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Kings of the Air: A Matter of Reputation

When dealing with the history of the development of the French Air Force before and during the Great War, you cannot go far without coming across the name of Charles Tricornet de Rose. A dragoons officer, he was the first man to get his military wings. He was immediately snapped up to work at Estienne's research establishment at Vincennes, where he worked on aircraft armament (even though the Minister of War thought it a waste of time), coming to the conclusion that the gun had to placed in the nose, firing forwards. The problem was the firing through the arc of the propellor, and, with Roland Garros, he was working on a synchronizer system when war broke out. 

Garros went his own way, towards the dead end that were his deflector plates. Meanwhile, de Rose, the commander of Fifth Army's aviation, created the first all-fighter squadron, MS12, and filled it with the best pilots he could lay his hands on, including Jean Navarre. Until a viable synchronizer system was worked out, de Rose had a machine gun fitted to the upper wing of the new Nieuport 11s that he wangled for his squadron. It was to de Rose that Pétain turned when he needed to achieve air superiority over Verdun, with the memorable quote, 'De Rose, clear the skies for me!' De Rose created a wing of specialist fighter squadrons, collected the best pilots to fly them, and adopted resolutely offensive tactics, firstly to seize air superiority from the Germans, and then to maintain it as the French scrambled to hold the German attacks. As a reward, de Rose was proposed as the commander of all French aviation forces in the field. But he was killed in an air accident in April 1916.

Despite his early death, the value of his work, both before the war and during it, is recognised in all French writing on aviation history - his reputation is assured.

Yet in an article by Air Vice Marshal Peter Dye, on 'France and the development of British military aviation' in Air Power Journal vol.12 (1) pp 1-14, and in a Ph.D thesis (here) on the similar subject by James Neil Pugh, The conceptual origins of the control of the air: British military and naval aviation 1911-1918, (Birmingham University PhD 2012), de Rose does not rate a mention. Even when Pugh uses the Pétain quote, he simply refers to it having been spoken to an un-named aviation commander. According to both of these contributions, the architect of French aviation doctrine, which so influenced the development of the RFC, was not de Rose but Paul du Peuty.

Both make the point that the RFC in general, and Trenchard in particular, looked to the experiences of the more mature French aviation service for guidance in the formulation of RFC doctrine. They rely on the papers of Hugh Trenchard in the RAF Museum, and on RFC papers in the National Archives at Kew, for example here. But neither use French sources, and so are unable to set du Peuty in his French context. In Maurice Baring's account of life at RFC headquarters, RFC HQ 1914-18 (London, Bell, 1920), he comments that du Peuty had 'proved himself to be one of the most daring of pilots and the soundest of flying officers and organisers. Our debt to him was incalculable,' while one un-named British pilot is so impressed by du Peuty, he says to Baring, 'It makes one feel like a worm to be with him.' High praise indeed, yet French secondary sources make very little reference to this man who so impressed the British. He seems to spring, fully formed, as the head of the Aviation Militaire in the field in early 1917, only to disappear again later in the year.

So who was he? Paul du Peuty (1878-1918) was an officer of Spahis, seeing action in Morocco during the conquest and pacification campaigns of 1911-13. In December 1914, he volunteered for aviation, and gained his military wings. It would appear that purely on the strength of his captaincy (for he had no prior aviation experience) he was given command of a newly-formed squadron, MS48. Although in command, he continued to fly missions. On 1 July 1915, he took on a fast German armed with a machine-gun. He was wounded, his observer Louis de Boutiny, was wounded, but du Peuty continued to take pot-shots at the German (possibly early ace Kurt Wintgens), and only broke off combat when bullets reduced his engine to scrap. He managed to nurse his plane to a safe landing, when it was found the machine had 100 bullet holes. He was given command of a wing of mixed fighter / reconnaissance squadrons on the Artois front, and then was promoted again, to aviation commander of Tenth Army. It was here that he met Hugh Trenchard, since Tenth Army was stationed in Artois next to the BEF. At some time in the spring or early summer of 1916, by now a temporary major, du Peuty was sent as an aviation commander to Verdun, taking over the vital Douaumont-Vaux Sector, under the new commander of Second Army, Robert Nivelle. With Nivelle as French commander-in-chief, on 31 December 1916, du Peuty's majority was made permanent, and he was made Deputy Commander of the Aviation Militaire in the field on 15 February 1917; five days later, after Barès was forced to resign, du Peuty took over.

