The Literate Escadrille

The Lafayette Escadrille is one of the best-known American flying units of World War I. It represents the essence of American idealism, patriotism, and sacrifice. But while the name of the unit lives in legend, the names and achievements of its members are not as well known. One achievement of the unit in particular has not been given the recognition it deserves: the high literary quality and historical value of the books written about the Lafayette Escadrille, books written not by journalists or historians, but by members of the Lafayette Escadrille themselves.

Writing about their flying experiences was not one of the primary duties of the men of the Lafayette Escadrille, of course; their combat role as a unit of French aviation was to fly their appareils de chasse, Nieuport and SPAD aircraft, in reconnaissance missions, patrol mission, and escort missions for bombing and scouting aircraft. But in the long course of time involved in the foundation of their unit (almost a year and a half) and then during the period of their unit’s existence (almost two years), the members of the Lafayette Escadrille found themselves in an atmosphere especially hospitable to literary efforts: the American public wanted to know about what this new aspect of warfare, aerial combat, was like. While conditions of combat generally, and aerial combat especially, do not provide a favorable writing environment, the men of the Lafayette Escadrille attained a record of literary success nearly as significant as their combat record. Although many of their works appeared after the war ended, many books were published during the war years. These books describe the daily activities of its members, the aerial experiences, the social events, the unit’s movements. Taken in total, these books give the true sense of life in the Lafayette Escadrille as well as indicating the unique personalities and motivation of the individuals who made up the unit.

The prime mover in the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille was Norman Prince, who came from a distinguished Boston family; both his father and grandfather had been active in the worlds of politics and finance. Norman Prince received his degree from Harvard Law School in 1911 and was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. But he sailed for France in January of 1915. He was breveted as a French pilot on May 1st of that year and flew Voisin bombardment in V.B. 108 and V.B. 113 (French flying units used the initials of the aircraft the unit flew; as a result, those initials could change as the war progressed) until February 15, 1916. From the moment of his first arrival in France he was actively involved in bringing to fruition his idea of an all-American flying unit to be attached to the French aviation service. As a result of his personal enthusiasm, his family’s influence, and the dedicated assistance of numerous interested parties in Paris, including Dr. Edmund Gros and M. Jarousse de Sillac, the unit was eventually established.

The Lafayette Escadrille was officially established as N. (for Nieuport) 124 in April of 1916, over fifteen months after Prince’s arrival in France. The delay in formation was caused initially by French doubt about American intentions (at that time America was officially neutral) and by an abundance of French aviation candidates. However, as the war developed into a stalemate and French resources dwindled, French aviation officials began to appreciate the practical and political benefits of the formation of such a unit. The French officials felt, and rightly so as it turned out, that the formation of an American Escadrille (American squadron) would focus favorable American attention on the French cause.

The American Escadrille (later named the Lafayette Escadrille in deference to supposed American neutrality) was officially in existence from April 20th, 1916, to February 18th, 1918, when SPAD 124 (the unit had changed from Nieuport aircraft) transferred from French to American control and became the 103rd Pursuit Squadron of the U. S. Air Service. At that time, members of the Lafayette Escadrille were released to join American flying units, which most did, or to transfer to other French units, an option a lesser number chose. During its 22-month life, the Lafayette Escadrille roster included 38 American pilots, of whom nearly one-third were killed in the course of the war. The American members of the Escadrille were officially credited with the destruction of 37 German aircraft, the largest share—seventeen—falling to Raoul Lufbery, the American ace. The American members of the unit also accounted for over fifteen books and numerous articles in which they described their wartime experiences.

Because the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille were part of a glamorous and unique organization, they received intense media coverage, especially from journalists and photographers. Their comments and stories were eagerly solicited for publication in American and French periodicals. One of the initial members of the Escadrille, James McConnell, was especially active in this regard.

