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Kings of the Air

In comparison to their British and German counterparts, the French airmen of the Great War are not well known. Yet their aerial exploits were just as remarkable, and their contribution to the war effort on the Western Front was equally important. That is why Ian Sumner's vivid history of the men of the French air force during the war is of such value. He tells their story using the words of the pioneering pilots and observers themselves, drawn from memoirs, diaries, letters, and contemporary newspapers, magazines and official documents. The recollections of the airmen give an authentic portrait of their role and their wartime careers. They cover recruitment and training, reconnaissance and artillery spotting, aerial combat, ground strafing and bombing, and squadron life. They also highlight the technical and tactical innovations made during those hectic years, as well as revealing the airmen's attitude to the enemy - and their thoughts about the ever-present threat of injury and death.

Kings of the Air is a very good narrative of the French air force during the Great War. The main argument, which emphasizes the power of French aviation and its major contribution to the defeat of the enemy, is convincing and supported by a good range of primary and secondary sources. This book fills a gap in the historiography of the First World War and aviation history. There are, however, a few points to keep in mind. Ian Sumner’s work is aimed at a broad public and, as such, lacks footnotes. A general conclusion should have been included. Despite these problems, Kings of the Air is a great addition to the field of First World War history. Its many details and accuracy should reveal a new side of the conflict previously reserved to those able to read French. - Bernard Wilkin, University of Exeter in French History 30 (3) September 2016 pp446-7
This book is simply superb! Am 82 pages into it, and it is easily the best book (in English) available on the French Air Service. ... The book is a gem. For anyone who has an interest in obtaining a broader understanding of the air conflict, a much better appreciation of the role and importance of the Aéronautique Militaire, and the exposure to a whole host of new men who fought in the skies over France; this book is a must read.  Pips on
And on This is a gem of a book. It's the only comprehensive account of the Aéronautique Militaire available in English. And it does a wonderful job, from it's earliest days to the formidable force it was by war's end. It's rich in information on all arms of the air service, eg reconnaissance, bomber, photography, balloons and artillery spotting; not simply restricted to the aces. It also contains marvellous detail on flight training and flight school organisation. And there are so many new faces brought to life, most names people will not have come across before. The use of many first hand accounts bring the French flyers to life, and they are every bit as formidable and brave as their British, American and German counterparts. This is a long overdue book, that finally does justice to the Aéronautique Militaire.

Noted TV documentary maker Ken Burn's first major work, The Civil War, astonished many viewers with several single but effective techniques that brought to life a war that predated the motion picture cameras. The most important of these procedures had well-known actors reading from diaries and other period accounts of events. This approach to history gave life and a sense of action to the images and the narration. In a similar manner Ian Sumner uses first-person accounts in his telling of French Air Service developments in World War 1. This new book is a superb narrative history of the French Air Force during the First World War. Also it is a pleasure to note that, while the dust jacket prominently features Georges Guynemer and René Fonck, the book itself is focussed on just about everyone other than the two high-scoring aces. The narrative provides a complete overview of developments in technology, service organisation, naval aviation and the principal missions of the French Air Service, all laced with first-person accounts. It includes sections on the high command and challenges within the French aircraft industry that, by 1917, left the service with inadequate reconnaissance aircraft types and what was done to correct that situation. Sumner's well-written narrative is woven with contemporary writings from sources including the weekly journal La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée, as well as first-person accounts from pilot memoirs and biographies. Most of the accounts appear in English for the first time. This form is very successful, as it gives readers a great sense of how French aviators viewed the air service and the war in which they fought. It becomes very apparent that the French attitude and voice is different than those found in British and German accounts. Given that the French Army and Air Service comprised the vast majority of the Allied strength along the Western Front, French airmen are underrepresented in World War 1 aviation histories. This book tells the grand story of the French Air Service with the voices of those who made it. Kings of the Air should be in the collection of any student of the first air war. Over The Front Winter 2015- David Layton 

