When Germany invaded France and declared war on August 3, 1914, there was in Paris a group of young American men who wanted to volunteer and join the fight for France.
There have always been Americans in Paris, particularly since the French nobleman, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier Marquis de Lafayette came to the United States in 1777 and volunteered, without pay, to help the fledgling American colonies in their fight against England for independence.
Every child in an American history class learns of Lafayette, and France has historically been a friend of the United States since that time.
Lafayette said when he volunteered, “Defender of the liberty that I idolize, myself more free than anyone, in coming as a friend to offer my services to this intriguing republic, I bring to it only my frankness and my good will; no ambition, no self-interest; in working for my glory, I work for their happiness.” At the conclusion of the fight for American independence, in which he was instrumental to our success, Lafayette stated, “Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.”
These young American volunteers in Paris had not forgotten their history or Lafayette.
At Germany’s declaration of war in 1914, American men and women visiting or living in France rushed to volunteer to join the fight; even though the United States remained neutral and would not enter the war for almost another three years.
There was a legal roadblock to their volunteering.
According to U.S. law on neutrality, any U.S. citizen joining with a foreign nation’s armed forces to fight would be committing an illegal act and putting their American citizenship in jeopardy. France also had legal restraints. Any citizen of a neutral foreign nation volunteering to join France’s fight had to be assigned to non-combative duties, such as driving ambulances or assisting in hospitals.
There was one way around this legal roadblock – join the French Foreign Legion. When you joined, you swore an oath of allegiance to the Foreign Legion and not to the country of France. You could then legally fight for France on the front lines.
American Ambassador to France, Myron T. Herrick, gives a first-hand account of his meeting with some of these enthusiastic American young men who came to his office in Paris to see what the American law said about their joining up in France’s fight with Germany.
His personal account can be found in the book First to Fly: the Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I by Charles Bracelen Flood (an excellent book!).
A seasoned 60-year-old man of humble beginnings, raised on a farm in Ohio, rose to become the governor of that state and now an Ambassador, writes:
“They filed into my office…They wanted to enlist in the French army…and they asked me if they had a right to do so, if it was legal.
“I got out the law on the duties of neutrals; I read it to them and explained its passages…Those young eyes were searching mine, seeking, I am sure, the encouragement they had come in hope of getting.
“It was more than flesh and blood could stand, and catching fire myself from their eagerness, I brought down my fist on the table saying, ‘That is the law, boys; but if I was young and in your shoes, by God, I know mighty well what I would do!’
“At this they set up a regular shout, each gripped me by the hand, and then went rushing down the stairs…straight to the Rue de Grenelle and took service in the Foreign Legion.”
Thirty-eight American men like these, average age around 24, would make up a group of American pilots fighting for France in World War I, whom the French would give the name: “Lafayette Escadrille.”
The American squadron of volunteers would first be called N124, then Escadrille Americains, but Germany’s Ambassador in the United States formally protested the name because the United States’ official position regarding the war was neutral. So the American squadron needed another name and France called them Lafayette Escadrille.
Why the name “Lafayette Escadrille?”
The name “Lafayette” was given when these Americans enlisted to help France against Germany’s aggression, because several of the Americans told French authorities that just as the French nobleman Lafayette volunteered to help the American colonies in their time of need, so they were volunteering to help France in a time of need. They had not forgotten what Lafayette and France had done in the time of the American fight for independence. So the French named them after Lafayette.
Jarousse deSilac of France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at the time, “It appears to me that there might be great advantages in creating an American Squadron. The United States would be proud of the fact that certain of her young men, acting as did Lafayette, have come to fight for France and for civilization. The resulting sentiment of enthusiasm could have but one effect: to turn the Americans in the direction of the Allies.”
The word “Escadrille” is French for “squadron”, and so the name Lafayette Escadrille means “Lafayette Squadron.”
Because the Lafayette Escadrille couldn’t hold all the American volunteer pilots, the Lafayette Flying Corps was created with over 269 pilots total flying for French squadrons before America entered the war.
On a personal note, when I pursued my degree at New Mexico State University, there were large portraits of Alumni hanging high up on the walls in the entrance to the dining hall. One picture was a black and white photo of a young man in a World War I uniform. I was in love with him for the entire time I was there until I graduated. I cannot remember his name, but to me now, as I remember his clear eyes, his young, confident and happy face, he exemplifies to me the kind of American men who made up the Lafayette Escadrille.
In the next installment, we will look at the American pilots who flew in the Lafayette Escadrille, their headquarters, unusual pets, and what their lives were like, fighting and living in France. Also, we will learn about history’s first African-American fighter pilot, Eugene Jacques Bullard, nick-named “The Black Swallow of Death,” who was in the Lafayette Flying Corps.
For those of you who like a road trip or live in North Carolina, the following mural honoring North Carolina World War I Lafayette Escadrille pilot James R. McConnell can be seen next to the highway coming into Carthage, North Carolina.
Question: Do you remember how you felt or a young family member or friend felt when answering our country’s call to join in the fight, in any conflict?
To find out more about the Lafayette Escadrille here are some resources:
First to Fly: the Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, The American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I by Charles Bracelen Flood
The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille: Told By Its Commander by Georges Thenault
The Lafayette Escadrille: a Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron by Steven A. Ruffin
Kiffin A. Rockwell, the Lafayette Escadrille and the Birth of the United States Air Force by T. B. Murphy
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum https://airandspace.si.edu (where you can also read the pilot’s operational logs!
New England Air Museum website: https://www.neam.org/Lafayette-escadrille/
Unknown (1917). Soubiran, Robert “Bob” (Major); France, Lafayette Escadrille; Nieuport 17. [Photograph]. https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/soubiran-robert-bob-major-france-lafayette-escadrille-nieuport-17-photograph
Flood, C.B. (2015). First to Fly: the Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew For France in World War I. New York: Grove Press.
Morrow Jr.,J.H. (1993). The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Carroll, A. (2017). My Fellow Soldiers: General Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War. New York: Penguin.