From New York City to the
French Foreign Legion
by Rich McErlean
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Ferdinand “Cap” Capdevielle, born July 27th, 1893 in New York, NY. An American citizen of French extraction, Capdevielle was the son of a Martin Capdevielle, a “New York fencing-master.” When the war broke out, Capdevielle, who had just turned twenty-one, left his job as a clerk at a steamship company and sailed to France to enlist.
He arrived in Paris in mid August 1914 and was sworn into service on August 21st, at Les Invalides. Following basic training, he was among the first volunteers to receive a promotion to private first-class and was assigned to the 9th Squad of the First Company, Battalion C, of the Second Foreign Regiment. Capdevielle’s “escouade” contained the “heart and soul” of the American volunteers: Stewart Carstairs, Harry Collins, Dennis Dowd, Kiffin and Paul Rockwell, Alan Seeger, William Thaw.
During the harsh winter of 1914, Stewart Carstairs and Paul Rockwell fell ill and were invalided out of the army, the Legion banished Collins to a disciplinary battalion in North Africa, and Bill Thaw transferred to the French Aviation. That left only Capdevielle, Seeger, Dowd and Kiffin Rockwell.
In July 1915 Capdeveille was among the American volunteers granted two-day’s permission in Paris to celebrate America’s Independence. It was their first leave of absence since they embarked for basic training nearly one year earlier.
In late September, 1915, after a year of virtual inactivity, the Second Foreign Regiment, moved up to the front. Then, on the night of September 24, the Legionnaires prepared to for the march up to the first line trenches, where they would make their charge at precisely 09h15 the following morning.
One Legionnaire recalls the pre-attack preparations of Sept. 24:
“Twelve men from each company were furnished with long knives and grenades…. all extra shoes, all clothing and blankets were turned in to the quartermaster and each man was provided with an second canteen of water, two days of “iron rations,” and one hundred and thirty rounds additional, making two hundred and fifty cartridges per man. The gas masks and mouth-pads were ready; emergency dressings were inspected, and each man ordered to put on clean underwear and shirts to prevent possible infection of the wounds. One hour before the time was set for the advance, we passed the final inspection and deposited our last letters with the regimental postmaster...”
The Legionnaires formed columns and moved out at 22h00. A “mean, cold rain” began to fall. Solemn, focused, the men marched through the darkness—the thunderous din of the French pre-attack bombardment grew louder with every step.
“It was like a funeral march, slow and very quiet. There was no singing and shouting; none of the usual badinage…. every man, I suppose, wondered whether he would do or whether he would die.”
The Legionnaires reached the front lines at 23h00.
“The pace was accelerating. The strain was beginning to wear off. From right and left there came a steady murmur of low talk. In our own column men were beginning to chaff each other. I could distinctly hear Soubiron describing in picturesque detail to Capdevielle how he, Capdevielle, would look gracefully draped over the German barbed wire; and I could hear Capdevielle’s heated response that he would live long enough to spit on Soubiron’s grave… the moment of depression and self communication had passed.” (Morlae)
The Third Foreign Regiment also made a charge on the morning of September 25. With several Americans in its ranks, when combined with those in the Second Foreign Regiment, this would make the single greatest charge in numbers of Americans until the arrival of AEF troops in spring 1917. All in all, some fifty Americans participated in the first wave of assault.
Three days later, the First Foreign Regiment, also including several Americans, went into attack with the objective of taking the heavily fortified fortin at Navarin Farm. By this time all American volunteers in the French Foreign Legion were engaged in the battle of Champagne, which raged for several days.
The First Foreign Regiment was slaughtered by the thirty-two German machine gun nests concealed within the fortin at Navarin Farm.
American volunteer Edmond Genêt wrote:
“At points in the line the stream of lead was so thick that falling men were turned over and over and rolled along the ground like dead leaves before a late autumn wind.”
Much has been written by the Americans about the battle of Champagne. The personal accounts of Alan Seeger, Edmond Genêt, David King and Edward Morlae provide the most vivid and complete picture of what happened during the last days of September, 1915.
Ferdinand Capdeville fought in and survived the first battle of Champagne. Nearly two-thirds of his section was killed or wounded.
The American volunteers who survived the battle of Champagne were granted the option of switching out of the Legion for line regiments in the regular French Army. Nearly all the volunteers accepted this offer. Capdevielle joined the 170th Line Infantry Regiment, which gained a reputation for its use as an attack regiment, and along with it, the nickname, Les Hirondelles de la Mort, “The Swallows of Death.”
The Americans who switched out of the Legion for the 170th were soon to regret their decision. The Legion was relieved from the front and went for a long rest in reserve; at the same time, the 170th got its orders to move up to the front lines for the winter.
In February 1916, Capdevielle took part in the bloody battle of Vaux (Verdun). For his participation in this successful defense, he received a promotion to corporal quartermaster. The 170th stayed put, and Capdevielle was left to dig in and continue to defend the hotly contested sector of Verdun. In May, the 170th went on the offensive and counter-attacked the Germans at Caillette Wood.
