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
KNIGHT OF THE AIR
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH By LOUISE MORGAN SILL
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY THEODORE ROOSEVELT
NEW HAVEN YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS NEW YORK: 280 MADISON AVENUE
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CANTO I: CHILDHOOD
I. The Guynemers 21
II. Home and College 28
III. The Departure 52
CANTO II: LAUNCHED INTO SPACE
I. The First Victory 65
II. From the Aisne to Verdun 91
III. "La Terre a vu jadis errer des Paladins" 108
IV. On the Somme (June, 1916, to February, 1917) 125
CANTO III: AT THE ZENITH
I. On the 25th of May, 1917 143
II. A Visit to Guynemer 157
III. Guynemer in Camp 163
IV. Guynemer at Home 170
V. The Magic Machine 182
CANTO IV: THE ASCENSION
I. The Battle of Flanders 189
II. Omens 200
III. The Last Flight 210
IV. The Vigil 217
V. The Legend 225
VI. In the Pantheon 239
Appendix: Genealogy of Georges Guynemer 251
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Georges Guynemer, Knight of the Air Frontispiece (From a wood block in three colors by Rudolph Ruzicka.)
The First Flight in a Bleriot 80
In the Air 120
"Going West" 208 (From charcoal drawings by W.A. Dwiggins.)
June 27th, 1918.
My dear M. Bordeaux:
I count the American people fortunate in reading any book of yours; I count them fortunate in reading any biography of that great hero of the air, Guynemer; and thrice over I count them fortunate to have such a book written by you on such a subject.
You, sir, have for many years been writing books peculiarly fitted to instill into your countrymen the qualities which during the last forty-eight months have made France the wonder of the world. You have written with such power and charm, with such mastery of manner and of matter, that the lessons you taught have been learned unconsciously by your readers—and this is the only way in which most readers will learn lessons at all. The value of your teachings would be as great for my countrymen as for yours. You have held up as an ideal for men and for women, that high courage which shirks no danger, when the danger is the inevitable accompaniment of duty. You have preached the essential virtues, the duty to be both brave and tender, the duty of courage for the man and courage for the woman. You have inculcated stern horror of the baseness which finds expression in refusal to perform those essential duties without which not merely the usefulness, but the very existence, of any nation will come to an end.
Under such conditions it is eminently appropriate that you should write the biography of that soldier-son of France whose splendid daring has made him stand as arch typical of the soul of the French people through these terrible four years. In this great war France has suffered more and has achieved more than any other power. To her more than to any other power, the final victory will be due. Civilization has in the past, for immemorial centuries, owed an incalculable debt to France; but for no single feat or achievement of the past does civilization owe as much to France as for what her sons and daughters have done in the world war now being waged by the free peoples against the powers of the Pit.
Modern war makes terrible demands upon those who fight. To an infinitely greater degree than ever before the outcome depends upon long preparation in advance, and upon the skillful and unified use of the nation's entire social and industrial no less than military power. The work of the general staff is infinitely more important than any work of the kind in times past. The actual machinery of both is so vast, delicate, and complicated that years are needed to complete it. At all points we see the immense need of thorough organization and of making ready far in advance of the day of trial. But this does not mean that there is any less need than before of those qualities of endurance and hardihood, of daring and resolution, which in their sum make up the stern and enduring valor which ever has been and ever will be the mark of mighty victorious armies.
The air service in particular is one of such peril that membership in it is of itself a high distinction. Physical address, high training, entire fearlessness, iron nerve, and fertile resourcefulness are needed in a combination and to a degree hitherto unparalleled in war. The ordinary air fighter is an extraordinary man; and the extraordinary air fighter stands as one in a million among his fellows. Guynemer was one of these. More than this. He was the foremost among all the extraordinary fighters of all the nations who in this war have made the skies their battle field. We are fortunate indeed in having you write his biography.
Very faithfully yours, (Signed) Theodore Roosevelt.
M. Henry Bordeaux, 44 Rue du Ranelagh, Paris, France.
" ... Guynemer has not come back."
The news flew from one air escadrille to another, from the aviation camps to the troops, from the advance to the rear zones of the army; and a shock of pain passed from soul to soul in that vast army, and throughout 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 death of great leaders whose authority and importance intensified the general mourning for their loss. Thus, Troy without Hector was defenseless. When Gaston de Foix, Duke de Nemours, surnamed the Thunderbolt of Italy, died at the age of twenty-three after the victory of Ravenna, the French transalpine conquests were endangered. The bullet which struck Turenne at Saltzbach also menaced the work of Louis XIV. But Guynemer had nothing but his airplane, a speck in the immense spaces filled by the war. This young captain, though without an equal in the sky, conducted no battle on land. Why, then, did he alone have the power, like a great military chief, of leaving universal sadness behind him? A little child of France has given us the reason.
Among the endless expressions of the nation's mourning, this letter was written by the school-mistress of a village in Franche-Comte, Mademoiselle S——, of Bouclans, to the mother of the aviator:
Madame, you have already received the sorrowful and grateful sympathy of official France and of France as a nation; I am venturing to send you the naive and sincere homage of young France as represented by our school children at Bouclans. Before receiving from our chiefs the suggestion, of which we learn to-day, we had already, on the 22nd of October, consecrated a day to the memory of our hero Guynemer, your glorious son.
I send you enclosed an exercise by one of my pupils chosen at random, for all of them are animated by the same sentiments. You will see how the immortal glory of your son shines even in humble villages, and that the admiration and gratitude which the children, so far away in the country, feel for our greatest aviator, will be piously and faithfully preserved in his memory.
May this sincere testimony to the sentiments of childhood be of some comfort in your grief, to which I offer my most profound respect.
The School-mistress of Bouclans, C.S.
And this is the exercise, written by Paul Bailly, aged eleven years and ten 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 a legend like those of Roland, and in telling them just as they happened we find them more beautiful than any we could imagine. To do honor to him they are going to write his name in the Pantheon among the other great names. His airplane has been placed in the Invalides. In our school we consecrated a day to him. This morning as soon as we reached the school we put his photograph up on the wall; for our moral lesson we learned by heart his last mention in the despatches; for our writing lesson we wrote his name, and he was the subject for our theme; and finally, we had to draw an airplane. We did not begin to think of him only after he was dead; before he died, in our school, every time he brought down an airplane we were proud and happy. But when we heard that he was dead, we were as sad as if one of our own family had died.
Roland was the example for all the knights in history. Guynemer should be the example for Frenchmen now, and each one will try to imitate him and will remember him as we have remembered Roland. I, especially, I shall never forget him, for I shall remember that he died for France, like my dear Papa.
This little French boy's description of Guynemer is true and, limited as it is, sufficient: Guynemer is the modern Roland, with the same redoubtable 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 only accurate telling to appear like a legend. The void he left is so great because every household had adopted him. Each one shared in his victories, and all have written his name among their own dead.
Guynemer's glory, to have so ravished the minds of children, must have been both simple and perfect, and as his biographer I cannot dream of equaling the young Paul Bailly. But I shall not take his hero from him. Guynemer's life falls naturally into the legendary rhythm, and the simple and exact truth resembles a fairy tale.
The writers of antiquity have mourned in touching accents the loss of young men cut down in the flower of their youth. "The city," sighs Pericles, "has lost its light, the year has lost its spring." Theocritus and Ovid in turn lament the short life of Adonis, whose blood was changed into flowers. And in Virgil the father of the gods, whom Pallas supplicates before facing Turnus, warns him not to confound the beauty of 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 and irrecoverable; but to increase his renown by the quality of his acts, this is the work of virtue...."
[Footnote 1: AEneid, Book 10, Garnier ed.]
Famam extendere factis: no fabulous personage of antiquity made more haste than Guynemer to multiply the exploits that increased his glory. But the enumeration of these would not furnish a key to his life, nor explain either that secret power he possessed or the fascination he exerted. "It is not always the most brilliant actions which best expose the virtues or vices of men. Some trifle, some insignificant word or jest, often displays the character better than bloody combats, pitched battles, or the taking of cities. Also, as portrait painters try to reproduce the features and expression of their subjects, as the most obvious presentment of their characters, and without troubling about the other parts of the body, so we may be allowed to concentrate our study upon the distinctive signs of the soul...."
[Footnote 2: Plutarch, Life of Alexander.]
I, then, shall especially seek out these "distinctive signs of the soul."
