Not far outside Paris stands one of the many monuments to the almost innumerable dead of World War I. This one is not unusual marking the graves of the many Americans who fought and died on European soil during that conflict. But it is unique for the remarkable attributes of those who remain there: they are Americans who died serving France, not the United States. This is the monument to the Escadrille Lafayette, U.S. aviators who flew the skies over the Western front defending France against German imperial fighters before the United States entered the war in 1917.
In the post-WWII era of American preeminence we in the United States are accustomed to being “first to fight”. Although this feeling has changed after 13 years of war, it is still interesting, indeed jarring, to remember a time long ago when Americans were far more reluctant to entangle themselves abroad. The United States was dragged quite in spite of itself into both World Wars. So Americans who wanted to fight first — for personal, moral or ideological reasons — had to find other ways to get into combat.
Most famous among these, of course, were the irregular Lincoln Brigades in Spain prior to the outbreak of World War II. Famously socialist but cynically manipulated by Moscow, they were heroic but largely ineffective against Franco’s fascism. During the expanded war in Europe Americans more often than not joined the Canadian forces because it was easy to cross the border and volunteer. Americans especially joined the Royal Canadian Air Forces (RCAF). In fact, probably the most famous poem about flying ever written, “High Flight,” was composed by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American aviator with the RCAF.
More than 9,000 Americans joined the RCAF before the United States entered the war. Canada, as a dominion of the United Kingdom, fought on the side of the Allies following the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the United States did not join them until Pearl Harbor more than two years later. More than 840 Americans died in Canadian service.
Canada wasn’t the only country Americans served with. They also served with the British forces, particularly the Royal Air Force. Americans have joined the famous French Foreign Legion. (Americans of German descent also volunteered for the Wehrmacht, a fact dramatized by the excellent miniseries Band of Brothers — not mentioned in the book — and about which the less said the better.)
In this way, these Americans have much in common with the tens of thousands of colonial forces who volunteered or were press-ganged into service for the crown or Champs Elysees. In both World Wars, all the imperial countries — France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany — drew on colonial possessions in North and West Africa, Central Africa, South Asia, and East Africa respectively.
And these Americans, like many of the colonial forces, have been not recognized here at home as having lost their lives in the service of the United States. Presumably their families never received benefits from the United States government for their death, either. But as you can read in this Toronto Star article, their service is beginning to be recognized here at home.
It’s important to remember that many of these Americans saw what Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt did: the inevitability of war with Hitler and the unity of interest particularly with Great Britain and the Allies. As on American who served with the RCAF noted in a letter home during the war, he felt that his service with the Canadian forces was in the direct interest of the United States: “[T]here is no question of serving Canada to the neglect of my mother country. He who serves Great Britain or any of its Dominions also serves the U.S. and vice-versa. Our differences are in arbitrary boundary lines only.”
Nevertheless the tragedy of war and lost youth that is an inevitable collateral of Memorial Day is all the more poignant when considering these young Americans who served, and died, in a noble cause so far from home and wearing the flag of a foreign nation. Magee is a special case in point. Happily, he is known by every pilot in the English-speaking world for one poem he wrote. But it is worth imagining what verse he might have contributed had he survived the war. As it is he is buried in aptly named Lincolnshire, England. He died in a training accident having never seen combat. But he “touched the face of God” before he was even 20 years old.