Thursday, 27 March 2014


This blog has now reached 7,000 page views, and has been in existence for just over twelve months. So I thought I'd take a look at which posts had proved the most popular in terms of page views.

Bubbling under, as they say, are:

But the top five posts, in reverse order Pop Pickers, are:

Around the First Battle of the Marne 1: the battle of the Ourcq
The battle of Verdun
Napoleon's soldiers
Butte de Zouaves 1914 and 2013

Around the First Battle of the Marne was the first of a three-part post on the theme of What I Did On My Holidays in 2008. I was writing a book for Osprey on the battle, so went to see the actual countryside over which it was fought. I tried to include a few tips and hits on using public transport in the area, since that is how we got around. Some of those details are out of date now, of course, but I think enough remains in place to make it do-able. Since writing those posts the new museum of the Great War has opened at Meaux, where we were based, so that is an extra attraction for anyone in the area.

The battle of Verdun was written on the anniversary of the first day of the battle. A short post such as this cannot hope to do justice to such a lengthy battle (it opened in February 1916 and did not start winding down until July). The high number of hits reflects, I think, on the central position it holds for France's Great War, and the continuing debate on the strategies of the opposing sides.

With Napoleon's Soldiers, I was taking a break for writing on the Kings of the Air, my current project, and looking at recent French digitization projects. In this particular case, it concerned registers of recruits to Napoleon's regiments, both Guard and line. It was really a review and how-to-search guide for those who were unaware of its existence. It's not really my period (true enthusiasts may be saying, 'And it shows' at this stage), but it was interesting to see that the documents had actually survived, and what information they contained. They are also free for everyone to use, and not sold off under exclusive licenses to for-profit genealogy sites (National Archives, I'm looking at you). It is a testament to the continuing popularity of the Little Corporal that this has reached number 3.

I have no idea why Butte des Zouaves 1914 and 2013 should be so popular. It was written to commemorate the anniversary of the creation of zouave regiments in the French Army; every year, there is a wreath-laying ceremony at a monument to one of the battles of 1914, in which the zouaves took a prominent part. But that year was not a significant anniversary, nor was the battle an important one in the history of the war, however bloody for the zouaves. Perhaps it just struck the zeitgeist at the time, but it continues to be popular - it is the most-looked at post this week.

And the most popular of all posts was been 2,000 Views. It was partly about a film, Verdun: Visions d'Histoire, directed by Léon Poirier, that was released in 1928. But it was also about using stills from this film and others as being actual photos of the Great War. As TV documentaries follow each other onto our TV screens this year, showing Frenchmen in horizon blue to illustrate the battles of 1914, or Germans in steel helmets attacking at Verdun, I am still uncertain about my final response. My inner Uniform Geek revolts at such anachronisms, as being somewhere on a scale between 'simply sloppy' to 'deliberately mendacious'. The excerpts do not represent what the documentary maker says they do, so shouldn't be used. But unless you are making a point about equipment or tactics, does that really matter? Poirier was attempting as accurate a reconstruction as he could, so the look and style of the film are close to the real thing, perhaps closer than a modern director could manage. So when the picture editor of a modern coffee table book includes a film still saying, 'this is a man being killed', is the impression it gives closer to the real thing than any other way of depicting it, and thus justified?

I post links to each post on Twitter and on various groups on Facebook. As a traffic source, Twitter just edges it over Facebook. And this will continue to be the case, as one Facebook group has now restricted voluntarily the kind of posts it displays, and as of last night, Facebook seems to have deleted another that I used. Nevertheless, the largest single traffic source remains Google.

Where do you all live? About one-third of all page views come from the USA, and a fifth from the UK. Smaller numbers come from France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Netherlands, Australia and China. A third of you use Firefox, a quarter, either Chrome or Internet Explorer. Nearly three-quarters use Windows.

Thanks to everyone for looking. Here's to the next 7,000!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Kings of the Air: The White Bird

As I mentioned last time, following the end of the Great War, the former ace Charles Nungesser tried to earn a living in the USA, putting on displays and starring as an action hero in feature films. Whatever he took from this activity was apparently not enough - he abandoned film work and went back to flying. A venture into selling planes to the Cuban military ended badly. He decided to take on the Orteig Prize for crossing the Atlantic.