Guynemer's family has confided to me his letters, his notebooks of flights, and many precious stories of his childhood, his youth, and his victories. I have seen him in camps, like the Cid Campeador, who made "the swarm of singing victories fly, with wings outspread, above his tents." I have had the good fortune to see him bring down an enemy airplane, which fell in flames on the bank of the river Vesle. I have met him in his father's house at Compiegne, which was his Bivar. Almost immediately after his disappearance I passed two night-watches—as if we sat beside his body—with his comrades, talking of nothing but him: troubled night-watches in which we had to change our shelter, for Dunkirk and the aviation field were bombarded by moonlight. In this way I was enabled to gather much scattered evidence, which will help, perhaps, to make clear his career. But I fear—and offer my excuses for this—to disappoint professional members of the aviation corps, who will find neither technical details nor the competence of the specialist. One of his comrades of the air,—and I hope it may be one of his rivals in glory,—should give us an account of Guynemer in action. The biography which I have attempted to write seeks the soul for its object rather than the motor: and the soul, too, has its wings.
France consented to love herself in Guynemer, something which she is not always willing to do. It happens sometimes that she turns away from her own efforts and sacrifices to admire and celebrate those of others, and that she displays her own defects and wounds in a way which exaggerates them. She sometimes appears to be divided against herself; but this man, young as he was, had reconciled her to herself. She smiled at his youth and his prodigious deeds of valor. He made peace within her; and she knew this, when she had lost him, by the outbreak of her grief. As on the first day of the war, France found herself once more united; and this love sprang from her recognition in Guynemer of her own impulses, her own generous ardor, her own blood whose course has not been retarded by many long centuries.
Since the outbreak of war there are few homes in France which have not been in mourning. But these fathers and mothers, these wives and children, when they read this book, will not say: "What is Guynemer to us? Nobody speaks of our dead." Their dead were, generally, infantry soldiers whom it was impossible for them to help, whose life they only knew by hearsay, and whose place of burial they sometimes do not know. So many obscure soldiers have never been commemorated, who gave, like Guynemer, their hearts and their lives, who lived through the worst days of misery, of mud and horror, and upon whom not the least ray of glory has ever descended! The infantry soldier is the pariah of the war, and has a right to be sensitive. The heaviest weight of suffering caused by war has fallen upon him. Nevertheless, he had adopted Guynemer, and this was not the least of the conqueror's conquests. The infantryman had not been jealous of Guynemer; he had felt his fascination, and instinctively he divined a fraternal Guynemer. When the French official dispatches reported the marvelous feats of the aviation corps, the infantry soldier smiled scornfully in his mole's-hole:
"Them again! Everlastingly them! And what about US?"
But when Guynemer added another exploit to his account, the trenches exulted, and counted over again all his feats.
He himself, from his height, looked down in the most friendly way upon these troglodytes who followed him with their eyes. One day when somebody reproached him with running useless risks in aerial acrobatic turns, he replied simply:
"After certain victories it is quite impossible not to pirouette a bit, one is so happy!"
This is the spirit of youth. "They jest and play with death as they played in school only yesterday at recreation." But Guynemer immediately added:
"It gives so much pleasure to the poilus watching us down there."
[Footnote 3: Henri Lavedan (L'Illustration of October 6, 1917).]
[Footnote 4: Pierre l'Ermite (La Croix of October 7, 1917).]
The sky-juggler was working for his brother the infantryman. As the singing lark lifts the peasant's head, bent over his furrow, so the conquering airplane, with its overturnings, its "loopings," its close veerings, its spirals, its tail spins, its "zooms," its dives, all its tricks of flight, amuses for a while the sad laborers in the trenches.
May my readers, when they have finished this little book, composed according to the rules of the boy, Paul Bailly, lift their heads and seek in the sky whither he carried, so often and so high, the tricolor of France, an invisible and immortal Guynemer!
I. THE GUYNEMERS
In his book on Chivalry, the good Leon Gautier, beginning with the knight in his cradle and wishing to surround him immediately with a supernatural atmosphere, interprets in his own fashion the sleeping baby smiling at the angels. "According to a curious legend, the origin of which has not as yet been clearly discovered," he explains, "the child during its slumber hears 'music,' the incomparable music made by the movement of the stars in their spheres. Yes, that which the most illustrious scholars have only been able to suspect the existence of is distinctly heard by these ears scarcely opened as yet, and ravishes them. A charming fable, giving to innocence more power than to proud science."
[Footnote 5: La Chevalerie, by Leon Gautier. A. Walter ed. 1895.]
The biographer of Guynemer would like to be able to say that our new knight also heard in his cradle the music of the stars, since he was to be summoned to approach them. But it can be said, at least, that during his early years he saw the shadowy train of all the heroes of French history, from Charlemagne to Napoleon.
Georges Marie Ludovic Jules Guynemer was born in Paris one Christmas Eve, December 24, 1894. He saw then, and always, the faces of three women, his mother and his two elder sisters, standing guard over his happiness. His father, an officer (Junior Class '80, Saint-Cyr), had resigned in 1890. An ardent scholar, he became a member of the Historical Society of Compiegne, and while examining the charters of the Cartulaire de royallieu, or writing a monograph on the Seigneurie d'Offemont, he verified family documents of the genealogy of his family. Above all, it was he in reality who educated his son.
Guynemer is a very old French name. In the Chanson de Roland one Guinemer, uncle of Ganelon, helped Roland to mount at his departure. A Guinemer appears in Gaydon (the knight of the jay), which describes the sorrowful return of Charlemagne to Aix-la-Chapelle after the drama of Roncevaux; and a Guillemer figures in Fier-a-Bras, in which Charlemagne and the twelve peers conquer Spain. This Guillemer l'Escot is made prisoner along with Oliver, Berart de Montdidier, Auberi de Bourgoyne, and Geoffroy l'Angevin.
In the eleventh century the family of Guynemer left Flanders for Brittany. When the French Revolution began, there were still Guynemers in Brittany, but the greatgrandfather of our hero, Bernard, was living in Paris in reduced circumstances, giving lessons in law. Under the Empire he was later to be appointed President of the Tribunal at Mayence, the chief town in the country of Mont Tonnerre. Falling into disfavor after 1815, he was only President of the Tribunal of Gannat.
[Footnote 6: There are still Guynemers there. M. Etienne Dupont, Judge in the Civil Court of Saint-Malo, sent me an extract from an aveu collectif of the "Leftenancy of Tinteniac de Guinemer des Rabines." The Guynemers, in more recent times, have left traces in the county of Saint-Malo, where Mgr. Guynemer de la Helandiere inaugurated, in September, 1869, the Tour Saint-Joseph, house of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Saint-Pern.]
Here, thanks to an unusual circumstance, oral tradition takes the place of writings, charters, and puzzling trifles. One of the four sons of Bernard Guynemer, Auguste, lived to be ninety-three, retaining all his faculties. Toward the end he resembled Voltaire, not only in face, but in his irony and skepticism. He had all sorts of memories of the Revolution, the Empire, and the Restoration, of which he told extraordinary anecdotes. His longevity was owing to his having been discharged from military service at the conscription. Two of his three brothers died before maturity: one, Alphonse, infantry officer, was killed at Vilna in 1812, and the other, Jules, naval officer, died in 1802 as the result of wounds received at Trafalgar. The last son, Achille, whom we shall presently refer to again, was to perpetuate the family name.
Auguste Guynemer remembered very vividly the day when he faced down Robespierre. He was at that time eight years old, and the mistress of his school had been arrested. He came to the school as usual and found there were no classes. Where was his teacher? he asked. At the Revolutionary Tribunal. Where was the Revolutionary Tribunal? Jestingly they told him where to find it, and he went straight to the place, entered, and asked back the captive. The audience looked at the little boy with amazement, while the judges joked and laughed at him. But without being discomposed, he explained the purpose of his visit. The incident put Robespierre in good humor, and he told the child that his teacher had not taught him anything. Immediately, as a proof of the contrary, the youngster began to recite his lessons. Robespierre was so delighted that, in the midst of general laughter, he lifted up the boy and kissed him. The prisoner was restored to him, and the school reopened.
However, of the four sons of the President of Mayence, the youngest only, Achille, was destined to preserve the family line. Born in 1792, a volunteer soldier at the age of fifteen, his military career was interrupted by the fall of the Empire. He died in Paris, in the rue Rossini, in 1866. Edmond About, who had known his son at Saverne, wrote the following biographical notice:
A child of fifteen years enlisted as a Volunteer in 1806. Junot found him intelligent, made him his secretary, and took him to Spain. The young man won his epaulettes under Colonel Hugo in 1811. He was made prisoner on the capitulation of Guadalajara in 1812, but escaped with two of his comrades whom he saved at the peril of his own life. Love, or pity, led a young Spanish girl to aid in this heroic episode, and for several days the legend threatened to become a romance. But the young soldier reappeared in 1813 at the passage of the Bidassoa, where he was promoted lieutenant in the 4th Hussars, and was given the Cross by the Emperor, who seldom awarded it. The return of the Bourbons suddenly interrupted this career, so well begun. The young cavalry officer then undertook the business of maritime insurance, earning honorably a large fortune, which he spent with truly military generosity, strewing his road with good deeds. He continued working up to the very threshold of death, for he resigned only a month ago, and it was yesterday, Thursday, that we laid him in his tomb at the age of seventy-five.
