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

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

First to Fight, An American in the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I

by Steven T. Tom
Stackpole Books, 2019
Michael P. Kihntopf, Reviewer

Kiffin Rockwell, 1916

My first thoughts were: not another book about the Lafayette Escadrille? But the author, a retired Air Force veteran and engineer, supplied me with an answer on page vi of his prologue. “There were seldom more than a dozen pilots in the escadrille at any time, and throughout the course of the war only thirty-eight pilots served in the unit, but its fame was such that after the war more than five thousand impostors publicly claimed to have flown with the prestigious group.” That settled my misgivings and I dug in to find that the book contained far more than just flying. Tom has also given us an excellent picture of serving in the French Foreign Legion at the beginning of the Great War that is quite unparalleled.

This is a book about Kiffin Yates Rockwell, one of the founding members of the Escadrille. It starts with a detailed biographical sketch of Rockwell that gives the reader a clear picture of the man’s motivation. Rockwell, a third child, was born into a successful Baptist preacher’s family, but tragedy struck when his father died just one year after Kiffin’s birth at age 26. Rockwell grew up in the care of his mother who drove herself to near exhaustion providing for her three children.

The author’s depiction of Rockwell’s early life clearly shows how, when war came to Europe in August 1914, Rockwell viewed the war as a crisis in human civilization and he saw himself as bound to help by fighting in it. He and his older brother left for France within five days of the German invasion of Belgium with the intention of enlisting. Tom cleverly weaves information gleaned from Rockwell’s letters home about his life in the Foreign Legion. We are treated to a description of training methods but also a seething condemnation of officer and non-commissioned officer leadership. Rockwell manages a transfer to aviation but only after both he and his brother are severely wounded. His brother never returns to the Legion.

Tom gives a very good picture of how the Escadrille was formed despite many French politicians’ misgivings about a purely American unit and the mismanagement of resources in getting the unit into the air. The key driving force in everything was publicity. French politicians wanted United States support and they got it through constantly releasing stories about the Americans. Rockwell’s feat of bringing down the first German plane for the Escadrille made banner headlines across the world.

But this is not a book about fantastic team efforts in flying over the ravaged battlefield of Verdun. Tom shows the reader another side of the Escadrille: one of dissension between the pilots. Rockwell went to France to stop tyranny. He was quite appalled at the sensationalism that was attached to the Escadrille in the hometown newspapers. The other pilots seemed to have more of a mixed attitude toward their work. In many cases fame and fortune were their goals. And there were other stumbling blocks to camaraderie: quite a few pilots, as we know, were financially better off than others and snobbery often raised its head. Although in the air the pilots displayed a coordinated team effort, that was not the case on the ground.

Tom’s portrayal of worldwide reaction to Rockwell’s death is excellent, although the reader, after wading through the Escadrille’s pilots’ underlying thoughts, may find its depth a little suspect. Nevertheless, family and friends were most sincere.

First to Fight, is an excellent read. Rockwell’s letters are used accurately in any situation and the sources he used in gleaning background information are extensive. For special interest, Tom’s chapter-long description of aviation development between 1903 and 1916 is well worth the time in reading, as is his overview of how the Verdun battle came to be. “Not another book about the Lafayette Escadrille?” Yes! This is a work which eclipses many previous books.

Michael P. Kihntopf


  1. I reviewed this book for a couple of publications, and posted a review on Amazon. I was happy to give it five stars, which I certainly don't for all the books that I review. Steven Tom has done such thorough research that it is almost a shame that he did not write a history of the Lafayette Escadrille as a whole, especially as the narrative largely ends with Kiffin Rockwell's death. Of course, Kiffin was slightly easier to find material on than many WW1 fliers as his brother Paul kept his letters and was the Lafayette's publicist. I would agree that the chapter on aviation development is a masterpiece in itself, being accessible for the beginner while not oversimplifying or resorting to cliché.

  2. What a refreshing and interesting look into the Lafayette Escadrille. Thank you, Michael!