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Service Aéronautique / French Aeronautical Corps in the Great War

The Armée de l'Air was only created as an independent arm in 1933. At the time of the Great War the Aeronautical Corps was organised in three territorial groups consisting of from 2 to 4 companies with from 2 to 5 detached sections with the troops. There were by 1916 a total of 27 sections of 8 aeroplanes each, 10 cavalry sections of 3 aeroplanes each, and 11 fortress sections of 8 aeroplanes each, representing a total establishment of 334 aeroplanes. There were 14 dirigibles in the charge of the Aeronautical Corps.

Aviation appealed to the esprit of the French nation in a stronger way than to that of any other nation. Of all European countries France was the most intelligent and the most alert in taking up the problem of flight. The enduring rivalry between the airship and the flying machine is well illustrated in the history of French effort. Long before the first true flying machine was built and flown balloons of a fish-like shape had been driven through the air by mechanical airscrews. The French led in the development of military aviation perhaps to offset the German superiority in dirigibles. The science of aeronautics soon passed from the experimental to the practical stage.

The predecessor of the modern French Air Force, the Service Aéronautique, was formed in 1909, just 6 years after the first powered flight by the Wright brothers, makint it the oldest air force in the world. When, in 1912, Great Britain took in hand the creation of an air force, military and naval, France was already furnished with a very large number of aeroplanes, organized for service with the army, and Germany was provided with airships of unprecedented power and range. France also had some airships, and Germany, alarmed by the progress of French aviation, had begun to turn her attention to aeroplanes, but the pride of Germany was in her airships, and the pride of France was in her aeroplanes.

The French Aeronautical Corps, which comprised operators of aeroplanes, airships, and ordinary balloons, received its official standard at a military review in 1912, but it already had an unofficial standard presented to it by a woman's aviation society of France. This standard was of silk, embroidered and featured a winged anchor and a laurel wreath in the center. The name "Fleurus" commemorates the battle at that place in 1791, at which a captive balloon was used in war for the first time. The legends "Extreme Orient" and "Maroc" refer to the use of the aeroplane in the far east and in Morocco. The name of the woman's aviation society is "Stella."

Aeronautical exercises were carried out by the French air corps at the Camp de Chalons during August 1911. At that time the French War Ministry had at its disposal, so far as could be ascertained, something between two hundred and two hundred and twenty aeroplanes. The biplanes were all Farmans. The monoplanes, which were on the whole preferred by expert opinion to the biplanes, were of many types, all famous for achievement—Nieuports, Bleriots, Deperdussins, R.E.P.'s, Antoinettes, and others. The methods of training were elaborate and complete, and the air corps were continually practised in co-operation with all other arms — infantry, cavalry, and artillery.

From the first the French, who had thought out the whole business, laid great stress on reconnaissance and control of artillery fire as the main uses of aircraft. For reconnaissance the aeroplanes were practised to co-operate with cavalry. For fire control official maps, divided into geometrical squares, so that a pair of numbers will identify a position within a score or so of yards, were supplied in duplicate to the pilots of the aeroplanes and to the commanding officers of batteries. The system of signalling employed was mostly primitive, but already in 1911 the French were experimenting with captive balloons which received the messages from the aeroplane, and by wireless, or some kind of visible signal, transmitted them to the guns.

By a French decree of 1913 the circulation in France of foreign military aircraft was forbidden, and the draft Franco-German Agreement of 1913 practically admitted the principle of the sovereignty of the air by allowing each country the right of making such regulations as it pleased for flights above its own territory. From the beginning, therefore, air sovereignty and air legislation were influenced by a predominantly military conception of aviation, and, on the outbreak of war, the doctrine of the freedom of the air was doomed.

Military aviation in the French Army was in 1912 made a separate arm of the service, it having been under the Engineer Corps. It was directly under the War Ministry, and had a general officer at its head. The personnel was composed of officers and men recruited from all arms of the service, and when the new organization was completed in 1915, the French Army would be in the possession of twenty-seven field detachments, five fortresses, and six coastal detachments, for which 450 machines and twenty-five dirigibles were altogether available.

The service was divided into two branches — that of the dirigibles and that of the aeroplanes. The headquarters of the French aeronautical service is in Paris, and the whole of the military aeronautical establishments in France and Northern Africa were contained in three groups, with headquarters, respectively, at Versailles, Rheims, and Lyons. The field detachments were assigned, as a rule, to the headquarters of the various army corps. The Central Supply Depot and aeronautical laboratory is at Chalais Meuden.

There was no division, as in the United States, between signal troops and engineers. All technical troops are known as engineers, including the Aeronautical Corps. They aggregated 585 officers and about 18,000 men. The Aeronautical Corps was organized in three groups. Each group had from 2 to 4 companies. Sections were detached with the mobile army. In the spring of 1914 there were 27 sections of 8 aeroplanes each, 10 cavalry sections of 3 aeroplanes each, and 11 fortress sections of 8 aeroplanes each, aggregating a total of 334 aeroplanes. There were also 14 dirigibles.

