What Is A Doughboy?

Frank W. Buckles, "America's Last Doughboy"

Each weekday morning, a group of local retirees meet at Jane’s Lunch in Berryville for morning coffee and fellowship.  At a recent meeting of the Coffee Club, the conversation centered on Frank W. Buckles, the last American veteran of World War I.  Mr. Buckles, who died in February, is often described as “America’s last doughboy”.

The discussion raised the question: “Did anyone know the origin of the term doughboy?”  Everyone knew this term had been used as a nickname for soldiers in the American Expeditionary Force that took part in World War I.  However, since no one could provide an acceptable answer, Post 41 Historian Bob Ferrebee was tasked to “Google it” and find the answer.  Here are his findings.

The research confirms that ‘Doughboys’ was the nickname given to the American Expeditionary Force that took part in the later years of World War I.  Before this decisive U.S. involvement, the colloquialism had applied only to infantryman, but at some point between April 1917 and November 1918 the word expanded to include the whole American armed forces.

However, the expression doughboy was in wide circulation a century before the First World War in both Britain and America, albeit with some very different meanings.  Horatio Nelson’s sailors and Wellington’s soldiers in Spain, for instance, were both familiar with fried flour dumplings called doughboys, the predecessor of the modern doughnut that the Doughboys of World War I came to love.  Because of the occasional contact of the two nation’s armed force and transatlantic migration, it seems likely that this usage was known to the members of the U.S. Army by the early 19th Century.

The research indicates there are at least five plausible theories of the origin of the nickname “doughboy.”  However, there is no clear evidence or documentation to directly link any of the theories to the usage of the term.

The Dough-Head Theory:  This version of doughboy was a linguistic cousin to “dough-head”, a colloquialism for stupidity in 19th Century America.  In Moby-Dick, Melville nicknames the timorous cabin steward, “Doughboy.”  This important literary usage suggests a negative comparison of the steward’s pale face to the darker faces of the sun-burnt whalers and “savage” harpooners.  This theory suggests that when doughboy was finally to find a home with the U.S. Army it initially had a similar disparaging connotation, used most often by cavalrymen looking down, quite literally, on the foot-bound infantry.

The Baked Goods Theory:  One suggestion is that doughboys were named such because of their method of cooking their rations.  Meals were often doughy flour and rice concoctions either baked in the ashes of a camp fire or shaped around a bayonet and cooked over the flames.

The Button Theory:  Early U.S. infantrymen wore coats with unique, globular brass buttons.  The buttons were said to be reminiscent of the doughboy dumplings eaten by the soldiers and thus the soldiers were referred to as “Doughboys”.

The Pipe Clay Theory:  During the 19th Century, American enlisted men used fine whitish clay called pipe clay to give “polish” to their uniforms and belts.  It was a less than a perfect appearance enhancer and in rainy weather the saturated clay came to look “doughie”.  Infantrymen would be more vulnerable to this effect as their comrades kicked up mud and dirty water from the many puddles they would march through.

The Dust Theory:  In marching over the parched, dusty terrain of the deserts of Northern Mexico, the infantry came into camp covered with dust.  The long marches brought out the perspiration, and the perspiration mixed with the dust formed a substance resembling dough.  Therefore, their lucky brothers, the mounted cavalry, called them “doughboys”.

The actual origin of the term ‘Doughboy’ is still debated within both U.S. historical and military circles, but it dates back to at least the American-Mexican War of 1846-47.  So, the mystery has not been solved and the discussion continues.

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