Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, August 18, 2016

America's First Flag to the Western Front, Part II


Part II: Arrival on the Western Front

By Patrick Gregory


The First Stanford Unit had been serving on the front for nearly three months when the flag arrived in France. The Californian students were but the latest in a long line of young men — with Ivy League colleges heavily represented — to have heeded the call to serve as ambulance drivers from the opening weeks of the war in 1914. One of the first major encounters of the war, the first Battle of the Marne in September 1914, had acted as an early recruiting sergeant as young volunteers began to find their way to France, first in ones and twos and then in groups, determined to do their bit for an Allied cause with which many came to identify. 

A.C. Kimber, AFS Driver
A number of ambulance groupings had begun to emerge through the tail end of 1914 into 1915, the Harjes Formation — named after the senior partner of the Morgan-Harjes Bank in Paris, Herman Harjes — and the second, Richard Norton's Anglo-American corps. These developed separately and worked as distinct units for over a year, before eventually merging under the banner of the American Red Cross. But it was a third ambulance grouping which grew out of the American Military Hospital in Paris which would grow into the largest and best organized — the American Ambulance Field Service or later simply "American Field Service," and it was that which the Stanford students had come to join. 

The volunteers had arrived in the field in mid-March, forming the backbone of what was now officially classified as SSU 14 — Section Sanitaire Etats-Unis 14 — assigned, as was the practice, to an individual division of the French army. In the case of the Stanford unit it had been given the task of looking after the 55th French Infantry Division — battle-weary veterans of the Marne and First Battle of the Aisne, soldiers who had fought through campaigns in the Artois sector and around Verdun. The volunteers' job was to evacuate the division's wounded during fighting from frontline emergency postes de secours dressing stations, transporting them for treatment to the rear of the lines. 

Since April the French troops had been aware that their new ambulancier colleagues were officially at war as well, and so, to mark the United States' status as an "associate" of the Allies, the flag carried to France by their fellow Stanford student — the first official flag of the American government to be flown at the front — was now to be presented by their division. 

Accordingly, two regiments of the 55th assembled with the Stanford men on the morning of Monday 4 June. It was 9 o'clock, a clear sunny day, the setting a field outside the village of Tréveray in the Meuse department some 50 miles south of Verdun. "The field of review was on the top of a high hill overlooking the valley and village," recalled Kimber, "and with a wonderful view in all directions. As we approached we could see company after company of French soldiers maneuvering into position. They all wore the steel helmets and had bayonets in place. [A divisional commander] Colonel Collon, reviewed the troops, riding up and down the lines in front of them." 


First American Flag to the Battlefields Presented, 4 June 1917

Once assembled, three of the Stanford group, a color party, stepped forward. Behind them French flags and standards flew, tended by their own guards of honor. Ranked behind them a regimental band and the rest of the Stanford men, regiments of French troops either side of them. Across the field Clifford Kimber began a short address, one which included a statement he had had brought to read from the Secretary of War Newton Baker. After he was finished Kimber handed the flag over to the colonel to make the formal presentation. Collon now addressed the assembly, this time in French, before handing the flag over to the Stanford color party. With the ceremony complete, the regimental band struck up the "Star Spangled Banner", the American anthem quickly followed by a rousing chorus of the "Marseillaise". 

This 4 June wasn't the only ceremony involving the flag, however. Exactly a month later — mindful of the significance of the day in the American calendar and wanting to mark the work of Section 14 — four companies of French soldiers, veterans of recent fighting around Téton in the Champagne region's so-called "Battle of the Hills", assembled to award the unit with a number of Croix de Guerre. One medal was pinned to the flag and two others awarded to individuals in the unit: one to the French-American member of the unit, Pierre "Peter" Fischoff, who had worked in the ambulance service since 1915, the other to the section head, Allan Muhr. A ceremony followed by what even for peacetime would have been considered a lavish feast, a ten-course meal, accompanied by table wine and large quantities of the fizzy wine which gave the area its name. 

The section continued in its original guise until the latter part of September 1917. At that point the American Field Service and other volunteer units were taken over by American Expeditionary Force and its U.S. Army Ambulance Service. The old S.S.U. 14 now became the new Army Ambulance's "Section 632," yet by that time many of the original members of the First Stanford had left to go into other branches of service or theatres. Some had elected to join a second wave of Stanford volunteers on ambulance duty in the Balkans while others went into aviation and others branches of service. Two of those in aviation, Kimber himself with U.S. 22nd Aero Squadron, and Alan Nichols who had joined one of the French Foreign Legion squadrons of the Lafayette Flying Corps would lose their lives, killed in action in the summer and autumn of 1918. 

The First Flag Today with Streamers
But the flag did find its way safely back to America. Two of the original members of the Stanford section who had set off from California in February 1917 brought it back there in 1918. Walter Malm, who had served as the unit's sous-chef, and Harold Blote, who worked both in France and the Balkans, carried it back to the university where it was placed in Stanford's chapel. In time the flag bore not only the Croix de Guerre awarded in the summer of 1917 but also battle ribbons which showed the later service in war of the different Stanford units in France, action around the Aisne and Marne in 1917 and 1918 and the postwar occupation of the Alsace region up until March 1919. 


The First Flag still exists and remains at Stanford. It hung in the Stanford chapel until the early 1970s, but since that time has been stored safe — albeit not on public display —in the institution's Special Collections & University Archives. 

To be continued. . .

© Patrick Gregory 2016

Adapted from An American on the Western Front: The Letters of Arthur Clifford Kimber, Patrick Gregory & Elizabeth Nurser (The History Press, UK, June 2016)

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic story that should be more well known.

    ReplyDelete