Alan Seeger Menu

Alan SEEGER . Born 22 June1888, New York City . Grew up on Staten Island. At 12, moved with his family to Mexico City. At 14 sent to boarding school at Hackley School in Tarrytown, NY, but continued spending his summers in Mexico. At 18, in September 1906, Seeger entered Harvard University, where he became friends with another poet, John Reed, later famous as author of Ten Days that Shook the World. (see The Bohemian Friendship of John Reed & Alan Seeger). Seeger graduated in June, 1910, with an honors degree in Celtic Literature. Continued friendship with Reed & circle of radicals, writers & artists in Greenwich Village from late 1910 to early 1912, where, between bouts of poetry, he worked as a sometime writer for the magazine American, where Reed was an editor. In the Spring of 1912, Seeger moved to Paris where he continued his bohemian existence on the Left Bank among a set of artistic American expatriots until the outbreak of war. On 24 August 1914, Seeger volunteered as a private in the Foreign Legion, French Army. Assigned to Regiment de Marche, he served in Champagne, on the Aisne, in Alsace, and on the Somme. He was wounded in February 1915, and invalided to Biarritz in April. He rejoined his regiment in May. Alan Seeger was killed in action 4 July 1916 on the Somme, near Belloy-eni-Santerre during a charge, and is reported to have sung a patriotic song to urge on his comrades as he bled to death. His poem, "I Have a Rendevous with Death" was the most popular and widely-quoted American poem of the war.

THE fullest and the most serious and probably, as a consequence, the most valuable record thus far published of life in the Foreign Legion, is to be found in the "Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger." Seeger was somewhat older than the other American volunteers who were in the Legion and more mature in mind, having seen much of the world, having meditated deeply and having expressed himself in verse of enduring value. Then, too, it was vouchsafed to him, being in reserve yet by no means out of danger, to live through the battle of Champagne, so vividly described by young Genet, and to continue in the Legion until July, 1916, nearly two years, when he fell at Belloy-en-Santerre. His diary and letters, therefore, cover a longer period than those of any other American in the Foreign Legion. Born in New York of old New England stock, in 1888, Seeger passed his boyhood on Staten Island. When he was twelve the family moved to the city of Mexico, where the youth lived two years, a period which left a deep impression upon his temperament and his tastes. He entered Harvard in 1906 from the Hackley School at Tarrytown, New York, having in the interval spent a year with a tutor in California. The first half of his college course was given to his studies and to miscellaneous reading, the latter half rather more to his friends. The members of his family were exceptionally gifted as writers and musicians, and his tastes were along similar lines. Even when a boy in the city of Mexico he and the other members of the family had issued a home magazine, and in college he was one of the editors of the Harvard Monthly.

The two years following Seeger's graduation in 1910 formed a period of hesitation and uncertainty as to his course in life. Finally he decided that what he sought might be found in Paris---beauty, romance, picturesqueness, the joy of life. Thus it happened that when the war began he was living among the students of the Latin Quarter, absorbing experiences and recording his thoughts and feelings in verse. Before the war was three weeks old he, with a number of his fellow countrymen, enlisted in the Foreign Legion of France. He has explained, with simplicity and with obvious sincerity, the motive which led them to take this step. In a letter written from the Aisne trenches in May, 1915, to the New Republic he said:

     I have talked with so many of the young volunteers here. Their case is little known, even by the French, yet altogether interesting and appealing. They are foreigners on whom the outbreak of war laid no formal compulsion. But they had stood on the butte in springtime perhaps, as Julian and Louise stood, and looked out over the myriad twinkling lights of the beautiful city. Paris mystic, maternal, personified, to whom they owed the happiest moments of their lives---Paris was in peril. Were they not under a moral obligation, no less binding than [that by which] their comrades were bound, legally, to put their breasts between her and destruction ? Without renouncing their nationality, they had yet chosen to make their homes here beyond any other city in the world. Did not the benefits and blessings they had received point them a duty that heart and conscience could not deny ?

