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Kings of the Air: Of Penguins and Men part 1

On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the French aviation service could call upon 126 aircraft in front-line service and a further 126 in reserve, plus 486 qualified military pilots to fly them. It was perhaps this surplus, and the expectation of a short war, that prompted the Director of Aviation, General Félix Bernard, to close all the flying schools, and to dispense with the skills of men like Maxime Lenoir. Lenoir had learned to fly in 1913 and immediately became a professional aviator, celebrated for his aerobatic displays and a specialist in looping-the-loop. Recalled to service on mobilisation, he was fully expecting to be directed into aviation. But no. 'When I mentioned my pilot's licence to the recruiting officer, I might as well have been talking about my school certificate. “Oh, it's you,” he said. “The pilot. Aviators are lunatics. You'll have to switch, son! No place for mavericks in wartime. You can [go back] to the cavalry [Lenoir had performed his military service with 7th Hussars]!” As I was a cavalryman already they gave me a superb mare, so I got a ride of sorts, although definitely not the one of my dreams. And the poor beast … soon fell victim to one of those chance accidents so common in war: she was shot out from under me.'

But, with no sign of peace, and huge expansion plans already in place, it soon became clear that many more flying personnel were needed. By October 1914, GQG was already circularising the armies in search of suitable candidates for training: 'For the duration of the hostilities, the minister has decided to authorise the training of military pilots. To guarantee recruitment into this category of personnel, I ask you to identify those among the officers, NCOs and men under your command desirous of becoming a member of aircrew and capable of serving quickly. Only those candidates with previous pilot training, good vision and a robust constitution should be nominated.' All candidates had to be in perfect health, physically fit, and weigh (clothed) no more than 85kg (pilots) and 75kg (observers). Lenoir volunteered again and was accepted, receiving his military wings in December 1914. 

Throughout the war, many of those who volunteered for aviation were attracted by the thrills and glamour of it all. 'The period before the 1914 war was the time of the first flights, and like all young men of my age I thought it all very exciting,' recalled André Luguet, later one of France's leading film actors. 'I knew [pilots] like [Hubert] Latham, [René] Labouchère [and] Louis Chatelin, who all became close friends of mine. … I spent a lot of time at the airfields, [including] Mourmelon, where I watched the Wright brothers make their early flights. Because I had aviators to take me onto the airfields at Villacoublay, I was present at the first trials conducted by what we then called “flying men” before they were renamed aviators.'

The numbers required were partly met by incorporating dismounted cavalrymen, and in 1915 most volunteers came from that arm. As the war progressed, however, the cavalry was eclipsed as a source of aircrew by both the infantry and the artillery. Further recruits were found amongst men whose wounds had left them unfit for front-line service. The celebrated film director Jean Renoir, originally a cavalryman, suffered a leg wound and developed gas gangrene while serving in the Vosges with the chasseurs alpins. He was passed fit as an observer, although to his disappointment not as a pilot, and transferred to aviation in 1916 (he later tried again, and got his wings). 

Dr Guilbert, the MO at the flying school of Le Crotoy, felt 'that trainees recruited among the sick and the wounded should comply [with medical standards] even more strictly than the others.' But for many of the injured and wounded, experience and talent seems to have weighed more heavily. Lieutenant Paul Tarascon, for example, had lost a foot in a pre-war crash landing. Fitted with an artifical replacement, he rejoined the aviation service in 1914 and finished the war with twelve victories. Roland Garros was so short-sighted that he wore glasses beneath his goggles. François Coli continued to serve after losing an eye in a crash in March 1918, and in the same year Raymond Berthelot qualified as a night bomber pilot after heart problems had driven him from the artillery!

William Wellman, an American volunteer, was given 'heart tests, after I had hopped about the floor a few times; eye tests by reading a few letters across the room; balancing on one foot with my eyes closed to prove that I had a fair sense of equilibrium; and a few other balancing tests, during which I was whirled around on a piano stool with eyes closed and then requested to walk a straight line, with them open. Weight and measurements followed, and it was all over.' Sometimes, even these cursory efforts were waived or circumvented. When André Duvau was rejected by his original medical board, he reapplied using personal contacts within the army and was accepted without further ado. Arriving at the aviation depot at Dijon-Longvic in April 1917, 'The doctor literally shoved me out the door. True, it was apéritif time and it looked as if he was keen to swap the camp for the café.'

Most of those who served as members of aircrew between 1914 and 1918 were in their early twenties, aged between 21 and 26, and more than 80% of them were unmarried. But on the outbreak of war, the typical airman was somewhat older than this. The squadron commander, a lieutenant, tended to be in his mid-thirties, while his four or five junior officers were normally slightly younger, in their mid-twenties or early thirties, with around four years' service. NCOs were a mixture of long-service personnel, in their late twenties, and the current classes of conscripts (1911-1913); many of them had transferred to aviation within a month of their call-up, while others had entered direct. By 1918, casualties had wrought considerable changes, and the war in the air had become a young man's game. 'Youngsters,' said pilot Marcel Jeanjean. 'By and large they're just big kids.' The NCOs were drawn almost exclusively from the wartime classes of 1914 to 1918 (i.e. aged between 18 and 20 on call-up), while their commanding officer was just a couple of years older, often from the class of 1912.

Pictures (top to bottom): Maxime Lenoir (from Wikipedia); André Luguet learning to fly at Buc (from the ever-excellent albindenis), and, below, second from the right, the dapper leading man he became (in the 1931 French-language Buster Keaton film Buster se marie); Jean Renoir, later in life (his masterpiece La Grande Illusion was surely informed by his experiences in Aviation); Paul Tarascon (left) and François Coli in 1925; William Wellman (who also became an actor, then a film director - what was it with the film industry? Could it be that aircrew were all basically show offs?)

The penguins? They appear in part 2!


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