Prologue Magazine

They Answered the Call

Military Service in the United States Army During World War I, 1917–1919

Fall 1998, Vol. 30, No. 3 | Genealogy Notes

By Mitchell Yockelson


November 11, 1998, marks the eightieth anniversary of the armistice ending World War I. For Americans it is time to reflect upon the contributions made by their forebears in helping to end the deadliest conflict the world had then known. After remaining neutral for three years, the United States reluctantly entered what was supposed to be "The War to End All Wars." By declaring war on April 17, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson committed the nation to join the other Allied countries in their efforts to defeat the Central Powers.

When the war ended, more than four million "Doughboys"(1) had served in the United States Army with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Half of those participated overseas. According to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, "over 25 per cent of the entire male population of the country between the ages of 18 and 31 were in military service."(2) Previously unknown places such as Belleau Wood, Meuse-Argonne, and Saint Mihiel were etched into the minds of Americans through newspaper reports of battles. Although the United States participated in the conflict for less than two years, it was a costly event. More than 100,000 Americans lost their lives during this period. Secretary of War Baker reflected upon this when he stated that "while we rejoice that our losses were no heavier we still bear in mind the thousands of homes throughout the country upon which the heavy burden of war has fallen. To these homes the Nation owes a debt of fullest gratitude. From them has sprung unbounded courage to face hardships, heroic strength in battle, the Nation's power to right the wrongs of selfish despotism."(3)

The United States was almost completely unprepared to participate in the war. The manpower and supplies needed to field an expeditionary force were at their lowest numbers since the Civil War. Fresh from chasing Pancho Villa during the Punitive Expedition in Mexico (See Prologue, Fall and Winter 1997), the strength of the United States Army in April 1917 was about 200,000, 80,000 of whom served in National Guard units. Even though the National Defense Act of 1916 provided for the gradual expansion of the regular army and reserves, the United States was forced to build an army based on volunteer enlistments and the draft. More than 24 million men registered for the draft, and almost 2.7 million men were furnished to the U.S. Army by conscription. The number of volunteer enlistments was slightly over 300,000.(4)

Two previous "Genealogy Notes," Michael Knapp's "World War I Service Records" (Fall 1990) and, with Constance Potter, "Here Rests in Honored Glory: World War I Graves Registration" (Summer 1991), described the complications of searching for personnel files in the custody of the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) because of the devastating fire there in 1973. They presented ideas on how to utilize a few of the valuable sources in the National Archives, such as the burial files and the troop ship manifests, as alternatives to the lost service records.

The 1973 fire destroyed U.S. Army personnel records created from 1912 to 1963, but it did not damage U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps personnel files. While the fire left a tremendous gap in locating personnel information, the gap may be partially filled in through other extant records. This issue of "Genealogy Notes" goes beyond the scope of the previous articles by exploring a selection of the vast number of additional World War I records in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). These records often provide clues to personnel serving in a variety of capacities in the U.S. Army during World War I. Conducting research in the records described in this article is sometimes a very labor-intensive and time-consuming procedure but, in the opinion of this author, is a task that has the potential for rewarding results.

A basic knowledge of the person's service is essential for a search of the records. For example, if the individual you are researching served in a field-level unit (e.g., cavalry, infantry, field artillery, machine gun battalion), it would be helpful to know the company, troop, or battery to which he was assigned. Often this information can be located from family records like discharge papers or, if the person is deceased, an obituary. Some state agencies such as archives, libraries, or adjutant general's offices maintain records of enlistment for individuals serving from their particular state.

National Guard unit records are not federal records but are in the custody of state repositories. The Genealogist's Address Book, by Elizabeth Petty Bently (Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1995) lists many of these repositories. Researchers should also contact a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) office in their vicinity to determine if a World War I veteran received a pension or other government benefits.

Without the most basic of information (soldier's full name and the organization in which he served), a search among the unit records will be cumbersome and probably unsuccessful. An indispensable guide to understanding the organization of the War Department during World War I is the Order of Battle of the United States Land Forces in the World War, 1917-19 (Washington, DC, 1949). This four-volume work includes a list of all units that were organized during World War I; a list of all camps, posts, and stations along with the units assigned to these reservations; and a records of events for each corps, army, and division serving overseas. It may be available at a federal depository library.

The following descriptions are designed to provide researchers with information on a selection of documents that may contain information on World War I personnel. By no means is this a complete listing of all World War I records in NARA's custody. The majority of the documents are found in the Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I) (Record Group 120) and the Records of U.S. Army Mobile Units, 1821-1942 (Record Group 391). Other record groups that may contain useful documentation are also cited.

Fighting in Argonne Forest
American gunners battle through the Argonne Forest.
(NARA, 111-SC-95980)


According to Secretary of War Baker, "one of the most serious problems confronting the War Department in April 1917, was the procurement of sufficient officers to fill the requirements of the divisions that were to be formed for overseas duty."(5) To alleviate the problem, the War Department established a number of training camps for qualified candidates at various military posts, colleges, and universities. To accommodate the large number of African Americans qualified for officers' commissions, a special school for black officers was established at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, that graduated 639 students.(6) Documentation on all of the officers' training schools and some of the personnel in attendance is found among entries 407-415 in the Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs (Record Group 165).

If an officer was commissioned in the regular army prior to World War I, a service record should exist in the National Personnel Records Center. The National Archives also holds a number of records and published sources that provide information on regular army officers. The most likely source for personnel information is the general correspondence (document files), entry 25, in the Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917 (Record Group 94). For a brief summary of service of a regular army officer, the Registers of the United States Army are an excellent source. For information on both regular and National Army(7) officers, the series "Commission of Officers" in the regular army, National Guard, and Officer Reserve Corps, 1917-1940, in the Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1917- (Record Group 407) is a good source. Strength returns for World War I, arranged by unit, in Record Group 407 include a roster of officers.

Enlisted Men

Documentation on enlisted personnel is more difficult to locate among the records than that for officers. The best places to look are the correspondence and special orders in the Records of U.S. Army Mobile Units, 1821-1942 (Record Group 391). The organizational records are arranged by unit designation: cavalry (entry 2122), infantry (entry 2133), field artillery (entry 2118), engineer (entry 2124), and coast artillery (entries 2100 and 2101). The documents first contain documents created at the unit level, then include documents created by the smaller component (company, battery, troop, etc.). Normally in front of each series of correspondence are register books that are organized alphabetically by name or subject. A document number refers to a specific piece of correspondence.

Usually in the last boxes of records in a series are special orders that authorize a soldier to wear a Wound Chevron. The Wound Chevron special orders are usually organized by company, troop, battery, etc., and include a soldier's name, type of wound, and date of wound.

List of wounded
Reports on Casualties, or Wound Chevron special orders, can provide valuable military service information, including types of injuries and location of service. (NARA, Records of the U.S. Regular Army Mobile Units, 1821-1942, RG 391)


African Americans made a significant contribution to the United States Army during World War I, and they are well documented among several different series in Record Groups 120 and 391. Although the military was segregated at this time, two all-black divisions, the Ninety-second and Ninety-third, played prominent roles in the defeat of the Central Powers. More than 200,000 African Americans served with the AEF.(8) The majority served in quartermaster labor units, entries 1262-1294 in Record Group 120 and entries 2141 and 2160 in Record Group 391. Pioneer Infantry Regiments (troops employed in building roads, digging trenches, and other construction projects) consisted almost entirely of African Americans and are documented in entry 1255 of Record Group 120.


To identify record series for units not mentioned in this article, researchers should consult the preliminary inventories to Record Groups 120 and 391 in the National Archives Central Research Room or in the consulting office of the Old Army and Civil Records Branch (NWCTB).

Air Service

The United States Army did not begin operating an independent air service until April 1918. At that time the air service consisted of only three squadrons for use in the front lines. By the time of the November 11, 1918, armistice, forty-five American squadrons, consisting of 740 planes, were operating. A total of 7,726 officers and 70,769 men served in the air service. Documentation on personnel serving in the air service is normally found among the rosters included in Gorrell's History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919, entry 644, Record Group 120. This history has been microfilmed by NARA on fifty-eight rolls as publication M990 and is available for examination in the Microfilm Research Room at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., or for purchase from the National Archives Trust Fund.(9) Also, among the Records of the Army Air Forces (Record Group 18), entries 767A-767II contain correspondence on various units of the air service during World War I. It is possible to locate a roster, letter, or special order pertaining to an individual among this series. The documents are arranged in numerical order by aero squadron or other organizational unit of the air service. Casualty lists for air service personnel are found in entry 569, Record Group 120.

Marine Corps

On May 17, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson directed the secretary of the navy to "issue the necessary orders for service with the Army a force of Marines."(10) The force eventually consisted of the Fifth and Sixth U.S. Marines, who were attached to the Second Division. More than nine thousand officers and men served overseas in France.(11) Muster rolls (entry 101), enlistment cards (entry 75), and casualty cards (entries 74, 97, and 107) are in the Records of the United States Marine Corps (Record Group 127). Compiled casualty lists are in the Second Division historical files, entry 1241, Record Group 120. There is not a series of unit records, similar to those in Record Group 391, that provides correspondence or special orders relating to individuals. The Marine Corps personnel records are among the holdings of the National Personnel Records Center and were not affected by the 1973 fire.


Although researchers are given no assurances of locating information on a World War I veteran when exploring the records cited in this article, they are at least guaranteed to come away with a better understanding of the conflict in which their ancestors served. Unfortunately, the Great War was only a precursor to an even costlier conflict little more than twenty years later. Researchers wishing to learn additional information on the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration should consult the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States (1995). Further information on World War I records may be obtained by writing to the Old Army and Civil Records Branch (NWCTB), 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001. To request a search of personnel records in the National Personnel Records Center, you will need a Standard Form 180, "Request Pertaining to Military Records." Copies of the form are available from the center at 8600 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63132, or from the Web site


1. The definition of the term "Doughboy" has a number of variations. One definition states that the term goes back to the Civil War, "when the cavalry derided foot soldiers as doughboys, perhaps because their globular buttons resembled flour dumplings or because soldiers used flour to polish their white belts" Smithsonian (April 1998): 22. Laurence Stallings, in his book, The Doughboys (New York, 1963, p. 15), claims that "there can be little dispute as to the derivation of the name. In Texas, U.S. Infantry along the Rio Grande were powdered white with the dust of adobe soil, and hence were called 'adobes' by mounted troops. It was a short step to 'dobies' and then, by metathesis, the word was Doughboys."

2. War Department, Annual Report of the Secretary of War for the Fiscal Year, 1918, Vol. 1 (1918) p. 11.

3. Ibid.

4. John Whiteclay Chambers II, To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America(1987), p. 186.

5. War Department, Annual Report of the Secretary of War for the Fiscal Year, 1918, Vol. 1 (1918), p. 17.

6. Edward M. Coffman, The War To End All Wars (1968), p. 231.

7. The "National Army" is defined by John J. Pershing in his book My Experiences in the World War (1931), Vol. 1, p. 130: "In the organization of our armies for the World War it was evident that if any considerable numbers were to be sent abroad, an additional force would be needed over and above the Regular Army and National Guard. The War Department therefore established what was called the National Army, to be composed principally of men who were to come into the service through the draft."

8. Coffman, The War To End All Wars, p. 231.

9. Microfilm may be purchased:

FREE Publication FREE publications:
National Archives and Records Administration
Archives I Research Support Branch
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408-0001

866-272-6272 (toll-free)
or 202-357-5332

A free descriptive pamphlet for M990 may be requested from the Product Development and Distribution Staff (NWCP), Room G7, National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001.

10. President Woodrow Wilson to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, May 27, 1917, #28790-3, entry 19b, General Correspondence of the Secretary of the Navy, Record Group 80, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

11. Coffman, The War To End All Wars, p. 152

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.