France had a far smaller equipment of dirigibles than her enemy, Germany, but the disadvantage was believed to be offset in part by the formidable array of aeroplanes in the French service. All told, France was believed to have an air force of nearly 800 aeroplanes and 1,200 airmen. She had an aeronautical corps organized in 3 territorial groups. Each group consisted of from 2 to 4 companies, with from 2 to 5 detached sections with troops. There were 27 sections, each having 8 aeroplanes; 10 cavalry sections, each with 3 aeroplanes; 11 fortress sections, with 8 aeroplanes each — a complete establishment of 334 aeroplanes. Most of the French air fleet was said to be assembled at the great flying camps of Rhelms, Verdun, Toul, Epinal, and Belfort, where they were of invaluable use as scouts against the army of invasion. They were also looked upon to increase greatly the power of artillery by careful reconnaissance. In general the aeroplanes were without guns, although some were known to carry light machine guns, and therefore suffer by comparison with the big air battleships, which are well armed. The smaller craft can, however, carry something like 200 pounds of explosives in the shape of bombs, and can be counted upon to use their cargo with considerable effect in the case of sustained sieges. No prohibition attached to firing upon aircraft, nor upon the return of the attack from above. The airman was prohibited, however, by a Hague convention, against bombarding undefended towns and villages where no army is quartered. On his side he was similarly protected from being treated as a spy should he be captured in the performance of his air duties.

The personnel of the flying corps as of mid-1915 was 248 officers and 1374 enlisted men. Unlike the conscript "poilu" of the army, every aviator was a volunteer. Aviation is far more dangerous than fighting in the trenches, yet there were many who preferred the extra risk of being in the Aviation Corps to the tedium of remaining in the narrow-walled trenches. A pilot may resign his commission at any time and return to his regiment at the front, but the majority of the "vacancies" are caused by casualties. Curiously enough, there were many men who had been rendered unfit by wounds for service in the infantry, who volunteered for the air service.

During the four years of the war nearly 2000 French pilots and observers were killed at the Front; 1500 "disappeared," which means that some were killed, others were taken prisoners; nearly 3000 were injured, and about 2000 were killed while on duty at school or depot in the Zone of the Interior. On the day of the Armistice, the French Air Service had about 13,000 available pilots and observers. The very heavy proportion of losses compared to the size of the service is self-evident.

The tactical unit of flying troops was the squadron. In the French Flying Corps the squadron consisted as a rule of six machines, and three squadrons formed a group. It was customary to equip each squadron with machines belonging to one type only. Mixed squadrons had been organized for reconnaissance work. Such squadrons might consist, for instance, of one flight of photography machines, of one flight of fire control machines, and of another flight of long range scouts. Or, a pursuit squadron might consist of one-seater and two-seater flights. The tendency was to organize strictly monotype squadrons.

In the early days of the war none of the belligerents had done more than begin to contemplate this specialization of types. Accordingly practically the one design in each case had to do all duties or leave those which it could not perform severely alone. Monoplanes — such as the pre-war Bleriot type, for this was one of the forms that had to be discarded — suffered from at least three distinct military disadvantages. First, their structural strength is considerably less than that of a biplane, which, with its box-girder design of supporting surface, is capable of being constructed on quite strong lines. Secondly, the speed variation possible with a monoplane is small unless the doubtfully sound expedient of varying the angle of incidence of the wings is adopted. Thirdly, the epilot and his observer, if one is carried, have to sit with their heads above the plane of the wings and near the central line thereof. The view of much of the ground beneath them is thus obscured. In spite of the fact that for the same engine power a monoplanes except those of this parasol type, our Ally's aviators were told heavily against France's aeronautical equipment in the earlier stages of the war. The third objection was particularly strong, for it seriously militated against the scouting and gun-spotting duties which.then were the chief functions of the aeroplane.

The French aeronautical authorities realized the situation, and as a step towards improving it decided to discard all the monoplanes of the ordinary type then in service. For a time they paid considerable attention to monoplanes of the "parasol" type, that is to say, machines like biplanes with the lower pair of wings cut off. In such craft the pilot and observer sit below the plane of the wings, or in some cases with their eyes just in line with this plane, and so obtain an unobstructed view of the ground beneath. A decree of the French Director of Military Aeronautics was issued about August 1915, in which it was laid down that biplanes alone should in future be used at the front.

Among the Americans who enlisted at the beginning of the Great War in the French Foreign Legion as infantrymen, and afterwards were transferred to the aviation service, were William Thaw, Kiffen Rockwell and Victor Chapman. These, with Norman Prince, who had already flown in America, were sent to the French Aviation School and trained in the art of fighting in the air. From the beginning they seem to have had an idea of forming a squadron of American pilots. The French Ministry of War did not at first approve of this proposition, for America at the time was strictly neutral, and to have an American fighting unit among the French aero squadrons certainly might suggest a breach of neutrality.

After a time, however, an American organization was formed, commanded by a French Captain, and was called the Escadrille Americaine. This squadron was financed by Mr. and Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt. Later on, before the United States entered the war, more than two hundred American volunteers at one time or another, were members of this squadron. It became famous. On November 16,1916, it was notified by Colonel Barres, Chief of French Aviation, that it could no longer be known as the Escadrille Americaine. It appeared that Count Von Bernstorff had protested to Washington that Americans were fighting on the French front, and that these impudent Americans had even painted the head of a red Sioux Indian in full war paint on their machines. Washington as in duty bound had protested to France, and the name was changed to Lafayette Escadrille.

The Lafayette Escadrille was a part of the French Flying Corps, there being ordinarily fifteen men in an escadrille. The American pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille were transferred from the French to the American service Decernber 26, 1917, flying as civilians until formally commissioned in January, 1918. Under the name of the Lafayette Flying Corps, the members of the Lafayette Escadrille took a most vigorous part in aerial activities. The Lafayette Flying Corps was distinct and separate from the Lafayette Escadrille, whose members did such notable work.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2012 19:26:34 ZULU