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A Fraternity of Arms – American & France in the Great War Paper

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Paper type: Essay , Subject: America

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The First World War, also called the Great War would shake-up then existing power equations within Europe and prime the region for the Second World War two decades later. While America’s participation in the latter was more substantial than the former, it nevertheless played a crucial supportive role to its conventional allies. It’s support to the French cause would prove to be a major factor in the eventual outcome of the war. Robert Bruce’s book titled The Fraternity of Arms: America and France in the Great War traces this alliance and places it in the historical, political, ideological and imperialist contexts. (Thesis) Carefully researched and meticulously documented, the book offers new insights into officially recognized events and behind-the-scene realpolitik manoeuvrings during the war. More importantly, it is unique in terms of its historiography, adding new dimensions to the study of history.

Where the book diverges from other works on the subject is in its emphasis on the Franco-American alliance as opposed to the Anglo-American one. While Britain was witnessing a period of unprecedented prosperity and power during the beginning of the twentieth century and its connection to the United States goes two centuries further back, it was the alliance with France which was strategically important in the context of the Great War[1]. This thesis goes against the grain and is seems non-viable at the outset. And for precisely this reason that the book assumes its relevance in the annals of modern history. Further to the credit of the author, a satisfactory compilation and synthesis of facts is achieved in the work.

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The anecdotal (yet factual) style of Robert Bruce can come across as casual at places. At other places, the reader can sense digressions from the main narrative. This technique is deceptively simple and adds richness and relief to what could otherwise be a boring discourse. What it also does is capturing the social and political ‘atmosphere’ of the time that a straightforward historical account would not. The following passage from the first chapter of the book is a good example:

“Although there were numerous exceptions, one cannot help but be struck by the disproportionate number of wealthy and educated young men from elite American families who served in the Foreign Legion and in the Escadrille Lafayette during World War I. Tall burly, mustachioed Willam Thaw came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family and had studied briefly at Yale, among other elite universities, before learning to fly in 1913and living the life of a millionaire playboy piloting a flying boat on the French Riviera. When the war came, Thaw, eager for a new adventure, joined the foreign Legion and was instrumental in recruiting other Americans to join, Thaw was later one of the chief organizers, and original pilots, of the Escadrille Lafayette.”[2]

Bruce also reiterates the shared ideological basis of the two countries that goes back to the Declaration of Independence on July the fourth, 1776. The installation of the Statue of Liberty in Ellis Island, off the banks of New York, as well as the adoption of the democratic ideals of ‘Equality, Fraternity and Liberty’ into the American constitution are enduring symbols of this shared heritage. It is for these commonalities that American public were in unison with their elected representatives’ decision to join the war[3]. At the beginning of the Great War, most of the American public was aloof to events on the other side of the Atlantic. But gradually, the shared ideological underpinnings between the United States and France proved to be an important factor in turning around public opinion in a quick time. This assessment is also concurred by the Good Reads review: “Contrary to the popular belief that relations between France and the United States have been tenuous or tendentious at best, Bruce reminds us that less than a century ago French and American soldiers fought side by side in a common cause not just as allies and brothers-in-arms, but as true friends.”[4]

Another interesting facet to the book is its contrast from works by French historians such as Y.H.Nouailhat and A.Kaspi. Written from a Franco-centric perspective, the emphasis in these works was laid on broader aspects of the war, with American involvement given only moderate coverage. In the case of Kaspi, the focus is on official developments and military strategies with respect to American participation. In other words, one of his treatises is on the success of the “amalgamation” between the American Expeditionary Force and its French and British counterparts and the extent to which these erstwhile separate entities co-operated and coordinated with each other so as to win the war. Bruce takes up this facet of the war in his book as well and deals with it in much greater depth. But as opposed to Kaspi, Bruce peruses personal letters of American soldiers, etc, and presents the war from their perspective. The employment of this conceptual framework – sometimes classified together with subaltern studies – is a distinctly modern phenomenon in terms of historiography[5]. And Robert Bruce does justice to this genre of history writing through detailed and coherent accounts of the Great War from bottom-up.

In the prevailing diplomatic strains between the two great democracies, it is easy to forget that they were once best of allies. And reading the book in the backdrop of the fall-off between the two sides in the wake of Iraq War, adds new perspectives to the current situation. For example, the former French Premier, Jacques Chirac openly expressed his displeasure with America’s decision to unilaterally engage with Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship. Chirac’s sentiments were typical of many leaders in Europe, excepting Britain (which is reflexively and perpetually in agreement with the only superpower). Following this fall-off, many jokes were circulated on both sides, criticizing and mocking the other. For example American fast food joints renamed ‘French Fries’ as ‘Freedom Fries’, suggesting that somehow France was against freedom and civil liberties. If anything, by violating the sovereignty of a country that was not a realistic threat, it is the United States which has undermined freedom. So, Fraternity of Arms radiates optimism in these present despairing times for the Franco-American alliance. Upon assimilating the contents of the book, especially the spirit and camaraderie shared by soldiers from two sides of the Atlantic, one can start seeing the present impasse as temporary.

Professor Bruce also deals with controversial aspects of the amalgamation. Indeed, one of the merits of the book is its sustenance of an element of intrigue and suspense as events unravel in the war. During the early months of 1918 the amalgamation controversy assumed its peak and it became uncertain whether Britain would receive any American help at all. As reviewer David Watson neatly observes,

“British reserves of manpower had not been as completely exhausted as had the French, but British preponderance in shipping gave her government a strong hand of cards: was it reasonable that British ships should transport over half of the American forces to Europe, only for them all to be devoted to supporting the French army? Nevertheless, apart from small-scale emergency relief to the British forces, it remained the case that the American Expeditionary Force worked with the French, and not with the British armies. It is one of the major contributions of this book to state this so clearly and unequivocally.”[6]

Bruce also takes pains in explaining that the ultimate victory for the Western powers was ‘only’ made possible due to their superior cohesion and coordination – something which their enemies could not achieve. So, despite America’s Navy being very weak, its supply of troops to the Western cause was a decisive factor. And their successful integration under British and French command had what made it possible. Also, it is the mark of a good researcher to not take sides in his analysis and to abstain from making moral judgments about agents in conflict. This is certainly true of Robert Bruce, whose book does not in anyway emphasise the moral superiority of the Western cause. The same cannot be said of the accounts of the war that emerged from Germany.

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