July 4th, 1917 in Paris: Celebrating the United States’ Arrival into World War I

Just after their arrival in France some American soldiers became a symbol of deliverance for the French people. The first American Expeditionary Forces’ (AEF) contingent landed in France in late June 1917 at Saint-Nazaire.  The war would soon enter its fourth year with no end in sight. Every French family had been touched by the injury and loss of loved ones, and the austerities of war. The arrival of the first units of American soldiers was a much anticipated and welcome symbol of relief to the war weary French. American sailors arriving from ships at Saint-Nazaire were first from that location to arrive in Paris. They found a city speckled with American flags of all sizes, and citizens extremely grateful that their new allies, the Americans, had arrived.

 On July 3rd members of the 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry arrived in Paris from Saint-Nazaire with their military band. Crowds had waited for hours to greet them at the Gare d’Austerlitz, and French nurses gave them lunch on arrival. The battalion was then marched off to barracks, in preparation for their planned formal appearance the next day on July 4th.

On the morning of the 4th the mounted band of the French Republican Guard arrived with a large crowd before Gen. John J. Pershing’s residence in Paris. He came to a window when he heard the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the crowd respectfully removed their hats for the American general. The French had come to the aid of the United States during the Revolutionary War, and now French citizens showed their gratitude and respect for the alliance renewed and the favor returned.

Pershing, with soldiers from the 16th Infantry, began the day’s events at Les Invalides*. Upon arrival, members of the 16th Infantry marched into the central cour d’honneur with a veteran French battalion.  President Raymond Poincaré, Marshal Joffre, other dignitaries, and aged veterans attended the ceremony. Descendants of French officers of the American Revolution presented their banners to Pershing. The symbol of Franco-American friendship was not lost on Pershing. He noted that from this location Napoleon declared days of national mourning after the death of George Washington. Pershing recalled this event warmly in his memoire.  He said “No other occasion that I recall was more significant or more clearly indicated the depth of French sentiment and affection for their old ally.”

Afterwards, the American and French battalions and a military band marched to Picpus Cemetery to visit the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette, a French hero of the American Revolution. On the route hundreds of thousands thronged the parade, giving particular attention to the marching American soldiers. Their route took them north across the Seine, through the Place de la Concorde. They entered the Rue de Rivoli going east past the site of the Bastille. Women pushed into the ranks walking arm in arm with the soldiers. The crowd pressed flowers on the soldiers, and Pershing said that “The column looked like a moving flower garden.” Even this relatively small contingent called out a sense of hope to Parisians fatigued by years of war.

At the cemetery Pershing sat next to Prime Minister Paul Painlevé and the other dignitaries, serving as a symbol of the American and French cooperation.  Pershing, who was coaxed into remarks, delegated the main American address to Lt. Col. Charles E. Stanton. His remarks included the following memorable passage.

“America has joined forces with the Allied Powers, and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue. Lafayette, we are here.”

After this moving event, the American Chamber of Commerce hosted a lunch for the dignitaries and that evening opera singers performed French and American patriotic pieces. Celebrating the American arrival was brief.  Soon the 16th Infantry would enter training for their role in the fighting.

*Les Invalides was established by Louis the 14th as a national soldiers’ home. Today it is the site of the Musée de l'Armée, a military hospital, and the tomb of the Emperor Napoleon.

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