Du Peuty had impressed Trenchard with his resolutely offensive attitude towards air combat. He backed their frequent conversations by passing on to Trenchard French after-action reports from the 1915 offensives in Artois and Champagne, and from Verdun. But there is little written in these reports that did not originally come from de Rose. The role of fighters was to engage the enemy, to leave friendly cooperation aircraft free to undertake their duties, free from interference. De Rose had French fighters engage the enemy some five to six kilometers on the German side of the line. What du Peuty would propose was to move this line to between fifteen and twenty-five kilometers behind German lines, attacking the Germans around their airfields. This would result in heavy losses as the French had spend longer in hostile airspace, he predicted, and it would be deeply attritional on aircrew and machines. But, he contended, however heavy the losses to the French, those of the Germans would be greater.

On the Chemin des Dames in April 1917, du Peuty was able to put his theories into action. Such deep penetration of enemy airspace accorded with Nivelle's own ideas about how the forthcoming battle should be waged - an assault over a relatively narrow front, but one that penetrated deep into the German position, striking against his reserves at the same time as the front line. Further, whereas French documents of 1916 talk of 'countering' enemy aircraft and acknowledge the impossibility of achieving their total annihilation, du Peuty ordered nothing less than the complete destruction of the enemy. With the offensive commencing, all du Peuty's fighters immediately headed off towards German airfields and beyond. But the Germans saw them coming, avoided their large formations, and then struck against the now almost defenceless French cooperation aircraft. French fighters hardly engaged any of the enemy, but the cooperation squadrons suffered great losses, and were unable to do anything to prevent the failure of the ground attacks they were supposed to be supporting.

Such tactics were unlikely to appeal to Nivelle's replacement, Pétain. There were to be no more costly grand offensives, but limited attacks for stated objectives, in order to minimize casualties. Du Peuty followed Nivelle onto the scrapheap, and was replaced by Charles Duval. Fighter tactics were revised, so while some squadrons used deep penetration tactics, others protected cooperation planes by engaged the enemy close behind German lines. This had the desired effect, and during the limited offensives of summer 1917, French cooperation machines operated relatively unhindered, whilst their fighters succeeded against the Germans, both at minimum casualties.

Du Peuty was given a battalion of 4e Régiment de marche de Zouaves (he had no infantry experience either). During the German Spring Offensive, he was wounded on 30 March, and at the time was presumed to be a prisoner, but almost certainly died of his wounds. He has no known grave. A plaque at Orvillers-Sorel (Oise) commemorates the regiment's action.

Du Peuty was definitely a brave man (his Légion d'Honneur file is here). At the same time, according to one observer at French GHQ, 'he was not a patient man, and had no time for Paris cabals. ... He was a man of absolute integrity and loyalty, and wanted nothing to do with intrigues' - facts alone that had he remained in post would have doomed him in the snake pit of French aviation politics. Subsequently, he was become too closely associated with Nivelle and the Chemin des Dames disaster, and suffered the same kind of damnatio memoriae that was, until Rolland's 2012 biography, the fate of his former C.-in-C.

It is impossible to write about the French Air Force without mourning how much original material was lost during the Second World War. No-one has yet unearthed the full intellectual development of French air combat doctrine that followed de Rose's death. I think du Peuty certainly talked a good game to Trenchard, and because his name was attached to the reports he forwarded to Trenchard, was given the credit by the British for original thinking, rather than for simply summarising current French thought and experience. Nevertheless, du Peuty and his potential contribution, at Verdun as well as the Aisne, do seem deserve some kind of fuller re-examination. But with the current state of knowledge, it is to de Rose that we still have to look to as the guiding light in French (and therefore British) development and not du Peuty.

Pictures: De Rose before the war, and in his personal Nieuport 11; Trenchard; du Peuty; Nivelle; the plaque to 4e RMZ at Orvillers-Sorel from Aérostèles


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