McConnell was one of the first individuals designated to join the Escadrille. Like most of the other original members, he had come to France early in the conflict with the intention of assisting the Allied effort. He had joined the Field Service of the American Ambulance Corps, an organization that eventually provided several volunteers for French and American aviation units. While he was serving in the Field Service, McConnell wrote an account of ambulance work in the Lorraine section of the war zone. This article appeared in Outlook Magazine in the September 15th, 1915 issue, and was prefaced with pro-Allied remarks by President Roosevelt. McConnell’s article was eventually anthologized in Friends of France: The Field Service of the American Ambulance Described by its Members, published by Houghton Mifflin in late 1916.

When McConnell joined the Lafayette Escadrille, he continued to exercise his literary skills, eventually producing the first full-length book devoted to the exploits of the escadrille, Flying for France (Doubleday Page, 1917). This volume describes in a plain but graphic style the flying life of the members of the Escadrille. McConnell wrote of the activities of other members of the squadron as well as of his own exploits; here, for instance, is his account of the fall of a German aircraft one of his squadronmates brought down:

As it turned over, it showed its white belly for an instant, then seemed to straighten out, and planed downward in big zigzags. The pilot must have gripped his controls even in death, for his craft did not tumble as most do. It passed between my line of vision and a wood, into which it disappeared. Just as I was going down to find out where it landed, I saw it again skimming across a field, and heading for the brown band beneath me. It was outlined against the shell-wracked earth like a tiny insect, until just west of Fort Douaumont it crashed down upon the battlefield. A sheet of flame and smoke shot up from the tangled wreckage. For a moment or two I watched it burn; then I went back to the observation machines.

This description is typical of those provided in the writings of the pilots in the Escadrille: there is no special attempt at stylistic showmanship; they aim at straightforward, accurate narrative, much like the combat reports they were asked to write after they returned from a successful mission. Like too many of his squadronmates, James McConnell fell to an early death in combat; he served in the Escadrille from its inception until he was killed on a mission on March 19th, 1917.

At the time of his death, McConnell was one of only two of the original seven American pilots still flying actively with the squadron; the other operational pilot was William Thaw, the unofficial American leader of the unit (the French commander of the Escadrille was Captain George Thenault). Three of the squadron’s most aggressive and best-liked pilots, Norman Prince, Victor Chapman, and Kiffin Rockwell, were killed in action the first six months of the squadron’s existence; one pilot, Elliott Cowdin, had departed quietly; and the last of the seven, the flamboyant Bert Hall, had moved on to other flying activities.

Victor Chapman was the first American pilot to die in combat; his death on June 23rd, 1916, saddened American and French personnel alike, for he was a cheerful and outgoing person. He had studied in Paris before the war and, like others in the unit, felt a strong kinship with the French people. Kiffin Yates Rockwell, from Asheville, North Carolina, also a well-liked pilot, fell to his death on September 23rd, 1916. Norman Prince, the primary force behind the creation of the Lafayette Escadrille, died as a result of an accident in a night landing on October 12th, 1916. These three—Chapman, Rockwell, and Prince—typified the American volunteer spirit, and their deaths marked the transitional phase of the unit from an untested collection of inexperienced beginners to a combat-tempered group of survival-oriented veterans.

Although neither Chapman, Rockwell, nor Prince actively sought publication of their writings, books bearing their names appeared soon after their deaths. In all three cases, concerned friends and relatives decided to honor their participation in the Escadrille by issuing collections of their letters, commendations, and other memorabilia. The letters of each of these three individuals reveal their perceptiveness and idealism; and the formats that these early books developed helped to establish the pattern of subsequent collections. Perhaps the most consistently instructive and informative reading is to be found in Victor Chapman’s Letters from France (Macmillan, 1917), for his letters reveal a noticeable stylistic craft as he describes his activities and experiences enroute to France and then in the Foreign Legion, in which he served for nearly a year before transferring to the Escadrille. The War Letters of Kiffin Yates Rockwell (Country Life Press, 1925) provide a narrative of Rockwsell’s movement through the Foreign Legion to the Escadrille. The Norman Prince memorial volume, Norman Prince, A Volunteer Who Died for the Cause He Loved (Houghton Mifflin, 1917), is especially instructive for its glimpse into his personal idealism and his flying training experiences.

