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Recalling the American volunteers in the Battle of Verdun

This week marks the centennial of the Battle of Verdun, which began February 21st, 1916, and ran for 303 days. Verdun became one of the longest and costly battles in human history. In the battle, some 800,000 people were killed, wounded, or were declared missing.

American volunteers at Verdun 1The United States did not declare its participation in the Great War until 1917, however some unofficial assistance from was already being provided for the Allies by the start of Verdun. American volunteers played a significant role in the front line of the battle, performing as an ambulance drivers, fighter pilots, soldiers, and other duties.

During the initial stage of the war, several American ambulance organizations were created in France. The American Field Service (AFS) was one of them. In Verdun, nearly 2,500 AFS volunteers helped to evacuate some 400,000 wounded French. Some 127 were killed during the battle. The combat protocols and medical methods established by these American ambulance drivers had a lasting impact on the emergency services during wartime. The model set up by the AFS was used by the American Army for many years as a standard.

Similarly, the American aviators of Verdun also created an important legacy. Like the American ambulance drivers of the AFS, these aviators skirted America's neutrality in the war by going to France and joining locally-created organizations. The Lafayette Escadrille was created in 1916, after Dr. Edmund L. Gros, medical director of the American Field Service, convinced the French government to create air units fighting for France, made up of expatriate American fliers.

Lafayette Escadrille membersIt was very dangerous work -- the planes were often flimsy and unreliable, the air-combat was treacherous, and field conditions on the ground brought diseases to crews and pilots alike. As a result, the squadron suffered heavy losses, both at Verdun, and throughout the rest of the war. Nonetheless, the squadron was credited with important aerial successes, and squadron members eventually served as the foundations for America's own air services.

These American volunteers were remembered in France with memorials after the war. On 4 July 1923, the President of the French Council of State, Raymond Poincaré, dedicated a monument in the Place des États-Unis, Paris, to the Americans who had volunteered to fight in World War I in the service of France.

Later, in 1928, the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial was dedicated at the Villeneuve-l'Étang Imperial Estate, in Marnes-la-Coquette, Hauts-de-Seine, outside of Paris, France. A joint French-American effort to refurbish the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial is nearing completion, with re-dedication of the monument planned for April 2016.


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