His name was Achille Guynemer. His family is related to the Benoist d'Azy, the Dupre de Saint-Maur, the Cochin, de Songis, du Tremoul and Vasselin families, who have left memories of many exemplary legal careers passed in Paris. His son, who wept yesterday as a child weeps before the tomb of such a father, is the new Sub-Prefect of Saverne, the young and laborious administrator who, from the beginning, won our gratitude and friendship.
The story of the escape from Spain contributes another page to the family traditions. The young Spanish girl had sent the prisoner a silken cord concealed in a pie. A fourth companion in captivity was unfortunately too large to pass through the vent-hole of the prison, and was shot by the English. It was August 31, 1813, after the passage of the Bidassoa, that Lieutenant Achille Guynemer was decorated with the Cross of the Legion of Honor. He was then twenty-one years of age. His greatgrandson, who resembled the portraits of Achille (especially a drawing done in 1807), at least in the proud carriage of the head, was to receive the Cross at an even earlier age.
There were other epic souvenirs which awakened Georges Guynemer's curiosity in childhood. He was shown the sword and snuffbox of General Count de Songis, brother of his paternal grandmother. This sword of honor had been presented to the general by the Convention when he was merely a captain of artillery, for having saved the cannon of the fortress at Valenciennes,—though it is quite true that Dumouriez, for the same deed, wished to have him hanged. The snuffbox was given him by the Emperor for having commanded the passage of the Rhine during the Ulm campaign.
Achille Guynemer had two sons. The elder, Amedee, a graduate of the Ecole polytechnique, died at the age of thirty and left no children. The second, Auguste, was Sub-Prefect of Saverne under the Second Empire; and, resigning this office after the war of 1870, he became Vice-President of the society for the protection of Alsatians and Lorrainers, the President of which was the Count d'Haussonville. He had married a young Scottish lady, Miss Lyon, whose family included the Earls of Strathmore, among whose titles were those of Glamis and Cawdor mentioned by Shakespeare in "Macbeth."
As we have already seen, only one of the four sons of the President of Mayence—the hero of the Bidassoa—had left descendants. His son is M. Paul Guynemer, former officer and historian of the Cartulaire de Royallieu and of the Seigneurie d'Offemont, whose only son was the aviator. The race whose history is lost far back in the Chanson de Roland and the Crusades, which settled in Flanders, and then in Brittany, but became, as soon as it left the provinces for the capital, nomadic, changing its base at will from the garrison of the officer to that of the official, seems to have narrowed and refined its stock and condensed all the power of its past, all its hopes for the future, in one last offshoot.
There are some plants, like the aloe, which bear but one flower, and sometimes only at the end of a hundred years. They prepare their sap, which has waited so long, and then from the heart of the plant issues a long straight stem, like a tree whose regular branches look like forged iron. At the top of this stem opens a marvelous flower, which is moist and seems to drop tears upon the leaves, inviting them to share its grief for the doom it awaits. When the flower is withered, the miracle is never renewed.
Guynemer is the flower of an old French family. Like so many other heroes, like so many peasants who, in this Great War, have been the wheat of the nation, his own acts have proved his nobility. But the fairy sent to preside at his birth laid in his cradle certain gilded pages of the finest history in the world: Roland, the Crusades, Brittany and Duguesclin, the Empire, and Alsace.
II. HOME AND COLLEGE
One of the generals best loved by the French troops, General de M——, a learned talker and charming moralist, who always seemed in his conversation to wander through the history of France, like a sorcerer in a forest, weaving and multiplying his spells, once recited to me the short prayer he had composed for grace to enable him to rear his children in the best way:
"Monseigneur Saint Louis, Messire Duguesclin, Messire Bayard, help me to make my sons brave and truthful."
So was Georges Guynemer reared, in the cult of truth, and taught that to deceive is to lower oneself. Even in his infancy he was already as proud as any personage. His early years were protected by the gentle and delicate care of his mother and his two sisters, who hung adoringly over him and were fascinated by his strange black eyes. What was to become of a child whose gaze was difficult to endure, and whose health was so fragile, for when only a few months old he had almost died of infantile enteritis. His parents had been obliged to carry him hastily to Switzerland, and then to Hyeres, and to keep him in an atmosphere like that of a hothouse. Petted and spoiled, tended by women, like Achilles at Scyros among the daughters of Lycomedes, would he not bear all his life the stamp of too softening an education? Too pretty and too frail, with his curls and his dainty little frock, he had an air de princesse. His father felt that a mistake was being made, and that this excess of tenderness must be promptly ended. He took the child on his knees; a scene as trifling as it was decisive was about to be enacted:
"I almost feel like taking you with me, where I am going."
"Where are you going, father?"
"There, where I am going, there are only men."
"I want to go with you."
The father seemed to hesitate, and then to decide:
"After all, too early is better than too late. Put on your hat. I shall take you." He took him to the hairdresser.
"I am going to have my hair cut. How do you feel about it?"
"I want to do like men."
The child was set upon a stool where, in the white combing-cloth, with his curly hair, he resembled an angel done by an Italian Primitive. For an instant the father thought himself a barbarian, and the barber hesitated, scissors in air, as before a crime. They exchanged glances; then the father stiffened and gave the order. The beautiful curls fell.
But now it became necessary to return home; and when his mother saw him, she wept.
"I am a man," the child announced, peremptorily.
He was indeed to be a man, but he was to remain for a long time also a mischievous boy—nearly, in fact, until the end.
When he was six or seven years old he began to study with the teacher of his sisters, which was convenient and agreeable, but meant the addition of another petticoat. The fineness of his feelings, his fear of having wounded any comrade, which were later to inspire him in so many touching actions, were the result of this feminine education. His walks with his father, who already gave him much attention, brought about useful reactions. Compiegne is rich in the history of the past: kings were crowned there, and kings died there. The Abbey of Saint Cornille sheltered, perhaps, the holy winding-sheet of Christ. Treaties were signed at Compiegne, and there magnificent fetes were given by Louis XIV, Louis XV, Napoleon I, and Napoleon III. And even in 1901 the child met Czar Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra, who were staying there. So, the palace and the forest spoke to him of a past which his father could explain. And on the Place de l'Hotel de Ville he was much interested in the bronze statue of the young girl, bearing a banner.
"Who is it?"
Georges Guynemer's parents renounced the woman teacher, and in order to keep him near them, entered him as a day scholar at the lyceum of Compiegne. Here the child worked very little. M. Paul Guynemer, having been educated at Stanislas College, in Paris, wished his son also to go there. Georges was then twelve years old.
"In a photograph of the pupils of the Fifth (green) Class," wrote a journalist in the Journal des Debats, who had had the curiosity to investigate Georges' college days, "may be seen a restless-looking little boy, thinner and paler than the others, whose round black eyes seem to shine with a somber brilliance. These eyes, which, eight or ten years later, were to hunt and pursue so many enemy airplanes, are passionately self-willed. The same temperament is evident in a snapshot of this same period, in which Georges is seen playing at war. The college registers of this year tell us that he had a clear, active, well-balanced mind, but that he was thoughtless, mischief-making, disorderly, careless; that he did not work, and was undisciplined, though without any malice; that he was very proud, and 'ambitious to attain first rank': a valuable guide in understanding the character of one who became 'the ace of aces.' In fact, at the end of the year young Guynemer received the first prize for Latin translation, the first prize for arithmetic, and four honorable mentions."
The author of the Debats article, who is a scholar, recalls Michelet's mot: "The Frenchman is that naughty child characterized by the good mother of Duguesclin as 'the one who is always fighting the others....'" But the best portrait of Guynemer as a child I find in the unpublished notes of Abbe Chesnais, who was division prefect at Stanislas College during the four years which Guynemer passed there. The Abbe Chesnais had divined this impassioned nature, and watched it with troubled sympathy.
"His eyes vividly expressed the headstrong, fighting nature of the boy," he says of his pupil. "He did not care for quiet games, but was devoted to those requiring skill, agility, and force. He had a decided preference for a game highly popular among the younger classes—la petite guerre. The class was divided into two armies, each commanded by a general chosen by the pupils themselves, and having officers of all ranks under his orders. Each soldier wore on his left arm a movable brassard. The object of the battle was the capture of the flag, which was set up on a wall, a tree, a column, or any place dominating the courtyard. The soldier from whom his brassard was taken was considered dead.