A month later he wrote to his mother:

     You must not be anxious about my not coming back. The chances are about ten to one that I will. But if I should not, you must be proud, like a Spartan mother, and feel that it is your contribution to the triumph of the cause whose righteousness you feel so keenly. Everybody should take part in this struggle which is to have so decisive an effect, not only on the nations engaged but on all humanity. There should be no neutrals, but everyone should bear some part of the burden. If so large a part should fall to your share, you would be in so far superior to other women and should be correspondingly proud. There would be nothing to regret, for I could not have done otherwise than what I did, and I think I could not have done better. Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier.

It was in this spirit of high chivalry and with a deep conviction of the justice of the cause for which he was ready to lay down his life that Seeger entered the Foreign Legion. Many weeks of hard drilling at Toulouse followed. Then his regiment, the Second Etranger, about 4,000 men, was transferred to the Camp de Mailly, and by the middle of October he had hopes of soon being at the front. "I go into action," he wrote, "with the lightest of light hearts. The hard work and moments of frightful fatigue have not broken but hardened me, and I am in excellent health and spirits.... I am happy and full of excitement over the wonderful days that are ahead."

Seeger's hopes for early action were not fulfilled. His regiment found itself in the trenches in the centre of the battle line in northern France in the early winter, without any prospect of open warfare, and his disappointment was keen. In a letter to the New York Sun, written early in December, he described life in the trenches as follows:

     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, 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.

The winter morning dawns with gray skies and the hoar frost on the fields. His feet are numb, his canteen frozen, but he is not allowed to make a fire. The winter night falls, with its prospect of sentry duty, and the continual apprehension of the hurried call to arms; he is not even permitted to light a candle, but must fold himself in his blanket and lie down cramped in the dirty straw to sleep as best he may. How different from the popular notion of the evening campfire,--- the songs and good cheer.

Early in January, 1915, Seeger's regiment was moved to a ruined village, where he found the life much less trying than in the trenches. The village, however, was in the most dangerous part of the sector, close to the German lines, from which patrols came down almost every night to harass the French outposts. In a letter to his father, dated January 11, Seeger narrated an incident, illustrating the nature of this patrol warfare:

     Four days almost without sleep, constant assignment to petit poste, sometimes 12 out of 24 hours on guard in the most dangerous positions. It was in one of these that I came for the first time in immediate contact with the enemy in a most unfortunate affair. I was standing guard under the wall of a chateau park with a comrade when a patrol sneaked up on the other side and threw a hand grenade over, which sputtered a moment at our feet and went out without exploding. Without crying to arms, I left the other sentry on the spot and walked down to the petit poste, about 100 metres away and called out the corporal of the guard. We walked back to the spot together and had hardly arrived when another bomb came over, which exploded among us with a tremendous detonation. In the confusion that followed the attacking party burst in the door that covered a breach in the wall at this spot and poured a volley into our midst, killing our corporal instantly and getting away before we had time to fire a shot.

In a letter to the New York Sun Seeger described this incident with more particularity, adding this detail:

     That night there was not much difference at petit poste between the two hours on guard and the two hours off. Every one was on the alert, keyed up with apprehension. But nothing happened, as indeed there was no reason to suppose that anything would. Only about midnight, from far up on the hillside, a diabolical cry came down, more like an animal's than a man's, a blood-curdling yell of mockery and exultation.

In that cry all the evolution of centuries was levelled. I seemed to hear the yell of the warrior of the stone age over his fallen enemy. It was one of those antidotes to civilization of which this war can offer so many to the searcher after extraordinary sensations.

Spring passed and summer came in comparative inactivity, though the regiment was moved from place to place. Early in July the Americans received permission to spend the Fourth in Paris, and Seeger notes that there were thirty-two to avail themselves of this privilege. The glimpses one gets of his American comrades are few and meagre, his French companions are apparently of more interest to him. His diary under date of July 27, however, notes that the regiment is billeted in a village in Alsace at the foot of the Vosges and that he and his college-mate, King, often spent the evening together at a little inn called Le Cheval Blanc. He passed some time, also, reading Treitschke's "Lectures on Politics," which Victor Chapman had lent him. On July 31 he made this entry: "Walked up to Plancher-les-Mines with Victor Chapman; there met Farnsworth who is in the 1er Etranger, and we all had dinner together.,'

