The Field Service Takes to the Air:
The Lafayette Escadrille

A spirit of adventure and an increasing identification with the French cause led a number of AFS drivers to trade the steering wheels of their ambulances for the control sticks of fragile combat aircraft. The history of American pilots ---precursors of the mighty American Air Force--- begins with a handful of volunteers who joined the French Foreign Legion in August of 1914. Among them were two wealthy young men who already knew how to pilot a plane: Norman Prince and William Thaw. It was their dream to form an all-American pursuit squadron, trading their trench life for glory in the clouds. At this time, combat aircraft were little more than motorized kites with machine guns mounted on them. They were first used for reconnaissance work. Then came the era of spectacular aerial dogfights and then the bombers and strafers.

At a time when the Field Service was trying to leave the nest of the American Ambulance after one year of official existence, the dream of an air squadron became a reality, thanks to longtime Field Service patrons:Edmund L. Gros and William K. Vanderbilt.

If a crew of American Field Service ambulance drivers suddenly flew into the sky, they would form a group akin to the Lafayette Flying Corps --- for in fact this is largely what the legendary Lafayette fighter pilot squadrons were during World War One. Of approximately 175 American volunteers who served in this French Army flying corps in 1916 and 1917, at least 51 were veterans of the American Ambulance Field Service and 7 others graduated from an AFS companion service, the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps. [...]

American Field Service leaders did not seek or claim credit for the major role played by AFS personnel in creation of the Lafayette group, but most of the AFS World War One veterans were well aware of connections between the two volunteer groups. Despite the absence of publicity given to the connection, the historical record shows that current or former AFS members not only participated in Lafayette operations but also were so deeply involved in formation of this corps that it seems unlikely its establishment could have been achieved without the prior existence of the American Ambulance Field Service.

It is not necessary to repeat here the entire story of the Lafayette volunteer group, because an official description is contained in the two-volume work, The History of the Lafayette Flying Corps, compiled in 1920 by Charles Nordhoff (AFS SSU 4) and James Hall. Our aim is simply to show that the destinies of the American Field Service, Lafayette Flying Corps, and U.S. Army Air Service were closely bound together in the Allied struggle to defeat the enemy invaders of France.

For this purpose, we draw on facts related in the Nordhoff-Hall history, even though the book neglects to state clearly that founders of the Lafayette Corps also were founders of the American Field Service corps.

Nordhoff and Hall relate that the initial proposal to create an American volunteer flying corps in France, intended to engage the enemy in combat, differed so radically from the engagement of other American neutrals in medical aid activities that the French Government refused to consider it. Even when a suitable intermediary was found to convince the French Army that such a service would be useful and desirable, there remained a conspicuous lack of financial backing and an even greater lack of resources to recruit American flyers, to organize a corps, and to arrange an attachment to the French Aviation Service.

The American who volunteered to tackle these problems, and who possibly was the only official in Paris capable of solving them, was Edmund L. Gros, one of two surgeons who established the American Ambulance at Neuilly and its field service as well. From 1914 to 1917, the military office of Dr. Gros was Surgeon-General of the American Field Service. From 1917 to 1918, his rank was Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Air Service. Gros was a doctor, not a flyer, but he belonged to an inner circle of American and French officials who delivered aid for France from private citizens in other countries. It is said that Dr. Gros, both before and after the war, maintained a fashionable medical practice covering all parts of Europe.

Rather than relate exactly how Col. Gros arranged establishment of the Lafayette Flying Corps, we summarize what Nordhoff and Hall reveal about his work.

The Lafayette Corps needed money. The financier whose aid Col. Gros enlisted was the renowned banker, W.K. Vanderbilt. With little mention of their names, Vanderbilt and his wife donated many AFS ambulance cars, including the initial ten, and they made important contributions to AFS operating funds. In a practically anonymous manner, Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt also provided all money required to cover the personal expenses of volunteers joining the Lafayette Corps and flying in its service and apparently most of the other administrative expenses as well.

The Lafayette Corps needed French Army approval. Through his experience with the American Field Service, Col. Gros had gained the confidence of highly-placed officers of the French Army and Government to the extent he was able to conduct negotiations leading to agreements specifying how the Lafayette could be trained as part of the French Army.

