MISERY IN THE SOMME

Nieuport 11 C1 Unit: Escadrille Lafayette Serial: N1336 France, 1916.
The Escadrille Lafayette in July 1917. Standing, left to right are Soubiron, Doolittle, Campbell, Persons, Bridgman, Dugan, MacMonagle, Lowell, Willis, Jones, Peterson and de Maison-Rouge (French Deputy Commander). Seated, left to right are Hill, Masson with “Soda,” Thaw, Thenault (the French Commander), Lufbery with “Whiskey,” Johnson, Bigelow and Rockwell. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“We had … come to believe that we would wage only a deluxe war, and were unprepared for any other sort of campaign.”

On the morning of October 18, 1916, three Nieuport 17 fighters lifted off from the aerodrome at Luxeuil and turned to a northwesterly heading. These three aircraft, the only ones in Escadrille N.124 still airworthy, were piloted by Masson, Lufbery, and Capitaine Thénault. After a little more than two hours’ flying time, the three arrived at their new base of operations. The large open field, bordered on one side by a dense wood, was located just north of the village of Cachy and 10 miles east of the larger city of Amiens. More importantly, it was only two miles from the banks of the River Somme.

The Somme Offensive, named after the river, had begun on July 1, 1916. In terms of sheer brutality and body count, this bloody battle was of a magnitude similar to Verdun. On the first day alone, the British army suffered some 57,000 casualties, a third of those killed outright. By battle’s end in mid-November, British, French, and German combined casualties would total more than a million men.

The remaining pilots assigned to N.124, still grounded due to a lack of available airplanes, were compelled to make the trip from Luxeuil by rail—and as usual, via Paris. The rest of the escadrille’s support personnel made their way cross-country in trucks packed with gear, tools, equipment, and supplies. This was a lengthy process, so it took until the end of the month for the squadron to become operational. In this new theatre of operations, N.124 was to be teamed with escadrilles de chase N.65, N.67, and N.112 to form Groupe de Combat 13, commanded by Capitaine (later Commandant) Philippe Féquant.

Another Prince of a Pilot

e Escadrille Américaine had taken some hard hits over the previous four months. Chapman, Rockwell, and Prince were dead; Cowdin had left the squadron; and the wounded Balsley would never return. Thaw had finally recovered from his elbow wound, but McConnell would not be back until November. As a consequence of this rapid attrition, the squadron was now down to only nine American pilots, two of which—as the next few days would prove—would also soon be leaving. Therefore, as the pilots passed through Paris on their way to Cachy, they picked up three new replacements—all officially assigned as of October 22, 1916.

The End of the ‘Deluxe War’

The Somme offensive began with French and British domination of the skies over the battlefield. Allied leaders fully recognized the need for aerial reconnaissance and fighter protection, so they had committed the necessary resources to insure air superiority. However, by late October, when the Escadrille Américaine arrived at Cachy, the situation had changed. The German Air Service had responded with significantly greater numbers of aircraft, which they massed together into a large air fighting unit called a “Jadgstaffel,” or “Jasta,” for short. This meant that the day of lone wolf fighter patrols had come to an end for pilots on both sides of the lines. Surviving in the air now depended on teamwork, as well as individual skill.

Another change in the balance of air power that the pilots of N.124 were about to discover was that the Germans were developing improved aircraft to counter the excellent British and French fighting machines. The now-outdated Fokker Eindecker was being replaced by faster and more maneuverable machines, such as the new Albatros D-series of fighters. Their sturdy monocoque plywood fuselage construction—whose strength came from their outer wooden shell rather than internal bracing—and powerful Mercedes engines gave them much-improved performance. More importantly, this outstanding engine allowed them to carry two forward-firing, synchronized machine guns. As a consequence, the men of the Escadrille Américaine would meet with very stiff resistance in the skies above the Somme.

