American Student Soldiers

Thanks to Connie Ruzich for today’s blogpost.


For the American doughboy, military training involved more than marching, drilling, and learning to shoot a gun – there were language and learning tests to be conquered. An examination of the multi-edition military newspaper the Trench and Camp, as published at Virginia’s Camp Lee (common content for numerous military camps was produced by the National War Work Council of the Y.M.C.A.), demonstrates the challenges that both the army and its new recruits faced. Camp Lee was the U.S. training installation for soldiers of the 80th Division, which drew men from the steel mills of Western Pennsylvania and the rural counties of Virginia and West Virginia.  In December of 1917, an article appeared in the Trench and Camp titled “318th Regiment Primary School Wiping Out Illiteracy Among the Drafted Men in Camp Lee.”  It stated that over 500 men “to whom the privileges of childhood education have been denied, are meeting three nights a week in the twelve company mess halls under the direction of fifty teachers from their own regiment, learning the three Rs [reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic].”  The article went on to boast,

This interest in things educational speaks well for the spirit and character of the men of the 318th.  As was brought out in a recent meeting of the war study group, in this war more than in any previous conflict, the individual often must depend solely upon his own resources, and the man well-informed and well-educated is the man who will make good in his army life just as truly as out in the professional or business world….Germany has fallen down in the mental development of her men—they are mere machines, each a part of the whole intricate organization, which once broken, is completely demoralized.  America is not making that mistake—her men will be fitted for their tasks in mind as well as in body, and the 318th aims to lead the way.[1]


In addition to teaching men to sign their own names for payroll, other articles in the camp newspaper made it clear that literacy was viewed as a key to victory. A headline titled “Library Association Is Helping to Win the War” quoted an official at Camp Sherman who explained,

Camp Library Service has been established for just one purpose, that is to help win the war, and there are three ways in which it can help: First, by helping to maintain the morale of the men by providing them with interesting and entertaining reading matter to help tide over the moments of loneliness and depression which come to everyone; second, by helping to educate them as to the causes and purposes of the war and make them realize that they are not fighting France’s fight, England’s fight, or Italy’s fight, but America’s fight—that it is not Belgium, or France or England that Germany is seeking to destroy, but the ideals and principles which form the very foundation stones of this Republic; and third, by providing the men with special technical books along their several lines, and so making them better and more efficient soldiers.[2]

At Camp Lee, over 200 men met four nights a week in reading groups for “citizen-soldiers,” reviewing “pertinent bits of news from the daily press” and closing with “the reading of a chapter from Empey’s ‘Over the Top,’ or some other book of like character, which can give the men a true picture of conditions ‘Over There.’”[3]

In addition to combating illiteracy, the American military took on the task of teaching English to its soldiers who were not fluent in the language. As Richard S. Faulkner notes in Pershing’s Crusaders, “In 1917 one in three Americans was a first-generation immigrant, and one in five draftees was foreign born.”[4] A Russian-Polish immigrant from a steel-mill community in Western Pennsylvania wrote from Camp Lee to the Director of the night school he had attended before joining the army:

Oct 24th

2nd Caisson Co.

305th Ammun. train,

Camp Lee,

Petersburgh, Va.

Mr. E.V. Buckley,

302 Hamory Bldg,

Sharon, Penn’a.

Dear Sir:

I received your letter, and was very glad that I have some good friend which answers me on my letters, because I’ve sent many letters and still I have no answer.  I am getting along fine in Camp Lee.  We got all cloting already, and we look like a soldiers. We drill good also, although we stay here 1 month, but we expect to be a good Uncle Sam’s fighters. Two weeks ago we had 3rd ‘shot,’ and all boys have passed through the operation successfully, but we don’t know, will have three more, or not.  We have ‘chew’ three times a day, and every one is plentyfull.

We have no English school over here, although in our Company 1/3 which don’t understand English at all, but I think it would be better if we have some school.  I’ve sent one copy Camp Lee’s paper “Camp and Trench” [sic] to you, by address Miss Catherine Connair; we have other paper “Bayonet” in our camp.  Felix Loss subscribed it, for his teacher Miss Catherine Connair. We have some papers from Sharon, Pa., but we have no time to read it, because we have lots of things to learn, as “General Orders” and great many other things.