As a blueprint for making these arrangements, Col. Gros was able to draw on the obvious example of service being rendered by the AFS corps. As a guarantee of the reliability and loyalty of American volunteer pilots, he again was able to cite the successful performance by members of the American Field Service.

The Lafayette Corps needed pilots. The fact that so many AFS drivers enlisted in a new corps being formed by their own Surgeon-General was not a coincidence. Col. Gros actively recruited AFS personnel for transfer to the Lafayette service, making trips to sections in the field for this purpose. Although 51 AFS veterans are credited by Nordhoff and Hall with making the grade as French fighter pilots, it appears that at least 15 others enlisted for Lafayette duty but "washed out" during flight training and were released by the French Army.

The Lafayette Corps needed an administrator. Col. Gros filled this role, and, following the conversion of the American Ambulance to U.S. Army Red Cross Hospital No. 1, it appears he transferred all his attention to the respective needs of AFS headquarters, the Lafayette Corps, and the U.S. Army Air Service. Our available records do not show whether or not Col. Gros remained on duty at AFS headquarters until the month of federalization, September 1917, but no other officer is known to have served as AFS Surgeon-General.

As noted earlier, the transfer of about 51 AFS ambulance drivers to flying officer status with the Lafayette Squadrons of the French Army, and the subsequent transfer of many surviving pilots to the U.S. Army Air Service, was only one part of a wholesale re-enlistment of AFS veterans as pilots and other personnel of the American air corps. The official AFS roster shows that 222 U.S. Army Air Service commissions were issued to former drivers of the American Field Service. No other branch of a U.S. service--- not even the former AFS ambulance and transport branches -commissioned as many officers from the pool of manpower trained in the ranks of our French Army volunteer corps.

Jody Brinton, History of the American Field Service, unpublished manuscript, AFS Archives, vol 8, pp 45-47

The author of the preceding lines, Joseph Porter Brinton, III, was an AFS driver in World War II (CM56). The purpose of his many-volumed history of the Field Service was to win the American Congress over to granting official veteran status to former AFS drivers, by demonstrating the military nature of their service. The success of his efforts led to a number of drivers obtaining veteran benefits, notably medical. On the subject of the Lafayette Escadrille, Brinton further adds: "The distinction between the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps was that the original Escadrille soon overflowed with American pilots who were assigned to other squadrons of the Aviation Service. Nordhoff and Hall count only 145 Lafayette volunteers as French Army pilots, but other authorities calculate approximately 180 pilots participated to some degree."

In 1916-1918, flying an airplane was a risky affair. A good many pilots were shot down or died in airplane accidents. In fact, out of the 127 Field Service veterans who died during the war, 43 perished in airplane crashes.

It was no wonder that these daredevils quickly became heroes.

The World War was notably a war of impersonal, uncelebrated heroism. As a result of the military policy of the Allied governments, the names of but few, except the most successful generals, found their way into print. But the rule was relaxed in the case of aviators, and so it was that the popular heroes, acclaimed in the music halls and boulevards of Paris, were boys in their twenties, who wore the insignia of wings. All that modern war could offer of romance and personal exploit was embodied in the aviators. It was the most amazing adventure upon which Youth has ever embarked, and the liberty which the French authorities gave their aces enabled them to taste the sweetness of glory before the all too usual "last combat," which ended so many gallant careers. The Frenchman in the group of the Stork Escadrille ("les Cigognes") is Lieutenant Bozon-Verduraz, the comrade of the famous Guynemer, who at the date of the picture, June 16, 1918, had eight victories to his credit. At the left of the picture is Adjutant E. C. Parsons, a successful American ace, at that time credited with five victories. At the right is Sergeant Frank Baylies, who, after serving in the Ambulance Service in France and at Salonica, where he was decorated for gallantry, went through the French aviation schools. On June 16, the day the picture was painted, he had eleven victories to his credit, heading the list of American aces at that date. The next day, the seventeenth, he was killed in aerial combat.

The American Army in France, 1917-1918. Paintings by J.-F. Bouchor, text by Captain David Gray, with an introduction by Lt-Col. Theodore Roosevelt. Boston: Leroy Phillips, 1920.