Let me say at this juncture that this was not a prize for simply crossing the Atlantic - Nungesser, and Lindbergh after him, were not trying to be the first to cross the ocean, as some sloppy journalists assert. The crossing had already been achieved in 1919 by two Britons, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown. The Orteig Prize was for $25,000, put up by a New York hotelier, Raymond Orteig, for the first non-stop crossing between the two cities.

Once he had crashed his aircraft, René Fonck had decided the whole project was too risky, so leaving the field to Nungesser. As a copilot / navigator, Nungesser asked Paul Tarascon, another former ace, but Tarascon was badly burnt when their Potez 25 crashed. The choice fell on François Coli. Coli had been the CO of SPA62 in 1918, when he crashed into one of the squadron's hangars when returning from a mission. Although badly injured (he would lose an eye), he refused all medical assistance until he had dictated the following order: 'With the exception of CO, squadron members are forbidden to bring their plane into the hangars by any entrance other than the doors designed for the purpose.' Despite his injury, Coli continued to fly, and in the years after the war had successfully completed several long-distance flights across the Mediterranean.

The pair worked closely with the Levasseur Company to produce a new aircraft capable of the voyage, the PL.8, a development of a French carrier-based PL.4 type. The result was a large, heavy biplane, with pilot and navigator seated side by side. The undercarriage was jettisonable, and the underside of the fuselage streamlined, with the intention that the successful flight would be completed by landing in the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty. It was painted in white (hence the nickname of L'Oiseau Blanc - White Bird), with Nungesser's wartime skull-and-crossbones insignia on the side.

The aircraft took off from Le Bourget at 0517 on 8 May 1927. Following a great circle route, the pair flew north-west, crossing the Dorset coast and the Bristol Channel before crossing Ireland. Several witnesses reported having seen or heard them pass overhead. 

They were never seen again.

Crowds gathered in New York in expectation of seeing them land; the Paris daily La Presse even reported that they had arrived (not French journalism's finest hour!). To this day, the fate of the aircraft is unknown. Several people living in the back country of Newfoundland or in Maine later reported hearing an aircraft engine at about the correct time; others reported hearing a crash, but extensive searches in forest and ponds have failed to find any major wreckage. Other theories on their fate suggest they were shot down by rum-runners, thinking they were the US Coastguard; or by the US Coastguard, thinking they were rum-runners.

Two statues were erected in their honour. The first was placed at Etretat, where the pair crossed the Channel coast. Unfortunately, it was blown up by the German Army in 1942 (they had a more robust attitude to art criticism in those days), leaving only the base, shaped like an aircraft, in the grass on the cliff top. There was a small museum on the site, run by the municipality, but it is reported closed until further notice - there is nothing on the town's website. The second statue, at the airfield at Le Bourget, was a statue not just to Nungesser and Coli, but also to Charles Lindbergh, who succeeded where Nungesser and Coli had failed a few months later.

The mystery has attracted many searches over the years. The most persistent is 'Project Midnight Ghost' of TIGHAR, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, whose members have been searching since 1984, concentrating on Maine and Newfoundland. A French group have been looking at the offshore island group of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon; their blog stops in 2012, so it may be they have given up, at least for the moment.

A French TV documentary Le Mystère de l'Oiseau Blanc is on You Tube here, but in a version dubbed into German Tod beim Atlantikflug. I have been unable to find either the original French version, or the English version on the same site. Even if you can't understand the commentary, the pictures look good. There are two clips from an Arte TV programme here, the first on Nungesser's youth and as a fighter pilot; the second shows Fonck's aircraft coming to a sticky end, and Nungesser's Levasseur being built and tested. The narration is French.

A made-for-TV film, Restless Spirits, was made in 1999, in which the ghosts of Nungesser and Coli appear. A clip appears on You Tube here. The actors playing the parts are rather too young and good-looking for the original men; "Nungesser" no longer has blonde hair, while "Coli" wears an eyepatch, rather than a dark monocle, over the wrong eye. Hmmm. Still, the film wasn't really about them, but the young woman that meets their ghosts.

