Eagle
American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis: A Look Back

April 2007

Highlight map


 

Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook


Reading like a fictional adventure tale, this true account of an unusual but real life serves to show the influence on the relations between two nations that the actions of one individual can have. The subject, Paul Rockwell, interacted with his French colleagues over a long period of time in such a manner as to have a positive and lasting impact on Franco-American relations.
Readers may wish to peruse the author's earlier account of his younger brother's exploits at www.unc.edu/depts /diplomat/archives_roll/ 2004_07-09/rockwell_lafay/ rockwell_lafay.html
Ed.

Three Years Before the Mast

On August 25, 1914, a small phalanx of American volunteers marched behind the American flag through the streets of Paris to the railway station, where they would embark for training camp to prepare for duty in the French Foreign Legion. Among them was Paul Ayres Rockwell of North Carolina, who eventually served France in three different wars and as many uniforms.

The motivations of these volunteers were many and varied; as were those of the men of dozens of other nations who flocked to the French colors at the outbreak of World War I, but all shared the conviction that they were to fight for the just cause of liberty against oppression. Any of them who, influenced by speeches and shows of adulation upon their arrival, might have begun to think of themselves as heroes or even ambassadors of good will - these were speedily disillusioned when presented with their first pay or the usual “bouquet” of ravenous bed bugs, their most persistent adversaries thereafter.

Col. Rockwell in the American Army, World War II.
The German juggernaut menaced, training for the group was brief, and the first American volunteers to come directly under fire did so fifty-eight days after their march through Paris. Paul Rockwell was among the earlier casualties thereafter, receiving a shell blast-induced injury in December, resulting in a medical discharge. Another of those August 21 marchers, his younger brother, Kiffin, fared better in the trenches, not being wounded until May 1915, when he received a machine gun bullet in the thigh during a bayonet charge. His wound healed well enough, but residual pain made return to an infantry regiment dubious.

Other than universally shared adventurous spirits and the embrace of liberty, what forces might have impelled these two young Southerners to go to France? They were aware of their long military lineage, with ancestors, some of them French Huegenots, who had fought in the colonial wars and the American Revolution. They were great admirers of George Washington. They had been taught about the significance of French aid during the American Revolution. Kiffin put the matter of his service in France succinctly: “I pay my debt for LaFayette and Rochambeau.” Both young men were endowed with a strong strain of idealism.

Most cogent to their military ardor was the then-relatively recent “War for Southern Independence,” as it was known where they were raised. Maternal and paternal ancestors had fought for the South; some were still living when the Rockwells were young. The boys heard war talk and learned about defeat and what it was like to live in impoverished and occupied territory. The Yankees, best personified in General Sherman, became their archenemies. Paul, especially, had a retentive memory for both personal and shared experiences. Later on he was to tell with relish of his encounter with a Frenchman in 1918 who had informed him that he was embarking with his grandson for Toulouse in order to show the lad where to spit on the grave of Simon de Montfort, who had been killed in 1218 while besieging that city during wars of religion. They also had enough history to know that France had lost Alsace and Lorraine and been otherwise severely penalized by the Prussians in 1871. By August 1914 they had a plan already fully formed.

After his injury Paul Rockwell did not return to the States to resume his budding pre-war career as a newspaper reporter. Foremost, he wanted to remain near his best friend, Brother Kiffin. Paul got himself attached to the Information Section at French Army General Headquarters, where he produced propaganda. In addition, he became a war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News and other newspapers. He adapted well to the French way of life and became enamored of a French lady, Mlle Jeanne Leygues, whom he married in December 1916. Her father, Georges Leygues, already a highly placed politician, for many years after the war was secretary of the navy. Connections acquired through this liaison were to influence significantly Paul's later service to France.

Meantime, during Kiffin's convalescence, plans for an aviation pursuit squadron with all American pilots (under the command of French officers) gained momentum. Kiffin was encouraged to apply for transfer to aviation and was accepted. After the rudimentary training then offered, he became an original member of the Escadrille Américaine, which went into action in May 1916. The name was changed to Escadrille Lafayette in December 1916 due to German diplomatic complaints about neutrality issues. And well they might have grumbled because Paris was hoping that this well-publicized group would help generate further favorable sentiment for France in the United States.

