René Phélizot



A few days after the appeal for foreign volunteers, three Americans -- René Phélizot of Chicago, William Thaw of Pittsburgh, and James Stewart Carstairs, a Philadelphian -- leading members of the American colony in Paris, summoned their countrymen to muster an American Volunteer Corps "for the purpose of defending France from a monstrous foe..."

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At precisely 8:30 a.m., Charles Sweeny finished calling the muster roll of the American volunteers. There were sixty-eight men present of the more than one hundred who had signed up. The rest had thought things over and possibly decided that for them, discretion was the better part of valor. The news coming from the north was all bad, and the casualty lists were ominously long ...

At 8:45, Sweeny blew his whistle. The Americans, wearing oddly assorted civilian garb, carrying brown paper parcels and suitcases, awkwardly formed ranks in the Place du Palais Royal for the half-mile or so march through the city to the depot, the Gar St.-Lazare.

Alan Seeger and René Phélizot were at the head of the column, each holding a large American flag. The men behind them tried hard to act like soldiers when Sweeny shouted, "Forward march!"

"Those boys seemed an unlikely lot for soldiers," an eyewitness recalled. "Their lines were swaybacked and no one kept quite in step although Sweeny counted cadence until he was hoarse .... One thing I'll never forget was the pride in their eyes."

Word soon flashed along the line of march that "les volontaires americains" were on the way. Within minutes, dense crowds lined the Avenue de l'Opera, the Place de l'Opera, the Rue d'Auber and other streets leading to the Gare St.-Lazare.

"Vive les americains!" the onlokers cried. "Vive les braves gens!"

People pressed around to thrust flowers, cigarettes, chocolates, and bottles of wine on the marchers. Hastily formed police cordons could not restrain the enthusiastic people. Girls squirmed past gendarmes to embrace the Yanks and the pseudo-Yanks. A few linked arms with marchers and strode along with them.

A French officer who watched the volunteers straggle past wrote later: "The very unmilitary aspect the group touched my heart.... These young foreigners were prepared willingly to sacrifice themselves for France... No one had forced them to come.... I wept as they strode by with their flags boldly flying before...."

The flag bearers, Phélizot and Seeger, attracted much attention and drew the most applause. Phélizot was well known in Paris and had been the subject of many newspaper stories describing his exploits in Africa as a big-game hunter. "Vive Phélizot!" voices cried, and the former Chicagoan, grinning widely, acknowledged the plaudits.

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Alan Seeger, René Phélizot, David King, and Herman Chatkoff were behind the lines at Cuiry-les-Chaudardes. The four Americans were grouped around a small fire, drinking coffee, when two anciens from a machine-gun section walked past. The veterans were drunk and out for trouble. They made insulting remarks about volunteers in general and Americans in particular.

Phélizot hit one of them and, within seconds, a wild melee started. Veterans came on the run to support their comrades; Americans and other volunteers rushed out to intercept them. A furious free-for-all exploded. Men kicked, punched, gouged, and clawed. An ancien slugged Phélizot from behind with a wine bottle and knocked him unconscious. At last the fight was broken up by officers and guards.

Phélizot came to, but suffered an agonizing head-ache as a result of the blow. His friends brought him to the battalion aid station where an indifferent doctor accused Phélizot of malingering and ordered him to the front with his company the next day.

On the way to the trenches, the former big-game hunter collapsed. He was taken to the military hospital at Fismes where doctors found his skull had been fractured. Two days later, Phélizot died without regaining consciousness.

When news of his death reached the front, the enraged Amercans descended on the machine-gun section and another fight erupted. Chatkoff caught the man who had struck Phélizot and was stomping him to death when military police stopped the brawl.

Seeger, who had been Phélizot's friend, was in the midst of the donnybrook. He came out of it with bruised knuckles, a split lip, and a bloody nose. "What we did was pure violence. We reacted with primitive fury. Nothing we could do would bring back René, but we sure let off steam!" he wrote home.

~~ Irving Werstein, Sound No Trumpet: The Life and Death of Alan Seeger (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1967).