William Yorke Stevenson did not anticipate that his fellow Section One driver would become an air hero, although, like most of the men at the front, Stevenson followed the goings-on in the sky.

There was the usual comic scene with Baylies. Bowman was coming down the road when he found it blocked by a mass of dead and wounded horses and men all tangled up with harness and wagons, and beside them one of our cars. It turned out to be Baylies, who came running up to Bowman, exclaiming, "There's been an awful mess, Bob!" and Bowman perfectly unthinkingly ejaculated, " Good Lord, what have you done now, Baylies?" Baylies was as sore as two sticks and growled, "Ah, where 'd you get that stuff ?" His conventional answer to all gibes. The word "to Baylies" (French "Bayliser") has been standardized in Section 1 and is even spreading to the other Sections.

William Yorke Stevenson, At the Front in a Flivver, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917

Just as the old Fokkers beat all other war planes and the Nieuports beat the Fokkers in point of speed, the Boches have suddenly, within the last few days, introduced a new Fokker much faster than the fastest Nieuport. Johnston, one of the American Ambulance men who went into the Aviation Corps, and is in the camp at Bar-le-Duc, told Sponagle to-day that he and his squadron were caught by surprise over the German lines, and only escaped by the greatest luck. The French and English, of course, will immediately start to build an even faster plane, but temporarily the supremacy of the air appears to have been snatched from the Allies and even our own aviators admit it.

William Yorke Stevenson, At the Front in a Flivver, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917

In the afternoon, the Lieutenant Sponagle, and I went up to Fort Dugny and had the luck to see another attack on Souville. For once it was clear and the sight was marvelous. The whole hill smoked. We also saw the American Escadrille go into action, six of them; but they disappeared in the smoke far back of the German lines.

William Yorke Stevenson, At the Front in a Flivver, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917

"Pilot Baylies killed. Was buried with honors befitting hero," was the message dropped over the French lines by a German plane. Frank Leaman Baylies, the American "ace of aces," when he was brought down in flames over the German lines between Crevecoeur and Lassigny in June, 1918, began his war career and won his first decorations with the Field Service. He joined Section One in February, 1916 and, after serving with distinction on the Somme and in the battle of Verdun on the French front, he was one of the men selected to go with Section Three in October, 1916, when it was offered the opportunity of serving with the French Army in the Balkans. "To know Baylies was to like him," Paul Rockwell cabled the Chicago Daily News when his death was confirmed. "His outstanding qualities were those which real heroes possess. He was quiet, modest, and reticent on the ground. He was dashing, fearless, and indomitable in the air."

Baylies destroyed his first German aeroplane in February, 1918. Five months later, when he departed on his last mission, he had twelve official and five unofficial victories to his credit. No pilot in any army rose more quickly or deservedly to fame. "Baylies seems to add to the daring of a Guynemer the precision of a Dorme. He is a great ace who does honor to America and is a worthy rival of our most famous champions," wrote the aviation expert of Le Petit Journal when the young American's name began to appear almost daily in the communiqués. Baylies enlisted in the French aviation corps when he returned with Section Three from the Balkans in May, 1917. He received his training in the schools of Avord, Pau, and Cazeaux, where his record foreshadowed his later victories and caused him to be selected for service at the front with the celebrated "Escadrille Cigogne," the squadron which Guynemer commanded until his death, and which included among its members many of the most noted flyers in the French army. No one was allowed to wear the insignia of this famous squadron until he had brought down three German planes. Baylies lost no time in doing this. From the first his comrades spoke of him as a tireless flyer, who, in addition to his regular patrol work, spent many hours prowling the skies alone in search of aerial duels. "Baylies' fighting tactics," wrote a friend, "were extremely simple. When he saw enemy aeroplanes he immediately attacked regardless of the odds against him or the distance within the enemy lines." But his was not the reckless fearlessness of a man who did not realize the risk he ran. The testimony of all of his comrades is that his daring was the well-considered, open-eyed courage of a remarkable flyer who counted the cost but never hesitated. In his many aerial duels his plane was not once struck by an opponent's bullet, although, when he first reached the front, he was brought down between the German and French lines by machine gun fire from the ground.

