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. 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.
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.”
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. 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.”