Doughboys and Sammies

Jonathon Green, ever generous in passing on information relevant to this project, alerts us to a column by Damon Runyon in the Pittsburgh Daily Post, 25 July 1917, concerning the origin and validity of the various nicknames given to American soldiers in the First World War These included ‘Sammies’, ‘Doughboys’, and ‘Teddies’, the last deriving from Theodore Roosevelt. Runyon’s historical perspective points out that in 1898, when the US was engaged in a colonial war against Spain, one name used was ‘Jonny Green’, though he did not know why; ‘the fact that the average reader probably never heard of the title as applied to our soldiers shows how successful was the attempt, yet it was frequently used in many newspapers for a spell’, a trope that applied equally during the First World War. The newspapers themselves were certainly aware of what was happening: the Scottish Daily Record for 12 June 1917 carried a syndicated story that stated ‘Our own troops arebound give their Transatlantic colleagues a nickname; but whether the one suggested will meet with their approval remains to seen.’ Other syndicated articles around the time reckoned that ‘it was generally agreed that the old name of the Regular infantryman, Doughboy, would fail to carry any conviction’. The journalists were said to be ‘casting around’ for a name, and ‘Sammy’, presumably from Uncle Sam, was their choice.‘Sammy’ is described by Runyon as a name that ‘evolved after profound thought’, noting that names that tend to stick are ‘extemporaneous’ – Runyon himself in The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown (1933), the basis of Guys and Dolls had some good ones: ‘The Sky’ (later Sky Masterson), Brandy Bottle Bates, Dobber. Punch on 13 June 1917 claimed to be proposing the name ‘Sammy’, though the Sheffield Evening Telegraph (12 March 1918) reckoned that ‘They [the soldiers] do not know what the word means’;  E. T. Cook in Literary Recreations, (1918),  noted that the New York Sun urged that the American soldier’s nickname ‘must be Teddy’. For Runyon the name ‘doughboy’ was the obvious name, and one that he believed was in wide use, and not resented. He had heard of the use of the term ‘wagon soldier’ for field artillerymen, and ‘flapper’ for aviators. ‘Doughboys’ is supposed to come from the shape of the buttons on the soldiers’ uniforms, or connected ideas – see Notes and Queries November 1918 carried a letter from ‘ATM’ supporting the idea of ‘doughboy’ as a name given by American cavalrymen to the infantry.


‘Tommy’ was resented by many British soldiers, as pointed out in Words and the First World War, who were more likely to address each other as ‘Bill’ or ‘chum’ (‘chum’ rather than ‘mate’); the lengthy article and glossary compiled by A Forbes Sieveking in Notes and Queries published on 29 October 1921 included ‘Erb. Substitute used when a man’s Christian name is not known’. Now more or less ignored in First World War mythology, ‘Erb appears frequently in wartime memoirs; Ian Hay has an ‘Erb who is killed while playing cards in the trenches (Carrying On – After the First Hundred Thousand, 1917); Ward Muir in Observations of an Orderly (1917) has “Same ol’ ‘Erb”; and Songs & Sonnets for England in War Time (1914) has both ‘Erbert and ‘Erb in the poem ‘The Vindication’ by Philip Bussy, which ends:


So, ‘Erb, my hero, march along and win :

The God of Wars stand by you !


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