We Forget Today: Paris, July 4, 1917, “Lafayette We are Here.”

lafayette nous voila


We forget today just what an impact World War I had on the lives of its participants and their families.  That is certainly true for war-weary France; when the first Doughboys arrived in their country.  Ninety-nine years ago, on the 4th of July, 1917, one of the most memorable phrases of American involvement in the Great War was coined.  It came during a speech at the end of a five-mile march by the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, AEF.  Bowing to French pressure for a show of troops in France’s capital, the 2nd Battalion drew the lucky straw, as it were, and was selected by General Pershing to march through Paris as a show of America’s arrival.


The webmaster has chosen a few paragraphs from “America and WW1: A Travelers Guide” to tell the story because its author, Mark D. Van Ells, provides such a detailed description of both the event and the parade route.  Readers interested in the locations and full events of July 4th 1917 in Paris should read pages 119 – 122 of Mr. Van Ells’ book.


“The five-mile route went through the heart of the city and was fraught with historical symbolism. The soldiers of the great American democracy paraded past some of the most important sites of France’s revolutionary heritage.  They marched through the place de la Concorde, where the guillotine did its bloody work during the French Revolution.  From there they marched east down the fashionable rue de Rivoli, passing the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre, the former royal palace that became a public art museum.  After a bit of rest at the Hôtel de Ville, it was on to the place de la Bastille, where the French people first rose up against royal authority.  The Bastille prison, the symbol of the royal abuse of power that revolutionaries stormed on July 14, 1789, had been torn down long before, but the American troops marched past the giant obelisk that marked the spot where the French Revolution began.  From there, the procession went down rue de Lyon and then turned east down boulevard Diderot, into a working class section of the city.  The Doughboys turned right at rue de Picpus and marched to the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette in the Cimitiere de Picpus to honor the man who bound the two great democracies together…


The climax of the ceremonies came at Lafayette’s grave in the Cimetiere de Picpus. Lafayette had helped America in a time of need during the eighteenth century, and in the twentieth century Americans had come to return the favor.  After their long march through central Paris, the Doughboys went single file through the narrow cemetery gate.  There were more speeches.  Tom Carroll remembered Picpus as a “cool and shady” place where “we sat on the headstones while the gab went on.”  That “gab” produced some of the most memorable words of the entire war.  General Pershing spoke only briefly, assigning Colonel Charles L. Stanton to give the keynote address.  Stanton spoke for about twenty minutes, but it was a single line in his speech that summarized the significance of the day.  Standing before the grave of the marquis, Stanton announced:  “Nous voila.  Lafayette.”  which the press translated as “Lafayette, we are here.”  The remark became a battle cry and an enduring symbol of Franco-American friendship.  It has long been attributed to Pershing himself, though the general never once took credit for it.”