Lest We Forget

A- A A+

Lest We Forget

Categories: Blog, House

Lest We Forget: Filoli and World War I

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I (WWI), also known as the Great War by those who lived through it. The story of Filoli and the Bourns is linked to WWI. It comes as no surprise that the Bourn family, who built Filoli, were great Internationalists. Today, Filoli boasts items from over 20 different countries and cultures throughout the House and Gardens.

Filoli’s story begins around the same time as World War I. The Bourns bought the land that would become Filoli in 1914 – the year WWI was declared. They moved into the House in 1917 – the same year the US entered the War. The Bourns were designing, building, decorating, and moving into Filoli while war raged on in Europe.  

Both William Bowers Bourn II and Agnes Moody Bourn were generous with their time, money, and support for the war effort. They focused their efforts into three streams – gaining support from Americans to push the US into the War, financially supporting the first Americans fighting in France, and helping get Americans into France as civilians.

Mr. Bourn standing in front of the House c.1917

Gaining American Support for the War

Friends of France and the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition
At the beginning of the War the Bourns threw themselves into multiple projects, including the planning and building of Filoli and helming the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE).  During the PPIE, Bourn organized a “Day of France and Belgium” on November 27, 1915. Mr. Bourn was the president of The Friends of France. As the name implies, the Friends of France was an organization created to support France during the War.  They raised and sent funds to help blind soldiers, ambulance brigades, and other worthy causes. Mr. Bourn gave a rousing speech on the “Day of France and Belgium.”

In the speech he stated “The soul of France was born and dwells in idealism. It was from the germ of French idealism that sprang the soul of America. When materialism breaks itself against the mighty walls of an ideal – a nation will be saved from being a people without a soul.  Efficiency, wealth, material comfort, appeal to all; but they cannot produce…the glory that France now dwells in. Is America neutral?”  The crowd of 10,000 responded “NO.”


Helping Americans already Fighting in France

Lafayette Escadrille
The Bourns helped to finance the Lafayette Escadrille along with other American industrialists, such as the Vanderbilts. The Lafayette Escadrille was a group of volunteer American pilots fighting for the French under French command. They, along with some members of the French Foreign Legion, were the first Americans to fight in WWI. By joining the Lafayette Escadrille these men ran the risk of losing their American citizenship. After the US finally declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the Lafayette Escadrille was folded into the U.S. Army Air Service (the forerunner of the US Air Force). The Lafayette Escadrille was a marketing coup that gave soldiers in France a face to Americans. This group helped influence Americans to push for the US to enter the War.


The Flag given to Mr. Bourn by the students of Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley as is hangs in the House today.

Sending Americans to France

American Ambulance Field Service
Bourn’s Friends of France were instrumental in bringing students from Stanford and Berkeley to France to work as ambulance drivers. American ambulance drivers helped free up more Frenchmen to fight. Over 2,000 American university students joined the American Ambulance Field Service. Mr. Bourn was contacted by Joseph Eastman, a student at Stanford and brother to Mr. Bourn’s employee, Sam Eastman. Joe informed Mr. Bourn that he and other students at Stanford wanted to help France. The Friends of France jumped at the chance to send Americans over.

The Bourns were in charge of procuring the visas for 41 students from Stanford and 42 students from the University of California, Berkeley. The first group of 20 students from Stanford arrived in January, 1917, while the second group landed in April, 1917- just after the US declared War. They all worked as ambulance drivers until the US was able to organize and mobilize. Many of the students, after seeing the horror of trench warfare, opted to join the U.S. Army Air Service.

Here, at Filoli, we have the companion flag of the so-called ‘First Flag.’  The second group of ambulance drivers were ready to depart when the US officially entered the war. They asked permission to bring the first officially sanctioned American flag to the front. It was carried by Stanford student Arthur Kimber and handed over to the first Stanford group in April of 1917. The original “First Flag” is held by the Stanford Museum. Our flag was a surprise present from the Stanford and Berkeley students to Mr. Bourn. They had it presented to him on his birthday – May 31, 1917 to express their appreciation for his support.


Portrait of Agnes Moody Bourn c.1916 by Sir William Orpen, R.H.A. Agnes received her very own silver medal of la Reconnaissance Francaise for her effort during WWI.

End of the War

The Bourns were bestowed with honors for their efforts during WWI. They were invited to see the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in Paris in 1919. They were each given the silver medal of “la Reconnaissance Française.” It is worth noting that Agnes received her own separate medal – due to her own efforts. The Friends of France, including Mr. Bourn, also received the Legion d’Honneur from the French Government. 

Today, the American Field Service still exists and works to send students on cultural exchanges.  They started the concept of studying abroad for a term or semester. Mr. Bourn helped to fund Stanford’s Arthur Kimber Fellowship. Arthur Kimber, the young man who carried the First Flag, died in combat in 1917 when his airplane was shot down.


November 11, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the day fighting ended in World War I. President Woodrow Wilson declared the hostilities would end at the “11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.” Over 117,000 Americans died in this deadly conflict that claimed 20 million lives.