In the Trenches and in the Sky: American Volunteers in World War I

Even though America did not officially enter the war until April 1917, from the very beginning many young Americans decided to contribute to the Allied war effort against the Central powers.

World War marks a turning point in modern U.S. history, the moment it emerged as a global power which would ultimately change the meaning and the direction of the 20th century. The choice to help France fight for liberty and democracy was not surprising given the key role France had played in the American Revolution. There were most certainly those who simply sought adventure, but underlying their engagement were shared political ideals. Many came from the cosmopolitan elite and well-educated classes. Some like the Rockwell brothers, whose grandfathers fought in the American Civil War, came to repay the debt to Lafayette and Count Rochambeau, instrumental in helping the U.S. win independence in the Revolutionary War. For the poet Alan Seeger, it was “that chance to live life most free from stain and that rare privilege of dying well.”

Many joined the French Foreign Legion while others served in the American Ambulance Field Service or as pilots in the Escadrille américaine, later known as the Lafayette Escadrille, acclaimed for their skill and courage. “When men who have no obligation to fight, who could not possibly be criticized if they did not fight, yet nevertheless decide, upon their own individual initiative, to risk their lives in defense of a cause that they hold to be dear, then we are in the presence of true heroism,” wrote General Gouraud.

The American Field Service: Volunteers in the Service to France

Most American war activities in France preceding the U.S. entry into the war began at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a rallying center near Paris where the American colony became involved in the war effort. A. Piatt Andrew, Inspector General of the hospital’s ambulance section negotiated with the French military to have ambulance units serve closer to the frontline. These units subsequently became known as the American Ambulance Field Service. They went on to participate in every major French battle, and the 2,500 American volunteers of the AFS carried ammunitions and supplies as well as more than 500,000 wounded. Members of Section Eighteen and Section Four received the French Croix de Guerre in recognition of their service at Verdun.

In addition to hundreds of American youths already in France, the service attracted and recruited volunteers through prestigious American colleges and universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and many other colleges contributed large numbers of men and vehicles. Letters and articles written by volunteers played an important role in influencing public opinion in the U.S. in taking the side of the Allies. A remarkable number of well-known authors were ambulance drivers during World War I, including Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, and Dashiell Hammett. An early appeal of the American Field Service for volunteers began with these words from French General Joffre: “The United States of America has not forgotten that the first page of their history was written with a little of the blood of France.”

The Lafayette Escadrille 

Early in World War I, Americans sympathetic to the Allied cause offered their service to France as ambulance drivers, while others fought in the trenches as members of the French Foreign Legion. A handful of these men successfully transferred to the French Aviation Service at the end of 1915 and were later joined by several Americans who enlisted as civilians. Dr. Edmund L. Gros, a medical director of the American Field Service, and Norman Prince, an American expatriate already flying for France, led the efforts to send to the front a squadron composed exclusively of American pilots. After months of deliberation by the French government, the Escadrille américaine nº124 was formed, and on April 20, 1916 placed on frontline duty at Luxeuil-les-Bains, near Switzerland. The 38 members of the Escadrille constituted the only all-American squadron of volunteers flying under the French flag. Eventually 269 aviators served France as volunteers in what came to be designated officially by the French government as the Lafayette Flying Corps, which included the Lafayette Escadrille.

Native Americans in the Trenches

As early as 1914, the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France counted amongst its members 4,000 Native Americans. Though a draft was implemented when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, Native Americans were not yet generally considered to be citizens. Nevertheless, of the more than 15,000 Native Americans that arrived in France as members of the American Expeditionary Force, a large majority were volunteers. Many saw military service in wartime as an opportunity to continue the warrior traditions of their tribes. Others sought to escape life on reservations at a time when the federal government had stepped up its program of moving land from tribal to individual status in the name of the war effort, and where boredom and disease were rampant.

The rate of death and injury amongst them was extremely high because they were often assigned dangerous scouting assignments. Many received the French Croix de Guerre for their distinguished services, for their “exceptional skills, courage, and coolness under fire.” Though not all Native Americans directly saw combat, they nonetheless fulfilled two highly important functions, both as highly qualified marksmen and as transmitters of messages. Choctaw Indians, later nicknamed Choctaw code talkers, developed a code, impossible for the Germans to decrypt, put to use shortly after the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was underway.

The last Native American veteran, a Blackfoot Indian, was awarded the Legion of Honor on February 27, 1999. He died three weeks later at 110 years of age.

Les Américains in Argonne

Beginning in March 1918 the German armies launched a series of powerful attacks along the Western Front. The last great offensive came in July, and the immediate counter-attack marked the turning point in the war. The colossal Meuse-Argonne Offensive, involving more than 1.2 million American soldiers, was the longest and the bloodiest – 26,000 dead and 95,000 wounded – single battle in U.S history. During the Hundred Days Campaign, the First Army, under General John J. Pershing’s command, with logistics and planning provided by Colonel George C. Marshall, cut off scores of German troops and critical supplies at the railroad hub of Sedan following the clearing of the Saint-Mihiel salient two weeks earlier. In concert with British and French offensives elsewhere on the Western Front, the assault through the Argonne forest was critical in breaking German resistance and bringing World War I to an end.

This article results from a partnership with the French-American Friends of the Mémorial de Verdun, a support committee gathering French and American scholars, entrepreneurs, and personalities in order to call on American donors and raise funds to finance the restoration of the Mémorial de Verdun in Northeastern France. Opened in 1967, and closed for renovation, the memorial is scheduled for reopening on the anniversary date of the Battle of Verdun, February 21, 2016.