An American on the Western Front: The First World War Letters of Arthur Clifford Kimber, 1917-18

Posted on centenarynews.com on 03 August 2016
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Author: Patrick Gregory & Elizabeth Nurser
Publication Date: 07 July 2016

Publisher's Description:

'This is the remarkable story of the American First World War serviceman Arthur Clifford Kimber. When his country entered the Great War in 1917, Kimber left Stanford University to carry the first official American flag to the Western Front. Fired by idealism for the French cause, the young student initially acted as a volunteer ambulance driver, before training as a pilot and taking part in dogfights against ‘the Boche’.

His letters home give a vivid picture of what Kimber witnessed on his journey from Palo Alto, California to the front in France: keen-eyed descriptions of New York as it prepared for the forthcoming conflict, the privations of wartime Britain and France, and encounters with former president Theodore Roosevelt and Hollywood actress Lillian Gish. Kimber details his exhilaration, his everyday concerns and his horror as he adapts to an active wartime role.

Arthur Clifford Kimber was one of the first Americans on the front line after the entry of the US into the war and, tragically, also one of the last to be buried there – killed in action just a few weeks before the end of the war. Here, his frank letters to his mother and brothers, compiled, edited and put in context by Patrick Gregory and Elizabeth Nurser, are published for the first time.'

Centenary News Review by volunteer contributor Andy Moreton

'This is the story of a young Californian, Clifford Kimber, a Stanford University student who signed up soon after the United States declared war in the spring of 1917. 

Clifford left his home in Palo Alto to become a volunteer ambulance driver in the 2nd Stanford Unit and in his safe keeping was the first official American flag to go to the Western Front. 

After a journey across the States during which he collects a personal good luck note from his hero, Theodore Roosevelt, he sets sail from New York on the steamship St Louis, to arrive at the Front via London and Paris. On board, he has a somewhat gauche encounter with the silent movie star, Lillian Gish.  

The many letters home to his mother and two brothers are searingly honest and surprisingly detailed with sketches, maps and photographs.  It’s clear that Clifford sees them as an archive or memoir to be worked on after his return from the war and is anxious that they’re kept safe. 

We know from the outset that, sadly, he did not survive, so the letters in which he foresees his future with his brothers as successful chicken farmers are unbearably poignant: ‘Personally, I sort of believe I have a guardian angel and that it will be the other fellow that will get killed.  You are going to see me home when this awful war is over and we shall have many happy years together and shall have a most wonderful home of four, and a great time on the farm.’   

The early letters betray Clifford’s annoyance at perceived injustices and slights.  He rails against pacifists, shirkers, swearers and roisterers.  He was, clearly, not an easy companion, with his self-confessed ‘disagreeable conceit’.  One of the letters explains how his close friend (and fellow Stanford student), Alan Nichols, had taken him aside gently to point out his flaws, and he’s a much more amenable team-player from then on.

Clifford’s dream is to move from his ambulance duties to train as a pilot. His enthusiasm had been fired years before: when he was 12, he had been among the crowd in France when Wilbur Wright took an experimental flight over a racecourse south of Le Mans. 

After an agonisingly long wait, he’s accepted at flying school. The letters about his training and his subsequent experiences as a fighter pilot offer a truly remarkable and colourful insight into the perilous existence of those young pioneers in the skies above France: ‘I watched my tail like a cat and saw the enemy come on … No sooner would I avoid one than another was firing at me.  Rat-tat-tat-tat.  What a sound … I’ll bet a hundred bullets came within six inches of my body … I didn’t even have a chance to fire a shot.’  

Throughout the narrative, the Kimber watchword is ‘duty’ and the frequent set-backs are invariably shrugged off as ‘C’est la guerre.’ The death in combat of his friend and confidant, Alan Nichols, does hit him hard, but his dedication is unwavering:  ‘This sad news does not make me hesitate or feel timid about going to the lines.  On the contrary, it makes me yearn to be there. Don’t worry about me.  “To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late.”  What if I am killed?  Could any form of death be more glorious?’ 

Clifford Kimber was killed in action on September 26 1918 – a few weeks before the end of the war. The fact that his story is available now for all to see is a tribute to the loving and careful preservation of his archive by his family, particularly his niece, Elizabeth Nurser.  She and her son-in-law, Patrick Gregory, a former senior BBC journalist, have skilfully interwoven the letters with context and background. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read: a story both illuminating and intensely moving.'

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