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Kings of the Air: Queens of the Air

It's close enough to the birthdays of Amy Johnson (1st July) and Amelia Earheart (24th July) to take a look at French women pilots (or aviatrix as they said at the time) before and during the Great War.

The first woman in the world to obtain a pilot's license was Elise Deroche (1882-1919). She was originally an actress, but was bitten by the aviation bug after seeing a demonstration of the Wright flyer. Amongst her friends was the manufacturer Charles Voisin, and through him she learnt to fly, gaining her license (no.36) on 8th March 1910. She took part in many international meetings and set several altitude and distance records. She was killed in a flying accident at the Caudron airfield at Le Crotoy (Somme) in 1919.

The second ever women to get a pilot's license was Hélène Dutrieu (1877-1961). She was actually Belgian, but did much of her flying in France, eventually taking French citizenship, and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur.

The second Frenchwoman was Marthe Niel (1880- before 1929). She was a star attraction of the aviation meetings circuit in 1910-11, where she specialised in looping the loop (a daring stunt for the time). her mechanic was Joseph Frantz, who became a pilot himself, and during the war was credited with the first confirmed air-to-air combat victory. Both Dutrieu and Niel withdrew from active flying after the war.

The fourth was Jeanne (later anglicized to Jane) Herveu (1885-1955). She won the Prix Femina (a prize for endurance flying open only to women) in 1914, but dropped out of aviation. She subsequently moved to the United Sates, where she became involved in the fashion industry.

The third was perhaps the most famous of them all, Marie Marvingt (1875-1963), a women of formidable accomplishments. She gained her balloon license in 1908, and pilot's and seaplane licenses in 1910. She swam, fenced, shot and climbed mountains; played tennis, golf and polo. In 1910 she wanted to take part in that year's Tour de France cycle race. The organisers refused; she cycled it anyway (and completed the course, unlike many of the male competitors). A trailer for a French documentary about her life here includes film of her piloting a helicopter at the age of eighty!

When war broke out, many women aviators sought to use their piloting skills in the service of their country. But in vain. One pilot, Jeanne Pallier - 'tall, strong, loose limbed, regular of feature, forceful and frank in her speech … an aviatrix who has held a pilot's licence since 1912 and participated in several flying competitions in France and abroad' - shared her woes with one reporter from Lectures Pour Tous in 1917. 'She made herself available to the Aviation Service as soon as war was declared, but while the Russian, Serbian and Italian armies have managed to find an important role for their female aviators … the French authorities have not felt inclined to welcome our own.'

Despite a cadre of well-qualified women pilots, none were permitted to join the Aviation Service, despite the enthusiastic campaign led by another pre-war pilot, Marthe Richer, general secretary of the newly-formed Union Patriotique des Aviatrices. In two articles in Le Petit Parisien and Le Petit Journal in 1915, she said, 'We are capable of performing any task allotted to us: despatches, liaison, patrolling the skies above towns and cities, transport and testing. We offer our services freely, to France or to her allies. We are not asking to go the front, since our status as women doesn't allow us to play an active role. However, we do think we could be used in a support role in the rear so freeing up several military pilots for more useful employment.

No amount of press coverage, however, would make anyone in authority change their minds, and women like Elise Deroche and Jeanne Pallier had to make their contribution to the war effort through ambulance driving and similar activities. Marthe Richer (also known as Marthe Richard) would claim to have become involved with counter-espionage (a film from 1937 based on her life is here). Marie Marvingt had become interested in the possibilities of using aircraft as ambulances, not only to evacuate the wounded, but also to bring medical aid closer to the front line. The technology of the time was not up to it - engines were not powerful enough to carry the extra weight. in 1918, an attempt was made to fit two 'pods' under the wings of a Voisin 10, each carrying a casualty, but the war ended before the aérochir (aeroplane + chirurgien, ie aeroplane + surgeon) could become operational.

And she may even have had a closer acquaintance with the war, for Marvingt was supposed not only to have spent time in the trenches with 42e Chasseurs à pied, but also to have taken part in two bombing raids over enemy-occupied territory. Could this have happened? She did not have military pilot's wings, and she had not undergone an air gunner's course at Cazaux, nor a bomb aimer's course at Avord, so the regulations were certainly against her. It seems unlikely that that difficulty would have daunted her in any way. But the aircraft of the time did not have the space to carry a passenger, and to take a complete novice into action was surely a liability. Yet her Légion d'Honneur file clearly states, 'authorised by M. Millerand [the minister of war] for having participated in two air raids against the enemy airfield at Frascaty.' So someone obviously thought she was there, even though no precise date or unit is mentioned. But as John Ford fans will tell you, 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.'

Pictures: Deroche, Dutrieu, Herveu (all Wikipedia), Marvingt about to ascend in a balloon (Gallica), Richer (MAE), Pallier (Delcampe), how Marvingt's air ambulance might have worked, complete with the women herself, the Voisin 10 aérochir (both Wikipedia).


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