Review of: Rendezvous with Death: The Americans Who Joined the Foreign Legion in 1914 to Fight for France and for Civilization
Author: David Hanna
Publisher: Regnery Books
The world has been marking centennial milestones of the First World War for the past few years. So it’s fitting that this final post for February 2017 falls in the centennial month in which the United States received the infamous Zimmermann telegram, the piece of paper that finally propelled it into the Great War. It was, however, a war some Americans had already been fighting for years.
In his 2016 volume, Rendezvous with Death: The Americans Who Joined the Foreign Legion in 1914 to Fight for France and for Civilization, author David Hanna uses many first-hand accounts, including the soldiers’ letters and memoirs, to put human faces on the mechanized horror of 20th century warfare.
Although there would be more American volunteers later, and at least three Americans were already serving in the Foreign Legion as mercenaries, Hanna’s narrative concentrates on the few dozen original enlistees who on August 25, 1914, marched to the train that would take them to the Legion’s training center. Two of them, poet Alan Seeger and Franco-American big game hunter René Phelizot, took turns carrying the procession’s huge American flag. Crowds gathered to see them off, throwing chocolates and flowers. Pretty girls offered kisses. Few would survive the fighting that would stagger on for more than four more years.
They were a motley crew -- artists, students, dreamers, and the occasional prize fighter – united only by their nationality and love of France.
The Foreign Legion didn’t know what to make of them. Its soldiers, foreign volunteers serving under French officers, were typically “men running from something – perverts, deserters, thugs, and worse. The discipline was severe; the conditions often harsh,” Hanna writes. “No one with better options sign up for the Legion.” Until the Americans arrived.
Unlike the regular French forces, the Legion’s soldiers pledged allegiance only to their unit, not to France, which allowed the Americans to join without forfeiting their citizenship. It was in the Legion that the recruits got their first taste of war in the fall of 1914, encountering the Great War’s legendary mud – “so thick it would pull the boots off one’s feet” with “a stench putrid and obscene.” And that the first of them died.
More battles would follow – at Artois, Verdun, the Somme. As the volunteers’ numbers dwindled, another fighting venue opened – in the sky – where they ultimately formed the famous Lafayette Escadrille. One of them, Eugene Bullard, would become the first black American fighter pilot. But while the French saw American airmen as publicity tools to encourage American intervention in the war, Germany considered them blatant violators of America’s vaunted neutrality.
The U.S., however, did not enter the war until spring 1917, and then not through the efforts of the American volunteers but through the fatal telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to Mexico, offering an alliance with Germany to help reconquer its former territory in the U.S.
U.S. entry came too late for poet Alan Seeger, who helped Phelizot carry the American flag across Paris in August 1914, and who had been frustrated ever since by his country’s failure to aid the Allies. On the afternoon of July 4, 1916, Seeger advanced with his fellow legionnaires on German trenches. In his most famous poem, he had written, “I have a rendezvous with Death, at some disputed barricade. . . ” That day he kept his rendezvous.
He and the other volunteers would leave behind an America that first fought for, then turned its back on European wars, leaving their idealism passe, as Hanna writes. But France was saved – until the next time.