‘ENGAGED IN GLORY ALONE’: Yanks in French Foreign Legion Were First to Fight
Three years before Doughboys hit the trenches of France, Americans were fighting and dying on the Western Front in WWI. They began their odyssey in August 1914 and fought with the legendary corps even beyond U.S. entry. By Gary Ward
It was a jubilant scene Aug. 21, 1914, in Paris. The swearing-in ceremony of the Americans into the famed French Foreign Legion (FFL) had been anxiously awaited by the American expatriates. Taking place in the courtyard of the Hotel des Invalides, the world’s oldest refuge for war veterans, seemed only appropriate.
Some 43 Yanks signed their contracts during the ceremony, eager to get a crack at the despised Germans. A newspaper ad printed two weeks before had solicited their service. Many had been living or traveling in France. A good number were of French descent. The first from America, Denis Patrick Dowd, Jr., a Columbia University graduate, sailed for Europe on Aug. 6 even before the French call to arms.
A constitutional loophole allowed the impetuous Americans to join the Legion without forfeiting their U.S. citizenship. Because they were not required to swear an oath of alle- giance to France-only to the FFL flag-they were on firm legal ground. Their enlistments were for the war’s duration and their wages 30 cents per month. By the time the Legion stopped accepting Americans into its ranks three years later on Aug. 4,1917, some 90 had taken the plunge.
NAMES OF FAME
Despite the Legion’s mercenary reputation, many of the recruits hailed from elite society. The best-known was Alan Seeger, a Harvard-educated poet then living in Paris. Edmond Genet, descended from the famed French minister to the U.S. in 1793, deserted from the U.S. Navy to join. Algernon Sartoris was the grandson of Ulysses S. Grant, William L. Brersse was a son-in-law of Hamilton Fish and William Thaw was a Pittsburgh millionaire.
Then there was the cast of characters right out of a Hollywood movie. John Bowe, a veteran of the Philippines War from Minnesota, was the only American legionnaire to fight in the Balkans, where he earned the Serbian War Cross. He also fought in France. Chicago native Joseph Phillips, a former Army sergeant in the Philippines, transferred from Tonkin (French Indochina) to France. It is safe to say he is the first American Vietnam veteran.
Former Louisiana state senator O.L. McLellan joined the Legion at age 65 after the U.S. declared war but before the FFL stopped accepting U.S. citizens. Paul Rockwell, severely wounded, stayed on to see the war through in the French army. After the war, he became the official war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News and wrote American Fighters in the French Foreign Legion, 1914-1918, which was published in 1930.
And let’s not forget Albert N. Depew, a U.S. Navy vet who wore his VFW badge next to his French War Cross. Depew fought in the vicious battle of Gallipoli in Turkey and was later captured by a German commerce raider, imprisoned and tortured.
Legion outfits consisted of marching regiments of foreign legions broken down into battalions, companies, sections and squads. Initially, the goal was to retain “American Squads,” but that soon went by the wayside as casualties mounted.
Many of the original enlistees went to Company 1, Battalion C, 2nd Marching Regiment of the 2nd Foreign Legion. Its strength was reduced by one-third by the end of the first winter. Others were placed in the American Squad (originally six Yanks), Company 2, Battalion B, 2nd Marching Regiment of the 1st Foreign Legion.
Most Americans who enlisted after August were assigned to the 3rd Marching Regiment of the 1st Foreign Legion. It was dissolved July 13, 1915, and personnel transferred to the 2nd Regiment. Legion units fought as part of the Moroccan Division.
After Legion ranks were decimated on the Champagne front, a score of Americans voluntarily transferred to the famous regular French army’s 170th Line Regiment (“Swallows of Death”) in October 1915. To confuse matters even more, the marching regiments of the 1st and 2nd Foreign legions were merged into one regiment known as the Regiment of March of the Foreign Legion on Nov. 11 ofthat same year. By 1917, most Americans were in its 10th Company.
As 1918 began, only 10 Americans in the Legion were still active on the front. On Jan. 10, they were transferred to the U.S. Army for the duration of the war.
INTO THE TRENCHES: FIRST U.S. KIA
Within a month of joining the Legion, on Sept. 12, Americans volunteered for immediate front line duty. They arrived there Oct. 2, and entered the trenches 16 days later. On Oct. 22, they came under fire for the first time at Verzenay. Americans saw their first wounded Nov. 15. Fatalities were not long in coming.
Edward Mandell Stone, a Harvard graduate who had been living in France, has the dubious distinction of being the first American killed in action in WWI. (It is possible, however, that an American who had joined the British army died before.) Stone was a member of the Machine Gun Section, Battalion C, 2nd Regiment, and had served for nearly three months under fire around Craonne, Aisne.
On Feb. 15,1915, near Craonelle, Stone was hit by shrapnel, which penetrated his left lung. Twelve days later, Feb. 27, he died in the military hospital at Romilly. The surgeon who treated him said, “You can tell his people that he always did his duty as a soldier and died like one.” Stone was cited in the French army’s Orders of the Day as a “brave legionnaire who died for France.”
The Trench and Air AssociationAmerican volunteer combatants in the French army-paid tribute at his funeral service. His parents left his remains in the French military plot in Romilly. The Harvard Crimson eulogized that he “did not hesitate to volunteer under a foreign banner and sacrifice his life for the cause he thought right.”
American legionnaires played their biggest role in the Champagne offensive. Some 50 Yanks, the largest number in any single Legion battle, fought there in September 1915. John Bowe, participant and author of Soldiers of the Legion (1918), provided a graphic description of the fighting at Navarin Farm. “The attack was carried out by seven long lines of soldiers advancing two yards apart, each line about 100 yards behind the other,” he wrote.
“The Legion had the second line. Each man did not get out two yards from the next. Frequently the other man was dead or wounded. Dead were lying so thick soldiers walked on upturned faces grazed by hob-nailed shoes. The dead lay in all directions, riddled, peppered by the 75s, mangled with high explosives, faces dried-blood, blackened.”
On the 28th, the Legion attacked a terrain feature called the “Wooden Shoe.” Of one section of 35 to 40 men, only the two Americans in it made it back to French lines. Overall, in two days, the 2nd Marching Regiment, 2nd Foreign Legion (1,600 men) lost more than 50% of its manpower.
The slaughter on the Somme in July 1916 was even more horrendous. On the 5th alone during the assault on Belloyen-Santerre, the Legion lost one-third of its total strength. Within a week, more than 50% of the regiment was dead or seriously wounded.
Americans were in a battalion commanded by a New Zealander. More Americans-nine-were killed at the Somme than in any single Legion battle. Among them was poet Alan Seeger, famous for his poem “Rendezvous with Death.”
In December 1914, Seeger had written a letter to the New York Sun describing trench life: “For the poor common soldier it is anything but romantic. His role is simply to dig himself a hole in the ground and to keep hidden in it as tightly as possible…. He is condemned to sit like an animal in its burrow and hear the shells whistle over his head and take their little daily toll from his comrades.”
Though wounded in February 1915, Seeger rejoined his regiment in May 1916. While leading a bayonet attack on July 5, he was mowed down by German machine-gun fire. His death was especially keenly felt. Seeger had said, “It is for glory alone that I engaged” in the cause of France.
COMMEMORATING THE SACRIFICES
Americans in the Legion were dwindling rapidly. And they were still dying after America entered the war. Frank E. Whitmore was KIA in April 1917. The last American legionnaire to die was Ivan Nock of Baltimore. He stayed in the Legion because “I’m pretty sure no U.S. regiment will ever be as distinguished as the Foreign Legion. Besides, I’m beginning to think I’m a Frenchman.”
Shot in the head near Rheims on April 20,1917, he displayed unusual coolness. According to his French Cross of War citation, Nock, just after shooting his fifth German, cried: “T will not leave the field until I have killed my sixth Boche!’ He kept his word.” Miraculously, he lived to fight another day, but only to die nine months later. He fell mortally wounded on Jan. 8,1918,
Of the 90 Americans who fought in the French Foreign Legion during WWI, 38 were killed in action or died of wounds-a 42% fatality rate. The 52 survivors were each wounded one to four times. As an aside, Denis Dowd, the first American to leave the States to join the Legion, was severely wounded Oct. 19, 1915. Tragically, he died in an aircraft training accident Aug. 11,1916.
Virtually every American legionnaire was decorated for bravery. Eight received the Cross of the Legion of Honor, 21 the Military Medal, 52 the War Cross and 100 were cited in the Orders of the Day for gallantry. Charles Sweeney, a West Point graduate, was awarded both the Legion of Honor and Cross of War.
Eternally grateful, the French people commemorated them with the Monument to the American Volunteers Who Fell for France. Unveiled on the United States Plaza in Paris on July 4, 1923, it is a heartfelt tribute. U.S. Ambassador Myron T. Herrick praised the “handful of young Americans … burning with patriotic zeal…” it honors.
The monument is crowned by a statue of an American volunteer. Verses from Seeger’s poems are engraved on the sides of the pedestal. The names of American legionnaires and aviators killed are inscribed on the plinth (sub-base).
As for the Legion as a whole, it ended WWI as the second-most (one award short of being first) decorated regiment in the French army. Of the 42,883 legionnaires who served on the Western Front, more than 30,000 (4,116 KIA)-70%were killed or wounded.
A constitutional loophole allowed the impetuous Americans to join the Legion without forfeiting their U.S. citizenship. Because they were not required to swear an oath of alle- giance to France-only to the FFL flag-they were on firm legal ground. FIRST U.S. KIA Within a month of joining the Legion, on Sept. 12, Americans volunteered for immediate front line duty. According to his French Cross of War citation, Nock, just after shooting his fifth German, cried: “T will not leave the field until I have killed my sixth Boche!’ He kept his word.”
Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States