"Guynemer, who was somewhat weak and sickly, always remained a private soldier. His comrades, appreciating the value of having a general with sufficient muscular strength to maintain his authority, never dreamed of placing him at their head. The muscle, which he lacked, was a necessity. But when a choice of soldiers had to be made, he was always counted among the best, and his name called among the first. Although he had not much strength, he had agility, cleverness, a quick eye, caution, and a talent for strategy. He played his game himself, not liking to receive any suggestions from his chiefs, intending to follow his own ideas. The battle once begun, he invariably attacked the strongest enemy and pursued those comrades who occupied the highest rank. With the marvelous suppleness of a cat, he climbed trees, flung himself to the ground, crept along barriers, slipped between the legs of his adversaries, and bounded triumphantly off with a number of brassards. It was a great joy to him to bring the trophies of his struggles to his general. With radiant face, and with his two hands resting on his legs, he looked mockingly at his adversaries who had been surprised by his cleverness. His superiority over his comrades was especially apparent in the battles they fought in the woods of Bellevue. There the field was larger, and there was a greater variety of chances for surprising the enemy. He hid himself under the dead leaves, lay close to the branches of trees, and crept along brooks and ravines. It was often he who was selected to find a place of vantage for the flag. But he was never willing to act as its guardian, for he feared nothing so much as inactivity, preferring to chase his comrades through the woods. The short journey to the Bellevue woods was passed in the elaboration of various plans, and arguing about those of his friends; he always wanted to have the last word. The return journey was enlivened by biting criticism, which often ended in a quarrel."
[Footnote 7: The country house of Stanislas College is at Bellevue. [Translator's note.]]
[Footnote 8: Unpublished notes by Abbe Chesnais.]
This is an astonishing portrait, in which nearly all the characteristics of the future Guynemer, Guynemer the fighter, are apparent. He does not care to command, he likes too well to give battle, and is already the knight of single combats. His method is personal, and he means to follow his own ideas. He attacks the strongest; neither size nor number stops him. His suppleness and skill are unequaled. He lacks the muscle for a good gymnast, and at the parallel bars, or the fixed bar, he is the despair of his instructors. How will he supply this deficiency? Simply by the power of his will. All physical games do not require physical strength, and he became an excellent shot and fencer. Furious at his own weakness, he outdid the strong, and, like Diomede and Ajax, brought back his trophies laughing. A college courtyard was not sufficient for him: he needed the Bellevue woods, while he waited to have all space, all the sky, at his disposal. So the warlike infancy of a Guynemer is like that of a Roland, a Duguesclin, a Bayard,—all are ardent hearts with indomitable energy, upright souls developing early, whose passion it was only necessary to control.
The youth of Guynemer was like his childhood. As a student of higher mathematics his combative tendencies were not at all changed. "At recreation he was very fond of roller-skating, which in his case gave rise to many disputes and much pugilism. Having no respect for boys who would not play, he would skate into the midst of their group, pushing them about, seizing their arms and forcing them to waltz round and round with him like weather-cocks. Then he would be off at his highest speed, pursued by his victims. Blows were exchanged, which did not prevent him from repeating the same thing a few seconds later. At the end of recreation, with his hair disordered, his clothes covered with dust, his face and hands muddy, Guynemer was exhausted. But the strongest of his comrades could not frighten him; on the contrary, he attacked these by preference. The masters were often obliged to intervene and separate the combatants. Guynemer would then straighten up like a cock, his eyes sparkling and obtruding, and, unable to do more, would crush his adversary with piquant and sometimes cutting words uttered in a dry, railing voice."
[Footnote 9: Unpublished notes by Abbe Chesnais.]
Talking, however, was not his forte, and his nervousness made him sputter. His speech was vibrant, trenchant, like hammerstrokes, and he said things to which there was no answer. He had a horror of discussion: he was already all action.
This violence and frenzied action would have driven him to the most unreasonable and dangerous audacity if they had not been counterbalanced by his sense of honor. "He was one of those," wrote a comrade of Guynemer's, M. Jean Constantin, now lieutenant of artillery, "for whom honor is sacred, and must not be disregarded under any pretext; and in his life, in his relations with his comrades, his candor and loyalty were only equaled by his goodness. Often, in the midst of our games, some dispute arose. Where are the friends who have never had a dispute? Sometimes we were both so obstinate that we fought, but after that he was willing to renounce the privilege of the last word. He never could have endured bringing trouble upon his fellow-students. He never hesitated to admit a fault; and, what is much better, once when one of his comrades, who was a good student, had inadvertently made a foolish mistake which might have lowered his marks, I saw Georges accuse himself and take the punishment in his place. His comrade never knew anything about it, for Georges did that sort of thing almost clandestinely, and with the simplicity and modesty which were always the great charm of his character."
This sense of honor he had drawn in with his mother's milk; and his father had developed it in him. Everything about him indicated pride: the upright carriage of his head, the glance of his black eyes which seemed to pierce the objects he looked at. He loved the Stanislas uniform which his father had worn before him, and which had been worn by Gouraud and Baratier, whose fame was then increasing, and Rostand, then in all the new glory of Cyrano and L'Aiglon. He had an exact appreciation of his own dignity. Though he listened attentively in class, he would never ask for information or advice from his classmates. He hated to be trifled with, and made it understood that he intended to be respected. Never in all his life did he have a low thought. If he ever varied from the nobleness which was natural to him, silence was sometimes sufficient to bring him to himself.
With a mobile face, full of contrasts, he was sometimes the roguish boy who made the whole class shake with laughter, and involved it in a whirlwind of games and tricks, and at others the serious, thoughtful pupil, who was considered to be self-absorbed, distant, and not inclined to reveal himself to anybody. The fierce soldier of the petite guerre was also a formidable adversary at checkers. Here, however, he became patient, only moving his pieces after long reflection. None of the students could beat him, and no one could take him by surprise. If he was beaten by a professor, he never rested until he had had his revenge. His power of will was far beyond his years, but it needed to be relaxed. To study and win to the head of his class was nothing for his lively intelligence, but his health was always delicate. He would appear wrapped in cloaks, comforters, waterproof coats, and then vanish into the infirmary. This boy who did not fear blows, bruises, or falls, was compelled to avoid draughts and to diet. Nobody ever heard him complain, nor was any one ever to do so. Often he had to give up work for whole months at a time; and in his baccalaureate year he was stopped by a return of the infantile enteritis. "Three months of rest," the doctor ordered at Christmas. "You will do your rhetoric over again next year," said his father, who came to take him home. "Not at all," said the boy; "the boys shall not get ahead of me"—a childish boast which passed unnoticed. At the end of three months of rest and pleasant walks around Compiegne, the child remarked: "The three months are up, and I mean to present myself in July." "You haven't time; it is impossible." He insisted. So they discovered, at Compiegne, the Pierre d'Ailly school, in a building which since then has been ruined by a shell. It was his idea to attend these classes as a day scholar, just for the pleasure of it. He promised to continue to take care of himself at home. And in the month of July, at the age of fifteen, he took his bachelor degree, with mention.
But the bow cannot long remain bent, and hence certain diversions of his, ending sometimes in storms, but not caused by any ill-will on his part, for it was repugnant to him to give others pain. The following autumn he returned to Stanislas College, and resumed his school exploits.
"Vexed to find that a place had been reserved for him near the professor, under the certainly justified pretext that he was too much inclined to talk," again writes Abbe Chesnais, "he was resolved to talk all the same, whenever he pleased. With the aid of pins, pens, wires and boxes, he soon set up a telephone which put him into communication with the boy whose desk was farthest away. He possessed tools necessary for any of his tricks, and his desk was a veritable bazaar: copybooks, books, pen-holders and paper were mixed pell-mell with the most unlikely objects, such as fragments of fencing foils, drugs, chemical products, oil, grease, bolts, skate wheels, and tablets of chocolate. In one corner, carefully concealed, were some glass tubes which awaited a favorable moment for projecting against the ceiling a ball of chewed paper. Attached to this ball, a paper personage cut out of a copybook cover danced feverishly in space. When this grotesque figurine became quiet, another paper ball, shot with great skill, renewed the dancing to the great satisfaction of the young marksman. Airplanes made of paper were also hidden in this desk, awaiting the propitious hour for launching them; and the professor's desk sometimes served as their landing place.... Everything, indeed, was to be found there, but in such disorder that the owner himself could never find them. Who has not seen him hunting for a missing exercise in a copybook full of scraps of paper? It is time to go to class; with his head hidden in his desk, he turns over all its contents in great haste, upsetting a badly closed ink-bottle over his books and copybooks. The master calls him to order, and he rushes out well behind all the rest of the boys.