Thanking you for good wishing to me.  I send my best wishes to you, and my regards to my classmate. My wishes to Miss E. Baker.  I sent some cotton to MR. E. Masian, my comrade.  I hope he showed it in the Night School, because I wrote to him to show to everybody.

Your cincerlly,

B Kunkiewicz[5]



While Camp Lee did not offer comprehensive English language schools, camp administrators adopted the Roberts Method for English instruction, used by the YMCA to teach “thousands of newcomers to American to speak and to read and write English.” Articles in the Trench and Camp promoted the classes:

After a course of ten lessons only, in which it is expected to teach the foreigners in camp the essentials of spoken English, ten further lessons will be given, these having been lately designed by Dr. Roberts for use in government training camps. It is the object of these to acquaint men with the A, B, C of a military vocabulary.[6]



But it wasn’t only new immigrants who needed to learn the jargon of the military. Numerous articles in the Trench and Camp defined unfamiliar terms and army slang such as bunkie, Boche, and having clicked it or being huffed,[7] as well as ammo, cootie, and zero hour.[8]  The prevalence of military jargon also provided rich material for humor— the “Camp Dictionary for Rookies” defined “Equipment” as “Something we hear a lot about but never see,” and “Red Tape” as “Signing your name nine times before you can exchange a broken shoe string.”[9]



Preparing American soldiers to learn French was taken much less seriously. Although French lessons were offered at Camp Lee, classes were small (perhaps less than fifty men seem to have attended)[10]. The newspaper printed short lessons, but these consisted of translating the words for numbers and conversational exercises on purchasing cigarettes in a shop.[11]  The American military newspaper the Stars and Stripes, offered this advice:

Throw away your ‘parley-voo’ books and forget all the French the Y.M. has been teaching you in your cantonment huts this winter.  You won’t need it.  “We have the natives so well acquainted with United States now that they understand everything we say—even when we get unduly accurate on one another’s ancestry.  Even if you do get stuck, there’s only one way to learn French—that is to talk it, and make it up as you go along.  In the course of time you’ll get at least half of what you want.”[12]

Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 08.22.26

In fact, doughboy poetry (“When Private Mugrums Parley Vous”) and popular songs of the day (such as “Oui, Oui, Marie”) suggest that American soldiers’ primary motivation for learning French was to flirt with French women – a very different type of conquest than that pursued by  General Pershing and the American top brass (a military colloquialism that may have originated in the U.S., according to the Oxford English Dictionary).


[1] “318th Regiment Primary School Wiping Out Illiteracy Among the Drafted Men in Camp Lee,” Trench and Camp, 15 Dec. 1917, p. 1.

[2]  “Library Association Is Helping to Win the War,” Trench and Camp, 24 Dec. 1917.

[3] “318th Regiment Primary School,” Trench and Camp.

[4] Richard S. Faulkner, Pershing’s Crusaders, University Press of Kansas, 2017, p. 49.

[5] B. Kunkiewicz quoted in E.V. Buckley’s “Dividends of the Melting Pot,” Business, vol. 1, no. 3, December 1919, p. 12

[6] “Learn English by Roberts Method,” Camp and Trench, 15 Oct. 1917, p. 6.

[7]  “Each Branch of U.S. Army Has a Lingo All Its Own,” Camp and Trench, 25 Feb. 1918.

[8]  “Trench Lingo,” Trench and Camp, 25 Mar. 1918, p. 3.

[9]   “Camp Dictionary for Rookies,” Trench and Camp, 25 Mar. 1918, p. 2.

[10]  “Many soldiers taking literary classes at Y 57,” Trench and Camp, 6 May 1918.

[11]  “Learn French: Lessons IX and X,” Trench and Camp, 6 May 1918.

[12]  “Earful of Suggestions for Boys Back Home,” Stars and Stripes, 22 Feb. 1918, p. 3.

For more on Connie Ruzich’s research see and

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: