The American Soldier in World War I

When the U.S. joined forces with Britain and France against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917, it had a small army. Unable to get volunteers to fight in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson instituted the draft so that the army would have more soldiers. In July, a drawing was held to determine which men would go to the warfront. By the end of the day, over 1 million men were chosen to fight. Despite being the largest army in American history, the new recruits didn’t know much about twentieth century warfare.


New technology led to a new kind of warfare during World War I. During the Civil War, hundreds of men charged toward the enemy in battle. The invention of the quick firing machine gun made traditional warfare impossible. With the use of machine guns, the charging soldiers died within minutes. In order to defend themselves against these weapons, the European armies dug trenches, or holes in the ground, to defend the territory they gained. The trenches got so big that they accommodated both the armies and their supplies. When U.S. soldiers arrived, however, they quickly learned that the trenches and new equipment that were supposed to protect them from bullets also caused problems.


Living in the dirt of the trenches made it impossible for soldiers to keep clean. Without regular baths, disease spread through the army. Parasites, referred to as “the cootie” by soldiers, caused fevers. One soldier described the parasite, “The vermin were about the size and color of small grains until they would gorge themselves on the blood of their victims…It was a standing joke that there was no point in scratching since the little buggers had legs on both sides.” Unsurprisingly, seventy percent of the time that soldiers spent off duty was caused by illness.


Another hazard for World War I soldiers on both sides was the invention of mustard gas, a poison chemical fired in a shell at the enemy. It was called mustard gas because of its scent. Exposure to mustard gas produced blisters on the skin and lungs. A nurse described the suffering of these soldiers, “[they were] burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-colored blisters, with blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath.” Soldiers exposed to mustard gas often became blind or died.


In addition to being shot at or gassed, soldiers also died by getting stuck in mud. Much of the western front in France was low-lying land, and rain turned the trenches into pools of mud. Wounded soldiers fell into the mud and drowned. Soldiers also got “trench foot” by standing in the water for hours or days. The soldier’s toes numbed and his foot rotted. To save the soldier’s life, medics amputated, meaning cut off, the foot.

One soldier tried to explain the hazards of World War I this way: “Have you ever fought half madly through days and nights and weeks unwashed, with feverish rests between long hours of agony, while the guns boom…and the bullets zip-zip-zip ceaselessly along the trench edge that is your skyline—and your deathline, too, if you stretch and stand upright?”

The History of the Purple Heart

If you have family members who served in the U.S. military, one or more of them may have received an award called the Purple Heart. Though it did not always have the name it does today, the Purple Heart was awarded early in the history of the United States.

The idea of giving a Badge of Merit, as it was called then, was conceived by General George Washington following the end of the American Revolution. In 1782, Congress could not afford to give extra money to soldiers who showed exceptional bravery while serving in the Continental Army. Washington knew there were men who deserved special recognition, so he issued a general order that created the Badge of Merit.

Originally, the requirements for receiving the badge included instances of “unusual gallantry”, “extraordinary fidelity and essential service” to the U.S. army. The badge was shaped in “the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding.” The word merit was crocheted into the fabric.

We know that at least three men who served in the Revolutionary War received the Badge of Merit. There were probably others, but their names aren’t known because the book which listed its recipients was lost. Washington meant the badge to be given to U.S. soldiers in future conflicts; however, its use declined after the Continental Army disbanded. The first newly named Purple Heart was given to General Douglas MacArthur in 1932.

Both the design of the Purple Heart and the requirements for receiving it have changed. The Purple Heart now displays a bust of George Washington and his coat of arms.  It is given to members of the U.S. military who were killed or wounded by enemy action or who were mistreated as prisoners of war.