Baylies was awarded the Légion d'Honneur, the Médaille Militaire, and the Croix de Guerre with seven palms. The city of his birth has named a square after him with solemn services. He has a high place in all that has been written about the war in the air and those intrepid airmen "who took their toll" and then made the great sacrifice. Those who mourn him are consoled by the knowledge that he belongs to the noble company which will be remembered in two countries so long as there is any interest in the World War and any reverence for its heroes.

James W.D.Seymour, ed. Memorial Volume of the American Field Service in France. Boston: American Field Service, 1921, pp 105-106

Among his personal papers, Piatt Andrew preciously guarded the following letter from one of the original members of the Escadrille and former member of Section Two:

June 11, 1916

Dear Ned:

As luck would have it I found myself in same place as our old Section is stationed. Walter Lovell, Barclay, Pottle and Graham were the only old boys I have seen. I could not help but expect to see you walk in. It was all so natural - and I took a ride in one of the poor, broken down, old cars.

I have only had one fight so far. It was that after giving him a round and dove again but a ball had hit my mitrailleuse and I was out of business. Then he turned and chased me but I got away all right.

It is terrible to look down on the trenches here and see such fire. There is a very broad, brown pond where the fighting has taken place. It is the first day I arrived. I dove at the Boche and opened up on him at 50 meters. I missed him. I could hear him shooting and see his big rear machine gun working but that does not seem to bother one. I made a move then and found myself on his level just behind. I heard the bullets going into my machine with the sound of small explosions. I moved out of several kilometers wide and nothing is left standing. Trees, villages and forts have vanished. Even the broad white roads have been effaced.

Hope you are doing well and that you are contented.

My best,
Mac
J.R. McConnell, Pilote
Escadrille N° 124, S.P. 24

 

The Indian head emblem of the Lafayette Escadrille (above, extreme right)was brother to that used by the Field Service's SSU1:

July 20, 1916.
Tardieu has designed an Indian head as the "Convoi's" emblem for the squad, taking his lines from the regular Indian on the $5 gold-piece. This lends a real "ton" to the cars, the head being stenciled life-size in red, black, and white on the sides, and, as one might say, it puts Section "One" on the map.

William Yorke Stevenson, At the Front in a Flivver, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917

October 10, 1917
While in Paris, on my long deferred "permission," I had our Section sign, our famous Indian Head which was painted for us by Tardieu on the Somme last year, used on our stationery as a heading for our Section. I tried to get the Army gray for the paper, but it seems that it cannot be done. The Printer, however, made a pretty fair copy of Tardieu's emblem, I think. While it resembles the emblem of the Lafayette Escadrille, it differs from it in so far as their Indian is represented with his mouth open, uttering his great war-whoop, whereas our Indian is a nice Indian, who keeps his mouth shut.

William Yorke Stevenson, From "Poilu" to "Yank", Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918

