Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Kings of the Air: Jules Védrines

Another in a series of posts on French aviation during the First World War, based on research for my forthcoming Pen & Sword book Kings of the Air.

Jules Védrines (1881-1919) was one of the most famous French aviator of the pre-war generation. He was working at the Gnôme engine works near Paris when he became the mechanic for the English aviator Robert Loraine. Védrines was bitten by the aviation bug, and became determined to become a pilot himself. He obtained his pilot's license in December 1910, and by March 1911 was taking part in what were at that time long distance flights, including one from Toulouse to Carcassonne, for which he won a prize of 500 francs (It was an event that didn't impress the council of the latter municipality, who thought aviation had no future. Oops!).

In May, he won the Paris-Madrid air race, flying a Morane monoplane, and followed this by taking part in another race from Paris to Pau. In January 1912, flying a Deperdussin, he achieved the record speed of 145 km/hr (ie abut 90mph). A short clip of him winning the Paris-Madrid race is here.


'Julot', as he was popularly known, quickly became a star. He would hold court in the Brasserie Malzéville, on the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris: 'Clad always in a black and white checked cap, worn back to front for flying, [and] a tight-fitting white woollen rollneck jumper, he set female hearts aflutter as he drove through the posh streets of Paris at the wheel of his fabulous, bright red Hispano sports car. He was a star, was Védrines.'

He tried to cash in on his popularity by standing as a candidate in the General Election of 1912 as an 'independent socialist' in the departement of the Aude, in the south-west of the country. His eloquence won him many supporters around Limoux, and local newspapers announced 'the liberator is here ... with a flick of its wings, the French bird has broken the chains imposed on her by despots'. Basing his campaign on increased government money for aviation, his rhetoric was too far to the right for much of the electorate in the Republican heartland, and he failed. He tried again in 1914, but aviation had faded in the popular imagination, and again he was unsuccessful. A song, Cançon de Vedrina, composed in support of Védrines during the campaign, is here, sung in Occitan by Claude Martí (and very catchy it is, too).

When the war broke out, Védrines was posted to DO22. His experience and skill ensured he received a different plane from the rest of the squadron. His was a Blériot 36bis monoplane, which had been fitted with armour, making it heavy and slow. Along the side, he painted its nickname La Vache - The Cow. He experimented fixing a machine gun on the machine, and on 2 September engaged a Taube over Suippes. His mechanic fired two trays of bullets at the German, which dived away smoking. Although it crashed on the French side of the lines, Védrines never got the kill confirmed, possibly because he had got on the wrong side of Captain Leclerc, his commanding officer.

'At a time when aircraft carried no insignia,' commented Védrine's observer / mechanic, Corporal René Vicaire, 'painting his nickname in big letters on the fuselage was guaranteed to provoke stuffed shirts like Captain Leclerc. By standing up to this captain, Private Védrines attracted the dislike of his superiors and they had him transferred to 2nd Reserves in Tours.'


Sent to the Air Gunnery School at Cazaux, he was given fifteen days' punishment, for saying 'he thought it useless to have sent him on a course at the School, since he was [already] very familiar with machine-guns.'

Eventually, an outlet was found for his piloting skills and individuality - he was employed on 'special missions', crossing the lines at night to land French agents on the German side, and then returning to a pre-arranged rendezvous to collect the agent. He took part in at least seven such missions.

After the war had ended, Védrines continued with exacting feats of airmanship. On 19 January 1919, he managed to land a Caudron G.3 on the roof of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris, even though the Prefect of Police had forbidden it (which probably only acted as a spur to Védrines). The feat prompted this bonkers idea in an issue of the magazine La Vie au Grand Air, in which cities were to be roofed over to facilitate air travel into city centres.

On 21 April, he was flying to Rome in a twin-engined Caudron C.23, to inaugurate the new airmail route from Paris. Trying to land at Saint-Rambert-d'Albon (Drôme), the aircraft crashed. Védrines and his mechanic Marcel Guillain were both killed. After a grandiose funeral, Védrine was buried in the Pantin cemetery in Paris.

Pictures: two of Védrines before the war; his plane, 'La Vache'; Védrines in the cockpit of a Morane fitted with deflectors on the propellor; Védrines with a later Nieuport, but still with a cow on the side; his feat on landing on the roof of Galeries Lafayette.

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