In August Seeger wrote in this vein to his mother:

     Given my nature, I could not have done otherwise than I have done. Anything conceivable that I might have done had I not enlisted would have been less than what I am doing now, and anything that I may do after the war is over, if I survive, will be less too. I have always had the passion to play the biggest part within my reach and it is really in a sense a supreme success to be allowed to play this. If I do not come out, I will share the good fortune of those who disappear at the pinnacle of their careers. Come to love France and understand the almost unexampled nobility of the effort this admirable people is making, for that will be the surest way of your finding comfort for anything that I am ready to suffer in their cause.

The great offensive that was to be launched by the French at the end of September found Seeger in a state of high expectation. His regiment was to support the Colonials. In October he wrote to his mother as follows of his share in the battle:

     The part we played in the battle is briefly as follows. We broke camp about 11 o'clock the night of the 24th, and marched up through ruined Souain to our place in one of the numerous boyaux where the troupes d'attaque were massed. The cannonade was pretty violent all that night, as it had been for several days previous, but toward dawn it reached an intensity unimaginable to anyone who has not seen a modern battle. A little before 9.15 the fire lessened suddenly and the crackle of the fusillade between the reports of the cannon told us that the first wave of assault had left and the attack begun. At the same time we received the order to advance. The German artillery had now begun to open upon us in earnest. Amid the most infernal roar of every kind of fire-arms and through an atmosphere heavy with dust and smoke we marched up through the boyaux to the tranchées de départ. At shallow places and over breaches that shells had made in the bank we caught momentary glimpses of the blue lines sweeping up the hillside or silhouetted on the crest where they poured into the German trenches. When the last wave of the Colonial brigade had left, we followed. Baïonnette au canon, in lines of tirailleurs, we crossed the open space between the lines, over the barbed wire, where not so many of our men were lying as I had feared (thanks to the efficacy of the bombardment) and over the German trench, knocked to pieces and filled with their dead. In some places they still resisted in isolated groups. Opposite us, all was over, and the herds of prisoners were being already led down as we went up. We cheered, more in triumph than in hate, but the poor devils, terror-stricken, held up their hands, begged for their lives, cried "Kamerad," "Bon Français," even "Vive la France." We advanced and lay down in columns by two behind the second crest. Meanwhile, bridges had been thrown across trenches and boyaux, and the artillery, leaving the emplacements where they had been anchored a whole year, came across and took position in the open, a magnificent spectacle. Squadrons of cavalry came up. Suddenly the long, unpicturesque guerre de tranchées was at an end and the field really presented the aspect of the familiar battle pictures---the battalions in manoeuvre, the officers, superbly indifferent to danger, galloping about on their chargers. But now the German guns, moved back, began to get our range and the shells to burst over and around batteries and troops, many with admirable precision. Here my best comrade was struck down by shrapnel at my side painfully but not mortally wounded.

I often envied him after that. For now our advanced troops were in contact with the German second-line defenses, and these proved to be of a character so formidable that all further advance without a preliminary artillery preparation was out of the question. And our role, that of troops in reserve, was to lie passive in an open field under a shell fire that every hour became more terrific, while aeroplanes and captive balloons, to which we were entirely exposed, regulated the fire.

That night we spent in the rain. With portable picks and shovels each man dug himself in as well as possible. The next day our concentrated artillery again began the bombardment, and again the fusillade announced the entrance of the infantry into action. But this time only the wounded appeared coming back, no prisoners.

Seeger's regiment was held in reserve during September 28, the enemy's wire entanglements before a piece of woods to be attacked not having been sufficiently destroyed, and the commanding officer, who had replaced the wounded colonel of the regiment, refusing to risk his men. In his review of the battle Seeger admitted that, although the French had forced back the German line along a wide front, had advanced several kilometres and had captured many prisoners and cannon, the larger aim of driving the enemy across the Aisne, broken and defeated, had failed.