Life at Cachy was far more difficult for the men of N.124 in another way. Gone were the comfortable villas, hotels, and the excellent food they had enjoyed at Luxeuil and Behonne. Instead, they were quartered in cold, drafty, and leaky portable shacks located in a wind-swept environment James McConnell called “a sea of mud”—with a miserably cold and wet winter just about to begin. Moreover, because the squadron had, in the past, had such excellent accommodations, it arrived at Cachy without any stoves or other cooking and household utensils. As a consequence, the pilots had to impose on neighboring French squadrons for subsistence until they could get their own mess established. Lacking even such basic necessities as furniture and blankets, the pilots initially had to sleep on the floors of their huts in their flying gear. As James McConnell put it, “We had …

come to believe that we would wage only a deluxe war, and were unprepared for any other sort of campaign.” The good life that he and his colleagues had taken for granted had come to an end.

They immediately went to work, caulking cracks, papering walls, installing electrical lights and stoves, and making their living space as comfortable as possible. Some of the more artistically inclined even decorated the bleak walls with drawings of air combat scenes and other images of interest to men at war. Meanwhile, Thaw and the squadron “chef de popote” (mess officer), Didier Masson, took a truck to Paris, and after obtaining funds from the Franco-American Flying Corps Committee via Dr. Gros, purchased stoves and other necessary equipment to haul back to Cachy. Before long, N.124’s austere living arrangements began to seem more like home.

Two Fewer “Bad Boys”

Other changes were also taking place during this time. The situation with Bert Hall had finally come to a head. Hall’s biographer, Blaine Pardoe, discusses Bert’s standing within the squadron, which was both complicated and controversial, in his book The Bad Boy. According to Pardoe, many of the offenses that authors have attributed to Bert over the past century were true: he probably was, in fact, “a liar and a scoundrel.”

On the other hand, some of the more unsavory things generally ascribed to Hall were, according to Pardoe, exaggerations or out-and-out fabrications by his lifelong enemy, Paul Rockwell. The self-appointed squadron historian never forgave Hall for skipping out on Kiffin’s funeral. Rockwell believed that Bert had, instead, scooted off to Paris to “peddle” the story of Kiffin’s death to the newspapers. Because of this, the bitter elder Rockwell made it his life’s mission to denigrate Hall in every way possible; and being the primary source of information about the squadron, Paul’s assertions have generally been taken at face value and repeated verbatim by almost every author who has ever written about the Lafayette Escadrille. Thus, the historical picture of Bert Hall that resulted from this lifelong smear campaign is probably far worse than was really the case.

In spite of Bert’s transgressions, either real or perceived, there is no evidence that he was “kicked out” of the squadron, as often alleged—neither Capitaine Thénault nor anyone else asked Bert to leave. It seems, instead, that his colleagues—led by James McConnell, who never liked Hall—reacted to his roguish behavior and rough manners by ostracizing him to the point where he no longer felt wanted. A few days after Kiffin Rockwell’s death, he requested a transfer, and on November 1, left the squadron and reported to Escadrille N.103. After he left, McConnell made his feelings clear about Hall’s departure when he wrote to Paul Rockwell, “I’m damned glad he’s gone….” Bert also had a final comment, as remembered by Emil Marshall, an American non-pilot temporarily assigned to the squadron, who was present when Hall left. According to him, Hall shook his fist at his ex-friends as he walked out and shouted angrily, “You’ll hear from me yet!” He proved true to his word.

The next “bad boy” to leave the squadron was Laurence Rumsey. Since reporting back in early June, he had flown only a few missions—his last one recorded in the squadron log was on September 9. Moreover, he had become so dependent on alcohol that he could no longer fly sober. On one notable occasion, he took off while in an excessively inebriated state and got completely lost. He was finally forced to land on a field he decided must be in German territory. Remembering the instructions that had been drilled into him, he promptly set his Nieuport on fire. Only too late did the muddle-headed pilot discover that he was on an Allied field several miles behind French lines.

Rumsey’s heart had always been in the right place, and just to be where he was proved his exceptional courage and ability; but like a few of the other 38 men who eventually served with N.124, he was simply not cut out to be a fighter pilot.

