Saluting the ‘doughboys’ who 100 years ago entered WWI, ending American neutrality

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metzlerBy John J. Metzler

St. NAZAIRE, France — “Lafayette, we are here,” became the clarion call upon the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force to France in 1917.

The USA had just entered the hostilities, three years into the Great War, and now the battle hardened U.S. General John Pershing was in a sense returning the favor of French military assistance during the American Revolution.

On June 26, 1917, a flotilla of American troop ships arrived in the Atlantic port of St. Nazaire, a well situated staging center situated hundreds of miles from the Front. Over the next few years 198,000 Americans would disembark here.

A statue by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney honoring American Doughboys stands in the harbor at St. Nazaire.
A statue by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney honoring American Doughboys stands in the harbor at St. Nazaire.

The Sammies, as they were affectionately called by the French as a play on the words Uncle Sam, were also known as the Doughboys in the USA.

President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to join the Allies after 32 months of neutrality was as controversial as it was militarily complicated. On the one hand, the young American Republic had by choice stayed away from European conflicts and overseas missions.

On the more practical side, when Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917, the regular U.S. army stood at an understaffed 140,000 troops and with an additional 200,000 in the National Guard.

Mobilization would be nothing short of extraordinary with a combination of mass conscription and an amazing American industrial might to support it.

After all it was U.S. military assistance which decisively tipped the military balance on the Western Front, the site of three years of unmitigated carnage for the French and British forces facing Imperial Germany. The battles of Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, and Vimy Ridge were nothing less than a grinding abattoir of killing; all sides were literally bled white and exhausted.

Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and the Russian Revolution decisively changed the political calculus.

The Allies; the British Empire, France and Russia were slogging it out with the Central Powers; Germany, Austria/Hungary and Turkey. Once the Czar was overthrown, Russia would later withdrew from the war after two million soldiers were killed, the balance of power decisively tipped against France in the West.

As 1917 wore on, American troops flooded into France, first through St. Nazaire which became a logistical hub which saw delivery of 2 million tons of equipment ranging from disassembled steam locomotives from Philadelphia, to cars, trucks and horses. The logistical genius of the U.S military was on display with more than 500 transport ships bringing everything from tons of beef to cigarette rations for the troops. Supply depots and bases dotted the Loire River region.

On a lighter side, the Sammies would introduce the French to basketball, chewing gum, the infectious Jazz music, and the “American Way of Life.”

The American Expeditionary Force would see action mostly in 1918 during the bloody battles of Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood among countless others. When the hard won victory came with the Armistice in November 1918, over 53,000 Americans were killed and 210,000 wounded in this War to End all Wars.

Tragically, the Peace of Versailles, signed a few years later, would merely set the stage for the Second World War.

A century has passed since the Sammies disembarked at St. Nazaire and elsewhere in France. Two million American troops were sent to France during the relatively short but sharp U.S. intervention.

While the centenary of America’s entry into WWI is being acknowledged in the USA, in France its meaning is far deeper with a year of commemorations and exhibits which highlight a friendship through conflict now usually only recalled by the mournful statue of a French soldier, a Poilu which graces every village with the words “Died for France.”

At the end of the war, the region commissioned a beautiful statue by the American artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney which showed an American Doughboy gracefully arriving, sword in hand, on the spread wings of an eagle. That statue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941. In 1989, a replica of the monument was placed back in the harbor where it majestically stands today.

On 14 July, the French National Day, President Donald Trump visited Paris for the annual military parade which featured some U.S. military units marching in WWI uniforms. Weeks earlier in St. Nazaire, the Cunard ocean liner Queen Mary 2, made a transatlantic voyage to New York commemorating the “Bridge” linking France and America.

Today, little strings of American and French flags drape towns in this region in tribute to 1917.

Yet, sadly forgotten in the pages of a turbulent history, the Sammies of the Great War still stare out to us from the faded black and white photos. But few remember them.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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