A Special Contribution Courtesy of
Gary Mead & The Overlook Press

Excerpted from:
The Doughboys: America and the First World War
Reprinted by permission of the Author and Publisher

Available through The Overlook Press Website

How the AEF Dealt With:



Gary Mead

Mud Granted No Exemption to the Doughboys


It was impossible to keep clean in the trenches. Dirt bred disease, and with only the most primitive drugs, many diseases which are today innocuous could be life-threatening. They also sapped the AEF's fighting power. Official figures show 71 per cent of duty-time lost in the AEF in France was through disease, against just 22 per cent from battle injuries. In 1918, influenza, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases caused 17.33 per cent of all AEF hospital admissions for disease and 82 per cent of illness-related deaths. The same year the total number of AEF soldiers admitted to hospital for disease was 2,422,362. . . Officers were as prone to succumb to bullet or bug as their charges. . .

The vermin [a.k.a. cooties] were about the size and color of small grains of uncooked rice until they would gorge themselves on the blood of their victims. Apparently their digestive system was in the shape of a cross, since when they were well-fed a black cross could readily be seen. The troops considered this a black German Iron Cross. It was a standing joke that there was no point in scratching because the little buggers had legs on both sides. The Army had a 'delousing' program which consisted of, thank God infrequent, visits of a large tank-truck-like device and a steam generator. We were required to completely disrobe and toss our clothes into a bundle which was then thrown into the tank and live steam cooked the bugs. During this time we froze, of course, since the contraption never came on a nice warm day, but usually made its appearance during the winter months. After submitting to this we were louse-free until we crawled back into the hay beds, when we again became infested.

There was not much to be done about the cootie, except to grin and bear it. In a June 1918 issue of Stars and Stripes, 'W.D.B.' offered this 'remedy' for the cootie:

Corporal Cootie
Not Actual Size
First, get a rope or wire, rope preferred, that is about 30 feet long and has two ends. Be sure you get both ends. Then place one end on the ground and the other in the air, climb up and place some cheese or butter - butter preferred- on the top, then come down and hide. You will not have to wait long before a Mr. Cootie will be along. He, of course, hears the butter or cheese up on the rope or wire, and goes up to get a bite. Now, climb up yourself and cut the wire or rope about two feet below Mr. Cootie and place on that end an ice cream cone. Then come down and hide. Mr. Cootie will get all the butter or cheese he wants and start down, not knowing the wire or rope is cut, and fall in the ice cream cone and freeze to death. The same cheese or butter will work for a day or more, if you remove the dead immediately.

The cootie was but one element in a generally filthy existence, a lifestyle which shocked and distressed most doughboys, who could never accustom themselves to the coarseness of the French billets -usually farmyard buildings - they were expected to occupy when in the rear areas. US armies traditionally built their own encampments but the exigencies of trench warfare made this expensively pointless and French billets were generally used. Many doughboys decided that a leading feature of the French character was a distinct lack of interest in basic hygiene:

One of the conditions of this life of billeting the American soldiers never did fully adapt themselves. It was to the fumier - the heap of manure piled at the front door of every villager - the sign of his thrift and even of his wealth, but a disagreeable thing, irritating and dangerous in the dark, and a kind of front yard ornamentation to which our soldiers could never grow accustomed [...] this one little thing was the cause of more impatience and irritation of American soldiers toward the French population than anything that I can now remember. The French villagers' habit of having farm animals and people living close together under the same roof was repulsive to our sensibilities.

Manure Piles before Homes in a French Village


Food - or rather the poor quality of it - was another item constantly on the mind of the doughboy, a source of jokes, grousing and ever-receding promise. Sometimes they struck lucky, as did 1st Lieutenant Donnelly, who had a delightfully authentic introduction to French cuisine, being served for his first breakfast in a comfortable house. But for the vast majority there never seemed to be enough to eat. All too often they were dished up a variant on what they feelingly called 'slum' or 'goldfish' - respectively a basic stew of infinite variety but little appeal, and canned salmon. Another staple was 'monkey meat' [peculiar tasting French canned beef from Madagascar]. When they were permitted to light fires - a rarity in the front lines -the soldiers would invariably add whatever ingredients they could lay their hands on to the 'monkey meat' to produce 'slum'. Soon after arriving in France Private Benjamin Dexter 'Heard a ruckus; a whole contingent came along. They had a stretcher with an imitation of a monkey. They had a sign, saying, "Be it resolved. When we get home again we will petition Congress to enact laws to the effect that in future wars troops won't have to eat his ancestors." '

The average doughboy was generally much fitter, healthier, younger, better fed and paid rather more than either his Allied comrades-in-arms or his German enemy. In fact a doughboy's rations were - in theory -the best enjoyed by any soldier in the conflict.t0 The American garrison ration of the time, if issued in its entirety, had a total fuel value of 4,1OO-4,2OO calories; the British was 3,000-3,600; the French 3,400. . .

