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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An American on the Western Front
reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

An American on the Western Front: The First World War Letters of Arthur Clifford Kimber, 1917–1918

by Patrick Gregory and Elizabeth Nurser

The History Press, 2016

An American on the Western Front is more than the story of one soldier: it also describes how America entered the global stage in 1917. The story of Arthur Clifford Kimber (he signed himself "Cliff") had been told before by his mother, in the small volume The Story of the First Flag (1920), which is based on selected letters. Unlike the earlier story, however, An American on the Western Front places Clifford's letters in their historical context. An American on the Western Front is thus not one but two stories: that of Arthur Clifford Kimber and that of America's involvement in World War One.

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Thanks to Clifford's mother's careful storage and typing of her son's letters (many were also addressed to Clifford's brothers, John and George), the scholarly use of historical sources, Professor Andrew Wiest's short but highly informative introduction, and Elizabeth Nurser's editing skills, An American on the Western Front provides the reader with an unusually rich picture of America's involvement in the last two years of the war. In the words of Andrew Wiest, An American on the Western Front is "an important first step" in filling "the historiographical lacuna of the experience of American soldiers fighting and dying in the trenches of France" (19); it shows that the war was fought by "young men with real lives and dreams" (20). In total, there are 160 letters in the collection; those sent to friends have not survived. Many of the letters are quoted in full in the 35 chapters that make up An American on the Western Front. In one of the earliest letters, Clifford tells his mother that the American army is full of patriotic young men who have "quit their studies" (Clifford was a student at Stanford University in 1917; 56). On his journey to England, he reflects on the dangers of crossing the Atlantic and on the sinking of the Lusitania, a story described to him by a steward who had survived. In France Clifford not only wrote letters but also took photographs. Having observed a confirmation service in the small village of Ligny-en-Barrois, for example, he took an emotive photograph, which is included in An American on the Western Front (126). The innocence of the children (the girls are all dressed in white) is in stark contrast to what is going on around them. Clifford is horrified by the atrocities committed by the Germans and proud of his nation for entering the war. It is in the letter that describes the confirmation service that Clifford begins to reflect on the attractions of being an aviator. He is excited by all that he is learning in the war and particularly impressed by those who wish to become pilots. He says, however, that "I have definitely made up my mind not to consider'"(126) such a step, preferring to drive an ambulance. Nonetheless, he changes his mind, and three chapter later (chapter 15), he describes his very first flight. When in June 1917 he was asked if he would like to be a pilot and agreed to accompany a senior pilot on a 45-minute flight, he became convinced that he would indeed "make an excellent aviator" (158).

Arthur Kimber in Flight Training

As the speed of the airplanes increased and as they became more maneuverable, Clifford realized that it was becoming increasingly dangerous to fly. He describes one accident in which he was involved:

Enclosed is a souvenir. It is a piece from the propeller of the chasse plane I wrecked today, my first smash-up and a mighty good one, take it from me. But I was not hurt, so DON'T WORRY. You may be interested to know what it is like to be in an aeroplane wreck. Got in the plane this afternoon and made three flights with fair landings. These chasse type planes land very fast, 40 to 50 miles per hour and faster, and as I said before are very, very sensitive and quick to respond. In fact sometimes we are too brutal with the controls, as the French moniteurs say. We forget ourselves and handle these highly sensitive machine birds as we handled the lumber wagons we first flew in, planes like the Curtiss, Farmans, and Caudrons; that's what I did today.

I came down pretty fast, a little faster than I thought, like a 'bat out of H.' to use the generally accepted expression over here, and I didn't redress, pull back on the stick, quite soon enough. Result: the plane hit on the wheels and bounced way up in the air; this would have done nothing if I could have kept even, it would have ended in a 'pancake' or three point landing, but I tipped a little to the right. I corrected, but was too brutal, for instead of shoving the stick to the left just a little, I threw it over all the way as I should have done with a C. Up went the right wing; down went the left; and in the twinkling of an eye the left wing hit the ground, crumpled up like paper with a cracking sort of sound and the end strut dug in. The machine hesitated a second and then with a swing and a sudden jerk it reared up on its nose splintering the propeller into bits (only a matter of a couple of hundred dollars or so; thank heaven I don't have to pay a cent; it is on Uncle Sam and you good old taxpayers at home), and burying the revolving motor a foot in the ground

Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, Romagne
On June 15th 1918, Clifford recorded the death of a fellow aviator. An American on the Western Front contains several letters about exploits in the air, Clifford's own and those of others. His final letter bears no trace of suspicion that it might be his last. Recording a move to a new camp, he explains that he must be up early the following morning to report for duty. It was to be his last night. What happened in Clifford's final flight is related in the following chapter, "Final Flight", chapter 33.

An American on the Western Front is a labor of love and a tribute to the USA's efforts in World War One. It is both scholarly and passionate; Patrick Gregory is an historian and son-in-law of Elizabeth Nurser, the daughter of Clifford's brother, George. The family story is a national as well as a personal one and deserves to be read by all who wish to know more about the USA's involvement in the war. The accessibility of the language, the richness of the illustrations (pictures, photographs, and maps), and the additional information in the copious notes and appendix make An American on the Western Front pleasurable as well as instructive reading.

by Jane Mattisson Ekstam
Østfold University College, Norway

Before he joined the Air Service, Arthur Kimber also made a highly symbolic contribution to America's commitment to join the war "to save civilization." In the next three issues of Roads to the Great War, author Patrick Gregory will share the story of how the "First Flag" of America was transported to the battlefields of the Western Front.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Jane. This is another one to add to my library!

    1. Thank you so much, Pete. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.
      With all good wishes,


  2. Sounds like a good read. Sad he did not survive.

  3. It IS a great read, Bill. Deeply personal and highly informative.
    With all good wishes,


  4. I came to this post AFTER reading the first installment regarding the flag. Clearly Kimber not only did his bit in the war but thanks to, firstly his mother and then to family members, across two further generations, his letters are making an invaluable contribution to the preserved, first-hand history of an horrific period in the modern history of the so-called civilised world.

  5. this is really helpful with my upcoming EPQ thank you!