Monday, 23 September 2013

It's Sidi Brahim Day!

So, what are we all doing for Sidi Brahim Day?

In 1845, the French in Algeria were engaged in fighting the rebellion led by Abd el-Kader. In August, the garrison at the port town of Nemours (now Ghazaouet), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel de Montagnac, had been strengthened by the arrival of the 8th Battalion of Chasseurs d'Orléans, under Major Froment-Coste, and a squadron of the 2nd Hussars, under Major Couby de Cognord.

The next month, intelligence reached the French C.-in-C., General Cavaignac, that Abd el-Kader was near Nemours. He ordered de Montagnac to go and arrest the rebel. Despite his misgivings, de Montagnac was not a man to disobey an order, and so took four companies of chasseurs (the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th) and the carabiniers company (8th) under Froment-Coste, 354 men all told, and 60 hussars led by Couby de Cognord. The French left at dead of night on 21st September, and marched all the following day. In a second night-time march, the column made four kilometres before bivouacing.

At dawn on the 23rd, Montagnac sent most of the hussars, supported by three companies of chasseurs to disperse a small force of rebel horsemen. At the last moment, de Montagnac decided to accompany the force with three companies, leaving Froment-Coste with Captain Burgard's 2nd Company and Captain Géreaux's 8th carabiniers Company, as well as six hussars, to guard the baggage.

Approching the enemy, the hussars charged off impetuously down a wadi, leaving the chasseurs to catch up as best they could. About 200 rebels were lining the slopes of the valley; with the hussars already disadvantaged by the slope, they drove the French back, inflicting numerous casualties. Couby de Cognord tried to withdraw his command to a low hill to await the infantry.

De Montagnac bravely marched his three companies to the rescue, but by the time he approached the hussars' position, the latter had been virtually overwhelmed. The three companies formed square and tried to defend themselves, but were outnumbered. De Montagnac sent a hussar to warn Froment-Coste, but was mortally wounded soon afterwards. But Froment-Coste could already see what was happening, and decided to take Burgard's company to aid de Montagnac. He never got close. All were killed or captured.

Géreaux was left with 82 men. He withdrew as far as a nearby marabout, the tomb of a local holy man, which consisted of a small, square building surrounded by a low wall. The site was quickly surrounded; Abd el-Kader demanded that the French surrender, but Géreaux declared they would rather die. The rebels then threatened to kill their French prisoners; still the French refused to surrender. Géreaux, already wounded, was resting when Corporal Lavayssière replied to a third demand with 'S**t to Abd el-Kader. Chasseurs die but do not surrender.' The rebels then tried to get the chasseurs' adjutant, Captain Dutertre, to persuade the French to surrender. The captain shouted to the remaining chasseurs to carry on fighting, and was beheaded on the spot. Assaults on the little post continued for the rest of the 23rd through the 24th, and into the 25th. But down to four rounds per man, and with no water, the French decided to break out. Fortunately most of the rebels had moved off into the interior. Facing a weakened force of beseigers, the French made a break for it, hoping to regain Ghazaouet.

But they were spotted, and casualties started to mount. With about three kilometres still to go, the French breasted the sides of the Oued Mersa to find it full of rebels. They fixed bayonets and charged. Amazingly, they succeeded in forcing a path through, as far as a grove of fig trees outside the village of Ouled Ziri, now a suburb of Ghazaouet. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued - Captain Géreaux was killed, and the survivors were reduced to Corporal Lavayssière and about twenty men.

Just at that very moment, as Lavayssière and his comrades prepared to die, the garrison of Ghazaouet intervened, and a few well-placed shells dispersed the rebels (you couldn't make it up, could you?). Only sixteen men survived the action - two died of exhaustion before relief could arrive; three more died of their wounds.

Note that the identification by Wikipedia of the site of the battle with the village of Sidi Brahim, north-east of Sidi bel Abbès, is incorrect. The sites of the battle and monument are to be found either side of the 7AA road, to the south-east of Nekhla (Michelin road map here; an older map here).

Pictures: the battle, as depicted by Louis Théodore Devilly; Courby de Cognard; de Montagnac; Froment-Coste; an old postcard of the marabout; inside the marabout during the battle - Captain Géreaux has his back to the viewer, centre; Géreaux

There is a lot more to be said about the battle, but that's for next time.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Kings of the Air: Somme airfields

Following the list of Verdun airfields, here are the airfields in the French sector of the Somme battlefield in 1916 (on a Google map here):

Cachy: a Sixth Army airfield, housing the fighter squadrons of the future GC12, the Cigognes - N3 (16 April-28 January 1917), N26 (6 June-28 January 1917), N37 (July-25 January 1917), N62 (5 May-15 October), N65 (7 July-19 January 1917) and N103 (21 June-1 January 1917). Cachy was passed to the RFC in 1918. The field itself is to the north-west of the village, and extends to both sides of the A29/E44; the diagonal crop mark marks approximate location of the south-western boundary

Chipilly: this was primarily an RFC field, but it was also used by C43 (26 July-15 November) and N112 (25 September-December). The field is on the high ground north of the village, by the D1. The hangars were aligned along the north-south road.

