The Comparative Sizes of Poilus and Doughboys

103 84
The American soldiers of World War I certainly were bigger than their counterparts in the French Army.
They were a good head taller and from five to fifteen pounds heavier.
The French populace and the French soldiers (poilus) looked upon the average American soldier as being something of a comparative (to the French) giant.
The French soldier had an average height of 5 feet 4 inches and the average height of the American soldier was about5 feet 8 inches, thus the Americans towered over their French companions-in-arms.
That the American was a larger man, was no doubt due to the improved diet and the larger meals that he enjoyed while growing up.
When the first doughboys of the AEF arrived in France, the French stood by slack-jawed and pop-eyed, looking at the tall, husky and bronzed soldiers from America as if they were men from outer space.
Having been brought up on translated versions of the American dime novels of the Wild West and American made cowboy-western motion pictures, verily the French believed that all Americans had been born in the saddle.
The newly arriving soldiers were the "American Indians" literally arrived in France.
It is no exaggeration to state that the French expected to see the Americans come down the gangplanks of the troopships carrying tomahawks and wearing feather-bonnets, instead of carrying Springfield 1903 rifles and wearing their peaked felt campaign hats (which made them look even taller)! Thus was the legend of the "wild, red-Indians from America" reinforced.
Of course, the doughboys bolstered this French belief wherever and however they possibly could.
Sometimes they would let out war-whoops, sometimes they actually (until the practice was banned) carried homemade tomahawks on their packs or on their belts.
Some came down the gangplank with feathers sticking out of their campaign hats! American soldiers did not really have to do much to reinforce the French beliefs, as the French had already spread the legend of the "giants from America" the length and breadth of France, by word of mouth and in the public media.
At each telling, the Americans got larger.
And, it goes without saying, that the exuberant Americans played the roll to the hilt.
Nevertheless, the arriving Americans detected a certain amount of disappointment on the part of the French.
They found out later that the French expected the Americans to be seven feet tall and wearing long beards! The American doughboy enjoyed a healthy diet, and was (except for the city boys) used to hard work in the fresh-air, and he got plenty of exercise.
The smaller city boys didn't arrive in France until later on when the National Army divisions began to arrive.
The initial American divisions which arrived in France were composed of the `cream of the American crop' of men, tall, rangy, well-built, and, according to the mademoiselles, very good looking.
The French were always remarking on the healthy complexions and the excellent teeth of the Americans.
The men of the AEF were always amazed at the sheer muscular strength of the French soldiers.
Doughboys would stand amazed while watching the shorter, more squat French soldiers march by with their great, heavy overcoats on, carrying their jumble of accoutrements on their backs in the form of pots and pans, a large pack, extra hobnailed shoes, his Adrian-style helmet perched jauntily on his head, his `pinard' bottle, and the ubiquitous pipe stuck in his mouth.
The doughboys didn't envy the poilu carrying his long, heavy Lebel rifle with the needle-like "Rosalie" bayonet.
Through all of this, the doughboy always commented that, through his thick moustaches and beard, the poilu (poil means hair) of France almost always had a smile and a greeting for the Americans.
It was constantly remarked by the Americans that the French marching gait was short and choppy, so that the soldier wouldn't topple over because of his offset center of gravity.
The poilu wore a long coat, and when he was marching he buttoned back the front flaps to make room for his legs, so when the Americans saw that, they knew he was on the march.
If his face was set grimly, they knew he was going to say: "Nous les aurons," that is: We'll have them, we'll get them.
" Infantrymen shouldered heavy burdens during the First World War.
It is a well-known fact that the optimum weight for a man to carry is one third of his own weight.
The French infantryman's load was as much as eighty-five pounds, an awesome figure no matter how well it may be distributed.
No matter that he was decidedly overburdened--he carried this load everyplace that he went.
Henri Barbusse described the pack as 'monumental and crushing': it contained not only all the regulation items, but also a man's little treasures and comforts - tins of fruit, chocolate, candles, and so on.
