Rendezvous With Death: The Americans Who Joined the Foreign Legion in 1914 to Fight for France and Civilization, by David Hanna, Regnery History, Washington, D.C., 2016, $29.99
The Americans who rushed to fight for France in 1914 today may appear naive idealists. But while a few sought adventure, those who volunteered more often regarded World War I as a crusade to save civilization from Teutonic militarism.
When war erupted in August 1914 many sympathetic Americans answered the call. Hanna focuses on seven volunteers, touching on nearly 30 others who rushed to the Tricolor by year’s end. The magnifique seven included Ivy Leaguers, an artist, an ad man and a boxer. The best known was poet Alan Seeger, uncle of future folk singer Pete Seeger.
As enlistment in the Legion was nominally legal for Americans, Hanna’s subjects took that route. In the industrialized slaughter of the Western Front, many of the American volunteers lost their idealism, though most remained in the French service. Three of the seven—Kiffin Rockwell, Victor Chapman and William Thaw—transferred from the legion to the Aéronautique Militaire, helping form the Lafayette Escadrille. Five other enlistees later joined them in the air service.
Hanna’s main source for the history of the escadrille is Herbert Molloy Mason’s outdated 1964 history, and Hanna repeats myths about wartime aviation, such as the preponderance of canvas-covered aircraft and the two-week life expectancy of new pilots. Overall, though, Rendezvous With Death hits on all cylinders with its depiction of a conflict with present-day ramifications.