Aviation in the 1914-18 War

Aviation in the 1914-18 War

  • Spad XIII.


  • Norman Prince near his plane.


  • Spad de Hall after being shot down behind German lines.


© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. G. Ojeda

Norman Prince near his plane.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

Spad de Hall after being shot down behind German lines.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

From adventure to war

Since the beginning of the XXe century, the beginnings of aviation and the exploits of its pioneers are of interest to an increasingly large audience, passionate about adventure and its "aces", competition and records and even technical progress. For a civil or military public tired and sometimes horrified by the trenches, the "aces" become the modern heroes of a clean, noble, chivalrous and technical war, which can make dream and make it possible to improve the image of the war. populations.

It is in this context that the photographs were taken Norman Prince near his plane and Spad de Hall after being shot down behind German lines studied here. Dedicated to the La Fayette squadron or to its successor after February 1918, they show the machines used by the squadron, its heroes and their battles.

Image Analysis

Aviation, weapon of modern warfare

The first shot, Spad XIII, shows a fairly close-up of a Spad S. XIII seen in profile. This French biplane (two wings) and single-seater fighter aircraft was designed in April 1917 by Louis Béchereau and manufactured by SPAD, a French aeronautical construction company created in 1911. Improvement of the Spad S. VII, it had a wingspan a little larger than its predecessor, a more powerful engine and a second machine gun. From May 1917, it was used by the French Air Force, including the La Fayette squadron. We can clearly see here the different elements of the aircraft (the two wings, the wheels, the propeller and the rudder), as well as the camouflage paintings (on its fuselage and its wheels) or the tricolor cockade under the wings.

Norman Prince near his plane presents him with a striking close-up. Norman Prince, citizen of the United States born in 1887 and aviator since 1912, was one of the great architects of the creation, on April 20, 1916, of the La Fayette squadron, a corps of American volunteer pilots recruited into the Foreign Legion . Among the first, he participated in several operations before dying on October 15, 1916, following an accident on return from a mission. He appears here in a sergeant's uniform in front of his Nieuport, his head raised towards the four rockets which, very close to his face, arm the right wing decorated with the tricolor cockade. The aircraft's cabin, its propeller and its wheels take up almost all the background.

James Norman Hall was born in 1887. Charged with a report on the next creation of the La Fayette squadron, the American novelist and poet enlisted and, from 1917, he took part in the fighting. On May 7, 1918 (he was then a member of the American air force, the La Fayette squadron having disappeared), his aircraft was hit by an enemy anti-aircraft battery and crashed behind the German lines near Pagny-sur-Moselle (Meurthe -and-Moselle). Slightly injured, he remained a prisoner until October 1918. The cliché Spad de Hall after being shot down behind German lines reveals the violence of the shock: fully inserted, the nose of the aircraft reveals the engine, the landing gear has dislocated. Only the wings appear to be roughly intact, especially the left ones. They cross the image horizontally and obscure the faces of the German soldiers lined up behind the plane while others stand to its right.


Facts of arms, facts of men

The three photographs each illustrate in their own way the specificity of aerial combat, spreading and maintaining the legend of their heroes, here those of the La Fayette squadron.

Spad XIII shows the modernity of the new aircraft in all its technical excellence. The weapon of the future is already skyward, and camouflages suggest it can also be stealthy for lightning strikes and surgery. A weapon with targeted precision and efficiency, which changes the practice and especially the perception of war.

We find the theme of efficiency, associated with greater martiality, in Norman Prince near his plane. Here, the cockade (already visible on Spad XIII) overflows the frame towards the viewer, as if to assert with more force the national and warlike stake. It also shows that, like the other members of the squadron, Prince decided to serve France. Note that if the war and the army are a collective (and national) affair, the aviation has the particularity of more personalizing its members (whose performances are reported on an individual basis), often quite well known. The cliché here suggests that the hero knows how to serve a common cause. Thus, the ensemble formed in the foreground by the cockade, the rockets and Norman Prince is highly symbolic: under the "flag", the men (here a fairly renowned pilot) and the weapons are ready to serve. Prince, moreover, inspects the rockets with an air of satisfaction, certainty and pride: there is no doubt that they will accomplish their mission, especially if the plane, which seems already ready for combat and whose full power bursts into the background, is piloted by an "ace" as courageous and as determined as him. The aviator seems to be on the verge of leaving on a mission.

Paradoxically, Spad de Hall after being shot down behind German lines does not look like a picture of defeat. Admittedly, the photo shows a camera put out of use by the enemy, which also somewhat qualifies the impression of power of the first two photos. But it shows no death, blood, or battlefield, and instead seems to plead for the courage and skill of the pilots. In fact, the soldiers seem as fascinated by the aircraft as the public by the warlike "adventures" of the aviators - which count the number of downed enemy planes as if it were a sporting competition. Relating this episode in High Adventure, Hall recounts that the German airmen invited him to eat before taking him prisoner, which confirms the respect shown to even enemy pilots.

  • aviation
  • Lafayette squadron
  • United States
  • War of 14-18
  • American intervention


Jean GISCLON, Chasseurs au groupe La Fayette, 1916-1945, Paris, Nel, 1997. Jean GISCLON, Les As de l'Escadrille La Fayette, Paris, Hachette, 1976. Jean GISCLON, L'Escadrille La Fayette.De l'Escadrille La Fayette au La Fayette Squadron, 1916-1945, Paris, France Empire, 1975. James Norman HALL, High Adventure: A Narrative of Air Fighting in France, Boston-New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge, 1918. Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, the first world war, Paris, Fayard, 2004. “L'Escadrille La Fayette”, in review Icare n ° 158 (1996) and n ° 160 (1997).

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Aviation in the 1914-18 War"

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