Franco-American Fighters

We will wait for the Americans and the tanks.

General Philippe Petain, 1917


Today is Bastille Day.  Our relationship with our oldest ally has been frequently rocky over the years, in spite of the aid France gave us in winning our independence and the fact that the US was instrumental in saving France in two World Wars.  As we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, it is good to recall a time when French and Americans fought so closely together that at times they seemed to be one army.

By 1917 the French Army was in a mutinous state.  Millions of Frenchmen were wounded and dead with little to show for it.  Petain, the victor of Verdun, was made commander in chief of the French army.  He constantly visited units and told them that wasteful, ill-prepared offensives were a thing of the past.  Petain had enjoyed a great deal of success with intensively prepared small scale offensives where he could mass overwhelming force against a small enemy section of the immense line of trenches that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea.  He had these type of offensives on a grand scale in mind for a rejuvenated French army in 1918.  He also knew two other things:  Allied factories were beginning to produce massive amounts of tanks that could spearhead future offensives and America had entered the War:  the Yanks were coming!  At the conclusion of most of his speeches in 1917 he told his men that they would wait for the Americans and the tanks, a line that never failed to receive thunderous applause from the troops.  The average poilu was a brave man and he was willing to die, if need be, to win the War.  He was no longer willing to die in useless offensives that accomplished nothing, and Petain understood that.

American troops trickled in during 1917 and received a tumultuous reception from the French.  When Colonel Charles E. Stanton, nephew of Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, said at the tomb of Lafayette on July 4, 1917:  “Lafayette we are here!” both nations were electrified.

America sent over endless amounts of food in 1917 and 1918 that kept the French from starving.  The American Navy helped to master the U-boat threat.

By October 1917 four American divisions were deployed to France.  French combat veterans acted as instructors for the troops and much of the artillery was provided by the French.  This of course was only the first wave of millions of Americans training in the US to be shipped across the Atlantic in 1918.

The Germans realized that the Americans would shift the balance of power and launched their great offensive in March 1918.  In a series of hammer blows they drove back the British and the French with their stormtroop tactics of avoiding enemy strongpoints as they advanced, and came close to winning the War.  However, by June 10,000 American troops a day were arriving in France.  During the Second Battle of the Marne in June 1918, General Pershing allowed American troops to serve under French command.  The impact of the Americans on French units they were fighting beside was noted at the time.  The fresh American troops attacked with an elan that the French more than emulated, just as the green American troops benefited from veteran French advisors and French artillery.  The Americans and French cooperated so well, that when Pershing formed the First American Army, it was a mixed Franco-American force with assigned French divisions and supplied French artillery.

The French appreciated the heroism commonly displayed by American troops and showered military decorations upon them.  On leave, Americans typically found themselves treated with immense hospitality by French civilians, with families often treating individual American soldiers as if they were long lost sons of the family.  Even today, it is not unusual for French civilians to lay flowers upon the graves of Americans who died in the saving of France.

A largely forgotten page of history that seems fitting to recall on Bastille Day.

I have a rendezvous with Death  
At some disputed barricade,  
When Spring comes back with rustling shade  
And apple-blossoms fill the air—  
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.  
It may be he shall take my hand  
And lead me into his dark land  
And close my eyes and quench my breath—  
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death  
On some scarred slope of battered hill,  
When Spring comes round again this year  
And the first meadow-flowers appear.  
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,  
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,  
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,  
Where hushed awakenings are dear…  
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,  
When Spring trips north again this year,  
And I to my pledged word am true,  
I shall not fail that rendezvous

Alan Seeger, an American who died fighting in the French Foreign Legion during the battle of the Somme on July 4, 1916.



Published in: on July 14, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Franco-American Fighters  
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