The incident that sealed his fate occurred soon after the squadron arrived at Cachy. The beloved mascot Whiskey liked chewing on things, and when Rumsey—in a state of advanced intoxication—caught him eating his service cap, he grabbed a walking stick and clubbed the little animal in the head, blinding him in his right eye. Rumsey undoubtedly regretted this act, but it was just another indication that he was unraveling. Soon afterward, he broke out in a rash of painful boils and had to be hospitalized. By November 25, he was no longer with the squadron and was soon thereafter on his way back to the United States.

A Flashy New Insignia to Match a Flashy New Name

The squadron log indicates that the inclement weather and thick Somme River mist kept the squadron grounded for 51 of the 86 days they spent at Cachy. Consequently, significant operational events were few and far between during this period. However, other significant things were occurring within the squadron.

Germany continued to complain to the still-neutral American government about the outlaw “amerikanischen Piloten” opposing them. The much-publicized deaths of Rockwell and Prince highlighted to an even greater extent the role the Americans were playing in the war, and this only increased German outrage. It eventually became enough of a concern to the American government that on November 13, 1916, the French Minister of War ordered, “for diplomatic reasons,” that the Escadrille Américaine henceforth be called the “Escadrille des Volontaires.” This lackluster name appealed to virtually no one, so a new order, dated December 6, 1916, decreed that the new unofficial name for Escadrille N.124 would be “l’Escadrille Lafayette”—the Lafayette Escadrille. This new name did not solve the problem of pilots from neutral America serving in the French Air Service but it at least disguised the squadron’s “national character” that had so offended the German government. Moreover, it was an appealing name that everyone could embrace.

To go with their catchy new name, the men of the squadron decided that they also needed their own unique insignia to distinguish them from other French squadrons. Since a US flag was out of the question, they had to find another, less obvious image to convey their national pride. When someone noticed a handsome Seminole Native American warrior logo on a case of Savage Arms Company ammunition, the issue was resolved. What could be more American than an American Indian? William Thaw then asked one of the squadron’s more artistic mechanics, Caporal Suchet, to paint his interpretation of this image onto the fuselage sides of the squadron’s aircraft. The Lafayette Escadrille now had its own unique logo. From now on, an Indianhead would adorn N.124 aircraft, and forevermore symbolize the Lafayette Escadrille.

A Formidable New Mount

Another important development occurring during this period was the arrival of the squadron’s first Spad VIIs. This highly acclaimed new fighter was in many ways a great improvement over the Nieuport 17, although the pilots did not universally welcome the change. Their beloved Nieuport was light on the controls, maneuverable, and easy to fly; whereas, the snub-nosed Spad—whose name was derived from the acronym of the company that built it, the Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés—had none of these characteristics. In fact, this thin-winged, inherently unstable machine seemed almost clunky by comparison.

The Spad, however, had some redeeming qualities that made it a better fighting machine than the Nieuport. Though more challenging to fly, especially from the small muddy fields so characteristic of WWI aerodromes, it was fast, incredibly sturdy, and it provided an exceptionally stable gun platform for the single .303-caliber Vickers machine gun mounted in front of the pilot. Thanks to its 140-horsepower Hispano-Suiza V-8  inline engine, it could cruise at 120 miles per hour and climb to an altitude of 6,500 feet in less than 5 minutes. Perhaps best of all, pilots could dive a Spad vertically to speeds approaching 250 miles per hour without fear of the wings shedding—a very useful feature during a diving attack or with an enemy fighter glued to their tail spitting hot steel into them. Even more so than the now-aging Nieuport, the Spad would become the favorite of the aces. The newly named Lafayette Escadrille would receive progressively more copies of this outstanding airplane in the ensuing weeks and months, until eventually, the official squadron designation of N.124 would change to SPA.124.

The remainder of 1916 progressed for the squadron at dreary, muddy Cachy with relatively few significant missions. One of the more noteworthy of these began in the early morning darkness of November 17, when German bombers attacked the aerodrome, set one of the hangars afire, and destroyed several airplanes. Paul Pavelka, who had been experimenting with night flying, took off in hot pursuit, aided by the light of the blazing hangar. He failed to encounter any bombers, and because his primitive signal system failed, he was unable to return for fear of being shot down by nervous French antiaircraft gunners. He wandered through the air for the next two and a half hours, becoming hopelessly lost in the blacked-out darkness of the Somme River haze. His engine eventually sputtered to a stop from fuel starvation, and he glided blindly down to a safe—and very fortunate—landing in a field some 25 miles from home. By the time he made his way back to the squadron, a new member had joined its fold.

