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

Monday, July 25, 2016

Verdun from Above: By a Pilot of the Escadrille Américaine

[Editor's note:  The Lafayette Escadrille, made up of American volunteers fighting for France, first caught the nation's and the world's attention during the Battle of Verdun. This, in part, was due to their own showmanship and self promotional abilities. (I'm not saying there wasn't the heroic stuff, too.) Among its founding members was James McConnell who proved to be an outstanding combat reporter.  By the way, at Verdun the unit was still known as the Escadrille Américaine.] 

Fort Vaux As It Looked to Sgt McConnell

Immediately east and north of Verdun there lies a broad, brown band. From the Woevre plain it runs westward to the "S" bend in the Meuse, and on the left bank of that famous stream continues on into the Argonne Forest. Peaceful fields and farms and villages adorned that landscape a few months ago - when there was no Battle of Verdun. Now there is only that sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature. It seems to belong to another world. Every sign of humanity has been swept away. The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard; of the villages nothing remains but gray smears where stonewalls have tumbled together. The great forts of Douaumont and Vaux are outlined faintly, like the tracings of a finger in wet sand. One cannot distinguish any one shell crater, as one can on the pockmarked fields on either side. On the brown band the indentations are so closely interlocked that they blend into a confused mass of troubled earth. Of the trenches only broken, half-obliterated links are visible.

Columns of muddy smoke spurt up continually as high explosives tear deeper into this ulcered area. During heavy bombardment and attacks I have seen shells falling like rain. The countless towers of smoke remind one of Gustave Doré's picture of the fiery tombs of the arch-heretics in Dante's "Hell." A smoky pall covers the sector under fire, rising so high that at a height of 1,000 feet one is enveloped in its mist-like fumes. Now and then monster projectiles, hurtling through the air close by, leave one's plane rocking violently in their wake. Airplanes have been cut in two by them.

James R. McConnell, Sergent-Pilot, Escadrille Américaine. KIA March 1917 
From: Flying for France With the American Escadrille at Verdun

If you would like to learn more about the Escadrille Américaine at Verdun we will be featuring a two part series on their service there by aviation historian Steve Ruffin in our sister subscription publication OVER THE TOP: MAGAZINE OF THE WORLD WAR I CENTENNIAL.


  1. A View From Above: Another generation - 29 years after James McConnell described his view from above I too, had a view of history.
    Flying from our B-26 field near Perrone, on the Somme, in the Winter of 1945, I noticed zigzag lines of mismatched yellow earth standing out starkly from the dark rich fields of rural France. It took me more that a minute to realize I was looking at "ghost" trench-lines of the Great War. My flyboy imagination immediately kicked-in, I carefully searched below for a red Fokker vainly climbing to attack our formation. Your review stirred a vivid memory.

  2. Just after WWII VE day, some B-17s had their weapons stripped off and had overflights of the continent for all the ground crews. This was in appreciation of their efforts and to show them what all the missions had done. My dad has photos from these flights. I always thought it interesting, that they over flew trenches - still there - from WW I with shell holes and many of the dead still buried. But the grass is coming back and trees were starting to grow.