Georges Guynemer_ Knight of the Air
Published on the Fund
given to the Yale University Press in memory of
ENSIGN CURTIS SEAMAN READ, U.S.N.R.F.
of the Class of 1918, Yale College, killed in the
aviation service in France, February, 1918
Georges Guynemer, Knight of the Air
KNIGHT OF THE AIR
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH
By LOUISE MORGAN SILL
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS
NEW YORK: 280 MADISON AVENUE
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- The First Victory
- From the Aisne to Verdun
- "La Terre a vu jadis errer des Paladins"
- On the Somme (June, 1916, to February, 1917)
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
June 27th, 1918.
My dear M. Bordeaux:
I count the American people fortunate in reading any book of yours; Icount them fortunate in reading any biography of that great hero of theair, Guynemer; and thrice over I count them fortunate to have such abook written by you on such a subject.
You, sir, have for many years been writing books peculiarly fitted toinstill into your countrymen the qualities which during the lastforty-eight months have made France the wonder of the world. You havewritten with such power and charm, with such mastery of manner and ofmatter, that the lessons you taught have been learned unconsciously byyour readers—and this is the only way in which most readers will learnlessons at all. The value of your teachings would be as great for mycountrymen as for yours. You have held up as an ideal for men and forwomen, that high courage which shirks no danger, when the danger is theinevitable accompaniment of duty. You have preached the essentialvirtues, the duty to be both brave and tender, the duty of courage forthe man and courage for the woman. You have inculcated stern horror ofthe baseness which finds expression in refusal to perform thoseessential duties without which not merely the usefulness, but the veryexistence, of any nation will come to an end.
Under such conditions it is eminently appropriate that you should writethe biography of that soldier-son of France whose splendid daring hasmade him stand as arch typical of the soul of the French people throughthese terrible four years. In this great war France has suffered moreand has achieved more than any other power. To her more than to anyother power, the final victory will be due. Civilization has in thepast, for immemorial centuries, owed an incalculable debt to France; butfor no single feat or achievement of the past does civilization owe asmuch to France as for what her sons and daughters have done in the worldwar now being waged by the free peoples against the powers of the Pit.
Modern war makes terrible demands upon those who fight. To an infinitelygreater degree than ever before the outcome depends upon longpreparation in advance, and upon the skillful and unified use of thenation's entire social and industrial no less than military power. Thework of the general staff is infinitely more important than any work ofthe kind in times past. The actual machinery of both is so vast,delicate, and complicated that years are needed to complete it. At allpoints we see the immense need of thorough organization and of makingready far in advance of the day of trial. But this does not mean thatthere is any less need than before of those qualities of endurance andhardihood, of daring and resolution, which in their sum make up thestern and enduring valor which ever has been and ever will be the markof mighty victorious armies.
The air service in particular is one of such peril that membership in itis of itself a high distinction. Physical address, high training, entirefearlessness, iron nerve, and fertile resourcefulness are needed in acombination and to a degree hitherto unparalleled in war. The ordinaryair fighter is an extraordinary man; and the extraordinary air fighterstands as one in a million among his fellows. Guynemer was one of these.More than this. He was the foremost among all the extraordinary fightersof all the nations who in this war have made the skies their battlefield. We are fortunate indeed in having you write his biography.
Very faithfully yours,
(Signed) Theodore Roosevelt.
M. Henry Bordeaux,
44 Rue du Ranelagh,
" ... Guynemer has not come back."
The news flew from one air escadrille to another, from the aviationcamps to the troops, from the advance to the rear zones of the army; anda shock of pain passed from soul to soul in that vast army, andthroughout all France, as if, among so many soldiers menaced with death,this one alone should have been immortal.
History gives us examples of such universal grief, but only at the deathof great leaders whose authority and importance intensified the generalmourning for their loss. Thus, Troy without Hector was defenseless. WhenGaston de Foix, Duke de Nemours, surnamed the Thunderbolt of Italy, diedat the age of twenty-three after the victory of Ravenna, the Frenchtransalpine conquests were endangered. The bullet which struck Turenneat Saltzbach also menaced the work of Louis XIV. But Guynemer hadnothing but his airplane, a speck in the immense spaces filled by thewar. This young captain, though without an equal in the sky, conductedno battle on land. Why, then, did he alone have the power, like a greatmilitary chief, of leaving universal sadness behind him? A little childof France has given us the reason.
