Monday, November 12, 2007


As every year, November 11 is the commemoration of the Armistice which put an end to World War I, that most terrible of conflicts. Not too much appeared in the French media in June and July of this year, which was the 90th anniversary of the arrival of American troops in France to fight at the side of the French to save civilization. A genuine oversight, or perhaps a reaction against the media presence of Sarko l'Américain ?

Of course before the arrival in France of General "Black Jack" Pershing and the vanguard of his army at Boulogne-sur-Mer on June 13, 1917 (Lafayette, nous voila !) there were Americans in France fighting and dying at the side of French troops and civilians. Probably the first American organization to help the French was the American Field Service, a group dedicated to supplying ambulances and other humanitarian vehicles. Originally created as an ambulance arm for the American Hospital of Paris, the AFS severed its connection with the hospital to become a volunteer organization providing ambulance and transport services to the Allied forces. Over the duration, the American Field Service had more than eight hundred volunteer ambulance drivers and a number of transport sections. It actively recruited its drivers from the campuses of American colleges and universities, with individual ambulance units made up exclusively of drivers from particular universities. American Ambulance vehicles were invariably in the front lines of the fighting, picking up the wounded and taking them back to the field hospitals in the rear. There were 151 drivers with the AFS who were killed - and a number of others earned the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d'Honneur for their selfless actions.

Another civilian organization coming to the aid of French troops was Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, a smaller unit. The Corps was created through the merger of the Harjes Formation of the American Red Cross and the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps organized in 1914 by Richard Norton, son of Harvard's Charles Eliot Norton. Harjes was A. Herman Harjes, a French banker. (Norton-Harjes reported no fatalities among its drivers). Some alumni of the various ambulancier organizations in France were soon to become famous individuals: Louis Bromfield, Malcolm Cowley, Harry Crosby, E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Dashiell Hammett and Robert W. Service spring to mind. It should be noted that Ernest Hemingway was an American Red Cross volunteer in Italy, not in France.

There were also American volunteers in French fighting units, including the French Foreign Legion. One very special group of American fighters has come to signify bravery, commitment, and gallantry. When pronounced, its name alone is enough to make American expatriates in France stand a bit straighter - all the while asking themselves whether they, too, would have been able to demonstrate such courage and mettle when faced with such a war.

The Lafayette Escadrille (L'Escadrille Lafayette) was the name of this group of men, formed in April, 1916. The original name, which prompted German diplomatic protests, was L'Escadrille Américaine. The members of the Escadrille were fighter aircraft pilots, trained and equipped by the French to fly against the Germans, including their feared pilots Max Immelmann, Oswald Boelcke, Ernst Udet, and the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen (known in Germany as Der Rote Kampfflieger, i.e., the red fighter pilot). In 1917, the USA entered the war, and the Lafayette Escadrille was eventually absorbed in February, 1918, into the U.S. forces as the 103rd Pursuit Squadron. Many Americans flew with other French units; in general, these volunteers were called the Lafayette Flying Corps.

When Amerloque was growing up in the early 1950s, the vast majority of stories and anecdotes dealing with World War II had yet to be written. Certainly their wartime experiences were fresh in the minds of those who had been there, in the European and Pacific theaters of operations, but only major stories from the period 1939 through 1945 had really been treated in any depth by the media. Memoirs had yet to be written; legends had yet to be spun. One of the most famous films about World War II, From Here to Eternity, was only made in 1953, while the film The Caine Mutiny, from the eponymous 1951 novel, made it to the Hollywood screen in 1954. Furthermore, television was but a nascent medium; only major American cities, such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, had more than two or three TV channels. The weekly warzone sitcom had yet to become popular. What war literature, legends and anecdotes for young boys that did exist dealt primarily with World War I, not World War II.

Thus it was that Amerloque grew up conversant with stories about Sergeant York, the Argonne Forest, the Saint-Mihiel salient, Belleau Wood … and the Lafayette Escadrille, which to Amerloque's way of thinking has always perfectly symbolized one facet of the special relationship that links France and the United States.

Several films have been made about American Lafayette Escadrille pilots in World War I. The earliest was Wings, a silent opus made in 1927 by the legendary director William Wellman. In point of fact, it was the very first film to win an Academy Award ("Oscar") for Best Picture. Until the 1960s, Amerloque had never seen it, but had only heard about it. An opportunity to see this mythical opus finally presented itself while he was attending a University on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay. On October 25, 1965, Amerloque unhesitatingly took an "F" bus across the Bay Bridge to attend a special event at the San Francisco Film Festival: the American Director Interview, which was basically a panel discussion followed by a screening of a feature film. Wings was the film scheduled that day. To Amerloque's vast astonishment, the auditorium was virtually empty; there couldn't have been more than ten or twelve people in attendance. When the time came for questions from the audience, such as it was, Amerloque didn't hesitate one minute ! Ever gracious, William Wellman - who had himself served in the Lafayette Escadrille –delivered a lengthy, detailed answer to Amerloque's query about "what it was really like being in an aircraft in France back then, during the war". A question which was only tangential to the topic of filmmaking !

Over three decades later, William Wellman made another film about his beloved group of flyers: his black-and-white Lafayette Escadrille, starring Tab Hunter - with Clint Eastwood in a minor role - came out in 1958. Although the film is ridden with clichés, there are some marvelous shots from the air. Of interest to American expats, too, is the fact that the film opens and closes with views of the Memorial to the Lafayette Escadrille, located in Marnes-la-Coquette just outside Paris, where every year on November 11th American and French organizations and individuals lay wreaths to commemorate the ultimate sacrifices made. Along with many other pilots, Raoul Lufbery, a commander of the Escadrille, is buried there, in the crypt under the Memorial itself, which is a triumphal arch inscribed with the names of the sixty-eight members of the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps who were killed during World War I.