"He was not one of those ill-intentioned boys whose sole idea is to disturb the class and hinder the work of his comrades. Nor was he a ringleader. He acted entirely on his own account, and for his own satisfaction. His practical jokes never lasted long, and did not interrupt the work of others. His upright, frank and honest nature always led him to acknowledge his own acts when the master attributed them by mistake to the wrong boys. He never allowed any comrade to take his punishment for him, but he knew very well how to extricate himself from the greatest difficulties. His candor often won him some indulgence. If he happened to be punished by a timorous master, he assumed a terrible facial expression and tried to frighten him. But when, on the contrary, he found himself in the presence of a man of energy, he pleaded extenuating circumstances, and persevered until he obtained the least possible punishment. He never resented the infliction of just punishment, but suffered very much when punished in public. On the day when the class marks were read aloud, if he suspected that his own were to be bad, he took refuge in the infirmary to avoid the shame of public exposure. Honor, for him, was not a vain word.
"He was very sensitive to reproaches. He was an admirer of courage, audacity, anything generous. Who at Stanislas does not remember his proud and haughty attitude when a master vexed him in presence of his classmates, or interfered to end a quarrel in which his own self-respect was at stake? All his nerves were stretched; his body stiffened, and he stood as straight as a steel rod, his arms pressed against his legs, his fists tightly closed, his head held high and rigid, and his face as yellow as ivory, with its smooth forehead, and his compressed lips cutting two deep lines around his mouth; his eyes, fixed like two black balls, seemed to start from the sockets, shooting fire. He looked as if he were about to destroy his adversary with lightning, but in reality he retained the most imperturbable sang-froid. He stood like a marble statue, but it was easy to divine the storm raging within...."
[Footnote 10: Unpublished notes by Abbe Chesnais.]
His tendency, after taking his bachelor's degree, was towards science; he was ambitious to enter the Ecole polytechnique, and joined the special mathematics class. Even when very young he had shown particular aptitude for mechanics, and a gift for invention which we have seen exercised in his practical jokes as a student. When he was only four or five years old he constructed a bed out of paper, which he raised by means of cords and pulleys.
"He passed whole hours," says his Stanislas classmate, Lieutenant Constantin, "in trying to solve a mathematical problem, or studying some question which had interested him, without knowing what went on around him; but as soon as he had solved his problem, or learned something new, he was satisfied and returned to the present. He was particularly interested in everything connected with the sciences. His greatest pleasure was to make experiments in physics or chemistry: he tried everything which his imagination suggested. Once he happened to produce a detonating mixture which made a formidable explosion, but nothing was broken except a few windows."
His choice of reading revealed the same tendency. He was not fond of reading, and only liked books of adventure which were food for his warlike sentiments and his ideas of honor and honesty. He preferred the works of Major Driant, and re-read them even during his mathematical year. Returning from a walk one Thursday evening, he knocked on the prefect's door to ask for a book. He wanted La Guerre fatale, La Guerre de Demain, L'Aviateur du Pacifique, etc. "But you have already read them." "That does not matter." Did he really re-read them? His dreams were always the same, and his eyes looked into the future.
Somebody, however, was to exert over this impressionable, mobile, almost too ardent nature, an influence which was to determine its direction. His father had advised him to choose his friends with care, and not yield himself to the first comer. He was not only incapable of doing that, but equally incapable of yielding himself to anybody. Do we really choose our friends in early life? We only know our friends by finding them in our lives when we need them. They are there, but we have not sought them. A similarity of taste, of sensibility, of ambitions draw us to them, and they have been our friends a long time already before we perceive that they are not merely comrades. Thus Jean Krebs became the constant companion of Georges Guynemer. The father of Jean Krebs is that Colonel Krebs whose name is connected with the first progress made in aerostation and aviation. He was then director of the Panhard factories, and his two sons were students at Stanislas. Jean, the elder, was Guynemer's classmate. He was a silent, self-centered, thoughtful student, calm in speech and facial expression, never speaking one word louder than another, and the farthest possible removed from anything noisy or agitated. Georges broke in upon his solitude and attached himself to him, while Krebs endured, smiled, and accepted, and they became allies. It was Krebs, for the time, who was the authority, the one who had prestige and wore the halo. Why, he knew what an automobile was, and one Sunday he took his friend Georges to Ivry and taught him how to drive. He taught him every technical thing he knew. Georges launched with all his energy into this new career, and soon became acquainted with every motor in existence. During the school promenades, if the column of pupils walked up or down the Champs Elysees, he told them the names of passing automobiles: "That's a Lorraine. There is a Panhard. This one has so many horsepower," etc. Woe to any who ventured to contradict him. He looked the insolent one up and down, and crushed him with a word.
He was overjoyed when the college organized Thursday afternoon visits to factories. He chose his companions in advance, sometimes compelling them to give up a game of tennis. Krebs was one of them. For Georges the visits to the Puteaux and Dion-Bouton factories were a feast of which he was often to speak later. He went, not as a sightseer, but as a connoisseur. He could not bring himself to remain with the engineer who showed the party through the works. He required more liberty, more time to investigate everything for himself, to see and touch everything. The smallest detail interested him; he questioned the workmen, asking them the use of some screw, and a thousand other things. The visit was too soon over for him; and when his comrades had already left, and the division prefect was calling the roll to make sure of all his boys, Guynemer as usual was missing, and was discovered standing in ecstasy before a machine which some workmen were engaged in setting up.
"The opening weeks of the automobile and aviation exhibition were a period of comparative tranquillity for his masters, as Guynemer was no longer the same restless, nervous, mischievous boy, being too anxious to retain his privileges for the promenades. He was always one of those who haunted the prefect when the hour for departure drew near. He was impatient to know where they were to go: 'Where are we going?... Shall you take us to the Grand Palais? (The Automobile and Aviation Exhibition).... Wouldn't you be a brick!...' When they arrived, he was not one of those many curious people who circulate aimlessly around the stands with their hands in their pockets, without reaping anything but fatigue, like a cyclist on a circular track. His plans were all made in advance, and he knew where the stand was which he meant to visit. He went directly there, where his ardor and his free and easy behavior drew upon him the admonitions of the proprietor. But nothing stopped him, and he continued to touch everything, furnishing explanations to his companions. When he returned to the college his pockets bulged with prospectuses, catalogues, and selected brochures, which he carefully added to the heterogeneous contents of his desk."
[Footnote 11: Unpublished notes by Abbe Chesnais.]
Jean Krebs crystallized Georges Guynemer's vocation. He developed and specialized his taste for mechanics, separating it from vague abstractions and guiding it towards material realities and the wider experiences these procure. He deserves to be mentioned in any biography of Guynemer, and before passing on, it is proper that his premature loss should be cited and deplored. Highly esteemed as an aviator during the war, he made the best use of his substantial and reliable faculties in the work of observation. Airplane chasing did not attract him, but he knew how to use his eyes. He was killed in a landing accident at a time almost coincident with the disappearance of Guynemer. One of his escadrille mates described him thus: "With remarkable intelligence, and a perfectly even disposition, his chiefs valued him for his sang-froid, his quick eye, his exact knowledge of the services he was able to perform. Every time a mission was intrusted to him, everybody was sure that he would accomplish it, no matter what conditions he had to meet. He often had to face enemy airplanes better armed than his own, and in the course of a flight had been wounded in the thigh by an exploding shell. Nevertheless he had continued to fly, only returning considerably later when his task was done. His death has left a great void in this escadrille. Men like him are difficult to replace...."
Thus the immoderate Guynemer had for his first friend a comrade who knew exactly his own limits. Guynemer could save Jean Krebs from his excess of literal honesty by showing him the enchantment of his own ecstasies, but Jean Krebs furnished the motor for Guynemer's ambitious young wings. Without the technical lessons of Jean Krebs, could Guynemer later have got into the aviation field at Pau, and won so easily his diploma as pilot? Would he have applied himself so closely to the study of his tools and the perfecting of his machine?
The war was to make them both aviators, and both of them fell from the sky, one in the fullness of glory, the other almost obscure. When they talked together on school outings, or as they walked along beside the walls of Stanislas, had they ever foreseen this destiny? Certainly not Jean Krebs, with his positive spirit; he only saw ahead the Ecole polytechnique, and thought of nothing but preparation for that. But Guynemer? In his very precious notes, Abbe Chesnais shows us the boy constructing a little airplane of cloth, the motor of which was a bundle of elastics. "At the next recreation hour, he went up to the dormitory, opened a window, launched his machine, and presided over its evolutions above the heads of his comrades." But these were only the games of an ingenious collegian. The worthy priest, who was division prefect, and watched the boy with a profound knowledge of psychology, never received any confidence from him regarding his vocation.
