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

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, reviewed by James Thomas

First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille
by Charles Bracelen Flood
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015

Lafayette Escadrille, July 1917

In today's political atmosphere, with a deeply unfortunate near Franco-phobia, many Americans seem to forget how close our two nations have been over the years. This was especially true during World War I. Even before the United States entered the war in April 1917, there was a tremendous amount of popular support for France in her struggle against Germany. One group of American young men went beyond simply cheering and actually fought for France through the fledgling technology of aviation. First to Fly by Charles Flood is the story of those young men.

Almost immediately after the outbreak of war, a handful of Americans already living in France and wanting to help the nation they had grown to love, rushed to enlist in the French Army. With the United States officially neutral, this created a difficult diplomatic situation. Most joined the French Foreign Legion, the ranks of which had been made up of men of any nationality since its creation, and fought for France through the Legion. Despite increasing German protests, American men continued to journey to France, join the Legion and fight in the trenches.

Meanwhile, aviation, like almost all technologies, made giant strides during the war. Military thinkers on both sides quickly recognized the possibilities and capabilities of airplanes to observe, bomb, strafe and destroy enemy aircraft doing those same things. France's air force grew quickly and beckoned potential pilots from the trenches to fight in the air. As the slaughter on the ground continued, some of the American volunteer soldiers began to take on this new challenge and became aviators.

Wealthy sponsors and donors with enough political clout to pull it off gathered these American pilots from French aviation units across the front and formed them into the Lafayette Escadrille, honoring the name of the great Marquis de Lafayette who came to America's aide during that new nation's War for Independence. From the first group of pilots, called the founders, the squadron grew steadily as more and more American young men joined and proved their mettle as fighter pilots, many shooting down the requisite five or more enemy aircraft to be labelled aces.

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When the United States finally joined into the war, most of these pilots left the Escadrille to fight for the United States in America's Flying Corps, and the Lafayette Escadrille was disbanded. Mr. Flood is not an historian, but First to Fly is excellent history. Using letters, diaries, official records, and a wide array of primary and secondary sources, Flood does a great job telling the story of the Lafayette Escadrille. The book reads like a collection of adventure tales as the author provides the accounts of the lives and deaths of many of these young men. The author never allows the reader to lose sight of the tragedies of the Great War, as exciting and adventurous as the air war sometimes seems to be.

It is not just the story of French or Franco-American aviation that is told in First to Fly, however; this is the story of World War I aviation on several fronts. British and German Great War aviation is also examined along the way. If there is anything negative at all to say about the book, it is the "throwaway" chapter on the U.S. Army's "Lost Battalion" and its pigeon savior. Everything else fits and leaves the reader longing for more. First to Fly is an excellent book for anyone who has an interest in Great War aviation or World War I in general.

James Thomas


  1. This sounds like a fine book, and a great contribution to the history of WWI.

  2. Good review Jim, I will have to add this to my to read list.