A Destiny of Undying Greatness: Kiffin Rockwell and the Boys who Remembered Lafayette

A Destiny of Undying Greatness: Kiffin Rockwell and the Boys who Remembered Lafayette by Mark M. Trapp.  Published by System D Publishing Company, 2019.  560 pages.

This is a very comprehensive and wonderfully detailed biography of Kiffin Rockwell, the young American who sailed to France to fight the Germans just days after the First World War started.  It is one of several recent books written about the Americans who fought in the French Foreign Legion in the early years of the war and it is, by far, the best that I have read.  It is a hefty 560 pages (including forty-five photographs), has an  Introduction and Prelude and over 140 pages of an Afterward, Acknowledgements and a most enjoyable section of extensive notes and citations.  The book is available (via print on demand with Amazon Prime fulfillment) at Amazon.

What I found most enjoyable about reading this book was that it progresses chronologically and perfectly places many events and personalities into their proper place and time of occurrence.  What I mean by this is that I was aware of many of the events and names in this book beforehand.  I knew who Kiffen and his brother Paul were as well as many of the other names of the American volunteers and I also knew which of them died in the trenches and who went to fly for the Lafayette Escadrille.  However, the way this book flows is exceptional because the author ties all of these bits of detail, name, locations and personal accounts/letters together into a complete coherent narrative.  For example, you learn who the first American war casualty was and how he was killed as well as the tragic and unfortunate fate of the second American fatality.  You discover that while many of the Americans were in the trenches with the Legion there were several, at the same time, actively creating the embryonic All-American Flying Squadron.  I learned the real truth about Edward Morlae and why his fellow legionnaires despised him, how and why Kiffen’s brother Paul left the Legion and what happened to Alan Seeger.  The fighting by the Chateau Craonnelle where the Americans were on the line was always confusing to me–until now.  I most appreciate that the author tied all of these events into a well flowing account and how he utilized the various university collections (those of the Rockwell brothers but also Thaw, Hall and Seeger and others) to flesh out his narrative.

Of course, I was most interested in the parts about the Foreign Legion and found this book very informative and helpful in placing the two foreign marching regiments at their various cantonments and sectors on the front at specific dates.  I also enjoyed the author’s accounts of the often strained relationships between the hardcore legionnaire cadre from N. Africa (les Africains) and the international volunteers who enlisted “pour la durée de la guerre”.  The book also does a great job of including the stories and adventures of the other Americans who marched (and flew) alongside of Kiffin Rockwell such as Chapman, Kelly, Prince, Bowe, Scanlon, Weeks, Zinn and King.  Like all accounts of the early war American volunteers, the second half of the story is about flying and air combat with the Germans and again Mr. Trapp does a fantastic job of putting it all together in a compelling narrative full of details, anecdotes, places and dates and events. 

I must admit, I did skip some pages in the beginning of the book to get to where the war begins so remember, the first 70 pages cover Kiffin and Paul’s ancestry and early years.  I did go back back and finished reading what I skipped and completely understand why the author felt it important to include this lengthy portion.  Simply put–they don’t make men like Kiffin anymore and much of the ingredients of his character came from family, tradition and upbringing and you just can’t appreciate the motivations of Kiffin (and the others) unless you realize how important the concept of Honor and true manhood was to that generation.

About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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