Who really said "La Fayette, we are here" ?
From February 1 to April 9, 2017, the Musée de l'Armée in Paris (Army Museum) displayed an exhibition on the United States and their special relationship with France during the First World War. The exhibition was entitled “La Fayette nous voila!” (“La Fayette, here we are!”) in reference to the alleged statement that General Pershing famously proclaimed on July 4, 1917 at La Fayette’s grave in Paris’s Picpus cemetery. Others put these words in the mouth of Colonel Stanton, who accompanied the American General that day... So, was it the General or the Colonel ? Neither, according to a little known investigation conducted in the seventies by the son of a Parisian journalist who had been in Picpus with both of them.
On July 4, 1917, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, for this was a symbolic day. Every year on that date, the American national holiday commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Insurgents on July 4, 1776, with the help of the Marquis de La Fayette. Indeed, La Fayette had taken up the cause alongside George Washington, becoming the Commander-in-Chief’s close collaborator and the main artisan of the decisive Franco-American allies’ victory against the British in Yorktown on October 17, 1781.
During this tribute, General Pershing improvised a speech after Colonel Stanton’s, an event he recounts in his memoirs :
“I had been previously asked to deliver an address but had designated Colonel C. E. Stanton, of my staff, an old army friend of mine and somewhat of an orator, to speak in my place.
M. Painlevé, Ambassador Sharp and I were standing together listening to the various speeches and as the exercises were drawing to a close Painlevé said to me, “Aren’t you going to speak?” I said, “No, Colonel Stanton is speaking for me.” “But,” he said, “you must speak,” and Sharp backed him up, so I was ushered to the stand and spoke entirely extemporaneously. As the day was filled with inspiring incidents, I found no difficulty in saying a few words regarding their significance.”
A young journalist from Le Petit Parisien, Aristide Véran, was covering the event. He had arrived late, and had missed part of Pershing’s speech. With little grasp of English, he took notes with the help of his bilingual American and British counterparts. When the director of Le Petit Parisien later questioned Véran about the unfolding of the event, the journalist summed up the ceremony, and attributed the now famous “La Fayette, we are here !” to Colonel Stanton. However, there exists no written source proving that this striking utterance did come from the Colonel – no American, British, or French newspaper mentioned it at the time...
And while legend has it that it was in fact General Pershing who uttered these famous words, his autobiography calls this belief into question. Indeed, in My Experiences in the World War, Pershing plainly wrote that while “many have attributed this striking utterance to me and I have often wished that it could have been mine,” he had “no recollection of saying anything so splendid.” Instead, he claimed, “I am sure that those words were spoken by Colonel Stanton and to him must go the credit for coining so happy and felicitous a phrase.”
Pershing’s memoirs would be enough to put an end to all discussion, and to demystify the famous “La Fayette, we are here !” – if there was any evidence to back up General Pershing’s assertion. This is what Aristide Véran’s son, history enthusiast Géo-Charles Véran, showed in his detailed 1976 investigation – a copy of which is available at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. In this meticulous file, entitled La Fayette Nous voilà ! Ou ce que les dieux seuls peuvent entendre, Véran included transcriptions of the graveside speeches, published in the press the day after the event. It quickly becomes apparent that only in Le Petit Parisien can one find a recollection of this striking statement, and that none of the journalists who had been in Picpus cemetery that day, when interviewed by Véran, could remember hearing such words from the Colonel...
On the basis of this well-documented investigation, which runs counter to Pershing's memoirs, should we therefore concede that this statement is but the invention of a journalist published in Le Petit Parisien? This is more than plausible ... But old legends die hard, and these famous words have already travelled around the world several times : ultimately, it matters little who uttered them, but rather that they have become a strong symbol of Franco-American friendship in the twentieth century.