Two Nations Under Red, White and Blue

We will wait for the Americans and the tanks.

General Philippe Petain, 1917


Today is Bastille Day.  Our relationship with our oldest ally has been frequently rocky over the years, in spite of the aid France gave us in winning our independence and the fact that the US was instrumental in saving France in two World Wars.  As we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, it is good to recall a time when French and Americans fought so closely together that at times they seemed to be one army.

By 1917 the French Army was in a mutinous state.  Millions of Frenchmen were wounded and dead with little to show for it.  Petain, the victor of Verdun, was made commander in chief of the French army.  He constantly visited units and told them that wasteful, ill-prepared offensives were a thing of the past.  Petain had enjoyed a great deal of success with intensively prepared small scale offensives where he could mass overwhelming force against a small enemy section of the immense line of trenches that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea.  He had these type of offensives on a grand scale in mind for a rejuvenated French army in 1918.  He also knew two other things:  Allied factories were beginning to produce massive amounts of tanks that could spearhead future offensives and America had entered the War:  the Yanks were coming!  At the conclusion of most of his speeches in 1917 he told his men that they would wait for the Americans and the tanks, a line that never failed to receive thunderous applause from the troops.  The average poilu was a brave man and he was willing to die, if need be, to win the War.  He was no longer willing to die in useless offensives that accomplished nothing, and Petain understood that.

American troops trickled in during 1917 and received a tumultuous reception from the French.  When Colonel Charles E. Stanton, nephew of Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, said at the tomb of Lafayette on July 4, 1917:  “Lafayette we are here!” both nations were electrified.

America sent over endless amounts of food in 1917 and 1918 that kept the French from starving.  The American Navy helped to master the U-boat threat.

By October 1917 four American divisions were deployed to France.  French combat veterans acted as instructors for the troops and much of the artillery was provided by the French.  This of course was only the first wave of millions of Americans training in the US to be shipped across the Atlantic in 1918.

The Germans realized that the Americans would shift the balance of power and launched their great offensive in March 1918.  In a series of hammer blows they drove back the British and the French with their stormtroop tactics of avoiding enemy strongpoints as they advanced, and came close to winning the War.  However, by June 10,000 American troops a day were arriving in France.  During the Second Battle of the Marne in June 1918, General Pershing allowed American troops to serve under French command.  The impact of the Americans on French units they were fighting beside was noted at the time.  The fresh American troops attacked with an elan that the French more than emulated, just as the green American troops benefited from veteran French advisors and French artillery.  The Americans and French cooperated so well, that when Pershing formed the First American Army, it was a mixed Franco-American force with assigned French divisions and supplied French artillery.

The French appreciated the heroism commonly displayed by American troops and showered military decorations upon them.  On leave, Americans typically found themselves treated with immense hospitality by French civilians, with families often treating individual American soldiers as if they were long lost sons of the family.  Even today, it is not unusual for French civilians to lay flowers upon the graves of Americans who died in the saving of France.

A largely forgotten page of history that seems fitting to recall on Bastille Day.

I have a rendezvous with Death  
At some disputed barricade,  
When Spring comes back with rustling shade  
And apple-blossoms fill the air—  
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.  
It may be he shall take my hand  
And lead me into his dark land  
And close my eyes and quench my breath—  
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death  
On some scarred slope of battered hill,  
When Spring comes round again this year  
And the first meadow-flowers appear.  
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,  
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,  
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,  
Where hushed awakenings are dear…  
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,  
When Spring trips north again this year,  
And I to my pledged word am true,  
I shall not fail that rendezvous

Alan Seeger, an American who died fighting in the French Foreign Legion during the battle of the Somme on July 4, 1916. He was killed during a successful charge, cheering on his fellow soldiers after he was several times hit by machine gun fire.


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  1. “Happy” Reign of Terror Day.
    I will commemorate the day, but not celebrate it.
    Lafayette’s mistake was to see the American Revolution as an actual “revolution” rather than the war for independence that it in fact was.
    He returned to France full of revolutionary zeal, hoping to replicate on the Continent what he had helped achieve in America. Unfortunately, Lafayette — who sought a moderate middle ground in the French Revolution vs. the more radical Jacobin elements led by Robespierre — did not foresee the Reign of Terror that would be loosed by his actions on that fateful July 14, which would all too soon turn its sights on him.

