Monday, December 26, 2011

Researching the Lafayette Escadrille

Weston Birch "Bert" Hall

In working on my upcoming book on Bert Hall, I have been drawn into the researching the Lafayette Escadrille.  It has been fascinating and enlightening.  At the same time, I find myself being drawn into doing my job as a historian – that is trying to arrive at the truth.  In some cases this may require the rattling of a myth or two. 

It is important to note that Bert’s involvement with WWI aviation was only one part of his incredible life as a soldier of fortune.  My book will cover his war experience but will also tell the whole story of Bert’s fantastic life; good and bad.  From Chinese aviation, to the motion picture industry, Bert Hall led the kind of life that many only dream of.  Bert’s saga cut its teeth when he was in the Lafayette Escadrille – so it is something I have had to immerse myself in.   

For those of you that don’t know the Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron of young Americans volunteers that were flying for France in WWI.  They were fighting the Germans a full two years (in aviation) before America declared war.  Many of her early members were members of the French Foreign Legion…Americans that had been in the fight since 1914.  These men (and those of the larger Lafayette Flying Corps) went on to be the foundation of the American Air Service.   The unit and the men that flew for her were known by almost everyone in the United States at one time.  The unit was a household name for years.  Their exploits made almost every newspaper in the country.  America’s brightest and best young men, using the latest technology (aircraft) to fight a war we were still unwilling as a people to commit to  - it was wonderful press. 

The original members were referred to as the, “Valiant 38.”  Most were from ivy-league colleges.  They were, in most cases, rich kids.  Bert Hall didn’t fit that mold.  He was older than most of these kids.  He never attended college.  Bert was not in the war for glory or honor, he was in it for himself and to hopefully make a buck.  Bert didn’t come from the same mold as these men.  But they too were imperfect.   

My research efforts last week took me to the Paul Rockwell collection at Washington and Lee University.  Paul Rockwell was the historian of the Escadrille.  His brother was one of the first American aviators killed in combat in the unit.  Paul Rockwell dedicated his life to embellishing the history of the Escadrille and the memory of his brother Kiffin.   Sometimes that dedication bordered on obsession.  I think we are all richer for the work he did, but it must be viewed from a historian’s skeptical perspective. 

In going through the fourteen boxes of material and photographs it became clear quickly that Paul Rockwell had a strong dislike of Bert Hall.  Some of that was probably earned – no, definitely earned.  Rockwell carefully sculpted the history of the unit with historians that worked with him on their books and articles about the unit.  I could see clearly how he excised Bert from the Lafayette Flying Corps and Lafayette Escadrille Memorial in France.  He went so far as to control images used in some books, cropping Bert out of the images (and hopefully out of the history of the unit.)  Paul Rockwell worked quite hard to script out the image that the public would have of the escadrille, even if that meant he had to alter the truth. 

A prime example of this is Paul Rockwell’s campaign against the movie, Lafayette Escadrille.  There was a full box of material in the collection at Washington and Lee of his letter writing smear campaign against this 1950’s film.  He wrote Time, Newsweek, The New York Times; anyone that would listen.  He rallied the survivors of the unit and in some cases their families into his campaign.  He used phrases like, “sullying the memories of the honored dead,” to drill home his points.  Some of his complaints were valid.  The movie was a Hollywood version of history – which meant it was inaccurate.  No shock there. 

Some of what he went off about represents how he tried to change the history of the unit.  “This movie portrays the members of the unit drinking alcohol.  The lead character meets a charming prostitute in a brothel and falls in love with her.  Members of this unit did not frequent brothels nor were they given to drink.”  Really?  I have come across accounts that Bert Hall and Raoul Lufbery were both known to frequent brothels.  Almost all of the members of the Escadrille drank – there are photos of them drinking.  In his later years Paul Rockwell seemed obsessed with making the unit into something that it wasn’t.   He was not being a good historian but instead was corrupting history. 

In going over the vast number of letters in the Rockwell collection, I began to see a more rounded story about Bert Hall and of the Escadrille as a whole.   I found that using the letters of the men from the period gave me a better grip on the unit.  I thought I was going to be writing about Bert Hall’s life.  Little did I realize how I would be drawn into the Escadrille and its own starry history.  For WWI buffs out there, I hope you find my new research findings of interest.  It does not alter the history of the unit, but brings clarity to this famous group of men.  For those of you not familiar with the Lafayette Escadrille, I think you’ll find my perspective, tied closely to Bert Hall, to be intriguing. 

More in future blogs…I promise. 

4 comments:

  1. Hello Blaine - Interesting post!

    Regarding the drinking --- even the two lion cubs were named "Whiskey" & "Soda." That alone speaks volumes. Looking forward to more.

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  2. Ha ha. Yes, there is that wonderful connecion. I think it's safe to say these guys were not saints.

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  3. Hello Blaine: This period of History has always held an interest for me, aviation in particular, I am looking forward to more from you regarding Bert Hall and the Escadrille.

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  4. Got into the Lafayette Escadrille back in college while researching a paper I did for a history course. Have a 1st edition copy of Hall's 'En L'Air!' and several other books on the Escadrille. My paper focused on the various motivations of these guys to fight for France well before America became involved. Very brave men all. Look forward to hearing more about your research.

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