Pictures: Nungesser and his fiancée (later his wife), the memorably named Consuelo Hatmaker, pose in front of a Morane MS35 (it's good to see that the well-dressed pilot still wears his spats!); Coli (left) and Nungesser before the flight; a painting of the White Bird in flight (San Diego Aerospace Museum); the pair in their flying gear; crowds gather for news outside the offices of Le Matin, which was rather more accurate than La Presse, stating the pair's fate was unknown (Gallica); the inauguration of the monument at Etretat (also Gallica)

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Kings of the Air: The Calm After The Storm

Following recent posts on injury and death, one might wonder how the survivors managed after the war. And the answer is not always very well. Many pilots carried on doing what they did best - flying, but undoubtedly, many missed the adrenalin rush of combat flying. 'Deep down, in the calm that follows the storm, I sometimes rather regret that all danger is past,' admitted René Fonck. 'Constant peril can be particularly satisfying to anyone prepared to take on the challenge. Sometimes we really miss it and that's when we embark on some lunatic enterprise or other.' 

And almost immediately, on 19 January 1919, Jules Védrines embarked on such a lunatic enterprise, landing his aircraft on the roof of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris in a feat of bravado and enormously skilful flying. On 21 April, whilst flying from Paris to Rome, his engine failed, and his aircraft crashed at Saint-Rambert d'Albon, near Lyon, killing him and his mechanic.

Some pilots were unhappy with the proposed representation of Aviation during the ceremonial for 1919 Bastille Day (they were simply ordered to parade on foot, rather than in a fly past). As a protest, they decided to fly a plane through the Arc de Triomphe. There was only one man both with the flying skills and who was bonkers enough to try it, and that was Jean Navarre, by this time working as a test pilot for Morane-Saulnier. Practising at the airfield at Villacoublay, he tried to land with a dead stick, came in too short, and ended up hitting a boundary wall. He died two days later, and was buried next to his twin brother Pierre, shot down in 1916, in his home town of Tartas (Landes). Jean had just turned twenty-four.

Charles Godefroy, a flying instructor, successfully took up the challenge, his Nieuport 11 giving him just three metres clearance each way. The film of his attempt is still scary, even though you know he's going to make it.

Throughout the 1920s, pilots continued to try and make a living from their military flying skills. Pierre Marinovitch (SPA94), 'the baby of Great War air aces', with twenty-five victories to his name, was killed at a flying display in Brussels in 1919, aged just twenty-one. Albert Deullin (SPA73), a leading theoretician of fighter combat, died in a crash while testing a prototype at Villacoublay in 1923; Georges Madon (SPA38) was killed at an air show in 1924 when he deliberately crashed his aircraft into a house rather than plough into a crowd of spectators. 

René Fonck, reserved as ever, declined to participate in any such hare-brained adventures, and got himself elected to the Chamber of Deputies in November 1919 for the Bloc Nationale centre-right grouping, after having bombarded villages with election material from a SPAD lent to him by manufacturer Louis Blériot. He spoke on aviation matters, but otherwise was a reluctant parliamentarian, and was somewhat relieved when he was voted out in 1924, after a national swing to the left. But perhaps with time hanging heavy on his hands, in 1926, he became attracted to competing for the Orteig Prize for crossing the Atlantic between New York and Paris. His aircraft, a specially modified triple-engined Sikorsky S35, was grossly overloaded, and crashed on take off. Fonck and his co-pilot survived, but his mechanic and wireless operator were both killed. This video presentation includes some film of the aircraft in flight from about 1.15; this newsreel shows the wreck. That was enough for Fonck, and he rejoined the Aviation Service.

The much injured Charles Nungesser earned a crust recreating some of his dogfights in displays in the United States, including work on the film The Sky Raider (in which he starred as himself, billed significantly as the World's Greatest Living Ace). He too was drawn by the idea of crossing the Atlantic to claim the Orteig Prize. He originally planned to team up with Paul Tarascon (N/SPA62), but Tarascon injured himself before he could participate. Nungesser's choice then fell on François Coli (also from SPA62), who had made a name for himself by recent long-distance flights across the Mediterranean. Their tale is better known, and I will return to it in a future post.

However, not every ex-pilot was a thrillseeker. Léon Bourjade (SPA152), the terror of the German observation balloons, resumed his religious calling after the war, entering the priesthood and served as a missionary in Papua New Guinea. And after his daredevil deeds in 1919, Charles Godefroy never flew again.