More recently, a third film based on the Escadrille came out: Flyboys. Amerloque must confess that he was quite prepared not to like it – from all the reviews he had read, it sounded as though it were a simple Hollywoodian hagiographic effort destined to glorify the American heroes in the air at the expense of the poor benighted French infantry on the ground. Yet when Amerloque fired up the DVD in the original American version, he was quite pleasantly surprised. The producer and director make no bones about it: the film is fiction. They state that the characters were inspired by the American Flying Corps and the Lafayette Escadrille. The scenario is straightforward and hews to the generally accepted histories and memoirs of American pilots participating in the War To End All Wars. An admirable inclusion is the role of Eugene Skinner, based on real life Eugene Bullard, the "Black Swallow of Death”, who was the first African-American military pilot. There are some clichés, of course; there always seem to be, in films about France made by foreigners. A couple of technical glitches crept into the film concerning the German aircraft, most notably the portrayal of an entire German jagdstaffel of Fokker triplanes as being painted red ! A full squadron of Red Barons is hardly designed to increase that suspension of disbelief so necessary when watching a historical opus ! However, the aerial combat scenes are excellently filmed and it is quite difficult to determine how many of them use the twenty-five or so aircraft constructed by the producers and how many rely exclusively on digital imaging technology. By the way, Amerloque was particularly impressed by the performance of New Zealander Martin Henderson, who played the role of squadron commander, loosely based on the real-life Lufbery. Henderson's performance as Darcy in Bollywood's Bride and Prejudice, a remake of the Jane Austen story, was one highlight of the film. It is reassuring to see that Henderson has apparently chosen at least two of his roles carefully - and is able to deliver credible interpretations on screen. One could do worse than to see Flyboys, if one is interested in World War I and what a handful of Americans did in France.

Every November 11th Amerloque thinks about how American pilots left hearth and home to join the Lafayette Escadrille in France. It's surprising how many expats Amerloque runs into in Paris have never even heard of it.


Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyright reserved to copyright holders, including Amerloque


Blogger expat said...

We must be of about the same vintage. How well I remember the arrival of the amazing new technology of television in the UK (405 lines, black & white only). The BBC showed the NBC-originated Victory at Sea war series over and over in the mid-50s, and I loved it. I can still hum the theme music.

I'll be slurping the nouveau on thursday and thinking of France...

11:34 AM  
Blogger MWN said...

Bravo on a superb blog! Have really enjoyed your posts.

Also- thanks for your page of Christmas events. I'm based in SW France. Any tips on Christmas happenings outside of Paris?

I assume you've seen the latest major work published in the U.S. about France(the New York Times has raved about it, and I'm eager to get my hands on a copy):

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (by Graham Robb)

all best,

2:07 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello expat !

So how was the Beaujolais Nouveau in your corner of the world ?! (grin)


1:19 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello MWN !

/*/Bravo on a superb blog! Have really enjoyed your posts./*/

Many thanks for the compliment ! It's reassuring to receive feedback ! (smile)

/*/Also- thanks for your page of Christmas events. I'm based in SW France. Any tips on Christmas happenings outside of Paris?/*/

Not really … but there are certainly groups of "organized" Americans all over France

perhaps the "Americans in Toulouse" group is putting something for Christmas ?

Jeff Steiner's "Americans in France" site might have an event listed …

Down Angers way, The American Library in Angers is apparently organizing … "Christmas carols & Readings":

//If you are one of those with an endless amount of Christmas spirit the library is organising a "Christmas Miscellany".
Members of both the English-speaking Union and the English-language Library are invited to come along and read, perform or sing some favourite piece of poetry, prose, drama or song pertaining to a Christmas theme. It could be anything from a novel, play, journal, essay, etc just something that the contributor finds amusing, touching or moving. Of course we want everyone to come to the event and it is not essential to participate. The venue will be the Médiathèque in Avrillé and will take place on December 15th in front of a small crowd. Please contact Phoebe (phone 02 41 24 97 07 or email if you wish to take part. //

Perhaps the British residents in the "Dordogne" (as they call it …) will be organizing events, too … (smile)

/*/I assume you've seen the latest major work published in the U.S. about France (the New York Times has raved about it, and I'm eager to get my hands on a copy):

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (by Graham Robb)/*/

Nope, Amerloque hasn't read it yet, but it's on his Christmas wishlist … (grin) …

Thanks for stopping by !


1:24 AM  
Blogger expat said...

For the second straight year I thought the Beaujolais Villages Nouveau was the best — and also almost the cheapest. Price ranged from $7.99 - $14.99 (Fessy was the expensive one).

Thanks for asking *wink*

7:53 AM  
Anonymous Ms. Glaze said...

Great post! I always think of Nov. 11 because it's my dad's birthday and his nickname is "Army". So the history has been explained to me over and over. But, I appreciate you reminding expats and the French alike that there was a time where we worked together for peace. Bises, Ms. Glaze

9:31 AM  
Blogger Linda said...

Wow, all of this was new to me. It takes alot of bravery to go fight for freedom in a country that is not your own.

11:16 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Ms Glaze !

Yes, November 11th is an important day for many reasons !

Amerloque particularly enjoyed reading about Ms Glaze's recent adventures in Beaune ... (grin)


3:39 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Linda !

Back then, the event was billed as "The War To End All Wars". Little did they realize ...

Thanks for visiting !


3:41 AM  

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