Kiffin was shot down and killed in aerial combat over Alsace in September 1916. He had been the first squadron member to score a victory and the second to be killed in action. Thus, ironically, Kiffin never actually flew with the LaFayette Escadrille. If sentiment in the United States was already solidly behind coming in on the side of France during this period, the Rockwell family could not have known it. Kiffin's mother in North Carolina received a letter about him, postmarked St. Louis, Missouri, brimming with enough vitriol to scorch a squadron, e.g., “murderer,” “vicious,” etc. The screed closed with the hope that her remaining son, Paul, would fight on until he, too, was killed. The signature was not decipherable, but on can only suppose that in that era the author was a woman. It did not work out that way, however; the Germans had already had their best shot at Paul in World War I.

Paul Rockwell continued his writing activities related to the war until the Armistice and subsequently lived mostly in Paris until 1933. The nature of his writing activity changed over time, but his focus remained on WWI persons and events. He was able to compose longer works in addition to making brief contributions to American and French-language publications. He was well positioned to correspond or meet with former comrades and likewise, when the Escadrille LaFayette name was revived and applied to a French squadron in 1920 during France's post-war reorganization of its Air Force, he began a life-long relationship with the renewed squadron.

By the 1920's, France and Spain had been the nominal rulers of Morocco for many years, but then Spanish authorities gave some unforgivable slight to a well-educated Berber, Abd-el-Krim. This man became the charismatic leader of a tribal revolt against Franco-Spanish rule, directed initially only toward the Spanish. He was able to muster and deploy sufficient forces with relatively modern weapons to wage successful campaigns at the outset.

The territory being contested was known as the “Rif,” that being the Berber native word for “edge,” in this case specifically that of the northernmost Atlas mountain range of Morocco bordering the coastal plain. Over the millennia this territory had been caught up in innumerable conflicts generated both beyond its borders and within, but regardless of nominal regional rule, if any, there was a high retention of distinct tribal identities and customs.

Today this “footnote” war could be considered a good primer for study of conflicts in a large region with which we are just becoming familiar. In 1925, European interest in the war was considerable on many levels, including the transnational. It was this last that drew Paul Rockwell into the fighting, before Germany had been defeated in World War II. The threat of totalitarian control imparted by communism, with Russia as its chief protagonist, had become the predominant fear of many people, Paul Rockwell among them. After he had gained some experience of the wider world, communism for him replaced General Sherman as the archenemy. On a personal level, this transition was salutary, too, because he was obliged on occasion to join in hand-to-hand combat with communists during the post-war periodic street fighting in Paris. But these confrontations were mere scrimmages. The communists were attempting to undermine existing powers, and destabilization of Morocco by the support of a nationalistic revolution of Berber tribes had much to recommend it to them. This was especially so when leftist parties won the French elections in 1924.

Capt. Rockwell, third from left, top row, in French service during the Rif War.

Certain American veterans of the First World War in France, mostly aviators, became interested in forming a unit to fight for France against the Riffians. Sixteen of these individuals, plus one Canadian, became the Escadrille de la Guarde Chérifienne in the Sultan's Guard Escadrille of the French Air Force. Rockwell was accorded the rank of captain and flew as a bombardier-observer against the forces of Abd-el-Krim. He did this with greatly mixed feelings, having no animosity toward the tribes and sympathizing with a people who were able to manage their own affairs when left alone. The culture of the people fascinated him, as did the terrain. The duties of observation could incorporate that last item. Concerning the bombing, he consoled himself considerably in the knowledge that the twenty-two- and 110-pound bombs, “aimed” and released in the most rudimentary fashion, were much more likely to produce great clouds of dust in the dry terrain than to obliterate human beings.

The duty definitely had dangers. Engine failure over unfriendly territory was the greatest hazard, and most of the territory overflown was unfriendly. With only half a dozen reasonably good landing areas other than their base airfield, unintended groundings were liable to result in a smash-up. If one survived this, capture by the enemy was likely. Enemy behavior was then apparently quite variable, but the usual result was a gruesome death after torture. Managing to have oneself killed outright, or suicide, were the suggestions often proferred to the aviators seeking advice on the topic. Staying aloft obviously was preferable even though bullets could be heard whizzing by the low flying aircraft on nearly every sortie, the calling cards of the excellent Riffian marksmen. Yet Dame Fortune smiled: Logging 653 air hours in 470 missions during seven weeks of operations, the Guard Escadrille suffered no battle casualties.

Meanwhile, press reports arrived stating that the U. S. Department of State was preparing to take away American citizenship from the squadron members, and even contemplated imposing fines and imprisonment. The members met immediately, voted to continue their duties, and later learned that the threats had been rescinded within twenty-four hours.

