On this day in 1914, the American poet Alan Seeger volunteers for service in the French Foreign Legion during the First World War.
Born in New York City in 1888, Seeger attended Harvard University, where his illustrious classmates in the Class of 1910 included the poet John Reed and the journalist Walter Lippmann. After living in New York writing poetry and working on the staff of the magazine American, edited by Reed, Seeger moved to Paris in 1912, where he lived on the Left Bank among a set of American expatriates until the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914.
On August 24 of that year, Seeger volunteered to serve as a private in the Foreign Legion of the French army. After training at Toulouse, his regiment was sent to the trenches of northern France, where to Seeger’s dismay they saw little actual combat. In a letter to theNew York Sunwritten in December 1914, Seeger voices his frustration with life in the trenches: “This style of warfare is extremely modern and for the artillerymen is doubtless very interesting, but for the poor common soldier it is anything but romantic. His role is simply to dig himself a hole in the ground and to keep hidden in it as tightly as possible. Continually under the fire of the opposing batteries, he is yet never allowed to get a glimpse of the enemy. Exposed to all the dangers of war, but with none of its enthusiasms or splendid élan [spirit], he is condemned to sit like an animal in its burrow and hear the shells whistle over his head and take their little daily toll from his comrades.”
Seeger finally got his chance in September 1915, with the launch of a major new Allied offensive in Champagne, France. While awaiting orders to go forward, Seeger wrote home of his uncontainable excitement: “I expect to march right up the Aisne borne on an irresistible élan. It will be the greatest moment of my life.” Although the offensive ultimately failed, Seeger’s dedication to the French army continued. His unit spent much of the rest of 1915 and early 1916 on reserve, and bronchitis kept him out of service for several months. During that period he wrote what would become his most famous poem, “Rendezvous with Death,” with its oft-quoted lines: I have a rendezvous with death/On some scarred slope or battered hill/When Spring comes round again this year/And the first meadow-flowers appear.
On July 5, 1916, Alan Seeger died during the massive Allied attack at the Somme River, after being mortally wounded by a barrage of six German machine guns during his unit’s costly but successful assault on the heavily fortified village of Belloy-en-Santerre, France.