Five Questions for David Hanna
"The volunteers' commitment to the cause they were defending rarely, if ever, wavered."
Before America joined World War I, a small group of Americans volunteered for the French Foreign Legion to help defeat the Central Powers. In his book Rendezvous with Death, historian David Hanna profiles seven of these volunteers: a poet, an artist, a boxer, a stunt pilot, a college student, a veteran of the Spanish American War, and an advertising executive. All seven men were united in courage; and some, like poet Alan Seeger, paid the ultimate sacrifice. Now Hanna has built a section about The American Volunteers of 1914 on the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission web site. The Rendezvous with Death site provides additional information, from both American and international sources, about the Volunteers. We talked to David about his book, the new site, what he learned personally while researching the volunteers.
Tell us about your book, RENDEZVOUS WITH DEATH, on which your new web site is based. It has a truly unique World War I topic.
My book focuses on the original group of American volunteers in the French army in 1914. I found my way to this topic when doing some exploratory research on a book on the Lafayette Escadrille. What intrigued me most was the story of the pilots that had originally served in the trenches, on the ground, in the French Foreign legion before taking to the air. I was also drawn to the stories of those of their original comrades who did not join the air service. There was something pure, for lack of a better way of putting it, about their motives and their sacrifice. They truly believed - even the most hard-boiled and/or jaded among them - that this cause was a worthy one, that they were fighting "For Civilization" ( the original title of my book, by the way - dropped because it wasn't considered marketable enough...).
I also have a strong personal connection to the war, as my maternal grandfather, John Elco, served in France in 1918 with the Keystone Division and the 19th Engineers. We were close when I was a boy. He instilled in me a love of history that has persisted throughout my life.
Who were these American men who enlisted with the French Foreign Legion? Where did they come from? Where they running to the war, or running away from something? Why did they join FFL instead of an American military service?
A majority of them were expats, living in Paris when the war broke out. Some were from wealthy backgrounds, others, humble. Some black, some white. Artists, writers, poets, posers, boxers - they all had found something living abroad, living in Paris, that spoke to them. When their French counterparts in the cafes got their call-up papers, and headed to the Front, many felt they owed something and joined them.
There were others, smaller in number, who felt that France's cause was noble and Germany was a bully. They booked passage on their own to France, and joined the Legion too. Probably the most famous of these were the Rockwell brothers, Paul and Kiffin. Kiffin would go on to become one of the founding members of the Lafayette Escadrille.
The reason they joined the Foreign Legion was because it was the only outfit that would allow them to serve while retaining their U.S. citizenship. With Wilson firmly opposed to intervention in the war, the only way to come to France's aid was to do so directly. But they were the trailblazers. The hundreds of thousands of their countrymen that would follow in 1917-1918, were walking in their footsteps.
Who was the FFL of that time? How were the FFL troops employed by the French military of the time? Were they well-trainined, well-led? Were they treated as regulars, or as conscripts, or as reserve backfill soldiers? Were they respected? Had the FFL been involved in combat before the Great War erupted?
The Foreign Legion already had acquired a certain dark mystique by that time. They fought France's wars of empire - a bloody business - and were expendable because they weren't citizens of the French republic. Their officers, however, were French, and expected uncomplaining loyalty and professionalism, even the face of the greatest hardship. It was a tough band of mercenaries, many with murky even criminal pasts.
Their specialty was on the attack. The Legion, and the larger Moroccan Division of which it was a part, were not known for defense. Thus, the Americans that enlisted in the Legion fought in some of the largest (and bloodiest) offensives of the war in Artois, Champagne, and at the Somme.
How did you discover these stories? Have these stories been told before? How are these Americans, and the FFL troops in World War I remembered in France? How was their war experience different from that of the Americans in the CEF, BEF, or AEF?
There were five of the original volunteers whose letters, journals, and/or memoirs were published during or shortly after the war, that were my core source material. Paul Rockwell's "American Fighters in the Foreign Legion" (1930) also was invaluable, as were the many newspaper articles in both English and French written about the volunteers. In terms of secondary sources, I found Herbert Molloy Mason's "The Lafayette Escadrille (1964) and Georges Blond's "Verdun" (1961) to be particularly insightful.
The Lafayette Eacadrille's story has been told, in both books and in film, on a number of occasions (including two recent titles published in 2015). Also, some of the individual volunteers, such as poet Alan Seeger, have had biographies written about their lives. But, in terms of focusing just on those original volunteers of 1914, solely, as a group, my book is the first of its kind.
In France (as I encountered during my time there) the French people to this day are mindful of, and grateful for, the American volunteers' service and sacrifice. It was quite moving. I think the little village school named for Alan Seeger in Belloy-en-Santerre moved me the most.
What did you learn through your research process? What resonated with you, or surprised you about these people, what they were asked to do, and what they did?
I wasn't quite prepared for how gruesome it all was. David King's memoir, in particular, was at times difficult to read. Even though I teach about World War I, I was caught a little off guard. It wasn't just what the war did to these people physically, but also how it brutalized their souls. One volunteer in particular that comes to mind is Victor Chapman. He was an artist, and the ugliness that was ever present in the trenches deeply affected him. And yet, the volunteers' commitment to the cause they were defending rarely, if ever, wavered. I find them admirable.