Sergeant York was one of the tens of thousands of doughboys who filled out an MSR reflecting on his experience in the Great War.

Sergeant York was one of the tens of thousands of doughboys who filled out an MSR reflecting on his experience in the Great War.

Last night I finished Edward Gutiérrez’ Doughboys on the Great War. In 2000 Dr. Gutiérrez, now a lecturer at the University of Hartford, began analyzing the Military Service Records (MSRs) that American fighting men filled out upon returning from France. Several dozen states had some version of these questionnaires, though the length and thoroughness of the questioning fluctuated wildly from state to state. Some states had index cards asking for such basic information as name, age, rank, unit, length of service, and current address. Four states–Connecticut, Minnesota, Utah, Virginia–went much further and created a several-page document in which soldiers and marines could discourse more fully on their experience. Many veterans did just that, sharing their impressions of their training, the competence of their officers, their fighting experience, and whatever else they chose to share. According to Gutiérrez–and I see no reason to doubt him–these sources had been sitting pretty much untouched for nearly a century before he began reading them.

Studying the lives of returning soldiers has become a cottage industry over the past few years. Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War is one example. This trend should not be surprising given that we have had so many veterans returning from combat in our own time. This is a welcome addition to the scholarship. The crux of Gutiérrez argument is that, while some had difficulty adjusting, for the most part doughboys returned to society quickly and seamlessly. This runs contrary to the narrative articulated by such Lost Generation writers as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and even Faulkner in the 1920s.

Some states followed up in the 1960s and 70s, by which time the veterans were well into middle age. These later accounts differ in that they lack the immediacy of the questionnaires the veterans filled out immediately upon their return from the war. A sourness set in for many in the 1930s, climaxing in the Bonus Army march in Washington. In the 1940s Doughboys noted ruefully that there was no GI Bill for them as there was now for the soldiers returning from the Second World War.

Gutiérrez has written an important book laying out some of the issues faced by the doughboys during and after their service. Hopefully during the centennial additional scholars will explore this topic.

(image/Library of Congress,