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The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille

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The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille
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Author(s): Georges Thenault
Date Published: 2010/04
Page Count: 156
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-069-3
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-070-9

Aces over the Western Front

The Lafayette Escadrille is now a legend of early aeronautics and warfare in the air. Originally titled the Escadrille Americaine, this squadron of the French Air Force of the Great War was formed in 1916 and as it name suggests was piloted mainly by Americans who came to the Western Front to fight the battle of the skies for the Allies out of conviction—in the hope of encouraging the United States to join the fray—or simply in the spirit of adventure. The élan of this crack squadron has survived it and today its Indian chief insignia is instantly recognisable. There have been several books concerning the Lafayette Escadrille, but this one has unimpeachable credentials since its author was none other than the unit’s commander. Few readers interested in the subject of this book will need explanation as to its contents. The wartime action of the squadron and its personnel are recounted here in the most immediate detail by a man who was on the spot to witness it all. Available in soft cover and hard cover with dust jacket for collectors.

Looking at the first photograph taken at Luxeuil of the first five members of the escadrille, three of whom, Chapman, Rockwell and Prince, had already disappeared, MacConnell, who with me was the only survivor, once said to me: “It is my turn next, and it would have been better that I had been killed rather than Chapman. He would have done better work than I for he was a cleverer pilot.”<br>
What a modest fellow he was, and what a noble spirit of calm philosophy was taken from us at his death. And when I look at the tragic photograph, as we used to call it, in which I alone am left alive, my heart is very heavy at the thought of my brave comrades.<br>
MacConnell’s exact fate only became known to us a few days later.<br>
This same day of the 19th. Thaw, who had landed at Nesles in front of our vanguard, had trouble with his motor and couldn’t start off again. Luckily the Boches had no thought of offensive action and were filled with the idea of running to earth in the Hindenburg line.<br>
To repair Thaw’s motor we had to pass through an army on the move, which was not easy, owing to the choked condition of the roads, many of which had been rendered useless by the enemy. The job was done by the help of Soubiran, who had once been a mechanic in the celebrated Indianapolis races. At Roye the road had been destroyed by vast mine craters and all the trees bordering it were cut, sawn almost wholly through so that they stood upright only by force of habit, as it were, and were brought down on the road by the slightest breeze.<br>
Words cannot describe the joy of the inhabitants who embraced us now that an end had been put to their sufferings, their long martyrdom with its fines, prison, deportations and thousand and one other vexations, which they had to relate. In later days such a sight was to be all too familiar to American fighters also.<br>
On March 24th I took my Spad and landed near Ham. There I asked for an automobile, and went from division to division, asking if anyone had news of Jim MacConnell. Finally I learned that a machine had been reported in a field by the road from Bois L’Abbé to Petit Detroit about a mile and a half south of Jussy. I managed to get there not without difficulty, for the Germans were still just on the other side of the canal. It was indeed MacConnell’s Nieuport with its emblem. Beside it lay his body, which had been taken out of the machine. All his papers had been removed and the Germans had even carried off his boots.<br>
With the aid of Major Uffler of the 48th Battalion of Chasseurs à pied, I managed to get him a decent burial. Beside a little French by-way a simple cross invites the passer-by to stop and devote a thought, a memory, to the brave forerunner of America’s armies, who lies buried there.<br>
At Ravenel we were then too far away from the front, at least forty miles, so we established ourselves at Ham on a field formerly used by the enemy. <br>
At this time Ham had not suffered very much, as unfortunately has been its case since. It was very different with the neighbouring villages, which had been completely and deliberately destroyed by the Germans. In Ham about two-thirds of the houses were uninjured, but the bridges had been destroyed and the crossroads and public squares were nothing but huge craters torn open by the explosion of mines.<br>
The Germans had more or less spared these small towns because they assembled the population of each canton in its principal town. The rest of the villages were systematically destroyed, the walls overthrown by means of special battering rams, the fruit trees cut down and the wells poisoned by throwing manure into them.<br>
The historic castle of Ham, where Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, afterwards Napoleon III, had been in prison during the reign of Louis-Philippe, was utterly razed to the ground by several mines. What a barbarous act to destroy these stones a thousand years old without any military reason. It was simply the fury of destruction which had animated these modern Huns. So too had been destroyed the celebrated Castle of Coucy.<br>
At Ham William Dugan and Kenneth Marr, who subsequently did very good work, joined the escadrille. Thomas Hewitt also joined us there.<br>
On the 8th of April Lieutenant de Laage brought down two enemies one after the other north of St. Quentin, thus relieving the pressure on some English planes who were in a hot fight. This exploit, added to all that he had done before, won for him the Legion of Honour, granted on April 21st. It was well deserved by this true leader of men, whose courage and bearing always gave him a remarkable influence over all who came in contact with him.<br> Unfortunately, a time of cruel losses was coming for the escadrille. On April 16th young Genet was killed in full flight by a shell south of St. Quentin. He was one of our best pilots, the type of man who always had to be restrained rather than encouraged; always ready to sacrifice himself.<br>
I see no harm in relating here that to be accepted in the Foreign Legion, in which he had first served France, Genet had told a pardonable falsehood. He hadn’t reached the age required for all who wished to volunteer for the Legion, so he had deliberately added three years to his age to make it twenty-one. Brave Genet! Sleep in peace in the France you loved so well!<br>
He was the first American to be killed since his country had declared war. The American Embassy in Paris was represented at his funeral by Mr. R. W. Bliss and Mr. Ben Thaw, our pilot’s brother.