Statistics cut little ice with the typical doughboy, whose experience of rations could be very poor indeed:

Sharing a Meal
To read the official reports of the Army Quartermaster after the war, one would think that we had lived high on the hog. This was relatively true in the rear areas but not in the combat zone. We had two meals a day, most of the time. The ration was supposed to be canned meat, hard bread, beans, potatoes, dried fruit or jam, coffee, sugar, salt and pepper. Substitute items were canned tomatoes, canned salmon, powdered eggs and corn syrup [...J For weeks we had only substitute items instead of the regular ration; even bread was scarce and the coffee was lukewarm stop by the time it came to us. Most of the time we had canned salmon and canned tomatoes with coffee. I became so sick of salmon [... j that it was years after the war before I could eat any. As for the eggs, out of respect for the innocent and patriotic hens who did their best for the war effort, I refrain from commenting on the terrible transformation to which their eggs were subjected before they came to us. . .

Click here to visit our Doughboy Cookbook with recipes for Slum and Goldfish Loaf

Nutritious and thirst-quenching [tomato juice issue] may have been, but doughboys often longed for something rather more potent. US soldiers were officially permitted to buy 'light wines' and beer but other fortifying drinks, such as champagne, whisky and brandy, were banned, and any establishment where such spirits were sold was off-limits. Of course this semi-Prohibition was vigorously challenged whenever possible and despite Pershing's pretence that there was 'comparatively little drinking in our armies and what there was decreased noticeably after the prohibition of strong drink', the doughboys did their fair share of boozing. Indeed, many of them abandoned their old teetotal ways for the pleasures of the bottle - any bottle. Charles Donnelly, then twenty-one, had been teatotal all his life before landing in France but within his first week he 'soon got acquainted with a local drink called vermouth et cassis which was rather sweet and gave no hint that it was alcoholic until a few had been drowned; then it had a sneaky way of letting you know that you should have stopped before you took the last one or two.'

Two Doughboys have a Beverage Opportunity

A couple of weeks later [Donnelly] was sampling champagne and 'learned that night that champagne will give one the worst hangover of any alcoholic drink, except perhaps absinthe'.

Yet despite the ban on the consumption of strong liquor, and the ease of access to alcohol in France, the officially recorded degree of alcoholism in the US army dropped to a remarkably low level during the two war years, at just 2.5 cases per thousand in 1917 and 1.1 in 1918, against an average 18.44 cases in the previous decade.

There was a degree of hypocrisy in the way the AEF's top officers handled the alcohol question, just as there was over the issue of sexual relations with French and, later, during the Occupation, German women. The AEF's senior officers paid lip service to concern over the morals of the ordinary soldier, but the provision of YMCA and other voluntary organization entertainments, clubs and shows, along with the establishment of some educational outlets, was made partly with a view to the public image back home, and partly from the belief that the devil finds work for idle hands. . .

As for the type of women who might conceivably have been deemed at the time to be of 'bad reputation' - prostitutes - the AEF tried to impose on the rank-and-file soldier impossible standards. The French embraced the inevitable and established a system of licensed brothels behind the front lines: establishments with a blue light over the front door were for officers, those with a red light were for other ranks. The typical charge was 15 francs for thirty minutes, or about $2.85 at the contemporary exchange rate. British troops were perfectly free to visit these establishments until in May 1918 the British War Office ruled them out of bounds. Even then the British authorities preferred to turn a blind eye. For the first four months after arriving in France the doughboys were not under any formal ban from visiting brothels. This changed once Pershing realized how serious a problem VD was for the British and French, who both lost millions of troops' days each year as a result of sexually communicable diseases. Doughboys were then formally banned, on pain of severe punishment, from visiting brothels:

A Lady of Good Reputation on the Left; On the Right, A Brothel "Technician"
Contact with Both Was Discouraged

Venereal diseases were from the first the subject of grave concern to General Pershing, and he took a great and useful interest in their prevention. The problem was aggravated by the fundamental differences of opinion between the French and the Americans as to the best means of prevention and control. The French believed that the legalization and control of prostitution were important and highly desirable, and they acted on that belief. The Americans believed that such measures were pernicious and most undesirable, and they acted on their belief. These contradictory opinions were never brought into accord.

Being barred from bordellos is one thing, abstinence is another. There is no way of quantifying how many doughboys had sexual relations with prostitutes or those who did not charge for the service, but it is evident from the archives that the typical AEF soldier had a normal inclination to indulge this need whenever possible. Various inter-Allied conferences were held throughout the war on what Pershing euphemistically referred to as 'this age-long evil', all failing to persuade the French to close down the licensed brothels. Some AEF chaplains tried to persuade men of the dangers of VD, rather than preach the virtues of prophylaxis: 'We had [a] saying "15 minutes with Venus and 3 years with Mercury." This was prior to the invention of penicillin.

Sources and thanks: The help of the author, Gary Mead and his publisher are greatly appreciated. They contributed the text and most of the illustrations. Other images were provided by regulars Tony Langley and Ray Mentzer. Mr. Mead's book is one of the best effort's yet to give a balanced description and evaluation of the AEF's military contribution to the conclusion of the war. The excerpt above demonstrates his eye for fascinating details which make the work especially readable. MH

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