The exact origin of the term doughboy in the context of American involvement in war is unknown. But there are some clues.
The term first shows up in the 1840s. It was in a letter written by an infantryman, N.J.T. Dana, who participated in the Mexican-American War. He wrote that he and other ‘doughboys’ had to wait for the artillery to move their carriages.
Then there was an entry in a memoir penned by Samuel Chamberlain. He was a horse-mounted infantryman. Years later Chamberlain wrote, “Not many of any spirit and ambition would join the ‘Doughboys’ and go afoot.”
Other possible origins of the term “doughboy” are also from the same Mexican-American conflict. As a result of their marching through the dry lands of northern Mexico, American infantrymen found themselves covered with chalky dust, such that they looked like a doughboy.
Yet another explanation is that our infantrymen looked like adobes or mud bricks. A third source comes from the way infantrymen cooked field rations over campfires. The rations usually consisted of doughy flour and rice.
Doughboy and World War I
In the twentieth century, the term doughboy was associated with American men sent to France in World War I. But it was used before that War commenced, in the United States and in Great Britain.
The First World War marked the first time the United States sent soldiers overseas to defend foreign lands. When the United States declared war against German in April, 1917, America had a standing army of 127,500. By the end of the War, four million men served in the U.S. Army, with nearly another million fighting in other military branches.
The American Expeditionary Forces is the name given to our forces that participated in the latter part of World War I. It was created in May, 1917 when General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing was named the American army’s supreme commander in France.
That’s where the modern usage of the term “doughboy” originates. Before the crucial involvement of our forces, the term doughboy only referred to infantrymen. But sometime between April 1917 and the end of 1918, the term came to be used for all American armed forces.
The last doughboy
Frank Buckles was the last doughboy – the last surviving American World War I soldier. He said that when U.S. troops arrived in France in 1917, tired French and British troops were happy to see the American doughboys.
Buckles was determined to be a doughboy. He convinced an Army recruiter in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to let him enlist, even though he couldn’t cough up any proof that he was of age to fight. Buckles enlisted on August 14, 1917.
Buckles sailed for Europe in December of that year and eventually arrived in France. While he never fought on the front lines, he was reported missing at one point when Buckles and a pal traded cigarettes for a stay at a fancy hotel. Buckles lived to the age of 110 and died in 2011.
The term doughboy wasn’t used in a pejorative manner. It was rather a nickname. You’ll find it in the diaries and memoirs of World War I soldiers and in newspapers from that time.