On January 19, 1917, another new man—the 20th American assigned to the squadron—showed up at Cachy, unexpected and unannounced. He had come from the GDE at Plessis-Belleville to retrieve a worn out Nieuport; however, since his assignment to N.124 was pending, he stayed. He later wrote, “Meals here are splendid, the service is excellent and everyone seems to be in unison from the Captain down to the last of us. It’s fine.”

The small, cherubic Edmond, who attended church and wrote his mother faithfully, was the youngest pilot to fly for the Lafayette Escadrille—and he looked even younger than his 20 years. This prompted Edwin Parsons to refer to him as “the baby of the Lafayette,” but he was no baby. In addition to having previously served in the US Navy, he had, before entering into flight training, completed 16 months of service with the Foreign Legion. Here, he had fought his way through some of the war’s bloodiest battles. However, Genet’s sterling qualities—his cheerful demeanor, impressive war record, and proven courage and flying ability—were offset by a darker side of his rather complicated personality. As is clear from his own writings, he was plagued by feelings of guilt and self-loathing, stemming in part from the fact that was a fugitive from the law in his own country—he had, before coming to France, deserted from the Navy. Equally burdensome was his love for a young woman back home who had long since lost interest in him.

Meanwhile, as the two new men were busy trying to adapt to the damp, cold climate pervading Cachy, the squadron’s ace suffered from a painful bout of rheumatism. Even so, the irrepressible Raoul Lufbery continued his outstanding work. December 27 dawned a brilliantly clear day, and Luf made the most of it. He ended this very significant year in style by downing an Aviatik C two-seat observation plane, southeast of Chaulnes. Then, on January 24, he repeated this performance for his seventh confirmed victory.

Also on January 24, the popular and hard-working Paul Pavelka left the squadron. The wandering world traveler had grown weary of the miserable cold and dampness of the Somme and was anxious for a new environment. Both he and like-minded Willis Haviland had requested a transfer, but only Pavelka’s was approved. He reported to the Armée de l’Orient in Salonika (Thessaloniki), Greece, where he saw a great deal of action and accorded himself well while flying for French squadrons on the Macedonian front.

His career came to a tragic end on November 11, 1917, after he volunteered to help an old Foreign Legion comrade—now serving in the English cavalry—break a wild horse. The former cowpuncher Pavelka mounted the vicious animal and somehow stayed with the bucking bronco until it wildly threw itself to the ground and rolled over on its human tormenter. Mortally injured, Paul Pavelka died the next day. It was as ironic as it was tragic for a man who had survived so many death-defying experiences—including months of desperate combat in the trenches and numerous deadly aerial dogfights and emergency landings—to die in such a way. He was buried with honors at Salonika, and in 1928, his remains were transferred to the crypt below the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial, located at Marnes-le-Coquette, on the western outskirts of Paris.

* * *

The much-anticipated Somme experience had been, for the most part, a bust for the squadron. They had arrived at Cachy just as the big offensive and the good flying weather were each drawing to a close. After huddling around a stove in their shack for three dreary months, they shed no tears when orders came to move again. On January 26, the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille lifted off from Cachy and turned their planes south. Their new aerodrome—like Cachy, a field at the edge of a wood—was located between the towns of Ravenel and Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 20 miles due south. They hoped the new location would bring with it more livable accommodations and better flying weather.

The Lafayette Escadrille was an all-volunteer squadron of Americans who flew for France during World War I. One hundred years later, it is still arguably the best-known fighter squadron ever to take to the skies. In this work the entire history of these gallant volunteers—who named themselves after the Marquis Lafayette, who came to America’s aid during its Revolution—is laid out in both text and pictorial form. In time for the centennial celebration, this work not only tells the fascinating story of the Lafayette Escadrille, it shows it.