Flying, especially testing, remained so, so, dangerous. But that still didn't stop young men coming forward to join up. Léon Cuffaut was inspired by meeting former pilots: 'I spent my youth near Auxerre, in Burgundy … and used stand on valley side to watch the planes. They belonged to the flying club set up by Jean Moreau, a future minister of aviation, a colonel in the reserves and a fighter ace with five victories in the 14-18 war. I made my first flight with him. The uniform, Jean Moreau and his lace-up boots, képi a little askew, the engine noise: I was mad about flying and I used to spend entire days cleaning the aircraft windscreens.' Cuffaut naturally became a pilot, and a fighter pilot too, serving with the Normandie-Niemen Group in the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

'Flying had a bit of an aura,' said General Charles Christienne, commissioned in the Armée de l'Air in 1939, and later the first director of its Service Historique. 'Aviators were something special. They had qualities that were particularly attractive to a young man: love of danger, because the risks then were considerable, or at least the public thought they were, plus a taste for adventure. In addition, we were increasingly under threat. We all knew peace couldn't last and that one day there'd be another war. War, my God! How exciting it seemed to a boy of fifteen or sixteen.'

Another future general, Jean Jardin, gained his wings in 1921, and would serve in a reconnaissance squadron in 1940: 'At the age of sixteen I met the famous pilot Dieudonné Costes at Montpellier airfield. He'd been one of the aces in the 14-18 war. Afterwards he left the army and took on a fairly humdrum job as a pilot with Aéropostale, carrying the post. That day in Montpellier – Palavas, in fact – he caught me staring because I recognized him. “Do you want to go up for a spin?” he said. … I was absolutely thrilled to be up so high, above the clouds, with the thrum of the engine and the wind in my ears … it really opened my eyes. "I know what I want to do,” I said the very same day. “I want to be a pilot."'
Pictures: Fonck in later life; Jean Navarre; Charles Godefroy (Wikipedia); Fonck's Sikorsky tri-motor (Wikipedia); poster for The Sky Raider (from via the website of his old regiment here); Léon Cuffaut, while serving with Normandie-Niemen (from here); Charles Christienne, second from right, serving with 342 (Lorraine) Squadron at RAF Elvington during the Second World War (from here)

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

One year on ...

Well, it's been a while since I posted anything new, having been too busy actually completing the manuscript for Kings of the Air (and it still isn't done yet - only a couple of months late so far :-( ). But press on rewardless regardless.

In the meantime, I missed celebrating one year of this blog's existence. I have also missed commemorating the milestone of 6,000 page views. It may not be a milestone compared with some, but it's still a pleasing thing to have reached so many over the twelve months that I've been going. So thanks to everyone who's taken a look at the pages over the past year, and here's to the next one.

Since this is Oscars week, it immediately brings to mind the very first film to be awarded the Best Picture Oscar, in 1929 - Wings, directed by William Wellman, realeased in 1927, and starring Richard Arlen, 'It Girl' Clara Bow and Charles Rogers. The Wikipedia article on the film is here; the IMDB page here.

William 'Wild Bill' Wellman (1896-1975) had been the director of several B-movies before being given Wings. He later told Kevin Brownlow, 'They gave me Wings because I was the only director who had been a flyer, in action. I was the only one who knew what the hell it was all about. That's literally the only reason - except that I had fortunately made a successful picture just before that, You Never Know Women.'

Willman had joined an ambulance corps in the Great War, before enlisting in the Foreign Legion on 26 June 1917 and then transferring to aviation. He did his basic training at the school at Avord, before going to the Fighter School at Pau. On passing out, on 1 December 1917 he was posted to N87, a unit almost completely composed of Frenchmen, at Lunéville. In a short career, he was credited with three victories and another five probables. But his Nieuport 27 was hit by German flak over the Forest of Parroy on 21 March 1918. He survived the descent, but was sufficiently badly injured to justify his discharge. Returning to the States, after a spell promoting war bonds, he joined their air service, teaching tactics at Rockwell Field, San Diego.