Among the endless expressions of the nation's mourning, this letter waswritten by the school-mistress of a village in Franche-Comté,Mademoiselle S——, of Bouclans, to the mother of the aviator:
Madame, you have already received the sorrowful and gratefulsympathy of official France and of France as a nation; I amventuring to send you the naïve and sincere homage of young Franceas represented by our school children at Bouclans. Before receivingfrom our chiefs the suggestion, of which we learn to-day, we hadalready, on the 22nd of October, consecrated a day to the memory ofour hero Guynemer, your glorious son.
I send you enclosed an exercise by one of my pupils chosen atrandom, for all of them are animated by the same sentiments. Youwill see how the immortal glory of your son shines even in humblevillages, and that the admiration and gratitude which the children,so far away in the country, feel for our greatest aviator, will bepiously and faithfully preserved in his memory.
May this sincere testimony to the sentiments of childhood be ofsome comfort in your grief, to which I offer my most profoundrespect.
The School-mistress of Bouclans,
And this is the exercise, written by Paul Bailly, aged eleven years andten months:
Guynemer is the Roland of our epoch: like Roland he was very brave,and like Roland he died for France. But his exploits are not alegend like those of Roland, and in telling them just as theyhappened we find them more beautiful than any we could imagine. Todo honor to him they are going to write his name in the Panthéonamong the other great names. His airplane has been placed in theInvalides. In our school we consecrated a day to him. This morningas soon as we reached the school we put his photograph up on thewall; for our moral lesson we learned by heart his last mention inthe despatches; for our writing lesson we wrote his name, and hewas the subject for our theme; and finally, we had to draw anairplane. We did not begin to think of him only after he was dead;before he died, in our school, every time he brought down anairplane we were proud and happy. But when we heard that he wasdead, we were as sad as if one of our own family had died.
Roland was the example for all the knights in history. Guynemershould be the example for Frenchmen now, and each one will try toimitate him and will remember him as we have remembered Roland. I,especially, I shall never forget him, for I shall remember that hedied for France, like my dear Papa.
This little French boy's description of Guynemer is true and, limited asit is, sufficient: Guynemer is the modern Roland, with the sameredoubtable youth and fiery soul. He is the last of the knights-errant,the first of the new knights of the air. His short life needs onlyaccurate telling to appear like a legend. The void he left is so greatbecause every household had adopted him. Each one shared in hisvictories, and all have written his name among their own dead.
Guynemer's glory, to have so ravished the minds of children, must havebeen both simple and perfect, and as his biographer I cannot dream ofequaling the young Paul Bailly. But I shall not take his hero from him.Guynemer's life falls naturally into the legendary rhythm, and thesimple and exact truth resembles a fairy tale.
The writers of antiquity have mourned in touching accents the loss ofyoung men cut down in the flower of their youth. "The city," sighsPericles, "has lost its light, the year has lost its spring." Theocritusand Ovid in turn lament the short life of Adonis, whose blood waschanged into flowers. And in Virgil the father of the gods, whom Pallassupplicates before facing Turnus, warns him not to confound the beautyof life with its length:
Stat sua cuique dies; breve et irreparabile tempus
Omnibus est vitae; sed famam extendere factis,
Hoc virtutis opus. . .
"The days of man are numbered, and his life-time short andirrecoverable; but to increase his renown by the quality of his acts,this is the work of virtue...."
 Æneid, Book 10, Garnier ed.
Famam extendere factis: no fabulous personage of antiquity made morehaste than Guynemer to multiply the exploits that increased his glory.But the enumeration of these would not furnish a key to his life, norexplain either that secret power he possessed or the fascination heexerted. "It is not always the most brilliant actions which best exposethe virtues or vices of men. Some trifle, some insignificant word orjest, often displays the character better than bloody combats, pitchedbattles, or the taking of cities. Also, as portrait painters try toreproduce the features and expression of their subjects, as the mostobvious presentment of their characters, and without troubling about theother parts of the body, so we may be allowed to concentrate our studyupon the distinctive signs of the soul...."
 Plutarch, Life of Alexander.
I, then, shall especially seek out these "distinctive signs of thesoul."
Guynemer's family has confided to me his letters, his notebooks offlights, and many precious stories of his childhood, his youth, and hisvictories. I have seen him in camps, like the Cid Campeador, who made"the swarm of singing victories fly, with wings outspread, above histents." I have had the good fortune to see him bring down an enemyairplane, which fell in flames on the bank of the river Vesle. I havemet him in his father's house at Compiègne, which was his Bivar. Almostimmediately after his disappearance I passed two night-watches—as if wesat