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Thursday, July 14, 2016

“First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I”, by Charles Bracelen Flood

256 pages, Atlantic Monthly Press, ISBN-13: 978-0802123657

The United States did not enter World War I until April 1917; however, before that, hundreds of Americans fought for the French, even though it was illegal for the citizens of a neutral nation to do so. Various subterfuges were used, such as enlisting in the French Foreign Legion (whose members took an oath of allegiance to the Legion rather than to France). As essentially freelance adventurers, many Americans preferred the skies to the trenches and they chose flying, at first with French squadrons and then, in the spring of 1916, for the all-American squadron, Escadrille de Lafayette, the Lafayette Squadron, with American pilots flying under the command of a French captain. First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I is the story of the Americans who flew for the French before the U.S. entered the War, focusing especially on the Lafayette Escadrille. Of a total of 269 Americans who flew for the French, including those in the Escadrille, 42 were killed or fatally wounded in action, another 21 died in accidents, and six others died of illness or suicide. Be warned, though: this is NOT a history of the Lafayette Escadrille, but rather a series of personal anecdotes recounting the lives and adventures of these disparate men. Some flew for France, some flew for adventure, some flew for the hell of it, but all flew and fought bravely and some gave all for a cause and a country that wasn’t their own. There are plenty of mistakes to be found if you’re looking – Flood incorrectly describes the Nieuport 17 as a monoplane when it was a biplane; he confuses the word SPAD with the SPAD organization that built a whole series of different aircraft – but for all that this is an interesting collection of tales about men the world has largely forgotten about.

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