La Croix-Comtesse: a small airfield created in 1916, housing F2 and F211 between 26 October and 15 November. There is nothing left of the 1916 field - it was abandoned after the war; but the site is now Albert airport, which was created as a strip in 1925-26 for the nearby new Potez aircraft works (later known as Albert-Meaulté or Albert-Bray).

Démuin: a I Colonial Army Corps field, housing C46 (26 July-November), C51 (2 May-24 August), F52 (5 June-27 July), C202, F203 and C207. The exact site is uncertain, but it was also known as Bois de Morgemont, which suggests it could be somewhere in the vicinity of Toronto Cemetery, on the high ground above the village, to the north.

Le Hamel: part of XX Corps, housing F24, F35 (15 June-10 August), F204 and F208. the exact site is uncertain.

Marcelcave: part of XXXV Corps, housing C10 (16 June-1 July), F60 (14-15 June), F201 (July-12 February 1917), F205 (June-February 1917) and F215. The field was to the west of the village, in the angle between the Rue de l'Hirondelle (D136) and the Rue Foiraine (D42).

Moreuil: the home of F54 (2 May-24 January 1917) (Sixth Army); C28 (12-15 July) (Fourth Army); F201 and 215 (June) (Second Army); F206 (5 September-22 November) and F218 (15 July-10 November) (Tenth Army). It waso briefly used by RFC squadrons in 1917 and in March 1918. The field is actually just outside Villiers-aux-Erables, to the west of the hamlet, on the Rue de Moreuil (D28).

Morlancourt: also known as Bois des Tailles and Treux. Stationed here were C10 (1 July-9 November), F24 (10 June-15 November), F33 (September-October), F35 (10-27 August), F72 (26 July-18 September), F204 (11 September-November). It was also used by the RFC in 1916-17.

Rouvrel: another Sixth Army field, housing C31, F32 (3-16 July) and C105. The field lies to the east of the village, on either side of the D134.
Villers Bretonneux: a third Sixth Army field, housing C11 (24 June-6 January 1917), C43 (23 June-26 July), C46 (28 June-26 July), F52 (27 July-30 December), F72, (16-19 July), C202 (26 July-6 January 1917), F215 (July-November). The field was also used by the RFC/RAF in 1917-18. It was originally located south of the village, west of the D23 (Rue de Démuin) and north of the modern-day A29/E44. In 1917, it was relocated to the east of the village, on the south side of the D1029 and to the east of the Chaussée du Val de Somme

Supporting the front-line squadrons were two Aviation Parks, 2 and 102, based at Saint-Fuscien. The former looked after the squadrons at Cachy, Rouvrel and Villers-Bretonneux; the latter, the squadrons at Démuin, Hamel, Marcelcave and Moreuil. Saint-Fuscien airfield is north of the actual village, and is positioned to the north-east of the junction of the A29/E44 and the D7. After the war, it became a private airfield under the name Amiens-Montjoie. There was a little military activity here during the Second World War, but the field subsequently fell into disuse, and has been returned to agriculture.

In addition to the heavier-than-air squadrons, Sixth Army also included the following balloon companies: 24, 39, 50, 51, 55, 59, 62, 68, 69, 75, 76, 80, 86 and 88. Of these 39 and 55 were attached directly to Army HQ; attached to XX Corps were 50 (heavy artillery), 39 and 68; to I Colonial Corps were 24, 59, 69 and 76; amongst those attached to XXXV Corps was 80 Company. Some of the companies serving with Tenth Army also spotted for Sixth Army units: 49, 63, 84 and 91.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Kings of the Air: Verdun airfields

In the course of any project, you accumulate all kinds of material that will never form part of the narrative proper, but you hang on to just in case. For a proposed series of maps, I wanted to locate the airfields used by French squadrons during the battles of Verdun and the Somme. Having located them (well, most of them), I found I had details of some of the squadrons that were based there, and was curious to know what the sites looked like these days. Unfortunately, I have not been able to place all the airfields precisely - after all, many were simply grass fields, with the air- and ground crews living in tents. I have placed them on a map here.

