The doughboys who stayed over there

After the First World War, a stream of American visitors came to France to see the old Western Front. The first large-scale national pilgrimage was that made by the American Legion in Autumn, 1927 when 20,000 Legionnaires held a conference in Paris, paraded down the Champs-Elysées and visited battlefields and cemeteries. Many of these Americans would have carried an excellent handbook14 written by three former AEF officers. It provided guidance on itineraries, the pleasures of Paris, French etiquette and histories of the war and individual divisions of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). They were warned not to pick up hand grenades.

During and immediately after the war, American soldiers were buried in large and small cemeteries, their graves marked with temporary wooden crosses. Later, the American Battle Monuments Commission (established in 1923 and supervised by General Pershing) would gather them into the large cemeteries of Meuse-Argonne, Aisne-Marne, Flanders Field, Oise-Aisne, Somme, St. Mihiel and Suresnes.15 They now contain a total of 30,921 burials from the First World War. At the request of next-of-kin, approximately 61% of the American war dead were repatriated and re-interred in the United States. An overall estimate for Army, Naval and Marines forces is that 53,402 men died in battle and that 63,114 died in non-battle deaths. Expressive walls known as Tablets of the Missing are inscribed with a total of 4,452 names. All of these seven military cemeteries are beautifully landscaped and a credit to their custodians. The largest American military cemetery in Europe is the Meuse-Argonne cemetery near Romagne-sous-Montfaucon (Fig. 10 and 19). Visits to these cemeteries invariably leave lasting memories: when I was at this cemetery in the 1970s, an American jet fighter plane suddenly appeared, flew down the long axis of the vast 130-acre site and slowly dipped each wing in salute.

Fig. 19 – Meuse-Argonne cemetery, Lorraine: 14,246 members of the American Expeditionary Force rest here.

In American military cemeteries the snow-white marble headstones take the form of either Latin crosses or shafts carrying the Star of David. This luminous stone comes from the 2,300-year old quarry of Carrara in northern Italy: it has been the preferred choice of great sculptors from Michelangelo to Henry Moore. Quite often the markers are arranged in a series of curves: this device can produce a highly dramatic effect. For instance, this feature is prominent in the WW II cemetery at Hamm near Luxembourg city where sweeping arcs formed by 5,076 graves centre on the grave of General George S. Patton, Jr. (1885-1945). The majority of these men belonged to his redoubtable Third US Army and had fought in the Lorraine campaign and in the Ardenne forests during the ‘Battle of the Bulge’.16 It was Patton’s wish to be buried in their midst.

In the event of an ‘unknown’ doughboy corpse being discovered, in exceptional cases it is flown to the Joint Prisoner of War / Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC), Hawaii. The overall remit of JPAC is to search for, identify and, if appropriate, repatriate the remains of all American service personnel who died in foreign wars subsequent to the War between the States (1861-5). The official count of American missing since that conflict exceeds 83,000. JPAC draws upon the latest physico-chemical techniques and has become the largest employer of forensic anthropologists in the world. Its guiding motto is ‘Until they are home’.

  1. E. B. Garey, O. O. Ellis and R. V. D. Magoffin, American Guide Book to France and its Battlefields (New York: Macmillan Co., 1920) []
  2. American Battle Monuments Commission, American Armies and Battlefields in Europe: a History, Guide, and Reference Book (Washington, D.C.: US Govt. Printing Office, 1938, reprinted 1992). []
  3. George Forty, Patton’s Third Army at War (Shepperton, Surrey, UK: Ian Allan Ltd., 1978) ISBN 0 7110 0901 5. []