Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

First, Over the Front: Lt. William G. Schauffler
Reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

First, Over the Front: Lt. William G. Schauffler
Stanley Walsh, Editor
AuthorHouse, 2011 (reissue)

Capt. W. G. Schauffler — Standing; Lt. Fred Tillman — Seated in a Salmson 2A2,
Bethelainville Aerodrome, France, 11 November 1918

William G. Schauffler, Jr., served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Service during the Great War. Schauffler, and other members of his family (father, brothers, cousins, and uncles) who also served during the war, wrote many letters home; his Aunt Ray (Rachel Capen Schauffler) compiled the men's letters and produced a periodic family newsletter that was sent to all the men in service and various other family members. Editor Stanley Walsh, himself a World War II Army Air Forces flier, met Schauffler in the 1930s. Years later, Walsh gathered the letters and newsletters from Schauffler family members, in particular Kate Schauffler Hawkins, Schauffler's daughter. The result of Walsh's efforts is this fine book.

Schauffler was born in 1891 in Beirut, Lebanon, the son of a prominent missionary doctor. In 1895 Billy (as he is called throughout the book) moved with his family to New Jersey. In the years prior to the war, Billy did a stint in the National Guard, attended the Businessman's Military Training Camp at Plattsburg, New York, and took private flying lessons. In 1916 he was accepted into military flight training. Following his graduation, he accepted a reserve commission in the Army. In early 1917 Billy was activated and sent to Columbus, New Mexico, as part of the 1st Aero Squadron. In August, the 1st Aero Squadron deployed to France and became the first aero squadron in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).

After serving in the 1st Aero Squadron for about ten months, Billy was given command of the 90th Aero Squadron. He soon earned a reputation as a strict commander who worked his men to the limit but who also showed great concern for them. The demands and stresses of commanding a squadron of 250 men in combat soon took a toll on Billy, and from 24 July to 13 September he was hospitalized with trench fever and jaundice. As a testimonial to his leadership, his entire squadron wrote letters asking that he be returned to command the 90th upon his release from the hospital.

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While at the hospital Billy helped tend to gassed Doughboys. In his letters he commented on the way the wounded and gassed men bore their afflictions quietly and with as much good humor as their terrible pain and suffering would allow. Upon hearing of the start of the St. Mihiel Offensive, Billy and other patients petitioned the commander of the hospital and were able to secure releases back to their units. Billy arrived just in time to fly a mission during the final days of the offensive.

While flying these missions, enemy planes and ground forces were not the only things the aircrews had to contend with. Friendly artillery fire filled the air over the front lines with tons of deadly shells streaking to their targets. On one mission during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Billy commented that he saw the shells streaming through the air, something he had previously thought was a fairy tale. He casually summed it up: "How we escaped our own barrage is a mystery to me" (p. 171). Also on this flight, Billy and his observer, Lt. Morton Adams, were jumped by eight Fokkers. According to Billy, the Germans were "…rotten shots. Although they shot away the upper control wires of my elevators, and just riddled the plane with bullet holes, they never touched either of us" (pp. 270–271). Billy and Adams shot down one Fokker, and the rest "ran away". Billy and Adams were each awarded the Croix de Guerre for their actions during this flight. The 90th lost only one plane during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, shot down by German machine gun or rifle fire while flying at an altitude of 30 meters.

In late October, Billy assumed command of the 3rd Observation Group. After the war Billy was promoted to major and served on the AEF staff. Walsh includes an epilogue that covers Billy's post-war activities, which included a recall to active duty during World War II, until his death in 1951. Also included are several appendices that give brief biographies of some people mentioned in the letters, copies of citations, and a description of some World War I aircraft.

Billy's letters reflect his youthful carefree attitude and the bravado of Great War military aviators. His letters are filled with descriptions of life on the aerodromes, interactions with French civilians, occasional trips to Paris (where he relished one hot bath after another), harrowing flights in horrible weather, etc. While there are no great revelations in Billy's letters, Great War "buffs" will be interested in his descriptions of minor details associated with being a pilot in the Army Air Service during the war. Billy was also a poet, and there are several of his poems reprinted here.

Editor Walsh has wisely kept his commentary to a minimum; he lets Billy tell his own story while he contributes only enough extra information to add some background to the story. As a retired U.S. Air Force aviator, I found Billy's eight-page description of a typical observation sortie, which included references that showed the primitive state of such things as cockpit intercommunications, fascinating. Anyone interested in World War I aviation will be enlightened and entertained by this book.

Peter L. Belmonte

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