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Rendezvous with Death

Geolocalisation bp
80200 Belloy-en-Santerre

On the 4th of July, 1916 poet Alan Seeger took part in the assault on the strong German positions in the village. The action was a component of the larger Somme Offensive. Seeger was killed as his comrades successfully stormed the village and put the enemy to flight. He met his "rendezvous with death" which he had predicted in his most famous poem.

The assault on the village is considered one of the Legion's greatest feats-of-arms. After the war, Seeger's family donated a bell for the village's chapel; as well as fruit trees. Both were destroyed when the Germans returned in 1940. Today, the small village school is named for Alan Seeger.

1 chemin du Blanc-Sablon
02160 Craonnelle

The American volunteers of the 2nd company of the 2nd Legion regiment were stationed in the ruins of this elegant chateau during the first winter of the war. The sous-officier of German extraction that helped the Americans learn how to become legionnaires, a man by the name of Weidemann, was killed by enemy fire in a skirmish near the chateau. His fellow German countrymen bashed his head in with rifle butts then howled in derision at the legionnaires. Weidemann's past was a mystery. He could have left the Legion, or requested a colonial posting, when the war broke out rather than fighting Germany, but even more mysteriously he chose to stay.The volunteers never forgot him.

Today, the chateau is a reconstruction of the building which stood on the site during World War I. Even by the time the Americans first glimpsed it on a moonlit night in 1914, the roof had already been blown off. The Germans had overrun the nearby village of Craonelle and the wooded area around the chateau in the early days of the war, only to be driven back (at least partly) by a ferocious French counterattack. The village and the ridge above (the Chemin des Dames) represented the front lines in this remote region of France.

The chateau can be reached via a winding dirt road through a forest. The ground's keeper is M. Jean-Luc Despocq. I would recommend writing him in advance before showing up to visit the chateau. He is very knowledgeable about the history of this famous locale. He can be reached via mail at:  Chateau du Blanc Sablon, 02160 Craonelle, France.

Fort de Vaux
55400 Vaux-devant-Damloup

Along with Fort Douamont, Fort Vaux was the site of some of the most intense fighting of the months-long Battle of Verdun in 1916. A contingent of the American volunteers fought here as part of the 170th Regiment after having transferred from the Foreign legion in the aftermath of the Champagne Offensive of 1915. Frank Musgrave of San Antonio, was assigned to another unit after recovering from wounds, and was captured by the Germans while defending the village of Vaux below the fort. His friend, Jack Janz of Philadelphia, was killed by artillery fire at Fort Vaux.

The 170th also fought nearby in the Bois de la Caillette. From the top of Fort one can easily grasp the strategic significance of commanding the heights east of the ancient city of Verdun.

Ferme de Berthonval
62144 Mont-Saint-Éloi

The massive French spring offensive in 1915 was launched over this ground in Artois, with the heights of Vimy Ridge as the objective. The American volunteers of the 2nd company 1st Foreign Legion regiment went over the top on May 9th 1915. Kiffin Rockwell, newly-transferred from the 2nd regiment, was wounded in the assault and wrote his brother a memorable letter about his experience

The attacking units partly achieved their objective, but were not able to hold it when insufficiently reinforced by the French High Command. A second attempt was made on June 16th. In particularly ferocious hand-to-hand combat, both Kenneth Weeks and Russell Kelly were killed.

5 Boulevard Raymond Poincaré
92430 Marnes-la-Coquette

The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial commemorates the volunteer American pilots who gave their lives during World War I, under French colors, before the entry of the United States in the War. The Lafayette Escadrille became an active unit of the French Air Service on April 20, 1916, almost a full year before the U.S. Congress declared war on April 6, 1917.

More than 250 American pilots fought with the French Air Service before the United States joined the war, either in existing squadrons with French pilots, or as one of the 38 pilots who flew in the all-American Lafayette Escadrille squadron. The Memorial commemorates the courage and the sacrifice of all these American pilots who came to France before April 1917, collectively called the “Lafayette Flying Corps”.

The 68 members of the Lafayette Escadrille and the La Fayette Flying Corps who died in WWI, or after the war as a result of their wounds, are buried in the crypt located under the central arch of the Memorial. They lie in a broad semi-circle, each under a cenotaph bearing the pilot’s name and date of death. Their French commanders, Georges Thénault and Antonin Brocard, who died respectively in 1948 and 1950, wanted to be buried with their American comrades.

The monument is located in the Parc de Saint Cloud, in Marnes-la-Coquette, half-way between Paris and Versailles. The monument is composed of a central monumental arch, half the height of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

On the façade of the monument are the names of the 68 pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps who died in World War I.

