The Full Story of the Flag of the Volunteers, How It Was Carried through Paris on the Day of Their Enlistment, How It Was Used to Drape the Bodies of Two of Their Number Who Were Killed in Action, and How It Eventually Came to Reside in the Musée des Invalides
THOSE PARIS YEARS: With the World at the Cross-Roads
by SAMUEL N. WATSON, D.D. (NY: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1936).
Another great day when I spoke for France was the Fourth of July, 1917; it was the day when American troops appeared for the first time in the streets of Paris.
When the War broke on France there were a number of young Americans in Paris who were eager to enlist in her service, students and others who had been beneficiaries of that culture which France offered so willingly to all who sought it; but, being citizens of a nation which was at that time "neutral" in the conflict, they could not be received into the Regular Army; as a consequence they took service in the Foreign Legion. General Gouraud said of these men: "A distinction should be made between duty and heroism. We Frenchmen who fought in the War were performing a duty required of us by our country; but when men who have no obligation to fight risk their lives in defence of a cause because they hold it dear, those men are showing real heroism." A group of these young men went to see the Ambassador to ask him what they should do in this matter of enlisting in the defence of France and of Freedom. Mr. Herrick first freed his conscience by getting out the Code and reading them the Law on the duty of "Neutrals"; then he freed his heart by saying: "That is the Law, Boys; but if I was young, and were in your shoes, by God, I know mighty well what I would do." Then to the Rue de Grenelle came the "Boys"; and they were our first American Volunteers. On the 12th of May, 1917, I wrote to Monsieur Painlevé:
"Monsieur le Ministre,
"For the love of France and of Liberty a little group of Americans enlisted in the Second Regiment of the Foreign Legion at the commencement of the War; and for the three years of 1914, 1915, and 1916 they fought beside their French comrades. Always they carried with them the Stars and Stripes which they floated above their dugouts during their hours of rest, and when they went 'over the top' they carried the flag with them.
"This flag was worn as a girdle about his body by René Phélizot of the Second Regiment, Sixth Battalion, when he was killed. Two other men of the same Company, of whom one was killed and the other was seriously wounded, wore it in the same manner.
"Their flag has been entrusted to me by the representatives of these fellow citizens of mine, with the request that I present it to their beloved France in the hope that it may be placed in the Musée des Invalides, should that be possible.
"The flag is accompanied by a plaque in bronze which bears the following inscription:
porté par les
du 2ème Régiment de la Légion Etrangère
C. R. Phélizot
Dr. Van Vorst
P. A. Rockwell
J. W. Ganson
K. Y. Rockwell
D. W. King
J. J. Casy
F. W. Zinn
W. B. Hall
J. J. Bach
"I deeply appreciate the honour of being the representative of my compatriots in begging you to accept this flag in the name of those Americans who gave their all to save France.
"I beg you, Monsieur le Ministre to accept the assurance of my warmest regard,
"S. N. Watson."
I knew well enough what the Minister of War would like to do, but---could he do it? that was the question. America had just come to take her place with the Allies. It was a very tense moment. To exalt the flag and the deeds of those Volunteers of 1914; to glorify those Americans who through those three terribly long years helped to hold open the door until America could gather her force and her élan; men who, in the words of Myron Herrick, "to many of us seemed the saviours of our National Honour"; men who were offering themselves for a cause in which the heart of their country was already enlisted---Could France say that, in the face of the arriving American troops? True or not---Could it be said? I did not know. Therefore, in order to avoid any needless embarrassment to my friends in the War Office, I sought an intermediary. I went to see my good and great friend General De Lacroix, and I laid the whole proposition before him, and asked his opinion. Could this flag be accepted by France now? Should I make the offer? General De Lacroix was heartily in favour of my proposal, and urged me to proceed with it. "Then, Mon Général," I said; "when you go to the Council of War this morning, will you take with you my letter to the Minister of War; will you tell him privately what it all means; will you ask him if he wishes to formally receive the letter? If he thinks that it is unwise or lacking in tact to take up this matter at this present moment, just put the letter back in your pocket, and forget it; but, on the other hand, if Monsieur Painlevé approves of it, will you then present the letter in due form to the Minister of War in my behalf?"
The following documents tell the rest of this part of the story:
"Paris, the 16th June, 1917
"Monsieur le Recteur,
"I am happy to transmit to you the enclosed card which I have just received from the Chef de Cabinet of the Minister of War.
"Please accept, Monsieur le Recteur, the assurance of my high regard and my sincere devotion.
"H. De Lacroix."
"MINISTÈRE DE LA GUERRE
Cabinet du Ministre
"The proposition of Monsieur le Recteur Watson is accepted.
"The emblem of the American Legionnaires will have its place in the Salle d'Honneur of the Musée.
