This World War I Legionnaire Wrote "I Have a Rendezvous with Death"

    Seeger's prophetic verse was published posthumously, after he fell at the Battle of the Somme. 

    In 1916, an American poet, Harvard graduate, and soldier of the French Foreign Legion was killed while attacking in the first wave at Belloy-en-Santerre, part of the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Alan Seeger had written a prophetic poem that would be published after his death titled, "I Have a Rendezvous with Death".

    The young Seeger graduated from Harvard in 1910 where he studied with poetry legends like T.S. Eliot. He spent two years living the Bohemian life in New York City's Greenwich Village, crashing on couches and living off friends' generosity. But New York didn't live up to his expectations and, in 1912, he departed for Paris.

    Related: Dying on Armistice Day: Private Joseph Sommers's Final Words 

    The City of Lights filled him with admiration despite the large amount of misery that came with living in crowded and filthy quarters in the city. When war broke out between Germany and France, Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion to protect his beloved city.

    The young Seeger was a fatalist and romantic, and he wrote a number of poems that glamorized the idea of dying in war, especially for his adopted country.

    After training, Seeger was sent with others to the front where, in June 1916, the French were tasked with assisting the British attack a few days into the Battle of the Somme.

    alan seeger

    Alan Seeger in his French Foreign Legion uniform

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Seeger took a spot in the first wave of his unit's attack and wrote a letter to a friend where he wrote of his gratitude for the assignment.

    "We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave. I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience."

    But time passed without the men being ordered forward. On July 4, they were told that general offensive was about to begin, but they would only be in reserve.

    Then, a few hours later, a voice called out. "The company will fall in to go to the first line."

    Related: A Soldier’s Story: 7 War Books Told by Those Who Were There 

    Seeger fell in with the troops front and center. A friend on the left wing later described what he saw.

    Two battalions were to attack Belloy-en-Santerre, our company being the reserve of battalion. The companies forming the first wave were deployed on the plain. Bayonets glittered in the air above the corn, already quite tall.
    The first section (Alan's section) formed the right and vanguard of the company and mine formed the left wing. After the first bound forward, we lay flat on the ground, and I saw the first section advancing beyond us and making toward the extreme right of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. I caught sight of Seeger and called to him, making a sign with my hand.
    He answered with a smile. How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon, he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend. . . ."
    alan seeger

    Troops going over the top at the start of the Battle of the Somme

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Seeger was killed that afternoon, cut down during the battle that is the bloodiest in British military history, and a costly one for every other nation that took part.

    Seeger's poem, published after his death, was panned as being outdated, but went on to become a favorite with many veterans, including John F. Kennedy, who would ask his wife to recite it for him often.

    I Have a Rendezvous With Death

    I have a rendezvous with Death
    At some disputed barricade,
    When Spring comes back with rustling shade
    And apple-blossoms fill the air—
    I have a rendezvous with Death
    When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

    It may be he shall take my hand
    And lead me into his dark land
    And close my eyes and quench my breath—
    It may be I shall pass him still.
    I have a rendezvous with Death
    On some scarred slope of battered hill,
    When Spring comes round again this year
    And the first meadow-flowers appear.

    God knows 'twere better to be deep
    Pillowed in silk and scented down,
    Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
    Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
    Where hushed awakenings are dear...
    But I've a rendezvous with Death
    At midnight in some flaming town,
    When Spring trips north again this year,
    And I to my pledged word am true,
    I shall not fail that rendezvous.



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