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

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

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

Part I: The Journey Begins

By Patrick Gregory

On 24 April 1917, less than three weeks after Congress, following President Wilson's war message, declared war on Germany, a crowd gathered around a group of students on San Francisco's Embarcadero waterfront. The young men standing proudly to attention at the Ferry Building that lunchtime were drawn from Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. 

Although numbering only 63 in total, the group — one section from Stanford, two from Berkeley — was dwarfed by the entourage accompanying it. Some 3,500 uniformed university cadets thronged around, themselves flanked by detachments from the U.S. Army and Navy. All had come to celebrate the young men's decision to leave imminently for the war in France — volunteers of the "American Ambulance" or "American Field Service", a corps of ambulance drivers already serving on the Western Front. At a given signal, the assembly moved on en masse for the two-mile march from the Ferry Building down to the city's Civic Auditorium, there to take part in an historic leave-taking ceremony, one which would help symbolize America's participation in the Great War. 

The Civic Auditorium Rally

More than 12,000 people crammed inside the auditorium for the occasion, having come to listen to the speeches being made and anthems sung and to witness the presentations which followed. Californian dignitaries sat and stood on the platform, figures drawn from the worlds of politics, the church, and the army. Among them, and from the universities concerned, the dean of the faculties of the University of California David Barrows and the president of Stanford and chairman of the League of California Ray Lyman Wilbur; the French consul-general Julien Neltner; Mrs. Herbert Hoover; and the San Francisco industrialist and entrepreneur W.B. Bourn. The latter was representing the group the "Friends of France". The Friends and the American League of California were to present brassards for the young men to wear during their service in France, and also to hand over four American flags. These flags had been brought beforehand by the Bishop of California for blessing and one of them was soon to take on a special significance — it would become the first official American flag to be brought to the front and flown in service there. 

Mindful that it would be some time before the first contingent of American Expeditionary Force troops would be ready to leave for Europe, the American League of California had approached Secretary of War Newton Baker in Washington for permission to fly this "First Flag" and the other flags as official standards in France. Baker had agreed, and in the San Francisco ceremony that April day, the First Flag was handed over to the detachment of volunteers representing Stanford. The Stanford students would have the responsibility of bringing the flag to France as soon as possible, and once there presenting it to a group already serving on the front — the First Stanford Unit — who had set out from their university two months before. 

Because it was likely that this new "Second Stanford" would take some time to gather itself, however, it was decided to entrust the banner to one member of the unit and to ask him to travel on ahead of the group. That task now fell to 21-year-old Arthur "Clifford" Kimber. 

"Allies Day," New York, May 1917
Childe Hassam
Kimber began his journey four days later, setting out on the first leg of his trip on an overnight train from the Oakland Mole railroad wharf across the bay from San Francisco. His journey across America was to take a week in all as he wound his way doggedly across country: up through California and into Oregon; over into Washington State and Idaho, across Montana and North Dakota into Minnesota, and across the Mid-West and beyond. There were stop-offs on route in Portland, Chicago, and Detroit to try to gain some publicity for the flag, something he had promised his unit he would do. 

A photograph of Kimber posing proudly with the flag duly appeared in a newspaper in Oregon, and before long he found himself touring factories in the big industrial cities of Chicago and Detroit, factories which would soon be gearing up for the demands of the war effort. Reaching New York on Saturday 5 May, Kimber's first port of call was the offices of the American Field Service and the organization's main figurehead in the United States, the Bostonian Henry Sleeper. With his ship scheduled to leave for Europe just ten days later, it had already been planned that the flag would be paraded down Fifth Avenue — the so-called "Avenue of the Allies" — at the head of an American Ambulance parade, something the two men now discussed. Theirs was to be one of several processions and cavalcades New York would see that week, with the Allied representatives Marshal Joseph Joffre of France and British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in town at the head of their countries' respective war delegations. The American Impressionist Frederick Childe Hassam was also there, an artistic witness to these heady days of flag-waving and cheering crowds, days which would later be commemorated in one of his Flag Series, "Allies Day May 1917," now in the National Gallery of Art. 

The parade involving the American Ambulance volunteers, when it came on Thursday 10 May, was a stirring affair. Yet it was one with some comedic overtones. The crowds did indeed gather in strength to see this special Stars and Stripes being carried through the city, and they lined the pavements down the route. But festivities were somewhat marred beforehand by a prank played by some of the ambulance students from University of California, Berkeley, who had come to New York for the parade. As Stanford's senior and larger rival, and seemingly annoyed by the attention being afforded Kimber, some of the University of California students surrounded him. They snatched the flag from his grasp and, succeeding in bundling it into a taxi with one of their unit on board, made off down through Manhattan. What followed owed more to a Keystone Cops sequence than a serious war rally, a rather farcical chase complete with a passing policeman jumping on the running of a second taxi to give pursuit. The offending student party was eventually stopped and the flag returned to allow the ceremony to proceed. 