"Be pleased to accept, mon Général, the assurance of my deep respect and my personal regard;
"signed by the Chef de Cabinet"
Ministère de la Guerre Cabinet du Ministre
"Paris, the 14th June, 1917
"Monsieur le Recteur;
"In the name of your compatriots enlisted as Volunteers in the 2ème Etranger, you have graciously offered me the Star Spangled Banner which was their guide in battle for almost three years, in order that it may be deposited, together with a commemorative plaque in the Musée des Invalides.
"I accept with deep appreciation in the name of the French Army this glorious emblem, for which General Niox the Governor of the Invalides has ready a worthy place in the Salle d'Honneur of the Musée de l'Armée.
"This flag will thus stand forever as a striking testimony to the devotion shown to France by those American Volunteers who at the very outset of hostilities came to fight in our ranks for Right and for Civilisation.
"I am entrusting to the Military Governor of Paris the duty of arranging with you and with General Niox the ceremonial which will be used for the turning over of this American flag to the custody of the Invalides.
"Be pleased to accept, Monsieur le Recteur, the assurance of my personal regard:
It was a wonderful sight: the background the Court of Honour of the Invalides; the galleries all filled and more than twenty thousand persons assembled; in the immediate foreground (I have the official photograph before me as I write) Monsieur Painlevé Minister of War, Monsieur Poincaré President of the Republic, the American Ambassador Mr. Sharp, the Maire of Puy in the Lafayette country, Monsieur Deschanel President of the Chamber of Deputies, Monsieur Ribot Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Pershing, Admiral Lacaze, General Dubail, General Pétain, General Foch, Maréchal Joffre, General Niox; the President of the Senate and the Diplomatic representatives were seated on a raised platform; and in the front and centre were Charles Carroll carrying the flag, and I who was to offer it to France. It was a little flag, a very cheap piece of bunting in itself; but it carried all the honour of a great nation in its brilliant folds. Some one had given it to the Volunteers when they first enlisted; I saw them crossing the Place de la Concorde with it; it went with them to Rouen where they first made camp, then when Rouen was threatened their Regiment was sent to Toulouse; and from there the flag went with them to the Front. I had had a rich rosewood staff and ropes of heavy silken cord made for it. The Ceremonies began with the entrance of the troops: first the bleu-horizon of the French, then the khaki of the Americans; an American Band played the "Marseillaise," and a French Band played "The Star Spangled Banner." Then there was presented to General Pershing a general's guidon as a gift from the descendants of soldiers who had fought beside Washington and Lafayette, and another similar flag from Le Puy which was the chef-lieu of Lafayette's home country. After which I addressed General Pershing:
"It is my privilege, General, as representing our American Legionnaires, those Americans who for the love of France and of Liberty entered the French Army in 1914, to present to France this flag, their flag and our flag. They were the pioneers of that great American Army which is coming following your lead as their General. And now they, the Advance Guard, are leaving to you and to your troops the task which they began so bravely; now your new Standard will replace their bullet-pierced flag; whilst theirs is confided to France whom they loved with deathless eagerness, and it will be guarded forever in that Shrine of the Nation, the Musée des Invalides."
Then to General Niox, the Governor of the Invalides, I addressed these words:
"Mon Général, it is my duty as well as an honour which I appreciate most deeply to bring you to-day, on behalf of a little group of my countrymen, this flag which they loved. They wrote their names on its bars of white, and they signed it with their blood. It was not their privilege to carry it with them as a battle flag when they went 'over the top,' but at such a time one of them wore it, as a ceinture de sauvetage: and more than one of them was wounded, more than one of them was killed with this flag wrapped about his body. It was thus that our Stars and Stripes received their Baptism of Blood in this struggle for Right against Might. I beg that you will accept it in the name of France, and I ask that it may be placed where it will be a perpetual inspiration to those who follow on to be worthy of those who have gone before them to pay the eternal price of the Liberty of Nations."
Then Charles Carroll handed the flag to General Niox, and the Ceremony was ended.
I felt deeply my responsibility in being, in a sense, spokesman for both America as well as for France at such a critical moment, when ill-advised words might have stirred up reactions because of feelings already sensitive. And I was immensely relieved when I found that the French Government gave unquestioned approval to what I had said. Monsieur Painlevé, Minister of War, was one of the first to come forward and to take both my hands in his and to express his great satisfaction. Then came the Directeur of the Protocol, the arbiter of diplomatic etiquette, who said to me in a voice broken by emotion, "Monsieur le Recteur, I trembled for you and for France when you began to speak for I knew well the difficulties of your task. Your words were in perfect taste and in glorious moderation. From the depth of my heart as a Frenchman I thank you. It was splendid; it was splendid." And so drew to a close one of the great days of my life.