The first flag

The First Flag was the first official flag of the United States Government to be presented and flown on the Western Front in 1917.

On 24th April 1917, three volunteer units from Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley – recent recruits to the ranks of the American Ambulance Field Service – assembled with a crowd of over 12,000 people inside San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium.

It was three weeks since the United States had announced its intention to join the war in Europe and the occasion marked the Leave-Taking of the young volunteers, soon to serve on the front there. The young men – 63 of them in all, one unit from Stanford and two from Berkeley – had marched to the centre with thousands of their fellow students, flanked by detachments from the U.S. Army and Navy; they now stood on the auditorium’s stage.

Behind them on the stage, dignitaries from church, army and politics. The Dean of the Faculties of the University of California David Barrows presided; alongside him the President of Stanford and Chairman of the League of California Ray Lyman Wilbur and Mrs. Herbert Hoover; and the Friends of France were represented by the San Francisco industrialist and entrepreneur W.B. Bourn. Together, they heard the heard the crowd give a rousing reception to the French Consul-General Julien Neltner.

Anthems rang out, speeches were given, presentations made. Brassards were attached to the arms of the young volunteers and four American flags handed over. It would be some time before American troops would reach France so these flags were authorised as official Government flags by the U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker; furthermore, one of them would be accorded the honour of being the first to be officially presented and flown in France.

The honour of receiving that flag went to First Stanford Unit of the American Ambulance (unit S.S.U.14), already serving in France; and it was decided that volunteer Arthur ‘Clifford’ Kimber of the university’s newly formed Second Stanford Unit would carry it to them, beginning his journey for France four days later, in advance of his fellow volunteers.

Kimber set out by train, arriving in New York the following week. There, on 10th May 1917, as the city also played host to the visiting war delegations of Britain and France, he paraded the flag down a packed Fifth Avenue with members of the American Ambulance Field Service. Some days later – and following a meeting with former President Theodore Roosevelt – he sailed with the flag to England, docking at the port of Liverpool, and travelling on via London to France, arriving in Paris in late May.

Finally, on 4th June 1917, the flag was unfurled in France near the village of Tréveray in the Meuse department in north-eastern France presented to the Stanford volunteers of S.S.U. 14.

The First Flag had arrived.