It’s unknown exactly how U.S. service members in World War I (1914-18) came to be dubbed doughboys—the term most typically was used to refer to troops deployed to Europe as part of the American Expeditionary Forces—but there are a variety of theories about the origins of the nickname.
According to one explanation, the term dates back to the Mexican War of 1846-48, when American infantrymen made long treks over dusty terrain, giving them the appearance of being covered in flour, or dough. As a variation of this account goes, the men were coated in the dust of adobe soil and as a result were called “adobes,” which morphed into “dobies” and, eventually, “doughboys.”
Among other theories, according to “War Slang” by Paul Dickson the American journalist and lexicographer H.L. Mencken claimed the nickname could be traced to Continental Army soldiers who kept the piping on their uniforms white through the application of clay. When the troops got rained on the clay on their uniforms turned into “doughy blobs,” supposedly leading to the doughboy moniker.
However doughboy came into being, it was just one of the nicknames given to those who fought in the Great War. For example, “poilu” (“hairy one”) was a term for a French soldier, as a number of them had beards or mustaches, while a popular slang term for a British soldier was “Tommy,” an abbreviation of Tommy Atkins, a generic name (along the lines of John Doe) used on government forms.
America’s last World War I doughboy, Frank Buckles, died in 2011 in West Virginia at age 110. Buckles enlisted in the Army at age 16 in August 1917, four months after the U.S. entered the conflict, and drove military vehicles in France. One of 4.7 million Americans who served in the war, Buckles was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Today imagery of the doughboy persists in more than 100 World War I commemorative statues across the United States. Most of the statues were erected in the 1920s and often through the fundraising efforts of grassroots veteran and women’s groups. Even small communities were able to pay for the statues since versions of the doughboy statue were mass-produced and, therefore, more affordable.
Jennifer Wingate, associate professor of American Studies at St. Francis College and author of Sculpting Doughboys: Memory, Gender, and Taste in America's World War I Memorials, points out that communities were eager to hold up the doughboy as a heroic figure as the nation was anxious during this period over new outbreaks of Spanish influenza and over the rehabilitation of returning veterans. The early 1920s also marked the first Red Scare when, in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Americans were on high alert over Communist revolutionaries.
“These images of very fit, fighting doughboys shored up America’s confidence during a vulnerable time,” says Wingate. “To show evidence of these strong, healthy, strapping men in a vigilant pose or going over the top worked to dispel fears about the economic and physical health of soldiers returning from war.”