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

Friday, June 26, 2015

Interesting Symbolism: The U.S. Services of Supply Monument at Tours

The World War I Tours American Monument is located in the city of Tours, France, 146 miles southwest of Paris. The monument commemorates the efforts of the 650,000 men who served during World War I in the Services of Supply (SOS) of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) and whose work behind the battle lines made possible the achievements of the American armies in the field. The city of Tours was its headquarters during the war.

It is located just east of the southern end of Pont Wilson, which crosses the Loire River and consists of a handsome fountain of white stone with a gold gilded statue of an American Indian holding an eagle. Around the column are four reliefs depicting allegorical figures representing the four principal divisions of the SOS  organization—construction, distribution, procurement, administration—and in the lower part eight coats of arms of French cities where important installations of the SOS were located: Tours, Brest, Saint-Nazaire, Le Mans, Is-sur-Tille, Nevers, Neufchateau, and Bordeaux.

Most prominent are the figures atop the structure, but the beautifully executed eagle and Indian, upon reflection, raise some questions for me as to their relevance to what is being commemorated with this memorial. What exactly do they have to do with the mission and accomplishments of the SOS? The eagle, of course, has always been an all-purpose American symbol. What, however, does the human figure represent? Is he, the American people, sending American vitality to France? 

Certainly, American Indians were well represented in the AEF, fighting well wherever they appeared and contributing two of the great traditions of the war: the first code-talkers in U.S. military history,and "the Indian Sgt. York,"  Joseph Oklahombi of St. Etienne (another prospective Medal of Honor candidate IMHO).  I guess where I'm a little stuck, however, is the specific connection to the Services of Supply. The individual clearly does not represent a U.S. soldier (or stevedore or engineer).  Then again, the same question can be raised about the Indian-head emblems adopted by the Lafayette Escadrille, and the 2nd "Indian-head" Division of the AEF. Those figures are not contemporary aviators or infantryman. All I can gather is that the Tours figure is another embodiment of America, adding  a human dimension to the American symbolism of the eagle.

Scholar of the American Indians' service in the Great War, Diane Camurat, seems to think along the same lines.  While questioning the appropriateness of the sculpture, she suggests the eagle and Indian both incarnated wildness, freedom, and physical prowess, thus symbolizing the American participation in the war. Comments welcome.

Images and details from


  1. My grandfather, Hedley B. Wilcox, served with the 319th Services of Supply at Coutras, France. Here's an excerpt from a poem we found in his papers.
    … There we were in thick of bloodshed, fighting fiercely through the night,
    General Gangwer held the left; General Grover deployed the right
    ’Gainst the traitor General Storage, and we fought them mighty well
    Thanks to Evans and his vanguard, ably backed by Colonel Schell.
    Major Larner held on gamely, McGovney’s records helped a lot,
    Still, with all we lost ground slowly, and the enemy fire was hot. …

    There were Clowry, Gregory, Hans and Bailey, fighting might and main,
    Till Pope and Walsh and Wilcox brought the rear guard up again. …

    Felling all that stopped their passage, moving freight trains far and near
    Rushed into the fearful battle Hendley and his musketeer.
    Thus we gained our full-earned victory, thus we earned eventual peace.
    Thus the veteran ends the story to the child upon his knees.
    (“The Battle of Gironde,” author unknown, typescript in collection of Elinor Boyer)

  2. Symbolism is what it is about. When a French child sees the eagle he or she may not know it symbolizes America. Chances are they will recognize the American native.
    Thus an impression is learned. It is okay to question historic symbolism but it is what it is. So let it rest. A symbolic question would be.....what would they have done without US?

  3. The Indian probably has nothing to do with the participation of Native Americans in the AEF. Rather it is a symbol of the New World or more specifically, the US. (The plaza in front of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, for example, has six statues, each representing one of the world's continents. North America, sculpted by Ernest-Eugene Hiolle, is depicted as a Native American.)

    The eagle is a symbol of the AEF. Note it is standing on the Indian and about to take flight . I read this as depiction of the US/SOS (the Indian) providing the basis for the AEF (eagle) to do battle.

  4. Dang I think the system didn't take my message.

    I'll do a shortened version because I am too lazy to redo it all. The American Indian became a much beloved figure in American symbolism shortly after the last were put onto reservations. So, it is no surprise to me that one was chosen in one of our memorials overseas.