The brutalities, realities and mortalities rampant among the ramparts of the trenches combined with the advent of new aeronautical technologies serve as the two main driving factors for Allied implementation of aerial warfare in World War I and the eventual formation of “an all-American squadron known as the Lafayette Escadrille” (Nasuti 2006; Flood 2015, 3).
The men of the Lafayette Escadrille “wore French uniforms and were part of the French Army” (Flood 2015, 3), but were undeniably American. They can be thought of as fitting into two camps of categories regarding their motives to aid France in their war efforts: men who were impacted by propaganda or war sentiments, and men who were impacted by the country of France.
Smithsonian.com’s article The Posters That Sold World War I to the American Public describes the emotive impact that propaganda, specifically posters, had within the initially isolated and neutral United States. Though the mass creation and production of those iconic, recognizable, and uniquely American images emblazoned with Uncle Sam and the like took place subsequent to the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille, “there were certainly propaganda posters before 1917” (Cook, 2014).
In Flyboys, the character of Blaine Rawlings fits into that first category, serving as an example of the men who were impacted by propaganda. Though he was impacted by a propaganda film rather than the posters that have become standard identifiers of World War I, the scene that is one of the first in the movie illustrates his almost immediate inner movement to become involved in the war.
Men that were impacted by their experiences in France, whether having simply traveled there or having lived there for years, constitute the second type of motivation that encouraged involvement in the war. The following quote from Charles Braclen Flood’s First to Fly summarizes the sentiments of said men:
“Now that the chance came, we Americans who had enjoyed the hospitality of France and had learned to love the country and the people, simply had to fight. Our consciences demanded it” (Flood 2015, 7).
Flyboys’ Eugene Skinner characterizes the men who felt this specific demand on his conscience. He is portrayed as an African American boxer who presumably traveled to France from the States and upon “[enjoying] the hospitality of France and [learning] to love the country and the people” (Flood 2015, 7) took up this call to arms, or rather, to the air.
Note that the fact that these men took action to aid their fellow brethren regardless of territory, ties, or treaties did not rid them of the risk doing so posed to them as Americans. This risk was a result of the fact that the United States had taken a strict neutralist position during the early days of the war.
President Woodrow Wilson called for the United States to remain “impartial in thought as well as in action”(This Day In History, 2016), and declared neutrality on August 4, 1914. Contrary to the popular belief that’s been cultivated through pop culture and specifically the movies, this was “a position that the vast majority of Americans favored” (This Day In History, 2016). The American desire to become involved was well balanced with the desire to remain isolated, and the American public’s reasons and logic for neutrality were understandable. Citizens born and bred on American soil viewed the brutal and bloody battle as one between European powers, and saw no logical reason to become involved as a nation. This time period of American history was one in which Europeans were immigrating from their respective countries to experience or cultivate a life in America. The crux of World War I’s tensions stemmed from Germany and Britain. Therefore, the desires for isolationism from citizens who immigrated to America also contributed to the country’s initial neutrality: “German immigrants did not want to fight the land of their ancestors, and equal numbers of Irish-Americans saw England as the nation that had oppressed and exploited Ireland for centuries” (Flood 2015, 6).
Yet it seems to be a trend, both in American and world history, that there’s always those few brave men who were the exception, who go beyond the norms that society expects. These were the flyboys. The day before the United States formally stated its neutralist position, “on August 3rd [young] Americans boarded ships in East Coast ports and headed across the Atlantic” in that same summer of 1914 (Flood 2015, 4). This is another scene depicted with substantial accuracy in Flyboys, discussed further in the film analysis.
Although “these young Americans knew that by enlisting in the Foreign Legion they might be endangering their American citizenship” (Flood 2015, 5), the formation of what would become The Lafayette Escadrille commenced nonetheless.
The bravery required in the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille called for a combination of skills, experiences, and daring, and thus the efforts of multiple historical figures. However, much of the credit for turning this dream into a reality is largely attributed to Norman Prince. A Massachusetts native and an alumnus of Harvard, Prince and fellow pioneers of the Escadrille already had previous flight experience, which resulted in a desire to be involved in the aviation corps (Nastui 2006).
The following quote from Herbert Molloy Mason Jr.’s The Lafayette Escadrille proves a glimpse into Norman Prince’s inner character, the arduous task it took to form the flying corps (notably absent from the film) and even some of the potential inspiration for the highly romanticized, heroic, and the struggle-free way in which Flyboys portrayed the Escadrille (the “struggle free” aspect a historical inaccuracy added to the film):
“Norman Prince was the ideal Quixote to battle the windmills of bureaucracy that lay in the path of creating an all-American squadron within the existing framework of the French Service Aéronautique” (Mason 1964, 46).
And yet in true, somewhat stereotypical hero’s quest fashion, fate was on his side, and the Lafayette Escadrille came into being. “On April 20, 1916, [The Lafayette Escadrille] — officially on the rolls as N. 124 — was formed”. Twenty-nine year old Georges Thénault took the role of captain, Alfred de Laage de Meux lieutenant, and William Thaw, Norman Prince, Elliot Cowdin, Kiffin Rockwell, Bert Hall, James McConnell, and Victor Emmanuel Chapman became the first seven pilots of The Lafayette Escadrille (Mason 1964, 53-54, 295).
The Escadrille Takes Action: Chronology of Events
The below timeline illustrates major milestones reached, actions taken and obstacles faced by the Lafayette Escadrille as recorded in the Chronology section of Flood’s First to Fly (2015, xi-xii), up until the point that the United States declared involvement in the war. Additional sources can be found in the citations underneath each photo.