Progressive Morality at the Front

For the United States, entry into World War I came at the close of the Progressive Era. One feature of this period was an emphasis on social control–using the power of government and other powerful institutions to manage people’s behavior.

This excerpt is from With Our Soldiers in France by Sherwood Eddy. Eddy (1871–1963) was a minister and missionary who worked with the YMCA to serve soldiers on the western front.

We are in a typical French farming village of a thousand people, and here a thousand American soldiers are quartered. A sergeant and a score of men are in each shed or stable or barn loft. The Americans are stationed in a long string of villages down this railway line. Indeed it is hard to tell for the moment whether we are in France or in the States. Here are Uncle Sam’s uniforms, brown army tents, and new wooden barracks. The roads are filled with American trucks, wagons, motors, and whizzing motorcycles, American mules, ammunition wagons, machine guns, provisions, and supplies, and American sentinels down every street.

These are the men of the First Division, scattered along behind the French lines, being drilled as rapidly as possible to take their place in the trenches for the relief of the hard-pressed French. The nucleus is made up of the men of the old army, who have seen service in Cuba, Porto Rico, the Philippines, Texas, or along the Mexican border. And with them are young boys of nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one, with clear faces, fresh from their homes, chiefly from the Middle West—from Illinois to Texas.

The first thing that strikes us as we look at these men is their superb kit and outfit. From the broad cowboy hat, the neat uniform close fitting at the waist, down to their American shoes; from the saddles, bits, and bridles to the nose bags of the horses; from the guns, motors, and trucks down to the last shoe lace, the equipment is incomparably the best and most expensive of all that we have seen at the front. The boys themselves are live, clean, strong, and intelligent fellows, probably the best raw material of any of the fighting forces in Europe. The officers tell us that the American troops are natural marksmen and there are no better riflemen in the war zone. The frequency of the sharpshooters’ medals, among both the officers and the men, shows that many of them already excel in musketry.
The second impression that strikes us is the crudeness of the new men, and the lack of finish in their drill, as compared with the veteran troops of Britain and France. The progress they have made, however, in the past few weeks under their experienced American officers of the regular army has been truly remarkable.

The next impression we receive is the enormous moral danger to which these men are exposed in this far-away foreign land. During the whole war it is the Overseas Forces, the men farthest from home influences, who have no hope of leave or furlough, who are far removed from all good women and the steadying influence of their own reputations, that have fared the worst in the war. The Americans not only share this danger with the Colonials and other Overseas Forces, but they have an additional danger in their high pay. Here are enlisted men who tell us that they are paid from $35 to $90 a month, from the lowest private to the best paid sergeants. When you remember that the Russian private is allowed only one cent a day, that the Belgian soldier receives only four cents a day, the French private five cents, the German six cents, and the English soldier twenty-five cents a day, most of which has to go for supplementary food to make up for the scantiness of the rations supplied, you realize what it means for the American soldier to be paid from one to three dollars a day, in addition to clothing, expenses, and the best rations of any army in Europe.

Some of these men tell us that they have just received from two to three months’ back pay in cash. Here they are with several hundred francs in their hands, buried in a French village, with absolutely no attraction or amusement save drink and immorality. In this little village the only prosperous trade in evidence is that in wines and liquors. The only large wholesale house is the center of the liquor trade and the only freight piled up on the platform of the station consists of wines and champagnes, pouring in to meet the demand of the American soldiers. There are a score of drinking places in this little hamlet. Our boys are unaccustomed to the simple and moderate drinking of the French peasants, and they are plunged into these estaminets with their pockets full of money. Others under the influence of drink have torn up the money or tossed it recklessly away. Prices have doubled and trebled in the village in a few weeks, and the peasants have come to the conclusion that every American soldier must be a millionaire; as the boys have sometimes told them that the pile of notes, which represents several months’ pay, is the amount they receive every month. Compare this with the $1.80 a month, in addition to a small allowance for his family, which the French private gets, and you will readily see how this false impression is formed.

Temptation and solicitation in Europe have been in almost exact proportion to the pay that the soldier receives. The harpies flock around the men who have the most money. As our American boys are the best paid, and perhaps the most generous and open-hearted and reckless of all the troops, they have proved an easy mark in Paris and the port cities. As soon as they were paid several months’ back salary, some of them took “French leave,” went on a spree, and did not come back until they were penniless. The officers, fully alive to the danger, are now doing their utmost to cope with the situation; they are seeking to reduce the cash payments to the men and are endeavoring to persuade them to send more of their money home. Court martial and strict punishment have been imposed for drunkenness, in the effort to grapple with this evil.

Will the friends of our American boys away in France try to realize just the situation that confronts them? Imagine a thousand healthy, happy, reckless, irrepressible American youths put down in a French village, without a single place of amusement but a drinking hall, and no social life save such as they can find with the French girls standing in the doorways and on the street corners. Think of all these men shut up, month after month, through the long winter, with nothing to do to occupy their evenings. Then you will begin to realize the seriousness of the situation which the Young Men’s Christian Association is trying to meet.

Questions to consider:

  1. According to Eddy, what is the greatest danger facing American soldiers?
  2. What makes American soldiers different from their European counterparts?