An American Dies in the Battle of the Somme 100 Years Ago
By Adam Bieniek and Kate Lyons
One hundred years ago this month, one of the bloodiest battles in history began near the Somme River in France. In July of 1916, the United States had not yet officially entered World War I, but that did not stop some Americans from joining the Allied cause. One such volunteer, Alan Seeger, would pay the ultimate price during the first week of this carnage.
Alan Seeger was born on June 22nd, 1888, in New York, although he and his family moved frequently. He was accepted to Harvard University in 1906, where he was classmates with several well-known American poets and authors such as T.S. Elliott and Walter Lippman. After graduating from Harvard, Seeger moved to Paris in 1912 and fell in love with his new home. This love eventually roused him to join the French Foreign Legion on August 24, 1914, soon after the outbreak of World War I.
Seeger was an advocate for American involvement in the War, and even wrote to his mother on one occasion, “there should really be no neutrals in a conflict like this, where there is not a people whose interests are not involved.” He wrote the famous poem, “Rendezvous with Death” during his time in the French Foreign Legion. This poem would decades later become one of President John F. Kennedy’s favorites.
By the time he put pen to paper for these immortal verses, his unit had already participated in one major offensive in Champagne, France, in September 1915. This poem shows Seeger’s desire for a glorious death in service of the home he had come to love so much. This attitude was further echoed in his letters home, one of which reads, “I expect to march right up the Aisne borne on an irresistible [spirit]. It will be the greatest moment of my life.”
Seeger would have his own rendezvous with death one hundred years ago this month, on July 4, 1916, during the first week of the Battle of the Somme. While his comrades assaulted the German-occupied town of Belloy-en-Santerre, Seeger was shot several times by enemy machine guns. At the time of his death, he was cheering on his fellow soldiers.
However, while his life ended, his work certainly did not. He would later go on to become one of the most renowned poets of the First World War, and his work continues to be popular even to this day. Even his likeness is immortalized, as his picture was the inspiration behind the French memorial to all American volunteers in World War I in Place des Etats-Unis. His name, along with the 23 other Americans who were killed in the ranks of the French Foreign Legion, are inscribed on the memorial.
The Battle of the Somme would rage for four months, and by its end in November of 1916, over one million Allied and German soldiers would perish. On the first day alone, July 1, 1916, roughly 20,000 British soldiers were killed, making it one of the worst tragedies in British military history. Despite the devastation, neither side would gain a tactical advantage. Nine months after Seeger’s sacrifice, the rest of the United States would follow his example by officially joining the War on April 6, 1917.
Adam Bieniek and Kate Lyons are 2016 Summer Interns at the World War One Centennial Commission.