Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bastille Day, America, and WWI

My introduction to the Bastille was first in the pages of The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett as the orphaned waif struggled to survive on crumbs in her cold dungeon like room. When I was in 8th grade, I received A Tale of Two Cities from my mom for Christmas. I was rivited to the drama through winter break which forever left an impression on me. Later I saw a key and a rendering of the dreaded fortress that spelled doom for the masses of France and later turned the tide as a revolution was begun. 

I've recently stumbled upon this fascinating newspaper article dated July 14, 1918 that can be read here at the Library of Congress. Written during WWI on the day of French Independence, this article details the connection between the Bastille and WWI. It is titled "What Bastille Day Means to America." I realize it may have meant much more in the 18th century and the early 20th century. Therefore I'd like to share some interesting highlights from the article along with a few other tidbits of information.

Although the French Revolution is in itself not at all glorious, in that is was marked by brutal out of control bloodshed of many innocent people, it was nevertheless the beginning of France's search for freedom from tyranny. Why this brutal outpouring? How did it all begin?  A glimpse into the Bastille might perhaps shed a bit of understanding of the uncontrollable masses. Not that that was the way they should have reacted, but react they did because they felt so helpless and angered by generations of suppression by absolute monarchs who controlled every facet of their being. After all, being a serf in this feudal country meant sole allegiance to the king no matter what. There were no freedoms of any sort for the people.

Originally built in the Middle Ages as a fortress against the Huns, the Bastille became a prison in later years with succeeding kings ordering additions to enlarge it more and more to.  Kings who assumed power with the presumed "divine right of kings" doomed opposers of any sort to the foreboding fortress of a jail through a document called the lettre de cachet. Holding not only the royal seal, but often left blank, unscrupulous sorts could and did use them to their advantage. During the reign of King Louis XV, 150,000 lettres de cachet doomed the populace. King Louis XVI's reign doomed a mere 14,500.

It might have well been written over the entrance of the Bastille, "He who enters here, leaves hope behind." The place realized the darkest visions of Dante's Inferno.  Separated from the streets of the city by a moat 125 feet wide and 25 feet deep, and accessible only by a drawbridge, it was like an Isle of the Dead. (quote from "What Bastille Day Means to America")

The article goes on to detail the inhumane treatment and suffering of the prisoners. Whereas some prisoners may have had it rather well, they knew at any moment their suffering could at any moment take a turn for the worse and ultimately, their demise. Fifty to sixty years of darkness and doom. No room to move. Flogging, The wheel. Cruelties and tortures unbearable. No contact with the world. And why? Because they had political leanings towards freedom? More land than someone else? Debt? No social class was safe.

Impoverished. Hungry. Fearful. Angry. Feudalism no longer acquiesced.

Massive debt. Talk of revolution and freedom from political thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot. America had a revolution and won. Feudalism arose to revolt. Where? At the symbol of their rebellion...the Bastille.

After the storming of the Bastille, came the ultimate destruction which took up to a year. Relics were taken. Indeed one of the many keys can now be seen at Mount Vernon. "It is a tribute which I owe as a son to my adoptive father, as an aid de camp to my general, as a missionary of liberty to its patriarch." (Lafayette to Washington)

Even so with the symbol of tyranny destroyed, the struggle continued (according to the article) due to Feudal Germany and Austria. There is a saying from the early 19th century that when France sneezes, Europe catches a cold. Indeed, revolutions are contagious. People, notably feudal serfs, yearned for freedom. If France could be free from absolute monarchies, why not other countries? Thus Germany and Austria stood in the way, along with England. After all, the English king was from Germany. And his father and grandfather were also from Germany. In fact, they were more German than English, barely speaking the English language. It's a long story, but in short, these countries allied for years to beleaguer France. 

France struggled for years to become a republic, then to remain a republic. This is an extremely long and detailed history, some of which I've previously blogged about, much of which is well summarized in the article, at least in the days leading to the revolution.

The masses began the revolution with blood. However Lafayette, the friend of America, began the revolution with The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which he wrote with the help of Thomas Jefferson who was in Paris on the eve of the revolution. In fact, Jefferson and his daughter watched the fires of the Bastille the night of the storming from their apartment. Lafayette was already familiar with The Declaration of Independence. Lafayette lived and breathed liberty when he first heard of The Declaration of Independence in 1776. He soon came to America to help us fight for liberty. He wanted to see that liberty come to France, but not through bloodshed, but by words. The hopes of July 14 echoed the declaration of July 4.

Lafayette led the National Guard but the tables turned despite his efforts to be a bridge of reason between the monarch and revolutionaries. Destined for the guillotine, he fled to the border but ended up in an Austrian jail. His wife and her family members are taken to prison. Her sister, mother, and grandmother are guillotined. Her execution is stayed when the evil leader Robispierre is himself guillotined. Freed from prison, Madame de Lafayette sends her son, George Washington Lafayette to America to stay with President Washington. Meanwhile she and her daughters join Lafayette in prison until he is ultimately released by none other than Napoleon!

Eventually Madame de Lafayette founds Picpus Cemetary, a quiet little enclave run by nuns. She overseas the proper burial of many victims of the Reign of Terror, including her beloved family members. Later she and Lafayette are buried there. An American flag flies over Lafayette's grave. American soil that he collected on a tour of America lies with the French soil that covers his grave, at his request.

Fast forward to 1914 when France was fighting again for freedom...from Germany. This 1918 news article from the Sun brings history full circle, relating the Bastille to WWI. On July 4, 1917, General  Pershing stood near Lafayette's grave at a formal ceremony that was heavily attended. Pershing's aide, Colonel Stanton ended a fine speech with the famous words, "Lafayette, we are here!"

Notably, Amerians had already been helping France long before America formally entered the war. Many Americans at that time remembered Lafayette's help to America in our revolution. They readily went to France to help in several capacities. I stumbled upon one such group on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum a few years ago, The Lafayette Escadrille!  

In the dark days of WWI, France sent a special request. Would America honor July 14 as their own Independence Day?   
The Committee on the Allied Tribute to France has therefore issued its appeal for a simultaneous celebration of Bastille Day today throughout the United States, so that the land of Lafayette may know that every citizen of the water is in sympathy with our friend and ally of old. (quote from "What Bastille Day Means to America")

How many celebrations for Bastille Day continue throughout America, to this day, nearly 100 years after WWI?







The Smithsonian

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