Note from Former President Roosevelt

The rest of Kimber's time in New York passed off with less excitement, barring a stop-off to visit former President Theodore Roosevelt. The latter was an old acquaintance and sometime ally of Kimber's late clergyman father, but, more specially, he was young Clifford Kimber's political hero. The two talked of Kimber's father and his ministry before moving on to the main subject at hand, the war. Roosevelt, by that time in his late 50s, reflected ruefully on the fact that it appeared unlikely he would be permitted to raise his own corps of troops for the front. If that changed, the former president said, all the younger man had to do was write to him and he would use him in some capacity. But for now, the older man took the notebook proffered and inscribed a message of good luck to the volunteer on his travels. 

Before leaving New York, Kimber went to Trinity Church on Wall Street. There, on Sunday 13 May, with the rector Rev. William Manning presiding, he took part in a service carrying the flag and afterwards placed the flag in the chancel of the church. Many parishioners paused before it with some stopping to touch or kiss the folds of consecrated cloth. The following afternoon, accompanied by his mother, Clara, who had travelled to New York with him, he took a taxi down to Pier 62 on the Hudson river, there to board the steamship St. Louis, bound for Liverpool in England. A reassuring ship to sail for Europe in, the St. Louis — later renamed the USS Louisville and used as a troopship of the A.E.F. — had been the first such American vessel to be armed and to sail the Atlantic in the spring of 1917 after Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. 

Book Cover Showing A.C. Kimber
& the Actual First Flag
The nine-day voyage on the St. Louis passed off without incident, life on board gradually settling into a comfortable if humdrum routine, but in the last 24 hours of the crossing, that easygoing mood of passengers suddenly darkened. The ship was entering the coastal waters around the British Isles, the danger zone where most U-boat activity of the war had been concentrated. They passed the area off the Irish coast where the Lusitania had been sunk two years previously and now spotted an empty lifeboat and some floating wreckage in the sea, evidence of more recent activity. After a few hours, a U.S. destroyer came out to guide them and chaperon them the rest of the way to Liverpool. Yet the mist swirling around them kept the approaching land largely hidden from view and that last night, fearful of having to abandon ship in haste, many of the passengers took to sleeping on deck or inside in the saloon, fully clothed. 

Yet make land they did in Liverpool on Wednesday 23 May as the passengers spilled gratefully onto the quayside and docks below. After a few brief hours of sightseeing in the port city, Kimber was on his way again, a train carrying him and others from the ship to London. Overnighting in the capital that evening he next secured passage on a cross-Channel troopship to France, and by dawn on the Friday he was in Paris. Kimber was to spend the next week there, staying at the American Field Service headquarters and getting used to the disciplines of his new quasi-military life. Then, after discussions with the director of the AFS, A. Piatt Andrew, he prepared to make for the front to join the First Stanford Unit. He would finally deliver his precious cargo.

© Patrick Gregory 2015

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


  1. The book's title is a slight on all the Americans who had been serving in France for up to two years before Kimber paraded around the States as a flag bearer. The first 'official' US flag perhaps, but not the first American on the Western Front. In the final paragraph above he is preparing to make for the front to join the First Stanford Unit (Americans!). In April 1915 members of the American Ambulance (overseen by the American Field Service) were sent (on trial) to the Front. They proved their worth and by the end of April there were three sections of twenty ambulances. During the war 127 members of the American Ambulance lost their lives, the first in December 1915. Some great images and information found here
    No disrespect intended to Kimber as a soldier and his part in the war.

    1. My guess is the Americans serving overseas couldn't fly flags before we technically entered the war -- because it would give the impression that we WERE in the war. So, it wasn't just an "official" flag on the probably actually was the first flag on the front.

    2. The book cover pictured here bears the title "The First American on the Western Front" which led to my comments. However, the title under Jane's excellent review is "An American on the Western Front" which doesn't exclude those who went before him, and as others have said, the book definitely looks like a great read.

    3. Sorry, I was concerned with the title of the article, "The Epic Story of America's First Flag" -- I barely glanced at the pictures embedded in the article itself.

    4. The cover with "The First American..." was a draft and here by mistake. The accurate published title is "An American..." We have had some trouble with this link and are working to fix it. In no way should this reflect on Mr. Gregory's fine work. Please see Jane's review post of the book on 16 August to view the proper title.
      ~ Kimball Worcester, Assistant Editor

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