“Of the remarkable men that formed the American vanguard in the Great War, seven in particular stand out.”
By David Hanna
IN AUGUST, 1914, a small, but committed, group of Americans offered their services to the French army. General Alexander von Kluck’s German troops were then advancing through Belgium and set to descend on Paris. Many of the Americans had lived in the city before the war: aspiring writers, poets, and painters mostly. To a man they felt a strong sense of obligation to help defend France in her hour of greatest need. However, there were others who booked passage on trans-Atlantic steamers to reach the war. These Americans were motivated by an historical and ideological understanding of America’s responsibilities in the coming struggle – in this, they were far ahead of most of their countrymen. The French Foreign Legion provided a vehicle for the Americans to join the fight without renouncing their U.S. citizenship. Even then la Légion enjoyed a certain dark mystique. The volunteers would eventually see combat in some of the bloodiest battles of World War One in Artios and Champagne in 1915; at Verdun and the Somme in 1916; and also in the skies with the Lafayette Escadrille. Of these remarkable men that formed the American vanguard in the Great War, seven in particular stand out.
An American in Paris
Alan Seeger was a Harvard-educated poet who had been living in the City of Light since 1912. For him, Paris was everything and more. It was part playground, part muse, and the place we had forged the strongest social bonds of his life with his fellow youthful American expatriates. His set included wealthy “blue bloods,” tramps, and professional boxers. This was their fight. Seeger could never understand why President Woodrow Wilson failed to seethe obvious – that Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany was an enemy equally to both democracy and culture, and must be stopped at any cost.
Sons of the South
Kiffin Rockwell and his brother, Paul, were the grandsons of Civil War veteran Enoch Shaw Ayres, who had served under Robert E. Lee. The Rockwell brothers had grown up in the “New South” but had imbibed the stories of the old south from their Confederate grandfather. Kiffin, in particular, was a restless soul, but an excellent shot, accomplished rider, and powerful swimmer. He became bored with his studies (with the exception of history), but as a tall, square-jawed, blue-eyed gentleman was socially in demand. But like Sir Lancelot in the old Arthurian myth, Rockwell was looking for a quest worthy of his efforts. Already inspired by the short stories of Guy de Maupassant that depicted the German invaders of the earlier 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War as rapacious brutes, Rockwell found his worthy cause in fighting the German invaders of 1914.
For Freedom and Equality
Bob Scanlon could be excused for thinking the “New South” looked a lot like the Old South. As an African-American male from Mobile, Alabama, Scanlon’s options in life were limited at best, at worst, the threat of being mobbed and lynched were never far from the surface. But unlike most of his fellow blacks at the time, he found a way out. Scanlon followed in the wake of the first black star athlete, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and made a career for himself as a professional boxer. Making his way across the Atlantic in the years before the war, he fought in both London and Paris. It was in Paris, in fact, that Scanlon first experienced the type of freedom and opportunity denied him at home. When the call to arms came, he remembered his debt to France, and heeded it.
David King and Victor Chapman were both ex-Harvard mates of Alan Seeger. But unlike Seeger they were both scions of great fortunes, the bluest of “blue bloods.” Yet the silk-stocking social set back home interested them not at all. King wanted to write the great American novel. Instead he found his way into the Paris demi-monde and a bottle of Pernod. Chapman was a gentle giant who as a boy, after seeing his brother drown before his eyes, spent the rest of his life trying to help others, even at great risk to himself. Officially studying to become an architect, Chapman was never happier than with his box of paints, a sketch pad, and a bit of charcoal wandering around Paris or the French countryside. Chapman, like both Kiffin Rockwell, and his fellow Ivy Leaguer, William Thaw, would finally find his true element in the gauzy skies over the Vosges and Verdun.
William Thaw came from as great, or perhaps an even greater, fortune than David King or Victor Chapman. Thaw dropped out of Yale to pursue a career full time in aviation. This was a time when flying was still very much in its infancy (the Wright brothers pioneering flight had occurred just ten years before, in 1903). In 1913, Thaw and a co-pilot flew a flying boat under the four main bridges that then spanned the East River connecting Long Island to Manhattan. This dangerous and attention-grabbing stunt placed Thaw’s name in the consciousness of the international fraternity that then existed among airmen. He was in France in 1914 trying to convince the French army to purchase a stabilizing device his brother had invented. Thaw was a playboy of the first order, not known for being earnest about… anything, except perhaps flying. But in August, 1914 even Thaw had to admit that somebody had to take a stand against the Kaiser. He did.
John “Jack” Bowe was a forty-five-year-old husband, father of four, Spanish-American War veteran, and ex-mayor of Canby, Minnesota when he volunteered to serve with French army. He was the most unlikely of volunteers, but perhaps the most committed to the cause they all believed they were fighting for: “for civilization.”
David Hanna is the author of Rendezvous with Death: The Americans Who Joined the Foreign Legion in 1914 to Fight for France and for Civilization. He was raised on the coast of Maine. He teaches history at Stuyvesant High School in New York, and is an adjunct instructor at NYU.