Lafayette, Nouse Somme Ici!
On October 19th, 1781, as the British troops and their Hessian mercenaries marched out of Yorktown, they refused to look at the American troops lined up on one side of the road. Instead, they focused their gaze on the magnificently uniformed French troops on the other side. Already creating a protocol breech by sending out their second in command to actually hand over the sword, he attempted to hand his sword to the French. They rebuffed him. Still the marching troops kept their gaze locked on the French troops.
Mounted on his horse and standing with the Americans, the young Frenchman, Lafayette, noticed what was happening. What the British were doing angered him greatly and he decided to do something about it. Turning in his saddle, he signaled for the band to begin to play – also a breech of protocol, as only marching units (i.e. the Brits) normally played their fifes and drums while moving. But Lafayette gave the signal, and the Americans began to blast the British troops with a rousing rendition of “Yankee Doodle,” by all accounts their favorite tune.
Almost as a man, the British heads snapped around to the other side of the road, there to come at last face to face with their former subjects and the men who had fought them to this moment. The Americans had no fancy uniforms, and indeed mostly only the officers and men of the Continental Army regulars had any identifiable uniforms. Only a cockade on his hat identified Washington as the General.
But it was the Militiamen who caught everyone’s eyes. They had no uniforms and almost no shoes. But their gleaming muskets – shined to a sparkle – told the story of what had happened. The Americans had won. They had defeated – with French help – the British Empire.
And among the Americans, that is to say not with the fancy dressed French troops, sat the Marquis de Lafayette, smiling and no doubt whistling along to Yankee Doodle.
He had made his point, and he had forced the British to look Americans in the eye.
President Obama tonight, in his short remarks on what was happening in Paris reminded us that France is “our oldest ally.” And they are. From 1778, when France decided to ally herself with the upstarts, she has almost always stood by our side.
It is the oddest – and sometimes the most uncomfortable – of alliances. Americans despise crowns, and carried a tradition of Protestantism. The French who stood at Yorktown that day, all but worshiped their staunchly Roman Catholic King. And while the next two centuries would see disagreements and even the occasional threat, the bond between the two countries is strong, because when we most needed a friend, Lafayette, and all of France, was here.
When General Black Jack Pershing reached Paris in 1917, he stopped to visit the tomb of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. There his aide, Colonel Charles Stanton mouthed the words, “Lafayette, we are here.”
In 1941, an American film company was working on a film that told the story of ex-patriots and refugees stuck in the backwater Vichy French City of Casablanca. In one scene, the German occupiers begin singing a marching tune, and the leader of the Underground orders the American Club Owners Band to play the French Anthem. If you watch the scene, you will notice that there are real tears of patriotism and joy as the performers in the film – many of them actual French and other nationalities, but all refugees from the Nazi occupation, sing their Anthem in an American night club, drowning out the German song.
There are those who believe that we have repaid any debt of honor we owe France through the two World Wars and the rebuilding of post-war Europe.
But true friendships do not keep track of such debts. They simply show up when the need is great and say, “We are here.”