Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Kings of the Air: Aces High

It is only relatively recently that military history has discovered the individual soldier, using the experiences and testimony of individuals to supplement the more traditional accounts of the clash of armies. Aviation history, in contrast, has moved in the opposite direction. Even during the First World War, much aviation writing consisted of stories about individual pilots. This remains a strong, possibly even a dominant, theme today, where aerial combats are forensically examined to determine exactly who killed who, and when and where, while relegating the larger campaign in which these individuals participated to a summary paragraph or two (and, yes, I realise the irony here).

The notion of celebrating the deeds of individual pilots first saw the light of day in 1915. In what had been a sterile year at the Front, with horrendous casualties for little or no gain (it should be remembered that there were more French casualties in 1915 than in any other year of the war), then any victory was to be prized, and could be exploited to the full by your own propaganda. Borrowing a term used in sport, these victorious pilots became 'aces'. If the first confirmed aerial victory had been by Frantz and Quenault in October 1914, then the first ace was Adolphe Pégoud.

Pégoud was another star of pre-war aviation – the first to loop-the-loop, and the first to make a parachute descent from a plane. Like Védrines, Pégoud's status may have allowed him a wider choice of missions, and it certainly brought him a better plane. While the rest of his squadron, MF25, had to make do with a slower Maurice Farman 7 or 11, Pégoud enjoyed a fast Morane-Saulnier, which he put through its paces one clear February morning over Sainte-Menehould in 1915. There, he shot down a Taube and two Aviatiks.

At a time when downing any enemy aircraft in combat was still a novelty, destroying three in one day seemed an extraordinary feat, and Pégoud was the hero of the hour. 'Congratulations from everyone at HQ, from the commander and his staff,' he noted the following day. 'General Julien, the commander of the engineers, arrived to congratulate me and invited me to dinner this evening. ... Made my report; congratulations all along the line. Got ready for dinner with [the] general. Arrived 1900 hours at the Hotel Saint-Nicolas, where he dines with all his staff. Around forty at the table. Introduced to them all. Most delightful meal, no ceremony, no fuss, very chummy. Congratulations all round. Everyone wanting to know more. All withdrew at 2030 hours. Most agreeable. Came home and went to bed.'

Yet the aces were always a small group. Altogether, 182 French pilots were credited with five victories or more during the war, scoring 1,756 victories from the total of 3,950 enemy aircraft shot down by French fighters. Thus, around 3% of all French fighter pilots were responsible for nearly half the total of victories. The top forty aces, who each shot down twelve or more of the enemy, accounted for one-fifth of all victories.

Aces did not attain their status by accident, but by hard work. That was certainly the view of René Fonck: 'It's a long, difficult apprenticeship before you become a great “ace”, strewn with repeated disappoinments and failures during which we put our lives at risk a hundred times over.'

Maxime Lenoir agreed. 'To be a good fighter pilot, you need to a lot of flying time. Some people think all that's needed to find some Germans is to go out looking for them. That's insane. Firstly finding them isn't enough, you have to find a way of forcing them to accept combat. The sky isn't the Place de la Concorde and anyone who wishes to fly away can do so quite safely if he's a little ahead of you. You also need a long training to pilot a fighter. ... In my early days with N23 I was a hard-worker, a grafter. All I was trying to do was become a champion but I didn't think I could do it within a few days. So many frights before I could bask in my first success.'

Fonck and Nungesser had begun their flying careers in bomber squadrons, while Lenoir and Armand Pinsard both served in a reconnaissance unit. Such experience was vital, according to Fonck: 'We should be transferring experienced aviators to the fighter squadrons, not accepting beginners. Any novice with guts will be downed within the first few months [and] those that are cautious will be no use for at least six months.' 

To some extent, this is apparent from the career progression of the best fighter pilots. Fonck qualified as a pilot in May 1915, but did not obtain his first victory until August 1916; even then, he shot down no more that year - his remaining seventy-four victories were obtained in the last twenty-one months of the war. Guynemer obtained his wings in April 1915 and shot down his first aircraft in December. After then accumulating some 200 flying hours, he then achieved forty-nine victories in nineteen months. Georges Madon had obtained his wings in 1913, but only scored his first victory in September 1916. It must also be said that 1916 saw a significant increase in the number of aircraft over the front lines - from the summer of that year, most flights over the lines would result in some kind of combat. 

Pictures: a dinner at the Aero-Club de France in 1917 - seated at the front are Albert Deuillin, a bandaged Alfred Heurteaux, Guynemer and Paul Tarascon; Adolphe Pégoud; Maxime Lenoir; René Fonck.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Sidi Brahim, part two

My last post was about the battle of Sidi Brahim, fought on 23-25 September 1845. Although it settled little in the struggle between the French and Abd el-Kader, it continues to have reverberations to the present day.

