Book Review: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille

The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille by George Thenault. Published in 2009 by Bibliolife

I’m sure one can imagine my excitement when I saw this memoir in my local military library. George Thenault was the French commander of the Lafayette Escadrille from the very beginning to the moment it was swallowed by the American Expeditionary Force and turned into the 103d Aero Squadron. The memoir was originally written in 1919 and became a global success, ensuring that Thenault would spend eleven years in the United States, serving as a military attaché. I had always wondered how Thenault and his second in command Lt. de Laage de Meux had felt about their American pilots and the memoir did not disappoint.

Being a memoir, it assumes that the readers know the basics of the units and thus Thenault introduces names and places fast and furious. The tone itself is half the charm of the memoir as one can tell the Thenault deeply respected his comrades but was also bemused by them and their antics. My favorite story being about how Bill Thaw managed to buy a lion cub off a Brazilian doctor, booked a train ticket to return to the airfield, and when the conductor asked what kind of animal the lion cub was, Thaw replied that it was an African dog. There is also a humorous anecdote about Thenault’s first ever game of baseball that ended as badly as one can imagine.

While the memoir was written in the high tone of the 1900s where death was still an honor and glory was won by those who didn’t return home, even Thenault cannot mask the terror and lost the unit suffered. The most moving moment of the memoir is when Thenault talks about the cursed photograph. It is of Thenault, Chapman, Rockwell, Prince, and MacConnell and it’s cursed because everyone in the photo except for Thenault died during the war. Thenault gives each man his due attention in the memoir, but the strongest personality is that of Raul Lufbery. One has to wonder if Lufbery’s own French origins endeared him to Thenault which is why he is remembered so fondly.

For someone who is curious as to how the unit saw itself, how the French commanders felt about their American pilots, and to capture the reckless, larger than life years of this unit, this memoir is a great find.

Pros: The memoir presents an interesting perspective on the unit, on America’s war efforts, and on the lifestyle lived by the airmen of WWI. It also provides a wonder collection of stories that seem to bizarre to be true and paints a wonderful picture of the type of men who volunteered to take to the skies during the dawn of aerial combat.

Cons: This memoir is confusing for someone who has never heard of the Lafayette Escadrille.

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