The Lafayette Escadrille: soldiers like no other

The Lafayette Escadrille: soldiers like no other

  • Members of the Lafayette Escadrille.

    ANONYMOUS

  • Group photo of the members of the Escadrille.

    ANONYMOUS

  • The Lafayette Escadrille N ° 124.

    ANONYMOUS

Members of the Lafayette Escadrille.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. G. Ojeda

Group photo of the members of the Escadrille.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

The Lafayette Escadrille N ° 124.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

A group of soldiers like no other

Taken for the memory and documentation of the army, intended for the press and the public or for private use, the photos representing soldiers at the front or behind the lines are obviously very numerous and widely distributed during the First War. global. The omnipresent "group" image of soldiers (more or less organized and in greater or lesser number) thus structures daily representations and appreciations of war in a very significant way. Apart from the officer, the soldier is rarely shown alone: ​​he is integrated and "ranged" in a concentric manner in different groups (brigade, battalion, etc.) which themselves make up the body of the army, which is also that of the nation.

Yes Members of the Escadrille La Fayette, Group photo of the Squadron members and The Lafayette Squadron N ° 124 fit well in the genre mentioned, the peculiarities of the photographed group involve original aspects, which partly displace this type of representation. Indeed, these three photographs represent the aeronautical unit N 124 or escadrille La Fayette, created on April 20, 1916 and made up of American volunteers recruited in the Foreign Legion or among the ambulance men. Placed under the command of Captain Georges Thénault and his deputy Lieutenant de Laage de Meux, it continued in its original form until February 18, 1918. It had up to 43 pilots (the “valiant 38” and five French officers) , for a total of 269 American pilots engaged in the whole of the French air force (sometimes also known under the name of "Lafayette Flying Corps" or Lafayette Aviation Corps, different from the squadron itself). Both translated, constructed and disseminated by the many photographs devoted to him during the conflict, the identity, history, fame, legend and symbolic significance of the squadron make it a specific "group".

Image Analysis

The La Fayette group: originality of men, emblems and poses

Members of the Escadrille La Fayette is a photograph presumably taken shortly after the formation of the squadron. It indeed presents some of the first pilots like Elliot Cowdin (the second from the right) surrounding the captain Georges Thénault (in black uniform, in the center). The eight men are on an airfield, and an aircraft can be seen in the background. Combined with the pride and determination expressed by the faces, the variety of uniforms and clothing, a few smiles as well as some unacademic poses (one man holding another by the shoulders) give an original aspect to this photograph of a group of soldiers.

More "classic", Group photo of the Squadron members shows an already larger squadron. We recognize the French officers Thénault and de Laage de Meux (in the foreground on the right, in black uniforms), who stand out from the “simple” pilots in uniform. Several of these men hold pennants bearing the emblems of unity or the American flag. Here too, the mood seems cheerful as many smiles light up the faces.

We find the French officers and many pilots on The Lafayette Squadron N ° 124, where they pose in a more organized and a little more solemn manner in front of a building with one window marked "offices". The star-spangled banner emerges from the flags that decorate the facade. The American flag also appears on the knees of three soldiers seated in the foreground (left), as well as a pennant whose emblem is unfortunately impossible to decipher.

Interpretation

Spirit of the body

The various images bear witness to the originality of the La Fayette squadron. If, like other "group photographs" of the period, they suggest an esprit de corps that is found in other cases, they also hint at the special spirit of this exceptional unity.

On the one hand, they present a distinct and assertive identity. American flags visible on Group photo of the Squadron members and on The Lafayette Squadron N ° 124 recall the particular history of these volunteers, announcing and symbolizing in a concrete way (French officers among Americans) the alliance (to come or recent) between France and the United States. Thus, the spectator (civilian or military) can anticipate the entry of the "boys" into the conflict.

Pennants and emblems, on the other hand, emphasize the specific aspect of military aviation: handed down from generation to generation, they have a high symbolic value and a strong function of grouping together identity. Within the nation (here the United States), airmen are a special community, defending and honoring their colors and signs (painted on planes by the way) like defending a flag. The pennant is also reminiscent of a "sporting" side specific to American universities. The pilots, often young people of good family who attended these higher schools on the other side of the Atlantic, are as much soldiers as young pioneers, “aces” and heroes, whose individual and collective performances, listed and classified as so many. 'achievements and records, fuel the legend of "the team". Seen and shown as noble competitors, the actors of air warfare thus escape classic representations of the conflict.

Particularly visible on Members of the Escadrille La Fayette but also noticeable on Group photo of the Squadron members, "freshness", youth, friendship and a sort of smiling carefree attitude seem to emerge from the adventure and history of the squadron. By its constitution, which is based on the courageous and somewhat romantic will of a few Americans (whose nationality is a "novelty" in itself in this primarily European war); by the complex history of its constitution, which implies an unprecedented structure; and also by its men (sometimes daredevil and known for their misconduct and their tendency to party "sometimes watered), the formation differs from the classic military straitjacket. Thus, the couple formed by the young man smiling in black and the one who puts his hands on his shoulders would almost make you forget the warlike context, however recalled by the uniforms.

  • aviation
  • Lafayette squadron
  • United States
  • War of 14-18
  • American intervention

Bibliography

Jean GISCLON, Chasseurs au groupe La Fayette, 1916-1945, Paris, Nel, 1997 Jean GISCLON, Les As de l'Escadrille La Fayette, Paris, Hachette, 1976 Jean GISCLON, L'Escadrille La Fayette, de l'Escadrille La Fayette au La Fayette Squadron, 1916-1945, Paris, France Empire, 1975.Dennis GORDON, The Lafayette Flying Corps The American Volunteers in the French Air Service in World War I, Atglen, A Schiffer Military History Book, 1991. Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, the first world war, Paris, Fayard, 2004. “L'Escadrille La Fayette”, in review Icare n ° 158 (1996) and n ° 160 (1997).

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The Lafayette Escadrille: soldiers like no other"


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