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

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A Fraternity of Arms: America and France in the Great War

By Robert B. Bruce
University Press of Kansas, 2003
Reviewed by David F. Beer

This book was published some 20 years ago but it was a surprising eye-opener for me. I was forced to realize that most of my reading about the Great War over the years had involved either a British bias or, less frequently, a German one. A Fraternity of Arms adjusted my prejudices and showed me that in the latter part of the war an enormous amalgamation of American and French efforts played a considerable part in bringing the war to an end. 

I suspect Bruce’s argument has been criticized here and there over the years, yet I found his work to be scholarly and thoroughly annotated. As he states in the preface, his intent is to: 

Shed light on a time when the French army and the U.S. army fought side by side in a common cause, against a common enemy, and were indeed, in the words of one French soldier of the Great War, not just allies, but friends (p. xiii). 

In nine chapters and a goodly number of tables, illustrations, maps, plus extensive notes, a bibliography and index, A Fraternity of Arms seeks to persuades us that neither the United States nor France could have brought the war to a victorious end without the help of each other. (The role of Britain and its Commonwealth in the conflict is rarely mentioned.)

The connection between the United States and France in America’s war for independence had remained in both nation’s minds for some two centuries. As we know, when the Great War broke out in 1914, America was by no means anxious to become involved. This did not stop many Americans, several from distinguished and wealthy families, from volunteering for the French army or Foreign Legion. The first chapter of the book goes into considerable detail regarding who they were, their initial experiences, and the contributions they made. The early history of the Escadrille Lafayette is an important part of this chapter.

Bruce’s ensuing eight chapters take on a fast-flowing and surprisingly detailed quality as he builds his case. We go from the French mission to the U.S. of April 1917 to the arrival in France of the AEF and its early inadequacies. Most of the training and arming of American troops was carried out by the French according to the author. The “amalgamation controversy” from December 1917 to February 1918 is given its own chapter, but by May of 1918 American forces, combined with the French, were participating in the fighting. From this point the author uses the term “Franco-American” to describe decisions and actions while more than once emphasizing that American weapons, tanks, planes, and other military equipment were almost totally supplied by the French.

We also get fascinating insights into the personalities of the French and American leaders in the war, including their rivalries and friendships. The challenges to Pershing’s insistence on American forces fighting as a separate army were almost overwhelming and, according to Bruce, never fully attained,. Thus we read, for example, that at Belleau Wood Americans “fought alongside French divisions operating on each flank and were supported throughout the operation by French artillery, far more French guns than American, and French aviation” (p. 209).

French praise for American help is often quoted, almost at times to the point of veneration. The Franco-American victory at the Second Battle of the Marne is claimed to be "the real turning point in the war." French General Mangin is quoted as being "ecstatic" over the actions of American troops in the closing days of the war, calling them "particularly brilliant." In a General Order he is “most magnanimous in singling out the Americans for praise" (p. 247). Such praise is cited frequently throughout the book.

It might be claimed that A Fraternity of Arms is one-sided in its interpretation of French-American cooperation in the Great War and by almost completely ignoring other contributors to the conflict. However, there’s no denying that Robert Bruce provides copious notes and sources to support his argument. Whatever our own proclivities might be on the matter, we will find this book a clearly written and strongly supported work.

David F. Beer



  1. “Lafayette, we are here” - General John J. Pershing.

  2. I have often pointed out mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and France, France helped the U.S. during the Revolution, U.S. provided a haven for French emigres during its Revolution, two world wars. When someone suggests France never fighs, I point out that France bled an ocean during World War I.