Two Americans who fought for France in the Great War
The First World War began as German forces swept eastwards and westwards in an unprovoked assault on neighbouring states. The injustice and reported brutality of these offensives outraged people all over the world whether their own countries were initially drawn into the conflict or not. Many young Americans felt compelled to join the fight out of principle or for adventure, and so volunteered to join the French Foreign Legion. Some of them eventually became famous as aviators in the Lafayette Escadrille and other squadrons, but others fought their war in the mud of the trenches as infantry soldiers. This book concerns the experiences of two of these young men. David Wooster King’s story takes the reader through the most brutal fighting on the Western Front, where the Legion was regularly first into the most lethal part of the fray. Astonishingly and against the odds, the author survived to write this compelling personal account of his experiences. Among King’s comrades was the poet Alan Seeger, renowned for the war poem ‘I Have a Rendezvous With Death’, among others. The second part of this book consists of Seeger’s letters describing his own war until the time of his death in action. This excellent book of the war two Americans knew, fighting for the French Foreign Legion, has been enhanced in this Leonaur edition, by the inclusion of images not present in the original publications.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
We fixed bayonets. Commandant Rosé jumped out ahead—“En Avant” we were off. We crossed their front line at a quick walk, and for the first time got some idea of the effect of our bombardment. Nothing was left but a series of mounds and holes with half-buried men, machine guns, and barbed wire entanglements—here and there a dead Colonial hanging on them.
We began to lose men by rifle and machine gun fire, as well as shrapnel. A halt to get the men in hand again, and I had a chance to look around. Behind me in every direction came heavy columns of blue-clad infantry. Regiment after regiment surged over the hill—an overwhelming flood of blue. “Hey! Look at the cavalry!” Sure enough, we could see columns of horsemen. As they came broadside to us we noticed the strange formation in which they were riding—six men by twos—then a gap—then six more. Suddenly we realised they were not cavalry but batteries following up the infantry. Five minutes later they came galloping into the flat sort of valley where we were waiting. The Boches caught sight of both the guns and us at the same moment. The result was a veritable hail of 4.2 inch shrapnel and the famous German 105" shell.
We lay flat with our sacks hunched on our shoulders and watched the guns come into action. A contact shell hit the lead team of one gun and “messed ’em up considerable.” In a flash the wheel driver was at the horses’ heads calming them, the gunners had cut loose the quivering mass of horses and men, and what was left of the team was on its way again, the driver swinging into his saddle at the trot. A minute later the battery was in action front and had fired its first salvo.
A shell burst just above us and the man on my left gave a little moan. The corporal on my right buried his face in his hands squeaking like a snared rabbit, and my rifle burned my hands. There was no doubt about the other man—he was through; the corporal was weeping in such a high falsetto we thought he was fooling, but when we pulled his hands down from his face we found it split open like a ripe melon. In the meantime, I had troubles of my own; the same shrapnel had smashed my rifle so I had to look around for another.
It was not difficult to find one as men were dropping all around and there was one continuous yell for brancardiers (stretcher bearers). According to orders they only brought in men of their own regiment; it looked cruel to see them pass a man with his whole side torn out to pick up another slightly wounded, but it saved lives in the long run.
Things were becoming a little too warm in that part of the world so we were ordered to occupy a German position, the “Angelheart shooting trench.” Here, however, in spite of the pleasing name things were even worse. They had the range down to an inch, and were only waiting to make sure it was occupied before plastering it with heavy contact shells. A sickening crash, the stench of hot acrid gas—the pelting of rocks sand and clods of earth, and finally the shrieks of the wounded. Two hours of this, and at last the order to advance once more. This meant climbing out, assembling, and calling the roll, under the same murderous fire.
The first, second and third sections fell in and numbered off; only five men and a sergeant of the fourth appeared. Captain Petaud waited patiently for a bit but finally shouted to the sergeant, “Come along, Malvoisin! Where is the rest of your section?” Malvoisin gave a dry chuckle, “We’re all here, Captain.” Petaud never turned a hair. “Oh, I see. It’s like that.” And he gave the order to advance. They started shelling us with shrapnel as soon as we moved, but anything was better than being wiped out like ants in that ditch.
A cyclist came up with a message. Colonel Le Compte Denny had been wounded and Major Rosé was to command the regiment. Petaud took over the battalion, and Lieutenant Hallouette, or “Jo Jo, the Dog-Faced-Boy,” as we called him, took our company. He had been a reserve officer, but was considered too old for active service when the war broke out, so he resigned his commission and enlisted in the Legion. Within a year, he had won the Médaille Militaire and was back in his old rank of lieutenant through sheer efficiency and courage. He was the finest shot in the regiment, and could outlast the best men in his company on the march. He carried a full sack and spurned his horse as an example to the men.
The battalion advanced in open order and, just at dusk, dug in about two hundred yards back of the Ferme de Navarin. The ground was strewn with little patches of newly turned earth covered with straw, and the first man to step on one went up with a loud bang—field mines.