Most were temporary fields, built for the war, but two, Béhonne and Verdun, were created as part of a plan to create a network of permanent airfields throughout the country in the years before war broke out. Both survived the war - indeed, Verdun survived until the 1970s - but most were returned to agriculture.

There are a number of aerial photos of airfields in the Argonne here, and south of Verdun here, and in the Toulois here.

Ancemont: On 20 February, this was the home of C11, who stayed until 23 June; it also housed C4 (24 July-1 December) and F218 (spring).

Autrécourt-sur-Aire: F2 (23 March-16 August), C13 (28 August-6 December), F50 (in August, the squadron was billeted in barracks 500m of the eastern exit of the village, which might imply the airfield was on the higher ground, away from the river valley).

Auzéville-en-Argonne: F2 (19-22 March).

Béhonne: one of the airfields planned in 1911-12, it was located south-east of the village, on the south side of the Grande Rue (D116), close to the junction with the Rue Guynemer. There are now private houses where the hangars used used to be. The site was moved after the war to a site further to the south-west, now on the northern outskirts of Bar-le-Duc. It ceased to be used in 1937. During the battle, it was briefly the home of C104 (11 September-4 October).

Bellefontaine: this may be the second airfield near Brabant-le-Roi (q.v.), which was located at Bellefontaine Farm. C6 (16-28 June).

Boncourt: detachment N3 March 

Brabant-le-Roi: there were two airfields here. The first was located on the south side of the village, in the angle between the Ruisseau de Nausonce stream and the Rue Fayarde. This was replaced by a larger airfield to the north, somewhat outside the village, on Bellefontaine Farm between the D20 and the Roman road, the D1378.

Brocourt-en-Argonne: C13 (19 May-27 August).

Clermont-en-Argonne: on the north side of the village, on the Rue d'Aubreville, a site now partially occupied by a factory. F2 (Feb 1915-19 March 1916).

Commercy: C4 detachment December.

Erize-la-Petite: to the south-west of the village, on the high ground to the west of the D1916 / Voie Sacrée, near the junction with the D116 (the airfield was also known as Rembercourt-aux-Pots, within whose boundaries it actually was. The latter village is now called Rembercourt-Sommeaisne.).

Faubourg Pavé (aka Verdun): to the east of the town, on the site now occupied by the Désandrouins Hospital (thanks to Christina Holstein). It was one of the airfields planned in 1911-12. It ceased to be a military field before the Second World War, becoming civilianized field after the war (renamed Verdun-Fromeréville), and was closed in 1972. On 20 February, this was home to C18, N23, MF63, N67 and MF72. German artillery forced the squadrons to withdraw, although Jean Navarre insisted on basing his personal aircraft there.

Froidos: to the east of the village, close to the road to Ville-sur-Cousances. F44 (June-September 1917).

Julvécourt: to the north-west of the village, on the plateau to the west of the Rue Savary. F50 (perhaps September), S.A.L./F221 (October).

Laheycourt: F2 (end of August), F50 (July-August).

Lemmes: to the north-west of the village, between the Chemin des Aisances and the Route de Vadelaincourt. Since Vadelaincourt was just to the north, the landing ground must have been shared between the two stations. F1 (18 March-28 May), C4 (1 May-23 July); F5 June (15 September-December), C6 (5 May-15 June), MF7 (17 June-30 July), N15 (28 February-6 May).

Osches: to the north-east of the village, between the Grande Rue and the Mont d'Osches wood. The hangars were alongside the track that skirts the western edge of the wood.

Sainte Menehould: C6 (29 June-3 October).

Souilly: to the north of the village on the D159, north-east of the junction with the Voie Sacrée. It opened in early 1916. Souilly was also the location of Pétain's headquarters. C4 (2 December-4 January 1917), F63 (2 March-21 September), S.A.L./F221 (from January).

Toul: the site of Toul Croix-de-Metz airfield is to the north-east of the town, and is now an industrial estate. Like the airfield at Commercy, its location was too far south to have anything other than a marginal involvement with the battle. F1 (May-August), F63 (21-25 September), C228 (1 February-?)

Vadelaincourt: to the east of the village, between the Grande Rue and Route de Lemmes. The hangars were alongside the Grande Rue, extending almost to the junction with the Chemin des Aisances. F3 (detachment March-May), F8 (20 June-February 1917), F63 (24 February-2 March), F218.

In addition to the airfields, on 20 February RFV had three balloon companies under command - 28th (Bellevue), 52nd (Belleville-Froidterre) and 59th (Bethelainville). No.11 Aviation Park was based at Fort Regret.
 