Roster of pilots

Victor Chapman
James McConnell
Norman Prince
Kiffin Rockwell
Capt. Georges Thenault
Lt Alfred Delaage De Meux
William Thaw
Elliot Cowdin
Bert Hall
Raoul Lufbery
H. Clyde Balsley
C. Chouteau Johnson
Laurence Rumsey
Dudley Hill
Didier Masson
Lt Charles Nungesser
Paul Pavelka
Robert Rockwell
Willis Haviland
Frederick Prince
Robert Soubiran
Ornald Hoskier
Edmond Genet
Edwin Parsons
Stephen Bigelow
Walter Lovell
Edward Hinkle
Harold Willis
Kenneth Marr
William Dugan
Thomas Hewitt
A. Courtney Campbell
Ray Bridgman
Charles Dolan
John Drexel
Henry Jones
Lt Antoine Arnoux De Maison-Rouge
James Hall
Douglas Macmonagle
David Peterson
James Doolittle
Lt Louis Verdier-Fauvety
Christopher Ford
Apr. 20, 1916 - June 23, 1916
Apr. 20, 1916 -Mar. 19, 1917
Apr. 20, 1914 - Oct. 14, 1916
Apr. 20, 1916 - Sept. 23, 1916
Apr. 20, 1916 - Jan. 16, 1918
Apr. 20, 1916 - May 23, 1917
Apr. 21, 1916 - Feb. 18, 1918
Apr. 28, 1916 - June 25, 1916
Apr. 28, 1916 - Nov. 1, 1916
May 24, 1916 - Jan. 5, 1918
May 29, 1916 - June 18, 1916
May 29, 1916 - Oct. 23, 1917
June 4, 1916 - Nov. 25, 1916
June 9, 1916 - Feb. 18, 1918
June 19, 1916 - Oct. 8, 1917
July 14, 1916 - Aug. 15, 1916
Aug. 11, 1916 - Jan. 24, 1917
Sept. 17, 1917 - Feb. 18, 1918
Oct. 22, 1916 - Sept. 18, 1917
Oct. 22, 1916 - Feb. 15, 1917
Oct. 22, 1916 - Feb. 18, 1918
Dec. 11, 1916 - Apr. 23, 1917
Jan. 19, 1917 - Apr. 16, 1917
Jan. 21, 1917 - Feb. 26, 1918
Feb. 8, 1917 - Sept. 11, 1917
Feb. 26, 1917 - Oct. 24, 1917
Mar. 1, 1917 - June 12, 1917
Mar. 1, 1917 - Aug. 18, 1917
Mar. 29, 1917 - Feb. 18, 1918
Mar. 30, 1917 - Feb. 18, 1918
Mar. 30, 1917 - Sept. 17, 1917
Apr. 15,1917 - Oct. 1, 1917
May 1, 1917 - Feb. 18, 1918
May 12, 1917 - Feb. 18 1918
May 12, 1917 - June 15, 1917
May 12, 1917 - Feb. 18, 1918
May 28, 1917 - Oct. 6, 1917
June 16, 1918 - Feb. 18, 1918
June 16, 1917 - Sept. 24, 1917
June 16, 1917 - Feb. 18, 1917
July 2, 1917 - July. 17, 1917
Oct. 6, 1917 - Feb. 18, 1918
Nov. 8, 1917 - Feb. 18, 1918

Other pilots

The Lafayette Escadrille, as most AFS entreprises, proved to be a pioneer adventure, destined to draw other drivers into other air force services----particularly after the entry of the United States into the war in April 1917. Malcolm Cowley, of the Réserve Mallet, writes of one of these, Jack Wright:

We found on reaching the front that we were serving in what was perhaps the most literary branch of any army. My own section of thirty-six men will serve as an example. [...] The member of the section who was generally believed to have the greatest promise was a boy of seventeen, a poet who had himself transferred into the Foreign Legion and died in an airplane accident.

Malcolm Cowley, "Ambulance Service", Exile's Return. New York: Penguin. 1951 (1933).

After Jack's death, his mother published his letters:

"These letters from my son, I gathered for publication just as they came, with the full joy and pride I had in receiving them, hoping to give to other boys something of his fine courage and spirit --- to other mothers comfort and hope, and to all readers the vivid, beautiful sketches of France, of War, of Idealism as he, "Poet of the Airs," has given me."

A Poet of the Air. Letters of Jack Morris Wright. First Lieutenant of the American Aviation in France. April, 1917-January, 1918. Boston and New York. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1918.

Jack gives insight into why a boy would want to trade the wheel of an ambulance or truck for the controls of a biplane:

"A month ago I was a truck-driver, dreaming a little and boring myself considerably. A month from now I shall be an aviator, concentrating at continuous work one day, and snobbishly, but oh, how joyously, receiving the invisible laurels of thousands of friends --- friends and admirers everywhere I go. You see life over here, the way I am managing to make it, has little in comparison with the conventional, custom-tied, drudgerized, too-much-civilized life of Peaceful America. I consider myself most fortunate to be able, in these modern times, to turn my odd and peculiar dreams into realization --- a realization rendered all the more beautiful by the oddities of life itself. What I contemplated in a hero, what I envied in the knight-errant or the highway cavalier, what I wondered at in the rich duke, what I smiled at in the poor but happy artist, or contemplated in the growing of a poet, all of romance and all of adventure, all of continuous heights and activities of a life that flows without a worry or a moment of grief --- all of variety and wonder of war and of love --- all of youth is now within my reach and ready to be moulded in my hand. Were I to desire the hanging gardens of Babylon or the electric metallic marvels of Mars, I could invent and realize them almost immediately --- so has my self-confidence grown with the help of war --- the great electrifier, that banishes all stiff conventionality and stimulates passions, imaginations, free thinking and free acting, till the land of war becomes a land of living poems and poets' dreams of anything you want to make --- so supple and various does war make a country."

