By Scott Kraska
In the summer of 1914, it was evident to all of Europe that a war was coming, and France was going to be in it—in a big way. At that time, the foreign population in France numbered in the tens of thousands from dozens of nationalities. Americans were living in France for a variety of reasons. Some were wealthy playboys with multiple homes, some were students traveling, while others were adventurers working in a variety of everyday occupations. An appeal written by two foreign citizens and published in the daily Paris papers on August 1, 1914, asked for help to defend France.
In part, it declared, “Foreigners, Friends of France who, during their sojourn in France, have learned to love and cherish her as a second country, feel an imperious need to offer her their arms.”
The movement was like wildfire. Thousands showed up to join the cause, funneling themselves into groups from the same regions and countries. The Americans followed suit, and on August 5th, a call for action was placed in the Paris newspapers by a group of like-minded Americans. Approximately 43 Americans volunteered as well as a number of foreigners who wanted to be part of this American Volunteer Corps.
France was completely unprepared for this spontaneous eruption of support and was mobilizing her own forces, but told the Volunteers they would accept them starting on August 20th. The excited Volunteers actually drilled in civilian clothing to prepare for their induction.
THE FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION
The only way for foreign citizens to join the French cause was through the French Foreign Legion. Traditionally, the enlistment period was for five years, but the French Military decided that it would be altered to the duration of the war in order to encourage enrollment.
On August 21, 1914, the Americans finally got their wish. Medical exams and inductions began. “Marching Regiments” were formed to accommodate the thousands of recruits. Training locations were established.
The first section of American volunteers marched off on August 25, a US Flag proudly carried at the head by Alan Seeger and Rene Phelizot. This first group would become part of the Second Marching Regiment of the 2nd Foreign Regiment, Battalion C. Others would follow and be placed in the 2nd Marching Regiment, 1st Foreign Regiment, Battalion C as well as the 3rd Marching Regiment of the 1st Foreign Regiment.
The volunteers were still wearing their civilian garb when they arrived at camp. The only military item each recruit had received was a Model 1877 1-liter water bottle and sling.
Their first uniforms arrived on September 6. Each recruit received a set of white work clothes, most likely the Model 1882 drill fatigues. Men were allowed to provide some of their own privately purchased items like shoes, for which they received a cash allowance. In addition, they were outfitted with the Model 1892 haversack, Model 1893 knapsack, waist belt and braces for the Model 1888 cartridge pouches, Model 1852 mess tin a squad tool or cooking utensil and a Model 1888/93 Lebel Rifle with frogged bayonet.
Beginning to look like soldiers, they began crunching weeks of drill into days. On September 12, 1914, the Americans volunteered for immediate front line duty. Five days later, they received the rest of their kit that included the famous Model 1877 dark blue overcoat with Model 1897 madder red trousers and the Model 1884 kepi.
This first contingent arrived in the war zone on October 2. They finally entered the front lines on October 18, 1914 after being issued coveralls, (salopettes) to try and make their red trousers less conspicuous. The trenches showed them the reality of the military life for which they volunteered. Over the following months, some cracked under pressure while others feigned sickness or insanity. Most just kept fighting and trying to survive.
Edward Mandellstone of Harvard was the first American volunteer to die in combat on February 17, 1915. The winter had been a hard one. Substantial reinforcements did not arrive until spring.
In September 1915, the “new” steel helmet arrived along with the M-2 gas mask. At first, the Adrian pattern helmets were not appreciated but soon proved to be useful for protecting the legionnaires from falling rocks and debris heaved from the earth.
Horizon blue uniforms that had been ordered for the Legion at the end of 1914 began arriving to the units during the summer of 1915. The American Volunteers of the 2nd Regiment received theirs in September 1915. The Model 1914 greatcoat was the first priority, followed by the horizon blue tunics, trousers and puttees.
September 1915 also brought the battle of Champagne where the Legion regiments, although victorious, were shattered as fighting units. The 1st and 2nd Foreign Regiments’ losses were so high, the units had to be combined into the Regiment de March de la Legion Etranger. The American volunteers were offered the option of transferring to a French line unit.
The Foreign Legionnaires fought as shock troops, and many Americans had their fill of this style of bold frontal assault tactic. Quite a few of the Americans transferred into the 170th Infantry. Many others, proud of their accomplishments, stuck with the Legion through thick and thin.
1916 SPRING OFFENSIVE
Combat dragged on, and the Legionnaires wondered why they had not yet been sent to Verdun. The truth would reveal they were being saved for something much worse.
The Legionnaires were slated to participate in the large summer Offensive in 1916 for the Somme! Sometime in January 1916, the American Volunteers were yet again given new clothing, this time the Khaki wool of Colonial troops. Greatcoats were the first items to be issued with trousers and tunics not being issued until the summer of 1916.
Helmets, which were still horizon blue, were ordered to be painted in khaki.
The Somme was a slaughterhouse. On June 18, 1916, the Legionnaires entered the front lines again, emerging in October a different unit—losing more Americans on July 4 than in any other battle they had been in. Many Americans had tired of war.
Combat was relentless with heavy action at Champagne and Aisne. When America declared war on Germany in April 1917, many Legionaries became interested in transferring to US service in France. Most inquiries for transfers, however, met with little or no interest. Only at the threat of loud political protest, was a place made for the Americans.
Many were given office jobs or jobs as chauffeurs. When word got out, many Americans still in French service were so disgusted with their own government, they decided to stay in the Legion for the duration of the War. Their numbers, however, were dwindling away.
Of the approximately 100 American volunteers who served in French Foreign Legion, 38 either died of wounds or were killed in action. Most of the survivors were wounded between 1 and 4 times. These men received over 100 citations with 8 receiving the Legion of Honor, 21 the Medalle Militaire and at least 52 the Croix de Guerre.
The French Foreign Legionnaires are a “new kind of conscientious objector...” wrote British writer Gerald Campbell. “Their conscience objects to the terms of slavery that Germany wishes to impose on the rest of the World.”
These men set the bar at a very high level for all volunteers that came after them.
Scott Kraska is the owner of Bay State Militaria in Leominster, Massachusetts, and a lifelong collector of WWI militaria, with a focus on the American volunteer movement. He can be reached at www.baystatemilitaria.com