Four Questions for author Patrick Gregory
• Tell us briefly about your book, and about the story of Arthur Kimber. Who was he?
An American on the Western Front is a narrative history written around the letters of a young US serviceman in WWI who carried the first official US Government flag to the Western Front in 1917.
The letters of Arthur Clifford Kimber, a student at Stanford University, allow us a unique glimpse of the war from an American perspective, chronicling the war as a young man lived it – and died in it – spanning the year and a half of America’s involvement from spring 1917 until autumn 1918.
The narrative anchors Kimber’s personal story within the overall political and military context of the war, the two running in parallel. But it is the first-hand account of his experiences of war in all its myriad forms – bravery and boredom, horror and fun, selflessness and everyday personal frictions – which form the driving force. A 21 and 22-year old growing up in the most unusual of theatres.
• What did the government flag mean to people of that time, and especially for that time juncture during the war?
The various ceremonies which Kimber took part in with the flag – where the flag was handed over in the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, paraded down Fifth Avenue in New York and then presented in front of cameras on the front in France – bear testimony to how significantly people regarded the event at the time.
Especially given President Wilson’s efforts up to this point in attempting to retain America’s neutrality, this symbol of the United States’ new readiness to engage in the war in France was a momentous event: a country stepping onto the global stage for the first real time as a political, diplomatic and military power.
• How did you find out about this remarkable story?
This is actually a family archive. My co-author in this, Elizabeth Nurser, is originally from California and Kimber was her uncle. Elizabeth – my mother-in-law – came to Britain as a Fulbright scholar in the 1950s and has remained here in the UK since. (I am a journalist, former managing editor of BBC Political Programmes).
The letters, photographs and sketches Kimber left behind – along with a slim volume about his journey to France which was written two years after the war, The First Flag – formed part of a legacy which was often discussed in family circles. But one which had, in recent decades, largely been ignored: boxes which had been moved from pillar to post, stored in basements, attics and garages in America and Britain.
As the Centennial approached, Elizabeth and I decided that the time had come to do something about it. We realised that what Kimber had left behind was valuable. Valuable because it formed such a complete archive. Written at a rate of two or three per week every week over an 18-month period – the period shadowing that of America’s participation in the war – the long and detailed letters gave us a window through which we might look at the time. It was a window through which we could see the world as he saw it. Follow his personal story but also see public events as they unfolded, to follow moments in history big and small.
The letters he penned recorded his progress across America, followed his passage by heavily armed steamship across the Atlantic to Liverpool. They detailed his journey through England and France, with vivid pictures of war-time London and Paris, and eventually to his presentation of the flag on the front 50 miles south of Verdun. But they also went on to chart his life throughout the course of the war as he served first as an ambulancier – an American ambulance driver seconded to French forces – and as he trained to be a pilot and then served in fighter squadrons with both the early U.S. Air Service and the French Air Service.
• World War I is not remembered in the same way stateside as it is in Europe, or in your home in the UK. What would you say to Americans about World War I?
What I would say to an American audience is that 2017 is a truly momentous event for America.
Often overlooked – something of a Cinderella figure in the pantheon of America’s conflicts – people neglect the First World War at their peril. The United States’ participation in the war was a coming of age for the country and I believe 1917 should be regarded as the real starting point of the American Century. We can learn a lot from America’s participation in the war not only in historical terms, but in terms of how the United States interacts with its global neighbours in the 21st century.
The recent 100 Cities/100 Memorials initiative by the Centennial Commission and the Pritzker Military Museum & Library is an important one in this respect. In restoring the monuments and memorials to the period they hope not only to honour the names of those who served, but also to help raise awareness of the conflict as a crucially important event in modern American history, representing as it did the first real time the United States had operated on the global stage in a full military and political capacity. Even the casualty rate suffered by American forces in France in 1917 and 1918 sets it apart from most other conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved, with some 115,000 dead and 375,000 injured in the short period of involvement – more than died in the Korean and Vietnam wars combined. The giant American military cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, final resting place of nearly 15,000 souls, is sobering testimony to that.