WE USUALLY ASSOCIATE General John J. Pershing with the phrase, Lafayette, we are here! Uttered in France on the Fourth of July eighty-three years ago, those words signaled the arrival of leading elements of the U.S. Army, newly engaged in the deadly struggle of the Allies against the Central Powers in the First World War. The meaning was clear: The United States had begun to pay its debt to France for that nations economic and military assistance well over a century earlier. Simply put, without French aid and armed intervention following the 1776 revolution, the American colonies would not have achieved independence from Britain. The United States owed France.
General Pershing afterward explicitly disclaimed credit for what he termed a splendid phrase.
The point about authorship is not vital. One other point is worth noting, however.
In 1917, many Americans were already in France serving the cause of the Allies. They had been arriving to repay Lafayette by the hundreds since the earliest days of the conflict, long before the United States declared war and the American Expeditionary Force began to make its appearance. American volunteers in substantial numbers enlisted in the French Foreign Legion as early as August 1914; many fought in the trenches that first winter of the long, terrible conflict, and thereafter. Others left comfortable homes or university lives to serve in the American Ambulance Field Service, driving the wounded from battlefields on the Western Front. As an example of the numbers involved, the fledgling French air force, le Service Aéronautique, alone included some 300 young Americans too brave and too impatient to wait for America to declare war. Most of them lost their lives flying in combat before the war ended.
Such was the affinity between the peoples of the United States and France and the similarity of their basic values. Despite the absence of formal treaty obligations and despite President Wilsons 1914 admonition to Americans that they remain neutral in thought and deed, this sense of shared ideals and, to be sure, the thirst for adventure led many young Americans to take up arms against Germany long before events thrust America into the ranks of the Allies. Marching to their own drums, they joined the alliance against militarism in advance of official action by Washington.
One of the many Americans to precede Pershing to France was James Rogers McConnell. Born in Chicago and educated at the University of Virginia, he was working when the war began in the state of North Carolina (where this journal is based). McConnell first joined the Ambulance Service; then in 1915, he enlisted in the Foreign Legion to undergo flight training. (U.S. nationals lost their citizenship if, upon joining up, they swore allegiance to a foreign country, but not if they took an oath of loyalty to the Legion.) By early 1916, he was a founding member of the famed Lafayette Escadrille, a French pursuit squadron of expatriate American pilots.
In the fall of 1916 McConnell suffered severe injuries in a crash, but he returned to duty in early 1917. In March of that year he was shot down and killed near a village seventy-five miles northeast of Paris a village in ruins at the time called Flavy-le-Martel. A few days past his thirtieth birthday, he was the last American flying under French colors to die before Americas entry into the war the next month.
Remarkably, the folk of Flavy-le-Martel to this day have not forgotten McConnell, even though no one there had ever known him personally. One family in Flavy has, to the third generation, placed a red rose on the site of his crash every March on the anniversary of his death. The residents, even youngsters, still call that area lendroit de laviateur.
On June 24 of this year, the mayor and town council of Flavy-le-Martel, along with the Franco-American Museum at Blerancourt, north of Paris, dedicated a large stone monument with engraved plaque at the McConnell crash site. Some fifty people attended the day-long ceremonies and enjoyed the towns hospitality, including a representative of the American Embassy in Paris, relatives and American friends of the McConnell family, villagers, and French officials. A local band marched and played; the French and American flags flew everywhere; sunlight brightened a cool day; there were speeches, above all an impressive oration by the mayor on Franco-American amity through the years. This was followed up by a three-and-one-half-hour lunch at the town hall with numerous toasts in excellent wine exchanged among those attending.
Lord Palmerston long ago held that there are no eternal alliances, only eternal national interests. By this he undoubtedly meant shared interests such as trade, access to resources, and territorial integrity. I take the liberty of adding shared values and ideals as bases for an association of interests by the citizens of two countries. Only with France has the United States had a community of ideals and visions going back so long; with a few brief periods as exceptions, this commonality of interests has endured since the eighteenth century. It has been a long alliance.
It seems to me that a better demonstration could not be found of the reciprocation of idealism and a sense of shared national values than the honor paid to James McConnell recently by this French village. And, of course, the honor he paid to France by giving his life in its defense.
Copyright © 2000 American Diplomacy Publishers, Durham NC