A Poet of the Air. Letters of Jack Morris Wright. First Lieutenant of the American Aviation in France. April, 1917-January, 1918. Boston and New York. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1918.


Philippe D. Rogers, L'Escadrille Lafayette Paris: ISC-CFHM-IHCC, 2002.

Concurrently, and independent of Prince's and the others' efforts, another Paris-based American named Dr. Edmund Gros, one of the men in charge of the American Ambulance Corps, had had a similar idea of organizing an American flying unit.  He had thought that many of the volunteers he had met in the ambulance corps would be excellent candidates for pilots, and so he set about using his contacts and prestige in Paris to formulate a flying unit.

Dr. Gros had met Curtis and some of the other fledgling aviators, and through them, Mr. de Sillac.  Mr. de Sillac and Gros began fomenting the enthusiasm and support necessary to realize their idea.  Finally on July 8, 1915, General Hirschauer, Chief of French Military Aeronautics, met with Dr. Gros and Mr. De Sillac.  Although at first completely opposed to the idea of a group of American flyers at the front due to diplomatic reasons, he saw the benefits of having such a unit.  He agreed to the formation of an American squadron, to be known as the "Escadrille Americaine."

Edwin W. Morse. The Vanguard of American Volunteers. New York: Scribners, 1919.

"No development of the Great War has possessed for American youth the novelty, the picturesqueness, or the fascination of the air-ship service. It isn't many years ago that the feat of sailing an air-ship across the Channel from France to England, a distance of less than twenty-five miles, was hailed as an exploit of extraordinary skill and daring. At the present writing there are those who seriously advocate sending the fleet of huge American-built, Handley Page bombing air-ships, with their spread of a hundred feet, to the battle front in France under their own power by a zigzag course to Newfoundland, the Azores, and Spain. The longest leg of this journey, from Newfoundland to the Azores, could be made by one of these ships, barring accidents, in about thirteen hours."

PART VI: American volunteer airmen

XXVII. The Lafayette, or American, Escadrille
XXVIII. The first American aviator to fall.
XXIX Kiffin Rockwell's last combat
XXX. Norman Prince killed by an accident.
XXXI. James McConnell, historian
XXXII. Genet in the American Escadrille
XXXIII. Major Lufbery, Ace of American Aces.
XXXIV. Major Thaw, pioneer American Aviator.

Quentin Reynolds. They Fought for the Sky. New York. 1917.

"They were a race apart---these knights of the air. They fought without parachutes, without safety devices of any kind, and they flew in frail tinderboxes that a wayward spark might ignite. They were individualists. So, incidentally, were the planes they. flew. Each had different characteristics; you had to woo them gently before you could take liberties with them; if you were clumsy or harsh, they would kill you. "

More on J.R. McConnell

"It was undoubtedly in no small part his love of danger and adventure which first drew McConnell to France, but by the fall of 1915, these motives had given way entirely, before the keen realization of what the war meant, to a desire to give his utmost to the cause of France. He left the Field Service and enlisted in the French Army with the idea of training for aviation and in April, 1916, was sent to the newly formed Lafayette Escadrille."

J.R. McConnell. Flying for France. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Page, 1919.

"There seems to be a fascination to aviation, particularly when it is coupled with fighting. Perhaps it's because the game is new, but more probably because as a rule nobody knows anything about it. Whatever be the reason, adventurous young Americans were attracted by it in rapidly increasing numbers. Many of them, of course, never got fascinated beyond the stage of talking about joining. Among the chaps serving with the American ambulance field sections a good many imaginations were stirred, and a few actually did enlist, when, toward the end of the summer of 1915, the Ministry of War, finding that the original American pilots had made good, grew more liberal in considering applications."

Dale Walker. "The Ted Parsons Story." Aviation Quarterly, 1978.

"In addition to his movie work and writing, he found time to launch a radio program in 1933 over KFWG in Los Angeles, a station owned by Warner Brothers. It was called "Heroes of the Lafayette Escadrille" and was narrated live by Parsons at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays. "