All the survivors were decorated with the Légion d'Honneur. Corporal Lavayssière was promoted to sergeant, and exchanged his regulation carbine for one bearing a small plate describing his valorous conduct. He left the Army in 1848. Later in life he owned a vineyard, which was devastated by phylloxera; at the same time he was losing the sight in one eye. Past and present chasseurs rallied around, ensuring he had the operation that saved his sight, and that he would live in relative comfort for the rest of his life. In 1909, a monument was erected in his village of Castelfranc (Lot); it can be seen on Google Streetview here.

Another survivor was Carabinier Jean Tressy, who was promoted to corporal. A monument was erected on his grave, at Chilleurs-aux-Bois (Loiret) in 1990. In 1892, he wrote to a friend, 'nearly every night for fifteen years, I relived some episode of that terrible fighting, and today, after forty-seven years, the memory is as vivid now as the first day.'

The monument to Corporal Gabriel Leger (1812-1901), at Glouloux (Nièvre) can be seen in the mid-distance here.

The other famous survivor was Bugler Rolland of the 2nd Hussars. He was captured by the rebels quite early in the battle. As his comrades gathered together for a last stand, Rolland was brought before Abd el-Kader and was instructed the blow the Retreat, to get the French to stop fighting. Rolland took a pace forward and instead blew the Charge. Fortunately for Rolland, el-Kader did not know one bugle call from another, and his defiance went unpunished.

The rebels held about 300 prisoners from the battle, including Major Courby de Cognord. But on 25 April 1846, the prisoners were massacred. In the confusion, eleven, including Rolland, escaped and made their way in ones and twos back to friendly territory. An interview with Rolland, that appeared originally in Lectures pour Tous on 1st August 1913, is here.

The song Sidi Brahim was composed not long after the battle itself, and was converted to a march in 1889 by Bandmaster Porot of the 20th Battalion. It has since been adopted as the march of all chasseur battalions. Sadly, the names of both lyricist and composer have been lost. You can hear it here (with words) or here (a rather better version, to my mind, but no words).

The 8th was reformed with volunteers from the other battalions. It would fight in the second Algerian campaign of 1856-58, as well as in Italy in 1859 and in France in 1870-71. During the First World War, it served as part of 83rd Brigade, 42nd Division. It found itself in Lorraine in 1940, and was disbanded in the following year. Reformed in 1944, it served in the Liberation of France, then in Algeria and in Bosnia. It was disbanded in 1999. The marabout itself became part of the battalion's badge, as you can see from the battalion fanion (left).

The values of duty and dedication portrayed in the battle continued to influence men in a quite different war. One junior officer of chasseurs described an attack during the battle of Verdun in October 1916: 'On the morning of the attack, the fog was very thick. That would do us nicely! At 1000 we got the plan of attack. The battalion would be in four waves. Behind us, another battalion had to carry on marching with the [Senegalese]. At 1140 the signal was given. "Attention, men" I shouted. Then I blew the whistle and sang "Forward, brave battalion", like in Sidi Brahim. The movement was superb. All the waves moved off at the same speed, [carried forward] with ferocious enthusiasm. The first Boche lines were overcome. They were almost completely evacuated... We carried on. There were no waves any more, just a mob moving forward behind our barrage!... The advance continued and at 1300 we had reached our objective without losing a single man killed or wounded. Splendid, eh? We settled in. To our left, Douaumont had fallen. As everything was going well, the night passed peacefully.'
Soldier Albert Bergère of the 1st Chasseurs had heard something similar in August 1914: 'We took up positions to the west of Pexonne, it was about 1700. Crouched in trenches eating a tin of rations and two biscuits - no water, we couldn't get any. At 2300, for fifteen minutes we heard a formidable bayonet charge going in, the bugle sounding the Charge; they must have been chasseurs because they were singing the Sidi Brahim, our preferred song.'

Just as Camerone became a significant battle in the collective memory of the Foreign Legion, then Sidi Brahim would occupy a pre-eminent place in the annals of the chasseurs à pied. A similar battle against the odds, a similar heavy loss of life, both used as an example to inspire future generations of the corps. The anniversary of the battle is always commemorated by the chasseurs, although not with the heavy pomp and circumstance of the Legion. There is video of the 2011 parade at Vincennes here, and versions of the 2010 parade at the same location, here and here, and in a small town in Normandy, here.

Pictures: the original monument to Sidi Brahim on the Place 1er Novembre, in Oran (it now includes the bust of Abd el-Kader) (on Google maps here); Bugler Rolland in old age; the battalion fanion of the 8th; the modern monument to the action, at Perissac (Gironde); a Sidi Brahim parade, with the flags of old comrades' associations.