  2. The reign of Terror was indeed terrible Jay and in many ways the French Revolution ushered in for a period the first totalitarian state. However, it also began a process that over time transformed France into a Republic, and I share Lafayette’s joy in that. As for our Revolution, it was both a War for independence and a Revolution, perhaps the only true Revolution worthy of the name in the history of Man, and one that is still ongoing.

  3. I’ve been listening to the Revolutions podcast, which has so far covered the English and French revolutions and now winding up the French, it’s worth a listen during your morning drive:

    Ironically, King Louis could probably have stayed on the throne if it weren’t for the fiscal crisis caused by sending millions of livres to support the American rebels.

  4. French involvement in the American Revolution did not help its fiscal situation, but the real killers were a decline in French agricultural prices, reliance upon the peasantry to pay most of the taxes, an outmoded system of collecting taxes and four years of disastrous winters in 1785-89.

  5. I appreciate this post- I always feel the French are so maligned today and I wish for more understanding of how the enlightenment (tool of the Devil) hit France so very hard. Mr McClarey’s favorite E. Burker addressed that somewhere…

    The revolution in France was not the same at the end as it was in the beginning– just as today people are carried along on the currents of time and events and suddenly late begin to recognize that they have gone a “bridge too far” ..
    For me, Jane Fonda made me realize “no-this is not what I meant” when I walked in an anti-war march– learning that I needed to turn around and look again at the issues and my own actions.
    Today I think some gays so eager to march and wave their flag at courthouses, will look around and see the destruction of our (their own) culture and say– “wait no–ALL of that is not what I meant— I have been a useful idiot… my earnest feelings of compassion and etcetera etcetera etcetera have been co-opted… “

  6. When French republicans made Bastille day a national holiday, they were making a statement that they are on the right side of history, and French royalists are on the wrong side. When you think of France, what stirs your imagination? Is it King Louis IX, St. Joan of Arc, the University of Paris during St. Thomas Aquinas’s time, Notre Dame and Sainte Chappelle? Or is it Napoleon, the Impressionists, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre pyramid? One nation, two visions of what civilization ought to be – take your pick. (And these two visions can overlap – the French tolerate contradiction.)

  7. I’m a cafeteria Francophile, so I’ll select the good and pass on the rotten. As regards the Revolution, it went off the rails when the Jacobins and others turned on the Church and murdered the King. Nothing good could come thereafter, and nothing did until Napoleon imposed his own unique settlement. The sad truth is that if the Bourbons had been somewhat flexible, the monarchy (limited by a constitution) would have returned before the advent of Napoleon. Sure, it might be difficult to be flexible if you’d seen your predecessor beheaded. On the other hand, Charles II made it work in England, so…

    As an aside, I think a comparison of the Declaration of Independence with the Declaration of the Rights of Man probably shows in best measure the difference between the two Republics. The Creator and His natural law is at the forefront of the American statement, but more of an afterthought in the French issuance. That, and the unfortunate concept of “the general will” in the latter document is a source of much mischief.

    Nevertheless, the French still fascinate, and rightly so–the history of the Great Nation is a remarkable tale, and one that should be required reading.

  8. The sad truth is that if the Bourbons had been somewhat flexible, the monarchy (limited by a constitution) would have returned before the advent of Napoleon.

    The monarchy might have been restored in 1873 had the idiot Comte de Chambord not insisted the tricouleur be junked.

  9. I’m a cafeteria Francophile, so I’ll select the good and pass on the rotten.

    The language, the old architecture, the urban planning, the rail system, the civil service recruitment, the cafes, and the charming young women v. the irreligion, the sexual mores, the reds everywhere, the ineffectual police, the gross elite cynicism, the hyper-centralization, and Parisian manners.

  10. Being a cafeteria Francophile is probably the best attitude to adopt. Just an observation. Pre-Revolutionary France gave us King Louis IX, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Joan of Arc. Post-Revolutionary France gave us St. Bernadette and St. Therese. There is a distinction between having a tailwind to lift you up, versus having no choice but to fly against a headwind.

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