Place des États-Unis
75016 Paris

On 4 July 1923, the President of the French Council of StateRaymond Poincaré, dedicated this monument in the Place des États-Unis to the Americans who had volunteered to fight in World War I in the service of France. The monument, in the form of a bronze statue on a plinth, executed by Jean Boucher (1870–1939), was financed through a public subscription.  Boucher used a photograph of the soldier and poet, Alan Seeger, as his inspiration, and Seeger's name can be found, among those of twenty-three others who had fallen in the ranks of the French Foreign Legion, on the back of the plinth. Also, on either side of the base of the statue, are two excerpts from Seeger's "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France", a poem written shortly before his death on 4 July 1916. Seeger intended that his words should be read in Paris on 30 May of that year, at an observance of the American holiday, Decoration Day (later known as Memorial Day):

Yet sought they neither recompense nor praise,
Nor to be mentioned in another breath,
Than their blue coated comrades whose great days
It was their pride to share—ay, share even to the death!   [...]

Hail, brothers, and farewell; you are twice blest, brave hearts.
Double your glory is who perished thus,
For you have died for France and vindicated us

Monument 1 Division Moroccan Foreign Legion Chemins des Canadiens
62580 Vimy

The Foreign Legion regiments serving in France during World War I were part of the famous Moroccan Division. It was noted for its attacking prowess, never more evident than in its assault on Vimy Ridge in 1915. The English translation of the Division's motto:  "No fear, No pity."

129 rue de Grenelle
75007 Paris

The Musée de l'Armée in Paris is a "must-visit." The museum is located at Les Invalides in the 7th arrondissement. Among its impressive collection can be found the original U.S. flag carried by the American volunteers on August 25th, 1914 en route to the Gare St.-Lazare (see colorized image). The flag was signed by a number of the volunteers, some of whose signatures are still legible.

Monument de la Ferme de Navarin
51600 Souain-Perthes-lès-Hurlus

This memorial was erected above the remains of thousands of soldiers who could not be properly identified after the battle that occurred here in 1915 (and in subsequent battles over the same ground in 1916-1918). The American volunteers in both the 2nd and 3rd companies of the Foreign Legion's 1st Regiment, and the 2nd company of the Foreign Legion's 2nd Regiment, fought here. Henry Farnsworth was killed by enemy fire in the 1915 battle..

The three-figured statue was designed by the French sculptor, Maxime Real Del Sarte. It was dedicated in 1924.

The pyramid-shaped memorial sits atop a hill. It commands quite a view. In the area around the memorial there are remnants of the trenches, bouyeaux, and barbed wire from World War I. There are also multi-lingual signs explaining the history of the fighting at Navarin Farm and in other nearby areas of Champagne.

The poet, Alan Seeger, wrote his poem "Maktoob" while serving in Champagne. He wrote of the chalky white soil. Here one can see and touch the soil for one's self.

The poem "Maktoob" by Alan Seeger (this is my favorite poem by Seeger, I read it with my students each spring when they are studying World War I):

A shell surprised our post one day
And killed a comrade at my side.
My heart was sick to see the way
He suffered as he died.

I dug about the place he fell,
And found, no bigger than my thumb,
A fragment of the splintered shell
In warm aluminum.

I melted it, and made a mould,
And poured it in the opening,
And worked it, when the cast was cold,
Into a shapely ring.

And when my ring was smooth and bright,
Holding it on a rounded stick,
For seal, I bade a Turco write
Maktoob in Arabic.

Maktoob! "'Tis written!" . . . So they think,
These children of the desert, who
From its immense expanses drink
Some of its grandeur too.

Within the book of Destiny,
Whose leaves are time, whose cover, space,
The day when you shall cease to be,
The hour, the mode, the place,

Are marked, they say; and you shall not
By taking thought or using wit
Alter that certain fate one jot,
Postpone or conjure it.

Learn to drive fear, then, from your heart.
If you must perish, know, O man,
'Tis an inevitable part
Of the predestined plan.

And, seeing that through the ebon door
Once only you may pass, and meet
Of those that have gone through before
The mighty, the elite -- ---

Guard that not bowed nor blanched with fear
You enter, but serene, erect,
As you would wish most to appear
To those you most respect.

So die as though your funeral
Ushered you through the doors that led
Into a stately banquet hall
Where heroes banqueted;

And it shall all depend therein
Whether you come as slave or lord,
If they acclaim you as their kin
Or spurn you from their board.

So, when the order comes: "Attack!"
And the assaulting wave deploys,
And the heart trembles to look back
On life and all its joys;

Or in a ditch that they seem near
To find, and round your shallow trough
Drop the big shells that you can hear
Coming a half mile off;

When, not to hear, some try to talk,
And some to clean their guns, or sing,
And some dig deeper in the chalk -- -
I look upon my ring:

And nerves relax that were most tense,
And Death comes whistling down unheard,
As I consider all the sense
Held in that mystic word.

And it brings, quieting like balm
My heart whose flutterings have ceased,
The resignation and the calm
And wisdom of the East.