Other pilots who died while flying with the Escadrille later in its existence were also honored with posthumous collections, including Ronald Hoskier and the boyish-looking E. C. C. Genet. Hoskier’s volume features the lengthy but descriptive title, Richard Wood Hoskier: Literary Fragments and Remains in Verse and Prose. Edmund C. C. Genet’s letters, edited by Grace Channing, were issued under the title of The War Letters of Edmund Genet (Scribner’s, 1918). His war diaries have been edited by Walt Brown and published in An American for Lafayette: The Diaries of E. C. C. Genet, Lafayette Escadrille (University of Virginia, 1981). Genet was inspired to provide the name Lafayette Escadrille when the original name, American Escadrille, fell into political disfavor.

The colorful and unconventional Bert Hall was responsible for the next volume of the popular history type begun by James McConnell. After Hall departed the Escadrille, he continued his flying career on the Russian front before he returned to the United States, when he released an account of his activities in the war. His book, entitled “En l’air!” (New Library, 1918), is written with the casual gusto of a man of adventure, as Hall was. Although his personal background (he drove a taxi in Paris before the war) was not marked by the same qualities of wealth and education as those of Prince, Chapman, and Rockwell, the narrative style of his book reveals a worldly wisdom as well as a practical and combat-tempered perspective:

If the pilot, or machine, is hit badly it usually falls like a leaf, fluttering and zigzagging to earth. This is not always the case, for if the aviator stops his motor he falls slowly. If, however, the motor is running at generally falls nose first and at terrific speed. As a rule the wings buckle up and they go down like a stone. You can watch them until they strike the ground; a puff of smoke and a spot of debris, that is all. If the machine falls in our lines we generally land near it in order to get a souvenir.

Several years after the war, Bert Hall issued a more detailed account of his war experiences, entitled One Man’s War: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille (Holt, 1928), written with the help of another American pilot-author, John Jacob Niles, better known today for his pioneering efforts in the field of the American (and especially African-American) folk song. As in the earlier volume, Hall figures prominently in the action. Bert Hall’s books have often been accused of favoring emotional impact over factual precision. That may be one reason why they are such fun to read.

The most comprehensive—and most enjoyable—history of the Escadrille is that of Edwin C. “Ted” Parsons, The Great Adventure (Doubleday, Doran, 1937). Ted Parsons joined the Lafayette Escadrille on January 25th, 1917, and remained with the unit until it disbanded in February of 1918, when he transferred to another French squadron, Spad 3, where he continued to fly until the armistice. After the war, Parsons began to write about his flying experiences in such popular magazines as Wings, and he eventually compiled his accounts into one volume. Like Bert Hall’s books, The Great Adventure is written in a direct and descriptive style.

Here, for instance, is Parsons’ account of one of the earliest examples of flying into “friendly fire,” of flying that is, in the same vicinity in which your own forces are firing artillery shells against the enemy:

It still sends a chill up my spine to recall an incident which occurred during an attack while I was patrolling at an altitude of about forty-five hundred feet. A hairsbreadth deviation might have had a tragic result.

I was inside the German lines, flying alone, headed toward enemy territory at my plane’s top speed, probably in the neighborhood of a hundred and thirty miles an hour. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, first on one side, then the other, I caught a glimpse, not twenty feet from either wingtip, of two elongated, bottle-shaped black objects hurtling through the air and going in the same direction, passing me so fast that all I had was just a flash and they disappeared. I got a tremendous bump from the vacuum created by their passage, but it was only a tiny thing compared to the vacuum that had been my stomach when I realized what these objects were and what would have happened to me had I been a few feet to one side or the other.

The two shells must have been nearly at the top of their trajectory and at the point of inertia or I shouldn’t have seen them at all.