Of the battle, Capdevielle wrote:
“It was the hardest fighting of all. We marched to the firing line in the dark, picking our way by the dead bodies lining the route. The Germans were shelling us to the best of their ability, and our guns replied vigorously. No small artillery was used, but the biggest cannon on each side. After a stay in a poorly made open trench, we were ordered to charge the Germans. The boys were glad to be in action, and covered the distance between them and the Boches in a hurry. Some of us had trench knives. Charles Hoffecker practically decapitated four Huns before he was struck by shell fragments and gravely wounded. Several of the Americans won much praise by their work.” * Hoffecker died two days later.
For his coolness and bravery as a dispatch-bearer under fire during the battle of Caillette Wood, Capdevielle was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
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The Somme 1916
In August 1916, having surviving Verdun, the 170th was sent to the Somme. By now, of the twenty Legionnaires who had transferred into the 170th less than one year earlier, only six remained– one of them was Capdevielle.
The 170th attacked on August 12th. They moved up to the newly won front lines, dug in, then attacked again one month later. When Autumn came, Capdevielle received his third promotion, this time to sergeant, “for his continuous sang-froid and bravery throughout the fighting.” (Rockwell).
September 12th, the 170th attacked the German positions along the route from Béthune to Bouchavensnes. During this battle two more volunteers from August 1914 dropped out: David King (wounded) and Elov Nilson (KIA). For his participation in the battle Ferdinand Capdevielle received his fourth promotion, this time to aspirant-officer. “His colonel named him as one of the three best under-officers in the entire regiment and granted him three weeks’ leave of absence to visit his family in New York.” (Rockwell) On the morning of April 16th,1917, the 170th charged the Germans at the Bois du Seigneur. Four days later the French offensive in the Aisne-Champagne region came to an end. One day after that Ferdinand Capdevielle, a native of New York City, arrived in New York harbor, dressed in the horizon blue uniform of the French Army.
The hero returns home
His passage paid by the French government, Ferdinand Capdevielle boarded the ship “La Tourraine” at Bordeaux and sailed for New York in Mid April. The information on the ship’s manifest hardly reveals a war hero making a triumphant trip home: Ferdinand Capdevielle, 24 years-old, single, male, occupation- clerk, 5’ 9”, brown hair, brown eyes, in possession of $25, and destined for 315W 17th Street, New York, NY. He lists his nationality as American, his last permanent residence as “France” and the city or town of residence as “French Army.” Under the category titled “name and complete address of nearest relative or friend in country whence alien came,” ironically and appropriately, he wrote “French Army.” As spring began to bloom in late April 1917, this last entry on the ship’s manifest must have given him a moment’s reflection- under “whether ever before in the United States, if so– when,” he wrote: 1914.
While on leave in America, Capdevielle was asked to speak at West Point and several Army training camps. A few weeks later he returned to France, this time he was joined by thousands of enthusiastic American soldiers going “Over There.”
An officer of the French Army
Capdevielle rejoined the 170th and was sent to the famed officers’ school at Saint-Cyr. Upon completion of his instruction he was promoted a fifth time, now to sous-lieutenant (second-lieutenant). The United States Government offered him the rank of captain in the US Army. To this, Capdevielle responded: “I started out in this war as a soldier of the French Army, and I will finish it with the French.”
In mid July 1917, the 170th took part in the major French counter-offensive along the Marne.
“Marshal Foch’s turning on the enemy on July 18, was almost as great a surprise for us as it was for the Germans. My regiment had been facing the Germans along the Marne since early in June. When the fifth German offensive began on July 15, we were in line just north of Château-Thierry. On the night of the 17th, my battalion was relieved and marched back for repos a few kilometers behind the trenches.“My men were just getting settled for the night’s sleep when orders came at eleven-thirty, to return immediately to the front line. Off we marched in a drenching rainstorm; and we reaching the trenches shortly before dawn. Then I knew something unusual was on foot. A hundred yards behind the trenches heavy batteries were taking position, while with thunderclaps drowning the noise they made, field batteries were moving up between the French and German lines.
“General Degoutte’s final order came, and just before day broke, we charged the enemy’s positions with a rolling barrage fire from our artillery preceding us. My regiment attacked from Veuilly-la-Poterie and Croissant Wood, and we quickly carried three small woods where the Germans were installed. The enemy resisted feebly; a few machine-gunners fired, but the majority of the infantrymen fled. Turning and capturing an occasional machine-gun nest encountered in the wheat fields or woods, the poilus advanced rapidly.
“Without doing any serious fighting, we reached and captured Licy-Clignon, and then started to follow the little Clignon Brook. I was leading a section of men, and we left the shelter of the village houses. We had not gone a hundred years before we met a tremendous stream of machine-gun bullets. We dropped to the ground and crawled back to the village. Patrols slipped out, and we located (in the woods along the ravine) the German blockhouse which was obstructing our passage.
