Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Kings of the Air: Aces High (3): Away from the Front

Everyone admired the aviator, claimed Jacques Mortane, the editor of the weekly magazine La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée, even the ordinary soldier: 'I've interviewed lots of poilus and asked them what they thought of pilots. “They're marvellous,” they told me, “we don't know what would become of us without them”.'

A soldier by the name of Glaure went so far as to write to the pilots of C51: 'We infantrymen follow you from our holes. Nothing you do escapes us. You are our gods. In fact, I would venture to say our guardian angels. If a day passes with no sight of you we're like children whose mother has given them no pudding.'

But other poilus were unimpressed. For one member of 241st Infantry, volunteering for aviation was simply another form of shirking: 'It's a massacre,' he wrote in 1917, 'and we're forced to stay here and resign ourselves to our fate while our fearless officers tuck themselves up nicely in the bottom of a sap. They're all patriots before they leave for the front, [but] one has gone into aviation, another to the depot and the third has stayed in hospital.'

Another infantryman, from 101st Infantry, was equally cynical. 'While the Boches come along and bomb the rear,' he complained, 'our pilots are courting, and sleeping with, the wives of the mugs in the front line.' Louis Lelandais (21st Colonial Infantry) agreed: in aviation, he claimed, 'you had nice uniforms, it was easier to get leave, you could go gadding around Paris. It clearly had plenty of advantages by comparison with the infantryman coming back from the trenches covered in mud, filthy, uncombed, unwashed and unshaven.' 

Jean Beraud-Villars (MF44, N102) had no time for such opinions. 'They think we're in it for fun,' he complained, 'they criticise our independence, our youth, our style of dress, our flippancy, the camaraderie between ranks; they reproach us in particular for not being soldiers.'

But even Jacques Mortane was forced to admit that the reputation of pilots had suffered: 'Don't be surprised after this if you see a man covered in mud, who hasn't shaved for a month, giving an old-fashioned look to an elegant maréchal des logis in a tunic displaying the famous [pilot's] badge.'

It had, he thought, become far too easy for 'the public to confuse the true pilot, who has real fire in his belly, with the complete rotter, the man who in airfield slang “has no guts”. … I'm sure it won't be long before the Secretary of State ensures that anyone who believes the role of the aviation service is to launch new fashions and cause a sensation is returned to his original arm of service.' The pages of La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée urged 'true' pilots to ignore 'honorary pilots', those 'elegant aviators cluttering the boulevards, theatres and bars in their tan boots and extravagant attire.' 

Newspapers and magazines like Mortane's devoted many column inches to the deeds of fighter pilots. So much so, that other aircrew also felt excluded. Louis Lelandais, grumbling about pilots a couple of paragraphs ago, eventually succumbed, becoming a pilot in SOP104 and BR287. But he was still unhappy. 'A pilot who downed one or two aircraft attracted little attention,' he grumbled. 'But when he had downed four or five he was mentioned in despatches. He got his name in the papers. After 25, 30 or 40 planes downed, he was no longer just an ace but a super ace. We reconnaissance pilots spent all day over the lines. We followed the infantry when they attacked, sometimes flying very low over the lines, so we weren't just vulnerable to German aircraft, but also to German guns and German bullets, not to mention our own guns … the gentlemen of the fighter squadrons tended to think they were better and stronger than us … as ex-cavalrymen they looked down on us a little.'
Some pilots lapped up the attention. Manufacturers, including SPAD and Nieuport, courted the aces who flew their planes. 'Leave was introduced in 1915,' recalled aircraft manufacturer Gabriel Voisin, 'and the first chaps were expected to arrive in Paris thirsting for freedom … In 1914 I had bought a little house on the boulevard Lannes previously owned by that well-known mystic, Sâr Péladan. The housewarming took place in 1915 and my only guests were air aces. Nungesser, who had scored his victory in a Voisin, my brother's friend Garros, my chum Audemar, Léon and Robert Morane, barely recovered after a recent accident, the whole gang of fighter and bomber pilots were assembled.'