Other airfields were built in the area later in the war, eg Beauzée, Froidos, Pretz en Argonne, Senoncourt-lès-Maujouy.

Much work remains to be done on locating these airfields and describing their daily work. The Association Ancien-Aerodromes continues to do much useful investigative work in this area, although not just confined to the Great War. There is also useful information here, and on Albin Denis' site here. The squadron carnets de comptabilité, which served as a kind of muster roll, but also give information about location, are here.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Kings of the Air: Of Penguins and Men part 2

Convinced that the war would only last a few months, on the outbreak of hostilities General Bernard, the Director of Aviation, decided to close all the aviation schools. He was sacked on 10th October and replaced by General Edouard Hirschauer, who had been the Inspector of Aviation 1912-13. Hirschauer immediately reversed Bernard's decision. The school at Avord reopened in September, followed in December by the one in Pau. Further military schools followed in Chartres and Ambérieu. From February 1915, military pilots were also trained at schools run by aircraft manufacturers - at Etampes (Farman), Le Crotoy (Caudron) and Buc (Blériot). All these three schools taken over by the military in September, and further specialist schools were opened for air gunnery (Cazaux), for fighter pilots (Pau), artillery spotters (Châteauroux) and bomber crews (Avord). This growth was all rather ad hoc, and was only rationalised in September 1915 with the appointment of Major Adolphe Girod as Inspector of Schools.

Girod ensured that all aircrew candidates would undergo basic military training at the depot at Dijon, before moving to a basic flying training school (Avord, Buc, Pau, Tours, Ambérieu, Le Crotoy, Juvisy, Chartres and Etampes). Pilots who gained their wings were then sent for further training on the specific types of aircraft they would be flying at the Front. Men destined for army corps squadrons or fighter squadrons, who had trained on Caudrons or Voisins, were sent to Avord to also familiarise themselves with Sopwiths and Nieuports. The same location also contained a night-flying school. Fighter pilots were sent on to Pau to develop their aerobatic skills and then to Cazaux for further gunnery training. Army corps squadron pilots went on to Chartres, while observers and gunners went to Cazaux.

Only then would qualified aircrew be sent to the pool at Plessis-Belleville, outside Paris, to await a posting to a front-line squadron. In 1918, under normal circumstances, the whole process would take six months. In 1914, some 134 trainees passed through the system; by 1918, this had risen to 6,909. The last man to qualify as a pilot during the war was Adrien Valière, on 11 November. Altogether, some 16,546 pilots were produced during the war. Of those who qualified in 1918, 40% went to fighter squadrons, 33% to army corps squadrons, and 15% to bombers.

Flying schools were distant from the Front, and were often in less-populated regions. 'At the end of the sandy road,' ran a description of Le Crotoy on the Somme estuary, 'the beach seemed vast and grey. Planes flew back and forth, motors whined … pot-bellied Bessonneaux hangars crouched sleepily in the dunes. It's the School. Over there, on the horizon, something which could quite well be the sea … it has gone out so far that you wonder if it will ever return. A plane spirals down. Our future ace looks on, wide eyed. This evening, tomorrow perhaps, he'll be flying too. Can it [really] be possible?' Arriving at Avord, Marcel Jeanjean was unimpressed by what he found: 'everywhere a shambles. Revolting huts. Rotting mattresses on the ground, and the CO meeting the latest batch of trainees and shouting, “What do you want me to do with this lot?”'

Training consisted of a mixture of theoretical lectures and practical work. Raymond Berthelot arrived at Ambérieu on 29 June 1917 and attended lectures on: 'cross-country flying, navigation, brakes and landing, mechanics, intelligence gathering, aerodynamics, the Voisin aircraft, stability, accidents, the engines, the carburettor, lubrication, magnetos, flight safety, faults, the airfield, topography, compass work and meteorology', before making his first flight, on dual control, on 24 August.

The instructors were experienced pilots from the Front, posted there as much to give them a rest as to provide good trainers. Yet at least one man was posted to a school because he was a poor pilot: 'During his time with the squadron, from 3 August to 1 October 1916, pilot X was unable to render any effective service as a pilot, either through want of self-confidence, or because he lacked the physical qualities necessary to make a good pilot. I hope he'll be able to make himself useful at the school where he has been sent as a instructor, and that he will try hard to dispel the unfortunate impression he made with the squadron.'