Aviation, whose first timid essays began in 1906, progressed rapidly. After Santos Dumont, who on November 22, 1906, covered 220 meters while volplaning, a group of inventors—Bleriot, Delagrange, Farman, Wright—perfected light motors. In 1909 Bleriot crossed the Channel, Paulhan won the height record at 1380 meters, and Farman the distance record over a course of 232 kilometers. A visionary, Viscomte Melchior de Vogue, had already foreseen the prodigious development of air-travel. All the young people of the time longed to fly. Guynemer, studying the new invention with his customary energy, could hardly do otherwise than share the general infatuation. His comrades, like himself, dreamed of parts of airplanes and their construction. But the idea of Lieutenant Constantin is different: "When an airplane flew over the quarter, Guynemer followed it with his eyes, and continued to gaze at the sky for some time after its disappearance. His desk contained a whole collection of volumes and photographs concerning aviation. He had resolved to go up some day in an airplane, and as he was excessively self-willed he tried to bring this about by every means in his power. 'Don't you know anybody who could take me up some Sunday?' Of whom has he not asked this question? But at college it was not at all easy, and it was during vacation that he succeeded in carrying out his project. If I am not mistaken, his first ascension was at the aerodrome of Compiegne. At that time the comfortable cockpits of the modern airplanes were unknown, and the passenger was obliged to place himself as best he could behind the pilot and cling to him by putting his arms around him in order not to fall, so that it was a relief to come down again!..."
The noticeable sentence in these notes is the first one: When an airplane flew over the quarter, he followed it with his eyes, and continued to gaze at the sky for some time after its disappearance. If Jean Krebs had survived, he could perhaps enlighten us still further; but, even to this reasonable friend, could Guynemer have revealed what was still confused to himself? Jean Constantin only saw him once in a reverie; and Guynemer must have kept silent about his resolutions.
Soon afterwards, as Guynemer was obliged once more to renounce his studies—and this was the year in which he was preparing for the Polytechnique—his father left him with his grandmother in Paris, to rest. During this time he went to lectures on the social sciences, finally completing his education, which was strictly French, not one day having been passed with any foreign teacher. After this he traveled with his mother and sisters, leading the life of the well-to-do young man who has plenty of time in which to plan his future. Was he thinking of his future at all? The question occurred to his father who, worried at the thought of his son's idleness, recalled him and interrogated him as to his ideas of a future career, fully expecting to receive one of those undecided answers so often given by young men under similar circumstances. But Georges replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and no other could ever have been considered:
This reply was surprising. What could have led him to a determination apparently so sudden?
"That is not a career," he was told. "Aviation is still only a sport. You travel in the air as a motorist rides on the highways. And after passing a few years devoted to pleasure, you hire yourself to some constructor. No, a thousand times no!"
Then he said to his father what he had never said to anybody, and what his comrade Constantin had merely suspected:
"That is my sole passion. One morning in the courtyard at Stanislas I saw an airplane flying. I don't know what happened to me: I felt an emotion so profound that it was almost religious. You must believe me when I ask your permission to be an aviator."
"You don't know what an airplane is. You never saw one except from below."
"You are mistaken; I went up in one at Corbeaulieu."
Corbeaulieu was an aerodrome near Compiegne; and these words were spoken a very few months before the war.
* * * * *
Many years before Georges Guynemer was a student at Stanislas, a professor, who was also destined to become famous, taught rhetoric there. His name was Frederic Ozanam. He too had been a precocious child, prematurely sure of his vocation for literature. When only fifteen he had composed in Latin verse an epitaph in honor of Gaston de Foix, dead at Ravenna. This epitaph, if two words are changed—Hispanae into hostilis, and Gaston into Georges—describes perfectly the short and admirable career of Guynemer. Even the palms are included:
Fortunate heros! moriendo in saecula vives. Eia, agite, o socii, manibus profundite flores, Lilia per tumulum, violamque rosamque recentem Spargite; victricis armis superaddite lauros, Et tumulo tales mucrone inscribite voces: Hic jacet hostilis gentis timor et decus omne Gallorum, Georgius, conditus ante diem: Credidit hunc Lachesis juvenem dum cerneret annos, Sed palmas numerans credidit esse senem.
It is a paraphrase of the reply of the gods to the young Pallas, in Virgil.
[Footnote 12: Fortunate hero! thou diest, but thou shalt live forever! Come, my companions! strew flowers And lilies over the tomb! violets and young roses Scatter; heap up laurels upon his arms, And on the stone write with the point of your sword: Here lieth one who was the terror of the enemy, and the glory Of the French, George, taken before his time. Lachesis from his face thought him a boy, But counting his victories she thought him full of years.]
This young Frederic Ozanam died in the full vigor of manhood before having attained his fortieth year, of a malady which had already foretold his death. At that time he seemed to have achieved perfect happiness; it was the supreme moment when everything succeeds, when the difficult years are almost forgotten, and the road mounts easily upward. He had in his wife a perfect companion, and his daughter was a lovable young girl. His reputation was growing; he was soon to be received by the Academy, and fortune and fame were already achieved. And then death called him. Truly the hour was badly chosen—but when is it chosen at the will of mortals? Ozanam tried to win pity from death. In his private journal he notes death's approach, concerning which he was never deceived; and he asks Heaven for a respite. To propitiate it, he offers a part of his life, the most brilliant part; he is willing to renounce honors, fame, and fortune, and will consent to live humbly and be forgotten, like the poor for whom he founded the Conferences de Saint-Vincent de Paul, and whom he so often visited in their wretched lodgings; but let him at least dwell a little longer in his home, that he may see his daughter grow up, and pass a few years more with the companion of his choice. Finally, he is impassioned by his Faith, he no longer reasons with Heaven, but says: "Take all according to Thy wish, take all, take myself. Thy will be done...."
Rarely has the drama of acceptance of the Divine Will been more freely developed. Now, in the drama which was to impassion Guynemer even to complete sacrifice, it is not the vocation of aviator that we should remark, but the absolute will to serve. Abbe Chesnais, who does not attach primary importance to the vocation, has understood this well. At the end of his notes he reminds us that Guynemer was a believer who accomplished his religious exercises regularly, without ostentation and without weakness. "How many times he has stopped me at night," he writes, "as I passed near his bed! He wanted a quiet conscience, without reproach. His usual frivolity left him at the door of the chapel. He believed in the presence of God in this holy place and respected it.... His Christian sentiments were to be a sustaining power in his aerial battles, and he would fight with the more ardor if his conscience were at peace with his God...."
These words of Abbe Chesnais explain the true vocation of Guynemer: "The chances of war brought out marvelously the qualities contained in such a frail body. In the beginning did he think of becoming a pilot? Perhaps. But what he wanted above everything was to fulfil his duty as a Frenchman. He wanted to be a soldier; he was ashamed of himself, he said, in the first days of September, 1914: 'If I have to sleep in the bottom of an automobile truck, I want to go to the front. I will go.'"
He was to go; but neither love of aviation nor love of fame had anything to do with his departure, as they were to have nothing to do with his final fate.
III. THE DEPARTURE
In the month of July, 1914, Georges Guynemer was with his family at the Villa Delphine, Biarritz, in the northern part of the Anglet beach. This beach is blond with sunshine, but is refreshed by the ocean breezes. One can be deliciously idle there. This beach is besides an excellent landing-place for airplanes, because of the welcome of its soft sand. Georges Guynemer never left the Anglet beach, and every time an airplane descended he was there to receive it. He was the aviation sentry. But at this period airplanes were rare. Guynemer had his own thoughts, and tenacity was one of his dominant traits; he was already one of those who never renounce. The bathers who passed this everlasting idler never suspected that he was obstinately developing one single plan, and hanging his whole future upon it.
Meanwhile the horizon of Europe darkened. Ever since the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, at Sarajevo, electricity had accumulated in the air, and the storm was ready to burst. To this young man, the Archduke and the European horizon were things of nothing. The sea-air was healthful, and he searched the heavens for invisible airplanes. The conversations in progress all around him were full of anxiety; he had no time to listen to them. The eyes of the women began to be full of pain; he did not notice the eyes of women. On the second of August the order for mobilization was posted. It was war!
Then Guynemer rid himself of his dream, as if it were something unreal, and broke off brusquely all his plans for the future. He was entirely possessed by another idea, which made his eyes snap fire, and wrinkled his forehead. He rushed to his father and without taking breath announced:
"I am going to enlist."
"You are lucky."
"Well, then, you authorize me...."
"I envy you."
