studies as well, and restores the voices of those marginalized by society and the government after the Armistice in 1918.

  1. Gutiérrez, Edward A. Doughboys on the Great War: How American Soldiers Viewed Their Military Service (University Press of Kansas, 2014; paperback 2016).

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