Lafayette, We Are Here
The first combat troops of the U.S. First Expeditionary Division arrived at the port of St. Nazaire, France on 26 June 1917. They were destined for transport to a training area at Gondrecourt in Lorraine, about 120 miles southwest of Paris.
Rumors of the widespread mutinies in the French Army were beginning to spread, and French civilian morale was low. The French government requested that a regiment of American soldiers march through Paris as a show of American support and a visible reminder that more Americans were on their way.
General Pershing initially balked at the idea. The American regiments in France were not the same as the ones initially chosen from the Southern Department months before. In the interim they were stripped of most of their experienced officers, NCOs, and soldiers, who would form dozens of cadres for the rapidly expanding U.S. Army, and were backfilled with raw recruits. Pershing was worried they would not be able march correctly and would disgrace the United States in the eyes of her Allies. Moreover, Pershing was concerned that if they looked unprofessional, it would give ammunition to the British and French generals who were pushing to have American troops serve directly in their armies as replacements, or at the very least have American regiments serve in their divisions, with no larger American formations. However, Pershing relented in the face of the desperate need for a demonstration of American resolve. In any case, he had nothing to worry about.
With the regimental colors and band in the lead, the U.S. 16th Infantry Regiment paraded through the streets of Paris on 4 July 1917. If they marched out of step, no one noticed because the people of Paris mobbed the American soldiers as they wound their way through the streets. The joyous Parisians cheered, wept, and threw flowers at the mostly green American troops parading through their city. But the tall, young, well fed, and eager American soldiers were a stark contrast to the weary and exhausted French soldiers, drained by three years in the trenches, that the Parisians were used to seeing. The men of the 16th Infantry marched on a five mile route through the city to the Picpus Cemetery, the burial place of Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. At 19, Lafayette was the youngest general ever in the American army and so beloved by George Washington’s that he referred to the young Frenchman as his son. Lafayette arrived to fight for the American Cause almost exactly 140 years prior.
Pershing was asked to address the crowd at tomb of the hero of the American Revolution, but since he didn’t speak French, the task fell to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stanton, a quartermaster officer on his staff who spoke the language. At the end of his speech, Stanton said, “Lafayette, We are here”. Though often misattributed to Pershing, Stanton’s message expressed the sentiment common among many Americans and Frenchmen at the time – that America was coming to the aid of France in a time of her direst need, just as France did for America in 1777.
After the ceremony, the 16th Infantry Regiment marched back through Paris to their staging area on the other side of the city. There they were billeted in civilian houses and barns as they awaited transportation to Gondrecourt where they began their much needed training to fight the Germans.