He had feared to be met with some parental objection on account of the uncertain health which had so often thwarted him, and had postponed his preparation for the Ecole Polytechnique. Now he felt reassured. Next day he was at Bayonne, getting through all the necessary formalities. He was medically examined—and postponed. The doctors found him too tall, too thin—no physiological defect, but a child's body in need of being developed and strengthened. In vain he supplicated them; they were pitiless. He returned home grieved, humiliated, and furious. The Villa Delphine was to know some very uncomfortable days. His family understood his determination and began to have fears for him. And he returned to the charge, and attacked his father with insistence, as if his father were all-powerful and could, if he would, compel them to accept his son's services for la Patrie.
"If you would help me, I should not be put off."
"A former officer has connections in the army. You could speak for me."
"Very well, I will."
M. Guynemer, in his turn, went to Bayonne. From that date, indeed from the first day of war, he had promised himself never to set obstacles in the way of his son's military service, but to favor it upon all occasions. He kept his word, as we shall see later, at whatever cost to himself. The recruiting major listened to his request. It was the hour of quick enthusiasms, and he had already sustained many assaults and resisted many importunities.
"Monsieur," he now said, "you may well believe that I accept all who can serve. I speak to you as a former officer: does your conscience assure you that your son is fit to carry a knapsack and be a foot-soldier?"
"I could not say that he is."
"Would he make a cavalryman?"
"He can't ride on account of his former enteritis."
"Then you see how it is; it's proper to postpone him. Build him up, and later on he'll be taken. The war is not finished."
As Georges had been present at this interview, he now saw himself refused a second time. He returned with his father to Biarritz, pale, silent, unhappy, and altogether in such a state of anger and bitterness that his face was altered. Nothing consoled him, nothing amused him. On those magnificent August days the sea was a waste of sunshine, and the beach was an invitation to enjoy the soft summer hours; but he did not go to the beach, and he scorned the sea. His anxious parents wondered if, for the sake of his health, it would not be easier to see him depart. As for them, it was their fate to suffer in every way.
Ever since the mobilization, Georges Guynemer had had only one thought: to serve—to serve, no matter where, no matter how, no matter in what branch of the service, but to leave, to go to the front, and not stay there at Biarritz like those foreigners who had not left, or like those useless old men and children who were now all that remained of the male population.
Many trains had carried off the first recruits, trains decorated with flowers and filled with songs. The sons of France had come running from her farthest provinces, and a unanimous impulse precipitated them upon the assaulted frontier. But this impulse was perfectly controlled. The songs the men sang were serious and almost sacred. The nation was living through one of her greatest hours, and knew it. With one motion she regained her national unity, and renewed once more her youth.
Meanwhile the news that sifted in, little by little, caused intense anguish—anguish, not doubt. The government had left Paris to establish itself at Bordeaux. The capital was menaced. The enemy had entered Compiegne. Compiegne was no longer ours. The Joan of Arc on the place of the Hotel de Ville had pickelhauben on her men-at-arms. And then the victory of the Marne lifted the weight that oppressed every heart. At the Villa Delphine news came that Compiegne was saved. Meanwhile trains left carrying troops to reinforce the combatants. And Georges Guynemer had to live through all these departures, suffering and rebelling until he had a horror of himself. His comrades and friends were gone, or had asked permission to go. His two first cousins, his mother's nephews, Guy and Rene de Saint Quentin, had gone; one, a sergeant, was killed at the Battle of the Marne, the other, councilor to the Embassy at Constantinople, returning in haste when war was declared, had taken his place as lieutenant of reserves, and had been twice wounded at the Marne, by a ball in the shoulder and a shrapnel bullet in the thigh. Was it possible for him to stay there alone when the whole of France had risen?
In the Chanson d'Aspremont, which is one of our most captivating chansons de geste, Charlemagne is leaving for Italy with his army, and passes by Laon. In the donjon five children, one of whom is his nephew Roland, are imprisoned under the care of Turpin. The Emperor, who knows them well, has had them locked up for fear they would join his troops. But when they hear the ivory horns sounding and the horses neighing, they are determined to escape. They try to cajole the porter, but he is adamant and incorruptible. This faithful servitor is immediately well beaten. They take away his keys, pass over his body, and are soon out of the prison. But their adventures are only beginning. To procure themselves horses they attack and unhorse five Bretons, and to get arms they repeat the same process. They are so successful that they manage to join the Emperor's army before it has crossed the Alps. Will our new Roland allow himself to be outdistanced by these terrible children of former ages? It is not the army with its ivory horns that he has heard departing, but the whole marching nation, fighting to live and endure, and to enable honor and justice and right to live and endure with her.
So we find Guynemer once more on the Anglet beach, sad and discomfited. An airplane capsizes on the sand. What does he care about an airplane—don't they know that his old passion and dream are dead? Since August 2 he has not given them a thought. However, he begins a conversation with the pilot, who is a sergeant. And all at once a new idea takes possession of him; the old passion revives again under another form; the dream rises once more.
"How can one enlist in the aviation corps?"
"Arrange it with the captain; go to Pau."
Georges runs at once to the Villa Delphine. His parents no longer recognize the step and the face of the preceding days; he looks like their son again; he is saved.
"Father, I want to go to Pau to-morrow."
"Why this trip to Pau?"
"To enlist in the aviation corps. Before the war you wouldn't hear of my being an aviator, but in war aviation is no longer a sport."
"In war—yes, it is certainly quite another thing."
Next day he reached Pau, where Captain Bernard-Thierry was in command of the aviation camp. He forced his way through Captain Bernard-Thierry's door, over the expostulations of the sentries. He explained his case and pleaded his cause with such fire in his eyes that the officer was dazed and fascinated. From the tones of the captain's voice, when he referred to the two successive rejections, Guynemer knew he had made an impression. As he had done at Stanislas when he wanted to soften some punishment inflicted by his master, so now he brought every argument to bear, one after another; but with how much more ardor he made this plea, for his future was at stake! He bewitched his hearer. And then suddenly he became a child again, imploring and ready to cry.
"Captain, help me—employ me—employ me at anything, no matter what. Let me clean those airplanes over there. You are my last resource. It must be through you that I can do something at last in the war."
The captain reflected gravely. He felt the power hidden in this fragile body. He could not rebuff a suppliant like this one.
"I can take you as student mechanician."
"That's it, that's it; I understand automobiles."
Guynemer exulted, as Jean Krebs' technical lessons flashed already into his mind; they would be of great help in his work. The officer gave him a letter to the recruiting officer at Bayonne, and he went back there for the third time. This time his name was entered, he was taken, and he signed a voluntary engagement. This was on November 21, 1914. There was no need for him to explain to the family what had occurred when he returned to the Villa Delphine: he was beaming.
"You are going?" said his mother and sisters.
Next day he made his debut at the aviation camp at Pau as student mechanician. He had entered the army by the back door, but he had got in. The future knight of the air was now the humblest of grooms. "I do not ask any favors for him," his father wrote to the captain. "All I ask is that he may perform any services he is capable of." He had to be tried and proved deserving, to pass through all the minor ranks before being worthy to wear the casque sacre. The petted child of Compiegne and the Villa Delphine had the most severe of apprenticeships. He slept on the floor, and was employed in the dirtiest work about camp, cleaned cylinders and carried cans of petroleum. In this milieu he heard words and theories which dumbfounded him, not knowing then that men frequently do not mean all that they say. On November 26, he wrote Abbe Chesnais: "I have the pleasure of informing you that after two postponements during a vain effort to enlist, I have at last succeeded. Time and patience ... I am writing you in the mess, while two comrades are elaborating social theories...."
Would he be able to endure this workman's existence? His parents were not without anxiety. They hesitated to leave Biarritz and return to their home in Compiegne in the rue Saint-Lazare, on the edge of the forest. But, so far from being injured by manual labor, the child constantly grew stronger. In his case spirit had always triumphed over matter, and compelled it to obedience on every occasion. So now he followed his own object with indomitable energy. He took an airplane to pieces before mounting in it, and learned to know it in every detail.
His preparation for the Ecole Polytechnique assured him a brilliant superiority in his present surroundings. He could explain the laws of mechanics, and tell his wonderstruck comrades what is meant by the resultant of several forces and the equilibrium of forces, giving them unexpected notions about kinematics and dynamics. From the laboratory or industrial experiments then being made, he acquired, on his part, a knowledge of the resisting power of the materials used in aviation: wood, steel, steel wires, aluminum and its composites, copper, copper alloys and tissues. He saw things made—those famous wings that were one day to carry him up into the blue—with their longitudinal spars of ash or hickory, their ribs of light wood, their interior bracing of piano wire, their other bracing wires, and their wing covering. He saw the workmen prepare all the material for mortise and tenon work, saw them attach the tension wires, fit in the ends of poles, and finally connect together all the parts of an airplane,—wings, rudders, motor, landing frame, body. As a painter grinds his colors before making use of them, so Guynemer's prelude to his future flights was to touch with his hands—those long white hands of the rich student, now tanned and callous, often coated with soot or grease, and worthy to be the hands of a laborer—every piece, every bolt and screw of these machines which were to release him from his voluntary servitude.