The first practical stage for the novice pilot was with the 'penguins', Blériot monoplanes fitted with small 20hp engines, whose wings were cut down so they were unable to take off (there you are, you were wondering when penguins were going to come into it, weren't you?). 'They are rather difficult to handle,' confessed Charles Biddrich, 'and are designed to teach the men to steer straight. At first you go sideways and twist around in each direction except the one in which you wish to go. After you catch on to them however you go tripping along over the ground at some 35 or 40 miles an hour.' The Theory lectures at Le Crotoy took place in a hangar: 'an instructor, in a front of a plane prepared by the mechanics, picks apart his dream: a bit of steel, wood, canvas etc. – nothing very solid. … "Calm yourself my friend. Nothing like this has ever stayed up." Comforted by these wise words, [the typical student] waits for his first 24-hour leave.'

After the penguins came the 'rouleurs'. These were Blériots that were capable of flight, but the pilots had to remain on the ground. Their object was 'to teach the pupil to steer a straight course.' From here, the student moved on to the 'décolleur' class, in which he was allowed to leave the ground to a height of a metre or so, before cutting the engine and returning to the ground. The height and length of flight was slowly increased with every successful attempt, all done under the eye of an instructor.

Jeanjean described the momentous event of a first solo: 'The trainee, rather pale, listens to the final words of advice from his instructor. “Listen! You don't have the penguin in your hands any more, but a racehorse. Don't push too hard on the joystick, the plane will dive nose first into the ground. Above all don't pull back too hard, otherwise you'll go into a steep climb that will end in a fatal loss of air speed … Take care too never to cross control or you'll end up in a spin. Be very, very careful when you're banking, feel very gently for the controls or you'll end up doing a barrel roll.'

Pupils were able to progress at their own speed, in a series of machines with ever larger, more powerful engines: 'Since Saturday,' said Biddle, 'I have passed through four classes so you can see that we are moving right along.' Marcel Thavet described these classes as follows: 'The 50s class, the first step to the stars. Then the 80s, cross-country flying and the pilot's licence. At Le Crotoy it was christened the 'clown flight' because of the trainees' involuntary acrobatics the day they first flew solo.'

The final stage consisted of a 'serpentine' and a 'spiral'. 'Both,' explained Biddle, 'were methods of losing height without gaining distance, ie to land on a spot under you.' The final test consisted firstly of two flights to a given location and back, staying aloft for a specified time, and then two triangular routes of 225km. Raymond Berthelot received his wings after a total of thirty-nine hours flight time (10 hours solo), and a total of 139 landings.


At Pau, pilots were taught simple aerobatic manoeuvres - loops, spins and rolls. As in earlier stages of their training, pilots were instructed on the ground, but they had to learn to control the plane on their own. One pilot recalled, 'In the hangar, there was a plane stripped of its fabric called “Cowkiller”, upon which [Sergeant] Fronval made us go through the manoeuvres we had to perform. From the landing strip, Lieutenant Simon [the commander of the school], with his monocle, followed the progress of the pilots who normally passed over at 1500ft. His eyes were always glued to the skies and he would cry: 'I knew it, I knew it! That one's going to crash ." And without fail, the poor sod smashed into the ground … what you have to remember about the school at Pau is that there were lots of fatal accidents, a guard of honour was permanently mustered for burial duty.'

'Finally' said Jim McConnell, 'the pilot is considered well enough trained to be sent to the reserve, where he waits his call to the front. At the reserve he flies to keep his hand in, practices on any new make of machine that happens to come out or that he may be put on in place of the Nieuport, and receives information regarding old and new makes of enemy airplanes.' The 'reserve' was the pool of qualified pilots, the Groupes de Division d'Entraînement, located in and around Plessis-Belleville (Oise), north of Paris. Carroll Winslow was billeted in nearby Ermenonville, while the CO had his headquarters in the chateau of Prince Radzivill. Winslow found, 'There were four separate camps, one for each branch of aviation, and there are over one hundred machines in each camp. We were practically our own masters, and could make flights whenever we wished. The idea is that the pilots here have an opportunity of perfecting themselves and that, if they do not fly, why, then it is their loss.' Adjudant Jean Carayon found it an 'extraordinary, colourful shambles … accidents on a daily basis, a crazy carnival of a place, spahis mingling with colonial troops, everyone making fun of the uniform with your jumper almost up to your ears, but a very pleasant atmosphere.' William Wellman was less impressed: 'It was in reality a good deal of a dump.'


Pictures: Hirschauer before the war (what a magnificent moustache!); Girod (whose moustache is not quite as magnificent); a pre-war postcard of the flying school at Le Crotoy, on the Somme estuary; a theory lecture by pilot and professional illustrator Marcel Jeanjean; 'a penguin' by Marcel Jeanjean; 'double command' by Marcel Jeanjean; 'a first solo' by Marcel Jeanjean; 'a photo for the marraine' by Jeanjean.