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

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Lafayette Escadrille: A Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron

by Steven A. Ruffin
Casemate Publishers, 2016, Paperback, 2020
Michael Hanlon, Reviewer

I do not feel that I am fighting for France alone, but for the
 cause of all humanity—the greatest of all causes.
Kiffin Rockwell, KIA

At Bahonne Aerodrome During the Battle of Verdun

On my bookshelves sit many "illustrated" and "photo" histories touching on the First World War. Usually, either the historical narrative or the set of images suffers, and often, both. Former USAF aviator Steven Ruffin's treatment of the Lafayette Escadrille, however, is now the most balanced  and complete of such works in my collection. The story of the squadron is comprehensively told: origins, personalities, operations, aircraft, and the enormous contributions the unit made by the pilots to America's Air Service when their homeland entered the war. As for the photos gathered by the author and his publisher—the huge collection (for a 228-page volume) is superb, comprehensive and nicely displayed.

Founding Member Norman Prince
The unique French-operated American World War I squadron that we now know as the Lafayette Escadrille made an impact far greater than its actual combat achievements. It was during the 1916 Battle of Verdun that the American volunteer ambulance drivers and pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille got the American public—despite their country's neutrality—emotionally involved in the actual fighting of the war. And they were unquestionably on the side of the Entente, which helped shift public opinion toward the Allies. 

During its 22-month operational period, the 38 Americans who eventually flew with the squadron downed a total of 33 enemy aircraft, 16 of which were credited to the squadron's lone ace, Raoul Lufbery. Eight Americans from the squadron died in combat, including founding members Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, Norman Prince, and James McConnell. An additional three—Lufbery, Paul Pavelka, and James Doolittle—were killed soon after leaving the squadron. Yet, in spite of this more or less average combat record, the Lafayette Escadrille has continued to live in history as an aviation legend. Why? Author Steve Ruffin offers these thoughts.

These highly principled young Americans were much more than simply mercenaries. They volunteered for what they believed – almost to a man – to be a greater cause: that of France and of freedom. It was almost entirely for these ideals that they put their lives on the line. In so doing, they forged a seemingly unbreakable bond with this country's oldest ally and are today rightfully remembered as the men who comprised America's first fighter squadron.

Two elements of The Lafayette Escadrille make it especially enjoyable for me. On the first, let me begin by asking the reader something. Have you ever been reading a military history work and started wondering if the writer had ever visited that battlefield? It's happened to me frequently. Well, you won't get that feeling with Steve Ruffin as your guide. He has "seen the elephant" and traveled to all the key sites of the squadron in France and back here in the states. It adds a pleasurable sense of authenticity when your historian includes visual descriptions of such things as the state of the dozen or so aerodromes where the unit was deployed or the sites of crashes of friends or foes. Included in the collection of photos is an excellent set of "then-and-now" shots with the present day images taken by the author.

Also to be commended are the three concluding chapters that cover the phase-in of the pilots to the American Air Service, biographic sketches of postwar lives of the survivors, and the legacy of their service, especially the magnificent Memorial de l'Escadrille Lafayette outside of Paris. Right up to the end, the author fills us in with rich details I've not seen in other sources like the sad deaths of lion mascots Whiskey and Soda shortly after the Armistice and the 4,000 false claimants to having served in the Lafayette Escadrille.

Highly recommended without qualification.

M. Hanlon

1 comment:

  1. Am I correct in that the museum in Hudson Co. is connected to the Lafayette Escadrille. It is small but very well done. I enjoyed my time there.