The regulation items comprised of: two blankets rolled up in a groundsheet, a spare pair of boots, a sheepskin or quilted coat, a shovel or pair of heavy wire-clippers, a mess-tin and a large pail for rations, two liters of wine, two quarts of water, food for four days, 200 cartridges for his Lebel rifle, six hand grenades and a gas mask, as well as assorted clothes and personal belongings.
The whole lot was carried in a 'bazaar' or more often the 'bordello'.
The knapsack itself was referred to as 'Azor', the French equivalent of 'Fido', because at the beginning of the war it was made of dogskin.
The Americans had a saying that the French soldier "could march all night and fight all day.
" The Americans also remarked that they would probably desert their own army if they were forced to carry the enormous load of the French soldiery, which, in the words of the AEF, "was only fit for a mule.
" The Americans stood in absolute awe of the indefatigable, seemingly tireless French soldier.
They also had a saying that the French Army would not fight any more because it had worn itself to a frazzle carrying those enormous loads all over France for four long years.
Of the two soldiers, the Frenchman was evidently the more physically powerful man, despite his shorter stature.
The average French soldier was from the countryside, was an ex-farmer, and one who did not have the advantage of power-machines on the farm.
Every iota of the hard work he did was by the sweat of his brow and the labor of his back.
This all added up to a physically strong soldier.
The French populace was astounded at the capacity of the seemingly ever-hungry Americans to devour food.
The already impoverished French had a very difficult time feeding themselves properly, let alone the always ravenously hungry American soldiers.
French meals are (even today) much smaller than what the average American is used to.
This was also true in 1918.
American doughboys were heartily weary of the unimaginative and barely digestible food served by army cooks.
Their diet usually consisted of beans, "Canned Willy" (Argentine beef that was already rancid when it was processed), hardtack biscuits and/or French bread, and an evil concoction called "slum.
" The hardtack and the bread were both so hard that one practically had to stomp on it to break it up.
The Americans felt that their cooks were stuck in time, someplace between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
When the Americans came into town, they would order gigantic omelets made of dozens of "oofs" and have the French women cook whatever else was at hand.
They would literally eat a town out of food, and then go scrounging around the local countryside for more eggs, ducks, chickens, pigs, vegetables, anything that could be boiled, baked, barbecued, or eaten raw.
And they would pay some absolutely outrageous prices for all of what they ate.
Big men have equally big appetites.
The AEF is still remembered in France as being an army of the heartiest eaters the French had ever encountered.
There was something different about the soldiers the Americans sent abroad under Pershing in that AEF.
Such soldiers, perhaps, were never seen before, and have certainly never been seen since.
They sang.
They laughed a great deal.
They believed in themselves, their country, their way.
They were young, confident and open; to the Europeans it seemed like they were indeed godlike, untouched, sure of the sacredness of their mission, which was to give the world a new order and make the world clean and right.
Their sons, the 'G.
I.
' of world War Two, were comparatively somber, very quiet, did not sing, and had very much of an "Oh, God, here we go again" attitude.
After all, their fathers had told them about the futility of the First World War, and urged them "not to join the army.
" The doughboys of the AEF did not have to show their hatchets or put on their war bonnets to prove that the were indeed a race of born and bred warrior-giants; they proved all of that and more on the battlefields of France.
They are now just about all into that Valhalla reserved for them.
Most of them are still shouting -- "Lets Go!" or "When do we eat?"- the two favorite cries of the inimitable doughboys of the AEF.
And, they are surely asking one another the inimitable question of, "What outfit, buddy?" God bless them all, wherever they are now.
And, wherever they are now, the `doughboy' and the French poilu probably have their arms around each others shoulders as they march along in eternal camaraderie, each probably singing some bawdy verse of 'Mademoiselle from Armentieres,' or'Hinky-dinky, parlay-voos.
'
Subscribe to our newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.