Parsons’ narrative, like Hall’s, provides a good picture not only of the war in the air but also of the man himself; when one finishes reading The Great Adventure one had a clear impression of what it would be like to meet Ted Parsons. It was later reprinted as I Flew for the Lafayette Escadrille (Seale, 1963).

Charles Biddle was another Escadrille pilot who had a long and illustrious career in the war; he joined the unit in January of 1918 and flew with it until it transferred to American control in February. Biddle remained with the unit for several months after it became the 103rd Pursuit Squadron; his account of his flying experiences in France is entitled The Way of the Eagle (Scribner’s, 1919). Biddle was admired by his fellow aviators for his flying skills and for his good-natured manner; his book is a compilation of letters he wrote home during his training and combat tours of duty with French and American aviation units.

There was another writer named Hall associated with the Lafayette Escadrille—James Norman Hall, co-author (with Charles Nordhoff) of the Bounty trilogy (The Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, and Pitcairn’s Island). Like many of his squadronmates, Hall came to the Escadrille after serving elsewhere; in his case, he had seen action as a soldier in the British army and had written about his experiences in Kitchener’s Mob (Houghton Mifflin, 1916). After a short stay in the United States, he went to France, intending to write an article about the Escadrille before returning to service with the British, but once he traveled to France he was persuaded to join the Escadrille.

Hall had two of the most miraculous crash landings experienced by any aviator. He narrowly escaped death when he crashed inside the French lines on June 26, 1917; his second crash landing occurred inside German lines on May 7th, 1918, and resulted in his becoming a prisoner of war. At the time of his second crash he was a member of the 94th Aero Squadron (the “Hat in the Ring Squadron,” commanded by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker). He transferred to the American Air Service in February of 1918, after an association with the Lafayette Escadrille that lasted for twenty months. During the period of time in which he was recuperating from the injuries he received in his first accident, Hall wrote High Adventure (Houghton Mifflin, 1918), an account of his experiences in the Escadrille to that point. After the war ended Hall wrote about his experiences as a prisoner of war in Flying with Chaucer (Houghton Mifflin, 1932).

When hostilities ceased Hall teamed up with a fellow American aviator, Charles Nordhoff; Nordhoff had flown with the Lafayette Flying Corps (that is, in one of the other French flying units, not N. 124, the Lafayette Escadrille). The two men eventually moved to the South Pacific island of Tahiti, where they collaborated on the Bounty trilogy. But before moving to Tahiti, they produced two especially important works relating to the Lafayette Escadrille. The first is the two-volume set, The Lafayette Flying Corps (Houghton Mifflin, 1920), a wonderfully illustrated history of the backgrounds and achievements of the Americans who flew in all the French aviation units, including the Lafayette Escadrille. This work is invaluable for the wealth of material it presents, and although it is written from a subjective viewpoint, it is the first detailed history of the Escadrille.

The second book that Nordhoff and Hall produced that bears upon the Lafayette Escadrille is Falcons of France (Little Brown, 1929). This novel is a compilation of typical training and combat experiences of American pilots flying in France. The narrative focuses on the adventures of Charles Selden, who is accepted into French service, trained at a French base, and attached to a French combat unit. Although Selden does not join the Lafayette Escadrille, its activities are continuously described throughout the book, and Selden’s training and combat experiences, based on those of Nordhoff and Hall, are realistically described.

James Norman Hall stands out as the most prominent and productive of that unusual group of aerial combatants who flew in France in the Great War and who, whether they lived or died, made determined efforts to tell others of their experiences. No other American aviation unit since then has matched the combined flying and literary achievements of the Lafayette Escadrille; not only did it compile an enviable combat record, but it also created an impressive collection of narrative accounts of the war in the air. The publications of the written works of the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille created an accurate and detailed portrayal of life in the Lafayette Escadrille, and have made these experiences available to generations of subsequent readers.

(Originally published in Strut & Axle, the publication of the Owl’s Head, Maine, Transportation Museum, Volume VII, Number 1 (1985), pp. 9-15)