Shooting the film near San Antonio, Texas, Wellman was able to use men and planes from the US Army as extras. And he would need them, because the film was conceived on a epic scale, including the attack on the Saint-Mihiel salient. 'We had been rehearsing with 3,500 army personnel and 65-odd pilots for ten days. ... It was a gigantic undertaking, and the only element we couldn’t control was the weather. All morning long, we waited, everything in readiness. The barrage to gouge its creeping devastation and noise, the troops to plow through God knows what, and the cameras to record the countless number of rehearsed bits of battle business. The planes on the runway ready to take off and circle to my right of the battlefield, to swoop down on their strafing assignments, and the camera planes at different altitudes to photograph the air view of the maze of confusion of a battle.' So, while there are some ground shots that seem to feature genuine SPADs, most of the airborne action features contemporary Curtiss P-1 Hawks of the US Army Air Corps.

Wellman knew exactly how he wanted to film the aerial battles in the film, and continually had to justify the expense to cheese-paring bean-counters from the Paramount studios. 'Say you can’t shoot a dogfight without clouds to a guy who doesn’t know anything about flying and he thinks you’re nuts. He’ll say, "Why can’t you?" It’s unattractive. Number two, you get no sense of speed, because there’s nothing there that’s parallel. You need something solid behind the planes. The clouds give you that, but against a blue sky, it’s like a lot of goddamn flies! And photographically, it’s terrible.' The aerial sequences reveal that Wellman's experiences at the Front were put to good use; while they may not strictly reflect the crowded skies of 1918, his dogfights often include sequences filmed at a distance, emphasising how small the aircraft are against the towering cloudscapes, and how aircraft cannot simply turn on a sixpence. One sequence, where a pilot is killed, is still quite shocking in its graphic nature - something you tend to attribute only to modern films.

In this more cynical age, one or two modern commentators have curled a lip at the scene where the machine gun of one of our heros jams in the middle of a dog-fight, and is allowed to fly away by his chivalrous German opponent. They imply it would never happens. Yet it did (again in 1916-17), to Paul Tarascon (N3/N31/SPA62), when his opponent flew a red Albatros: 'After three or four passes and a fierce exchange of machine-gun fire, the enemy quite literally flew straight at me … He passed just a couple of metres beneath my wing and in doing so raised his arm in greeting! … I was lost for words. I can still see him waving [now] in his black balaclava. We'd both run out of ammunition … and I wanted to withdraw but without seeming to run away. I banked and pointed my Lewis gun straight up in the air so he could see it. Then we flew off, each to his own side.'

One of Wellman's stars, Richard Arlen, had served with the Canadian Flying Corps during the war, but his fellow star, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers had to be taught the basics of flying so he could look half-way convincing on screen. He recalled how they filmed some his aerial sequences: 'They would strap a camera on the cowling of the engine, and I had a second lieutenant with me who would get in the back seat and take off and get us up about four or five hundred feet ... then I would shake the [control] stick and he’d have to duck down and hide because I was now the cameraman and the director and everything ... for five hundred feet … that is!'

Clara Bow was Paramount's biggest star at the time, and despite her scenes, is a bit of a spare part, as she thought herself, 'Wings is…a man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie'. One supporting actor in the film is the young Gary Cooper. In his recent book One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson notes that for much of the film, off-screen, Bow was draped over Cooper 'like a wet sheet'. So perhaps there were compensations for her after all. Sadly, it was one of the last of her hits. She was undone by the arrival of the 'talkies' in the same year that Wings was released - it was not apparently her strong Brooklyn accent that was the reason, but the fact that the presence of the microphones turned her into a very nervous performer, and she became prey to debilitating depression.

If your curiosity has been piqued, then there are a number of clips on YouTube: trailers here and here, and half-an-hour's-worth of excerpts here. Much has been made in recent years of a same-sex kiss, which can seen in an excerpt here, but the comments probably say more about modern sensibilities than any intention to shock by Wellman.

Two essays on the film can de found here and here. An interesting modern reassessment of Wellman's work by Bertrand Tavernier is here. Wellman's son, William Wellman junior became an actor is his own right, largely in supporting roles in western series, but also making an appearance in Star Trek DS9 (which you may, or may not, deem as the pinnacle of his career!). He wrote a book about his father and the making of Wings. His home page is here.

Pictures: Rogers, Bow and Arlen in a publicity shot from the film; Wellman and his Nieuport, while serving with N87, taken from his autobiography Go Get 'Em!; a still of Gary Cooper in the film; film posters from around the internet.