“The blockhouse was hollowed out of a small but extremely steep hillock, which had been converted into a regular fortress, and from the mouths of four tunnels poured streams of bullets commanding the road along Clignon Brook. A higher hill a little farther along also was powerfully organized with machine-gun pits. These positions held up for several hours the advance of our entire division.
“Finally, a Corsican of my company, named Fieschi, who was awaiting court-martial for having been absent without leave, crawled forward, climbed the almost perpendicular slope of the blockhouse hillock, and with his rifle killed the gunners of the heavy rapid-firer, so my other poilus were able to advance and kill or capture the crews of the remaining machine guns. It is needless to say that Fieschi was not court-martialled, but I cited him in Army Orders and decorated him with the Croix de Guerre.
“Meanwhile, two other resourceful poilus made a wide detour, climbed the fortified hill, and bayoneted three German machine-gunners. We started forward, but other Germans, who had hidden in the wheat to ambush us, opened fire. We spotted their positions, and cleaned them out in short order. We then made another rapid advance, and reached the railroad line running from Brécy to Sain-Germain, where we had a big fight with the Germans.
“A strong patrol from my regiment entered the railroad tunnel, which enabled us to turn the village and enter from the rear. Here again the enemy resisted fiercely—mostly machine-gunners, one man who had been in the village throughout the German occupation, welcomed us with great emotion.
“But we hadn’t time to pause. We continued to pursue the ever-retreating foe. It was a fine sensation to push the Germans back so rapidly, but as a battle it didn’t compare with Verdun or the Somme in 1916. We kept going ahead until July 25, when, dog-tired, we were relieved.
“My division had advanced twenty-two kilometers and had captured hundreds of prisoners and much important material. Our losses were not heavy. In my company six men were killed and forty were wounded, mostly by machine-gun bullets. It is my conviction that only an abundance of machine guns, skillfully used, saved the Germans from a great and perhaps fatal disaster in the Marne pocket battle.”
On September 11th, 1918, he wrote:
“I am back in the trenches near where the Legion did great work in September 1915. I am fighting under the great chief who stopped the Germans last July 15. Life is about the same as in ye days of old. The other night I went on patrol, and had a regular picnic butting my way through barbed entanglements. I got in three hours later with several bullet holes through my clothes. Some job to go out on a dark night and have to find your way around with the aid of a compass!”
On October 3rd, 1918, Ferdinand Capdevielle was leading his men in an attack when he was killed by bullet through the forehead. Perhaps no other American volunteer of August 1914 participated in as many historic campaigns and hard-fought battles as Capdevielle. He was the last of the American volunteers to die on the battlefield.
Five weeks later, the war ended.
“Sous-Lieutenant Ferdinand Capdevielle: a brilliant officer. An American citizen, enlisted voluntarily in the service of France since the beginning of the war. Participated either in the Foreign Legion or the One Hundred and Seventieth Infantry Regiment in all important battles of the campaign. Always won the admiration of his men and secured the esteem of his chiefs by his military and moral virtues. October 3, 1918, entrusted with leading to the assault the head platoon of his company, he went forward superbly, progressing in spite of violent fire of the enemy mitrailleuses, which he immediately attempted to reduce by the manœuvre of his pieces. Fell gloriously, struck by a bullet in the head at the very instant he stood up to lead his men to the assault of the enemy position. Had already been cited.”
—Order of Army.
Along with this citation, General Gouraud awarded Ferdinand Capdevielle the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
FRENCH TROOPS CONFIDENT
Capdevielle, One of American Volunteers, Tells of Their High Spirit.
Ferdinand Capdevielle, 23 years old, a young New Yorker born of French parents, who went to France in 1914 and joined the Foreign Legion, returned here recently as top sergeant, having just passed his exmination for a commission, with the mark of a bullet on the left side of his neck and wearing the War Cross with special bar for mention in dispatches. He has served in some of the principal battles at Verdun, in Champagne, on the Somme and the Aisne, and returns to France in a few days.
"The spirit of the French troops is better than it was a year ago when Verdun was in the mind of every one in France. Now they believe that the Allies are going right through the enemy's lines and do not want to stop until they get into Germany.
"I am glad that the Germans have been driven from the Aisne because that was their strongest fortification. They held a position 300 yards above the valley, and any of our troops who put their heads above the trenches were killed. I know because I was nearly nine months in that valley after I had been transferred from the Foreign Legion to the 170th Infantry. Captain Emil Rey, who used to be with the French Line, in New York, was killed in this region.
"On the day America entered the war I was in Paris on leave and was at the Olympia with some of my comrades. When it was announced from the stage, the audience went wild with enthusiasm, which became frantic when Mlle. Colombier sang 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and then the 'Marseillaise'."