“Former Over the Front managing editor Steve Ruffin is well qualified to produce perhaps the most appealing treatment of the familiar subject: the Lafayette Escadrille of 1916-1918. The detailed, workmanlike text details “the life and times of the Lafayette.” From formation of N.124 in April 1916, through disestablishment as SPA.124 nearly two years later, the author traces the fortunes of all 38 Americans and their French squadron mates. Ruffin earns high marks for objectivity. Not all the Lafayette brothers were valiant, and he addresses the heels as well as the heroes. The postwar fortunes of the survivors include reason for both admiration and gloom. Rare among Lafayette histories, Ruffin places the escadrille in context, acknowledging that it had an average record. Certainly its greatest contribution was in the propaganda realm, as intended. With more than 220 photos (nearly 40 in color) Ruffin’s volume contains rare images not only of people and aircraft, but uniforms, artifacts, documents, and memorials. Six aircraft profiles by Tomasz Gronczewski and Alan Toelle provide detailed examinations of Nieuport 11s, 17s, and SPAD 7s. Appendices include bases, a full pilot roster, and a lengthy bibliography. Ruffin’s book obviously is a labor of love that will be appreciated by Great War aerophiles for years to come.” (Barrett Tillman Aerodrome)

“undoubtedly the finest photographic collection of the Lafayette Escadrille to appear in print. Along with the expert text revealing air-combat experiences as well as life at the front during the Great War, it is a never-before-seen visual history that both World War I aviation aficionados and those with a passing interest in history will appreciate. When its all said and done I can highly recommend this book to any and all enthusiasts of the WWI aviation genre.” (WWI In Plastic)

“This magnificent book probably provides everything needed by someone wishing to learn about this famous fighting unit, and really lives up to its sub-title…a reference book of the highest quality and one well worth having.”” (Cross and Cockade)

“…Given Ruffin’s 44 years of pilot experience and membership in the League of WWI Aviation Historians, he tells this rousing story as well as any predecessor….with the added benefit of research that cuts through the myths without harming the narrative. Ruffin also made use of Alan Toelle’s research into the escadrille’s aircraft markings, which benefit both the photograph captions and the color artwork by Tomasz Gronczewski. The wealth of photos includes some new ones from the period as well as updates on the squadron up to its continuing service in the French Air force today…worthy update to earn a spot in the WWI aviation enthusiast’s library” (Aviation History)

“a fresh look at the 38 Americans in the Escadrille Américaine, as it was first called, to produce this voluminous account of the unit. In addition to mini-bios of each member, his narrative is complemented by a superb collection of black & white and color photos and other illustrations gathered during a dedicated search for materials…is a finely-researched, well-written and well-illustrated book. It is recommended highly.” (Over the Front)

“For The Lafayette Escadrille, aviation historian Steven Ruffi n has collected a range of unknown or never-before-seen photos: formal Civil War-style portraits, signed glossies of fliers in movie star poses, and, thanks to American pilot Paul Rockwell, casual shots of legendary pilots fighting boredom, hanging around a hangar playing cards, attending funerals, and being buried with full military honors. While the book has “photo history” in its subtitle, the Lafayette Escadrille requires narrative to separate legend from reality, which Ruffi n adds simply and factually while letting the pictures do the heavy lifting. But when it comes to describing aerial combat in all its bloody fury, he excels.” (Phil Scott Air and Space Magazine)

“While the book has “photo history” in its subtitle, the Lafayette Escadrille requires narrative to separate legend from reality, which Ruffi n adds simply and factually while letting the pictures do the heavy lifting. But when it comes to describing aerial combat in all its bloody fury, he excels.” (Air and Space Magazine)

“The Lafayette Escadrille is an interesting volume that combines a well-written text with “then and now” photos that relate to the exploits of the squadron and its pilots.” (Air Classics)

“Historians have produced many works on the famous flying formation. This work stands out because of the author’s attention to minute detail, and his extensive travels as part of his research… He matched old photographs to their present-day sites, allowing him to show many interesting then-and-now scenes. The book also includes compelling period illustrations and artwork. Mated together with detailed text, the volume is a worthy addition to the body of work on the Lafayette Escadrille.” (Military Heritage)

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