[Footnote 13: See Etude raisonnee de l'aeroplane, by Jules Bordeaux, formerly student at Ecole Polytechnique (Gauthier-Billars, edition 1912).]
One of his future comrades, sous-lieutenant Marcel Viallet (who one day had the honor of bringing down two German airplanes in ten minutes with seven bullets), thus describes him at the Pau school: "I had already had my attention drawn to this 'little girl' dressed in a private's uniform whom one met in the camp, his hands covered with castor oil, his face all stains, his clothes torn. I do not know what he did in the workshop, but he certainly did not add to its brilliance by his appearance. We saw him all the time hanging around the 'zincs.' His highly interested little face amused us. When we landed, he watched us with such admiration and envy! He asked us endless questions and constantly wanted explanations. Without seeming to do so, he was learning. For a reply to some question about the art of flying, he would have run to the other end of the camp to get us a few drops of gasoline for our tanks...."
[Footnote 14: Le Petit Parisien, September 27, 1917.]
He was learning, and when he saw his way clear, he wanted to begin flying. New Year's Day arrived—that sad New Year's Day of the first year of the war. What gifts would he ask of his father? He would ask for help to win his diploma as pilot. "Don't you know somebody in your class at Saint-Cyr who could help me?" He always associated his father with every step he took in advance. The child had no fear of creating a conflict between his father's love for him and the service due to France: he knew very well that he would never receive from his father any counsel against his honor, and without pity he compelled him to facilitate his son's progress toward mortal danger. Certain former classmates of M. Guynemer's at Saint-Cyr had, in fact, reached the rank of general, and the influence of one of them hastened Guynemer's promotion from student mechanician to student pilot (January 26, 1915).
On this same date, Guynemer, soldier of the 2d Class, began his first journal of flights. The first page is as follows:
Wednesday, January 27: Doing camp chores. Thursday, " 28: ib. Friday, " 29: Lecture and camp chores. Saturday, " 30: Lecture at the Bleriot aerodrome. Sunday, " 31: ib. aerodrome. Monday, February 1: Went out twenty minutes on Bleriot "roller."
The Bleriot "roller," called the Penguin because of its abbreviated wings, and which did not leave the ground, was followed on Wednesday, February 17, by a three-cylinder 25 H.P. Bleriot, which rose only thirty or forty meters. These were the first ascensions before launching into space. Then came a six-cylinder Bleriot, and ascensions became more numerous. Finally, on Wednesday, March 10, the journal records two flights of twenty minutes each on a Bleriot six-cylinder 50 H.P., one at a height of 600 meters, the other at 800, with tacking and volplaning descents. This time the child sailed into the sky. Guynemer's first flight, then, was on March 10, 1915.
This journal, with its fifty pages, ends on July 28, 1916, with the following statement:
Friday, July 28.—Round at the front. Attacked a group of four enemy airplanes and forced down one of them. Attacked a second group of four airplanes, which immediately dispersed. Chased one of the airplanes and fired about 250 cartridges: the Boche dived, and seemed to be hit. When I shot the last cartridges from the Vickers, one blade of the screw was perforated with bullet-holes, the dislocated motor struck the machine violently and seriously injured it. Volplaned down to the aerodrome of Chipilly without accident.
A marginal note states that the aeroplane which "seemed to be hit" was brought down, and that the English staff confirmed its fall. This victory of July 28, 1916, on the Somme, was Guynemer's eleventh; and at that time he had flown altogether 348 hours, 25 minutes. This journal of fifty pages enables us to measure the distance covered.
Impassioned young people! You who in every department of achievement desire to win the trophies of a Guynemer, never forget that your progress on the path to glory begins with "doing chores."
LAUNCHED INTO SPACE
I. THE FIRST VICTORY
The apprentice pilot, then, left the ground for the first time at the Pau school on February 17, 1915, in a three-cylinder Bleriot. But these were only short leaps, though sufficiently audacious ones. His monitor accused him of breakneck recklessness: "Too much confidence, madness, fantastical humor." That same evening he wrote describing his impressions to his father: "Before departure, a bit worried; in the air, wildly amusing. When the machine slid or oscillated I was not at all troubled, it even seemed funny.... Well, it diverted me immensely, but it was lucky that Maman was not there.... I don't think I have achieved a reputation for prudence. I hope everything will go well; I shall soon know...."
During February he made many experimental flights, and finally, on March 10, 1915, went up 600 meters. This won him next day a diploma from the Aero Club, and the day following he wrote to his sister Odette this hymn of joy—not long, but unique in his correspondence: "Uninterrupted descent, volplaning for 800 meters. Superb view (sunset)...."
"Superb view (sunset)": in the hundred and fifty or two hundred letters addressed to his family, I believe this is the only landscape. Slightly later, but infrequently, the new aviator gave a few details of observation, the accuracy of which lent them some picturesqueness; but in this letter he yielded to the intoxication of the air, he enjoyed flying as if it were his right. He experienced that sensation of lightness and freedom which accompanies the separation from earth, the pleasure of cleaving the wind, of controlling his machine, of seeing, breathing, thinking differently from the way he saw and thought and breathed on the land, of being born, in fact, into a new and solitary life in an enlarged world. As he ascended, men suddenly diminished in size. The earth looked as if some giant hand had smoothed its surface, diversified only by moving shadows, while the outlines of objects became stronger, so that they seemed to be cut in relief.
The land was marked by geometrical lines, showing man's labor and its regularity, an immense parti-colored checker-board traversed by the lines of highroads and rivers, and containing islands which were forests and towns and cities. Was it the chain of the Pyrenees covered with snow which, breaking this uniformity, wrested a cry of admiration from the aviator? What shades of gold and purple were shed over the scene by the setting sun? His half-sentence is like a confession of love for the joy of living, violently torn from him, and the only avowal this blunt Roland would allow himself.
For the nature of his correspondence is somewhat surprising. Read superficially, it must seem extremely monotonous; but when better understood, it indicates the writer's sense of oppression, of hallucination, of being bewitched. From that moment Guynemer had only one object, and from its pursuit he never once desisted. Or, if he did desist for a brief interval, it was only to see his parents, who were part of his life, and whom he associated with his work. His correspondence with them is full of his airplanes, his flights, and then his enemy-chasing. His letters have no beginning and no ending, but plunge at once into action. He himself was nothing but action. Only that? the reader will ask. Action was his reason for existing, his heart, his soul—action in which his whole being fastened on his prey.
A long and minutiose training goes to the making of a good pilot. But the impatient Guynemer had patience for everything, and the self-willed Stanislas student became the hardest working of apprentices. His scientific knowledge furnished him with a method, and after his first long flights his progress was very rapid. But he wanted to master all the principles of aviation. As student mechanician he had seen airplanes built. He intended to make himself veritably part of the machine which should be intrusted to him. Each of his senses was to receive the education which, little by little, would make it an instrument capable of registering facts and effecting security. His eyes—those piercing eyes which were to excel in raking the heavens and perceiving the first trace of an enemy at incalculable distances—though they could only register his motion in relation to the earth and not the air, could, at all events, inform him of the slightest deviations from the horizontal in the three dimensions: namely, straightness of direction, lateral and longitudinal horizontality, and accurately appreciate angular variations. When the motor slowed up or stopped, his ear would interpret the sound made by the wind on the piano wires, the tension wires, the struts and canvas; while his touch, still more sure, would know by the degree of resistance of the controlling elements the speed action of the machine, and his skillful hands would prepare the work of death. "In the case of the bird," says the Manual, by M. Maurice Percheron, "its feathers connect its organs of stability with the brain; while the experienced aviator has his controlling elements which produce the movement he wishes, and inform him of the disturbing motions of the wind." But with Guynemer the movements he wanted were never brought about as the result of reflex nervous action. At no time, even in the greatest danger, did he ever cease to govern every maneuver of his machine by his own thought. His rapidity of conception and decision was astounding, but was never mere instinct. As pilot, as hunter, as warrior, Guynemer invariably controlled his airplane and his gun with his brain. This is why his apprenticeship was so important, and why he himself attached so much importance to it—by instinct, in this case. His nerves were always strained, but he worked out his results. Behind every action was the power of his will, that power which had forced his entrance into the army, and itself closed the doors behind him, a prisoner of his own vocation.