His admiration for the French was, however, undiminished. Under date of October 25 he wrote to his mother:

     This affair only deepened my admiration for, my loyalty to, the French. If we did not entirely succeed, it was not the fault of the French soldier. He is a better man, man for man, than the German. Any one who had seen the charge of the Marsouins at Souain would acknowledge it. Never was anything more magnificent. I remember a captain, badly wounded in the leg, as he passed us, borne back on a litter by four German prisoners. He asked us what regiment we were, and when we told him, he cried, "Vive la Légion," and kept repeating "Nous les avons eus. Nous les avons eus." He was suffering, but, oblivious of his wound, was still fired with the enthusiasm of the assault and all radiant with victory.

What a contrast with the German wounded, on whose faces was nothing but terror and despair. What is the stimulus in their slogans of "Gott mit uns" and " für König und Vaterland " beside that of men really fighting in defense of their country? Whatever be the force in international conflicts of having justice and all the principles of personal morality on one's side, it at least gives the French soldier a strength that's like the strength of ten against an adversary whose weapon is only brute violence. It is inconceivable that a Frenchman, forced to yield, could behave as I saw German prisoners behave, trembling, on their knees, for all the world like criminals at length overpowered and brought to justice. Such men have to be driven to the assault, or intoxicated. But the Frenchman who goes up is possessed with a passion beside which any of the other forms of experience that are reckoned to make life worthwhile seem pale in comparison. The modern prototype of those whom history has handed down to the admiration of all who love liberty and heroism in its defense, it is a privilege to march at his side---so much so that nothing the world could give could make me wish myself anywhere else than where I am.

Seeger passed the winter of 1915-16 with his regiment in reserve. An attack of bronchitis took him out of the service for three and a half months, but did not diminish his ardor. "I shall go back the first of May," he wrote, "without regrets. These visits to the rear confirm me in my conviction that the work up there on the front is so far the most interesting work that a man can be doing at this moment, that nothing else counts in comparison." He passed a happy month in Paris. "I lived," he wrote, "as though I were saying good-by to life," as indeed he was.

After his return to the front-line trenches Seeger found time to write several sonnets which he sent to his "marraine," Mrs. Weeks. In two days, moreover, in the intervals of exhausting work with pick and shovel in boyau digging, he composed the "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France," without doubt the most noteworthy poem which any American had contributed up to that time to the permanent literature of the war. He hoped to read it on Decoration Day before the statue of Washington and Lafayette in Paris, but this rare privilege was denied him, owing to the failure of his permission for forty-eight hours' leave to arrive in time. His last letter was dated June 28, and, anticipating active fighting, it was characteristic of him to end it with these courageous words:

     I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.

Seeger was killed in the successful attack on Belloy-en-Santerre, which the Legion made late on the afternoon of July 4. He was in the first line of his company that swept across the plain before the village, and, with many of his comrades, was mowed down by a cross-fire of German machine-guns.

"Mortally wounded," wrote a participant in the attack in La Liberté of Paris, "it was his fate to see his comrades pass him in their splendid charge and to forego the supreme moment of victory to which he had looked forward through so many months of bitterest hardship and trial. Together with those other generous wounded of the legion fallen, he cheered on the fresh files as they came up to the attack and listened anxiously for the cries of triumph which should tell of their success.

"It was no moment for rescue. In that zone of deadly cross-fire there could be but one thought---to get beyond it alive, if possible. So it was not until the next day that his body was found and buried, with scores of his comrades, on the battle-field of Belloy-en-Santerre."

As William Archer well remarks in the introduction to the volume of Seeger's Poems, "He wrote his own best epitaph in the Ode":

And on those furthest rims of hallowed ground
Where the forlorn, the gallant charge expires,
When the slain bugler has long ceased to sound,
And on the tangled wires
The last wild rally staggers, crumbles, stops,
Withered beneath the shrapnel's iron showers:---
Now heaven be thanked, we gave a few brave drops,
Now heaven be thanked, a few brave drops were ours.

>~~ Edwin W. Morse, The Vanguard of American Volunteers (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918).

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A recently-discovered unpublished
photograph of Alan Seeger, ca. 1911.