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The World War One Study Group of Iowa

Why do we take the effort to research, write, talk and preserve the memories of Iowa soldiers who served in World War One?

They are gone now and largely forgotten, those once jaunty young men with the quaint dishpan helmets, the spiral puttees, and highcollared wool tunics. The songs they sang, the weapons they used— their very concept of the world—are mere curiosities to most of us today.

But they were so American! A latter-day historian referred to them as “the fierce lambs. ” Fierce they certainly were; their combat record brooks no dispute. And yes, they were lambs, their lack of sophistication and worldliness sometimes humorous, often touching and sometimes sad and a bit pathetic. They were farmers and mill workers, students and clerks, men whose roots went back to the original 13 colonies and men who were barely off the boat from Europe and had yet to master the English language. Few in the ranks were well educated, a surprising number (by today's standards, at least) were illiterate.

Nearly 5 million Americans served in the armed forces during World War I—the largest fighting force the country had ever seen. Some 2 million of them served in Europe where U. S. presidents had traditionally promised never to interfere. Nearly 80,000 of them died there.

They went because they had to go, most of them; because they were expected to go; and many because they wanted to go. They went to save France, to repay LaFayette, to skin the Kaiser or just, as one Marine veteran recalled, “to see what all the noise was about. ”

Of course they were innocents. So was their country. When the United States entered the war in the spring of 1917, the standing army numbered less than 130,000 men—this at a time when millions were engaged on the Western Front. The largest organization in the U. S. Army at the time was the regiment—a unit
numbering some 2,000 men.

No wonder the Germans scoffed. And yet the U. S. contribution did ultimately save the Allied cause. It had been a near thing. The French had come close to collapse in 1917 and the British were hard pressed. But the flood of American manpower arriving in France in 1918 erased any hope Germany had for outright victory.

Two out of every three American soldiers who reached France took part in battle. A total of 2,084,000 U. S. soldiers reached France. Of these, 1,390,000 saw active service in the front lines. Forty-two American divisions reached France before war's end. Of these, 29 took part in active combat service. The rest were used for replacements or arrived as the hostilities ended.

The places they fought, many of them, would be spoken of with reverence for years afterward in American Legion Halls, at Memorial Day Parades, by Gold Star Mothers, and in the mills and on the farms, on city streets, and in every corner of America they called home: the Marne, Soissons, the Orque, the Hindenburg Line, St. Mihiel, the Argonne … always “the Argonne. ”

The bulk of them just did what they were told and tried to stay alive. Most of them found that war was nothing like what they expected.

The English called them Sammies, at first, a play on Uncle Sam, but the American soldiers never took to the name. Some called them Yanks. But they have gone down in time as “the doughboys. ”

Perhaps, even now, at this late date, they have something to teach us about what it means to be an American.

This was their war and our heritage.

Adapted from the Introduction to: Doughboy War: The American Expeditionary Force in World War I. by James H. Hallas. Publisher: Lynne Rienner. Boulder, CO. Publication Year: 2000.


Iowa National Guard soldiers in the trenches of France, serving in the 168th Regiment of the 42nd Division.
(Photo Courtesy of The Iowa Gold Star Museum)

If you have an interest in Iowa's rich World War One history, please feel free to email at dorwig@iastate.edu