A century later, France marks U.S. poet’s July 4 death
Belloy-en-Santerre, France — In the end, Alan Seeger’s bones could no longer be distinguished from those of his Foreign Legion comrades who had fallen alongside him in one of the most brutal battles of World War I.
United across nations, it was the glorious death that he craved.
Seeger — an American poet, romantic and soldier — died on that most American of days, July Fourth, a century ago Monday. Barely 28, he was already fighting for a global, common cause that bound dozens of countries together at a time when the United States was still a bystander, reluctant to get involved in a faraway war in Europe.
His premonition, “I have a Rendezvous with Death,” was to become his most beloved poem, and the volunteer was happy to give his life for France and its grand ideals of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” Half a century later, it was a favorite poem of U.S. President John Kennedy.
Seeger was last seen by his Egyptian friend Rif Baer charging the German enemy, a tiny part of the massive Battle of the Somme, where more than 1 million people were killed, wounded or went missing in 4 ½ months of fighting in 1916.
“His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared,” Baer described the final scene — and the myth of Seeger emerged.
As a belated summer comes to northern France, peonies bloom over Ossuary No. 1 in nearby Lihons where he is believed to lie, forgotten by most but still cherished by some. In the village where he fell, a gnarly apple tree planted in dedication to his sacrifice furtively tries to produce fruit from the few branches it still has. The mayor plans to graft the tree, to make sure Seeger’s memory survives.
The Belloy village square is named after him and the village’s World War I memorial even has him — in the Gallic “Alain Seeger” —chiseled in stone.
“For France, Alan Seeger is first and foremost the symbol of commitment — commitment right up to death,” said local historian Marcel Queyrat.
In his diary, Seeger wrote “I never took arms out of any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but purely out of love for France.”
To his mother he wrote “there should really be no neutrals in a conflict like this, where there is not a people whose interests are not involved.” This, combined with his French military flair for “elan” — the forward thrust in battle — makes Seeger a standout a century later when Europeans are questioning their unity.
From the start of World War I, Seeger wanted to get the United States involved in the allied cause. Once it did, in 1917, it set the scene for the “American century” of predominance in the world.
His centennial now offers a stark contrast. During this year’s U.S. presidential campaign, opponents of Republican candidate Donald Trump accuse him of turning back to isolation, his “America First” slogan stoking such fears.
Seeger could not understand those who stood to the side in World War I, hardly the anti-war message that his folk-singing nephew Pete Seeger would later spread during the Vietnam War years.
“Playing a part in the life of nations, he is taking part in the largest movement his planet allows him,” Alan Seeger wrote in his diary.
Born into a wealthy family that built its fortune on Mexican sugar refining, and with a gift for languages, he went to study at Harvard. His life changed for good when he started hanging out with classmate John Reed, who went on to become the eyewitness writer of the 1917 Russian Communist revolution with “Ten Days that Shook the World.”
After Harvard, it was on to New York and the Bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village. Soon Seeger was crossing the Atlantic to Paris and the Rive Gauche — the Left Bank. He arrived there in 1912, giving him two years to fall in love with the City of Lights and all things French, enough to decide to defend the nation when war came.
“An artist is not only an artist, he is also a man of action which, for me, is absolutely essential,” said Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, president of the famed family Champagne house. “Seeger shows the way.”
Taittinger has been smitten with Seeger’s dash. At his Chateau de la Marquetterie amid the Champagne vineyards, he even has a special room with poetry and photos of Seeger, amid other World War I memorabilia. Seeger was smitten just as much with Champagne, writing of a night when he and other soldiers “in our candle-lit loft we uncorked bottles of bubbling champagne … and clinking our tin army cups.”
Early on, there was much fighting around Reims, Champagne’s main city, and the destruction of the Cathedral by the Germans was considered such a sacrilege that it turned many across the world against Kaiser Wilhelm II. Those were the lands amid rusty vines that soldier Seeger roamed early on — often behind the lines while his soul yearned for action.
“And what a curious anomaly,” he wrote to his mother. “On this slope the grape pickers are singing merrily at their work, on the other the batteries are roaming. Boom! Boom!”
Even though France was in his heart, home kept tugging at it too. He “fairly danced for joy” being granted a July 4th leave in Paris in 1915, but the war malaise had already spread to the capital, where Seeger saw many women in mourning. It was to be his last full Independence Day.
With an uncanny sense of fate, he felt battle was near in June 1916. “We will go directly into action, magnificently, unexpectedly, and probably victoriously, in some dashing charge, even if it be only of local importance,” he wrote.
That is exactly what happened at Belloy-en-Santerre.
“I have a rendezvous with Death — At some disputed barricade,” the poem says.
On Monday, Seeger will be remembered again.
“Life is very short but some lives are more full than others,” said the 63-year-old Taittinger, adding that Seeger’s life, cut short at 28, “is much more full than my life will ever be.”