One in an occasional series about the people and events that may not have made the textbooks or may have been lost to history.
On Feb. 15, 1915, a young machine gunner serving with the French Foreign Legion on the western front was mortally wounded by German shellfire.
His death two weeks later was unremarkable amid the slaughter of the first months of World War I, except that his name was Edward Mandell Stone, he was the son of a Chicago industrialist and he may have been the first American to die in combat in the “Great War.”
If not the first, he was among the first of an often idealistic group of American volunteers who early in the war threw in their lot with France, two years before the United States entered the struggle in 1917.
They were intellectuals, writers, drifters, a lawyer from New York, a newspaper correspondent from Boston and a black boxer from Alabama, among others.
Several had money and fine Ivy League educations.
One, the poet Alan Seeger, was the uncle of folk singer Pete Seeger, and penned the poem, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” later a favorite of President John F. Kennedy’s.
Another, the playwright Kenneth Weeks, was joined in France by his wealthy mother, Alice, who set up a kind of hostel for the “family” of Americans serving in the legion.
Yet another was the boxer Bob Scanlon, from Mobile, whose right was so potent that he once knocked an opponent cold for 30 minutes.
There was also Frank Whitmore, a chicken farmer from Richmond; Eugene Jacques Bullard, another African American who went on to fame as an aviator; and René Phélizot, a big-game hunter and native of Chicago.
Many were motivated by notions of the nobility of war and of death in battle, ideas that withered as the bloody struggle went on and seem antique a century later.
More than 100,000 Americans are believed to have died in World War I.
Seeger wrote “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France” in 1916, a few months before he was killed on the Fourth of July at the Battle of the Somme.
. . . And on those furthest rims of hallowed ground
Where the forlorn, the gallant charge expires . . .
They lie — our comrades . . .
Clad in the glory of fallen warriors . . .
“Seeger belongs to the mentality of the pre-war world,” Eric Homberger wrote in the 1988 anthology, The Lost Voices of World War I. “He welcomed war, [and] he felt redeemed by the chance to die heroically.”
Seeger, 26, had been among the 68 American volunteers, including Phélizot and probably Scanlon, who assembled in the Place du Palais Royal, in Paris on the morning of Aug. 25, 1914, to join the legion.
Germany had declared war on France a few weeks earlier.
Seeger and Phélizot carried American flags as the group marched in civilian clothes through the city to a train depot, according to a 1967 biography of Seeger, “Sound No Trumpet,” by Irving Werstein.
Crowds quickly lined the avenues and shouted “Vive les Américains!” and some joined in the march.
“Eddie” Stone, 26, was probably there that day, too, according to Werstein. He had gone to Harvard, had traveled widely and was then living in France.
Stone had been a child of privilege.
His father, Henry Baldwin Stone, had run a railroad and telephone companies in Chicago and helped stage the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, according to a memorial written after his death.
But in 1897, the elder Stone had been killed in front of his 9-year-old son when a fireworks display exploded prematurely outside their summer home near New Bedford, Mass., fracturing his skull and mutilating his face.
Weeks, the playwright, had also been living in France. He had been born outside Boston and studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His father, Andrew, was an entomologist at Harvard and had written a book about butterflies.
The younger Weeks, then 24, moved to Paris in 1910 to be a writer, according to a postwar collection of letters compiled by his mother.
On Aug. 22, 1914, he wrote her that he had enlisted in the foreign legion “for the duration of the war.”
He had grown a beard, he wrote, and donned the early-war French uniform of red trousers, blue coat and a red cap. He hoped to soon win his “galons” — stripes.
His mother, Alice Standish Weeks, then about 52, had been in New York but was quickly on her way to France to be near him. They wrote to each other often — he from the front, she from her apartment in Paris.
He told her not to worry. “Luck is with me,” he wrote on May 16, 1915.
About a month later, he told her that he was headed back to the trenches. “Do not worry if you do not hear from me for several days,” he wrote.
It was his last letter to her.
On June 17, Kenneth Weeks went missing in battle near Souchez, in northern France. Nine days later, his mother wrote another son, Allen: “No word from Kenneth . . . the suspense is hard to bear.”
While she waited, her home became a crowded refuge for Americans in the legion. “I am going to be a kind of headquarters,” she wrote.
Soldiers visited, ate, bathed and slept. She had their filthy uniforms boiled. They sat around her stove and talked about the war.
One called her “Aunt Alice.” She called them “my boys” and said she felt like the woman who lived in a shoe.
She was later dubbed “Maman Legionnaire,” mother of the legion.
Weeks went by. She stayed busy and held out hope. Finally, on Nov. 25, Kenneth Weeks’s body was found between the lines. But authorities were not able to get word to her for over a month.
On Jan. 2, 1916, she wrote a man who may have been a brother:
“I have been notified this morning that Kenneth fell on the Field of Honor June 17. . . . Don’t worry about me. I am surrounded by friends who try and smooth the rough places for me.
“I don’t know what the future has in store,” she wrote. “But the boys cling to me and I could not leave them just now.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.