Before long, the house, its guests and the large number of young ladies in attendance, had attracted the attention of the police. Nungesser took charge: with his 'blonde hair, face battered by experience, eyes of china blue, a mocking smile on his lips, a scar beneath them, he had the bearing, the confidence and the voice'. He drew the policemen aside and within minutes had them drinking a toast to fighter pilots. Furthermore, reported Gabriel Voisin, 'when dawn [finally] crept up on us, the ladies were wearing the policemen's uniforms.'

An ace was a much sought-after companion. 'I'm a godmother, naturally,' says a character in Paul Géraldy's La Guerre, Madame, a comic novel about marraines de guerre (the 'godmothers' who adopted individual soldiers at the front). 'I really wanted an aviator but all the women are fighting over them.' And the more prominent the pilot, the keener the competition. The actress Arletty recalled a liaison between Guynemer and the comedienne Yvonne Printemps: 'Honestly, everyone knew about it, people said how lucky she was, an air ace, the youngest, the most famous. It would have been a mistake to drop him.' Indeed, Printemps is rumoured to have abandoned her lover, the actor/director Sacha Guitry, to join Guynemer at his usual hotel in Paris, the Edouard VII, on the Place de l'Opéra.

All the attention left Captain Joseph Heurtaux (SPA3) rather bemused: 'We were annoyed by all the letters we had to deal with, all the invitations … we were just like pop stars. … We piled the letters on the squadron table. We each knew the letter or letters we were looking out for. We opened the remainder together. You'd never guess what we received. We were fed up with all the fuss. I went to a restaurant with Guynemer. When we left, we found bits of jewellery with addresses in our overcoat pockets. What sort of nonsense was that?'

Jean Navarre (N67) also took advantage of his fame. 'He'd no intention of paying, wherever he went, complained fellow squadron member Lieutenant Alfred Rougevin-Baville. 'He used to go to the Café de Paris, a famous restaurant in the Avenue de l'Opéra. “I'm Navarre,” he would say in restaurants and theatres. That was his “open sesame” and he never took out his wallet. But that particular day the maître d' gave him the bill. In high dudgeon, [Navarre] took his képi (which he never hung up but always kept under his arm) and passed it round the restaurant, collecting coins and notes. He paid the maître d' and put the rest in his pocket.'

Guynemer eventually wearied of the constant attention and adulation. In August 1917, Adjudant Jacques Viguier had gone to Paris to pick up a new plane. Strolling along the avenue de l'Opéra, close to the Hotel Edward VII, he saw Georges Guynemer : 'Tan boots, red trousers with black bands, medals all in a row. I could have gone up to him and said, “Hello, old chap. How are you?” The Parisians recognized him. How could they fail to do so, with his picture in all the papers? On the grands boulevards, the locals fell silent when he passed. They almost came to a stop. I followed him for quite a time. He was slightly stooped, tired of giving his all, marked by death.'

But even the most celebrated aviators were not always popular with their fellow pilots, although it is difficult at this remove to know whether the dislike was motivated simply by jealousy, or something deeper. 'Guynemer wasn't very likeable,' remembered Maurice Delporte. 'He wasn't very nice, even towards his comrades in the flight. Sure, he was bit of a nob, from a very good family, but that's no excuse. [Although] that doesn't detract from his qualities as a pilot.' René Fisch served with N23, a squadron in the same groupe as the ace. 'Not everyone liked Guynemer,' Fisch later observed, 'because he was very remote and self-centred. If he went into combat alongside one, two or three other [pilots], the kill went to Guynemer if the enemy was downed.'

Pictures: Jacques Mortane, a cover from La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée,  Nungesser, Yvonne Printemps, Heurteaux, Guynemer (all from Wikipedia): a group of pilots including (far right) René Fisch (La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée)

PS: the romantics (and/or possibly the cynics as well) amongst you will be glad to know that Printemps and Guitry had a reconciliation, and they were married in 1919.

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