I'm been reading aviation books on the Great War for over 50 years and this one has lots of new information. I initially thought it was a book covering the French aces but it a wonderful history of the French approach to military aviation before and during the war. It has a few photos the the strength of the book is how the French started observation of troops from the air, communications, photography from the air, etc. Charles Duckworth on

En lisant le titre de ce livre (les rois du ciel) on s'attend à un récit flamboyant de plus sur les nouveaux chevaliers du ciel, avec force anecdotes sur leurs exploits et leurs personnalités excentriques. Ceci occupe une petite partie du livre d'Ian Sumner. Le reste comprend, en autres, le développement de l'aéronautique militaire, les problèmes stratégiques et tactiques, la formation des pilotes, le quotidien de leur vie (et de leur mort) au combat. L'utilisation des ballons captifs, souvent négligée dans les récits historiques, est décrite en détail et est un des chapitres passionnants de ce livre. Je recommande fortement ce livre à tous ceux que l'histoire de l'aviation militaire française pendant la première guerre mondiale intéresse. / [my translation] Reading the title of this book (the kings of the air) you would expected a flamboyant story about the new knights of heaven with many anecdotes about their exploits and eccentric personalities. This occupies a small part of the book by Ian Sumner. The rest includes, among others, the development of military aircraft, strategic and tactical problems, pilot training, their daily life (and death) in combat. The use of captive balloons, often overlooked in historical accounts, is described in detail and is an exciting chapter of this book. I highly recommend this book to anyone that the history of the French Air Force during World War One interests. Giloup -

The wonderful dust jacket art featuring two of France’s leading World War I aces, George Guynemer and Rene Fonck above a French Spad would definitely entice any reader to pick up Kings of the Air. Those who then own the book are in for a real treat. At first glance this looks to be the story of the French airmen that everyone has heard of – not so. This is an informative, entertaining history of the French Air Service during World War I, encompassing fighter, observation, cooperation and bombardment squadrons and balloon units; the development of the service itself, including tactics, strategy, aircraft and equipment. The work is arranged chronologically, with each chapter’s theme describing the evolution of the aeroplane from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the close of the war in 1918. There is a lot of information here in just over two hundred pages but the pace is at just the right speed for the reader to keep up. The author relates the story using the words of the participants themselves through their letters, diaries, memoirs, official documents, contemporary newspapers and magazines. No stone unturned, well researched and well written, Kings of the Air should become the 'go to' title for information about the French contribution to the air war of the Great War.  David I. Poremba - and on his website

This is a vivid account of the leading French Aces and is a very valuable addition to the information on the first aerial war in history. Excellent. Firetrench

Very nicely done narrative of French aviators' accomplishments in the Great War. Additional illuminating insights from the aviators' letters and personal observations. An authoritative and well written work. Nancy Cartonis - 

 Ian Sumner has distilled from first hand accounts (primary sources) a terrific book which sheds light on the French aviation experience of World War One! All facets of French aviation are represented. While the dust jacket beautifully illustrates the great aces George Guynemer and Rene Fonck, it is the 'lesser paladins' that feature prominently. I enjoy reading about World War One aviation and French aviation has always been sort of sidelined by historians so this volume is important as it addresses this iniquity! I highly recommend this volume as well as Ian Sumner's They Shall Not Pass which sheds light on the French Army experience! P.A. Panozzo -

Full of quotes and stories available only in archives, old books and periodicals, all in French. Nearly all of the accounts are by ordinary airmen--the opposite of ace-driven narratives. This really is the starter narrative for French aviation in WW1. Tom Cervo on 

... The result is an excellent overview of the French air forces from their origins until the end of the war, covering all aspects of aerial activity including balloons, reconnaissance and so on, as well as the major battles. ... all aficionados of theair operations of WW1 will wish to read this book. Christian Busby in Aerospace: the journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society December 2016


  1. Good morning! I live in Hermonville, Marne, where was missions spéciales's school in 14-18. My name is Gilberte TOURET Please, contact me! With my best greetings, Gilberte Touret.


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