Opposition to the Rif War continued within France and elsewhere, and when the casualty figures began to be disseminated, public support drained away. The Sultan's Guard Escadrille was disbanded and did not participate in the renewed Spanish offensive of 1926. This offensive employed an army enlarged by the addition of 40,000 colonial troops (and generous infusions of what was called “St. George's Cavalry,” i.e., British gold), which resulted in the surrender and exile of Abd-el-Krim.

Paul Rockwell returned to Paris, where he resumed his writing and historical research. His marriage to Mlle Leygues had collapsed and in 1926 he married an American, Prue Durant Smith. They lived in Paris until 1933, when they returned to the United States to take up residence in Asheville, North Carolina. From there Paul was able to maintain the extensive connections and interests in France that he had developed formerly, as well as to take up more local historical pursuits. In retrospect, however, it seems almost as if he were awaiting the next war. Measured in time against his eventual life span of ninety-six years, it was not long in coming.

During the “phony war” of 1939-40, Rockwell and two former LaFayette Escadrille pilots, Harold Willis and Ted Parsons, commenced moves to form a new pursuit squadron with that name. Willis had been shot down and captured by the Germans in 1917 and had subsequently participated, successfully, in one of the most celebrated military prison camp escapes in history. Parsons had begun his military career in 1913 in Mexico as a captain in Pancho Villa's revolutionary Army of the North, attempting to teach reluctant Villistas how to fly. Parsons a bit later became an “ace” in World War I.

The United States Government learned of the scheme. Mindful of the German reaction back in 1916, or perhaps simply mindful of possible difficulties, the FBI told the trio to desist. Parsons could foresee a role in the Navy, anyway, in which he had become a reserve officer, and from which he retired as a rear admiral after the war. Willis and Rockwell, however, made their way to France, where they continued the effort, which proved to be unsuccessful, to form another LaFayette Escadrille. They did manage to help organize another American Field Service (Ambulance) in which Willis served. Meantime, Rockwell had sought a position on the French General Staff and had just been assigned one when France surrendered in June 1940. Both Americans eluded the Germans, Willis less dramatically than he had in 1918, and Rockwell, occasionally less than an hour ahead of the invaders, by way of southern France. (Willis was to spearhead the creation of another LaFayette Escadrille, as an entirely French squadron, when he was later sent to North Africa with the U. S. Army Air Forces.)

Rockwell began his fourth official service for France in 1942, for the first time in an American uniform, with the United States Army Air Forces, acting as liaison with Free French forces during the campaigns of North Africa, Italy, and the following thrusts into France and Germany. One of his first missions after arriving in Algeria was to be sent on a visit to France's resident-general of Morocco, General Auguste Paul Noguès, a former friend, but now a Vichy appointee, in hopes that he could bring the general to the Allied side. Major Rockwell was properly received, but the general was true to his soldier's word and would not yield to persuasion.

During the war Rockwell's chief assignment was to procure war materiel for the French forces available to fight the Axis. Clearly he was selected for this task due to his knowledge of France, her language and culture, and his long-standing ties and friendships there. Of experience as a procurement officer he had none. The Allied military harbored suspicions, not always lingering, about how materiel might ultimately be used. Doubts about the fighting qualities of the French were never erased. In some manner Rockwell managed to acquire enough equipment and maintain sufficient harmony so as to receive commendations from both sides, assisted, no doubt, by providing the best-supplied mess in North Africa, or so it was said.

By now a colonel, Rockwell returned to the United States in 1947 and “retired” to Asheville. Thereafter, he carried on a voluminous correspondence with former comrades from the three wars and with other historians, particularly those interested in the First World War. He continued an output of numerous articles and interviews. Perhaps his experience as a newspaperman had taught him something about how to provide “good copy.” He made several trips to France, where so many old ties remained. In addition he returned to his study of the War for Southern Independence, for which he had had less time previously.

Locally Paul got involved in several historical projects, such as a successful effort to have a mountain named for Brigadier General Stand Watie, a Cherokee Indian leader who had raised a brigade of mounted rifles to fight for the South during the war. He further pushed for the erection of markers and structures commemorating North Carolinians involved in that conflict. His home in Asheville became a veritable museum.

There he died on August 22, 1985. His life, from the time he was a young man until his final days, provided a testimony to the power of example and determination in furthering the interests of two nations with overlapping, complementary causes—the United States and France.


W. J. K. Rockwell is the son of the subject of this article. A retired physician and U. S. Navy veteran, he was born in France and tries to spend some weeks there each year. Dr. Rockwell lives in North Carolina.

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC
www.americandiplomacy.org