The Lafayette Escadrille versus the Lafayette Flying Corps

There has been a great deal of confusion over the years attributed to the two names the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps. The Lafayette Escadrille is the unit itself, originally established on April 16, 1916, and disestablished on February 18, 1918. Its members are made up solely of the 38 Americans and the 4 French who flew with the Escadrille during this period. The Escadrille was disbanded and reestablished as the U. S. 103rd Aero Pursuit Squadron.

The Lafayette Flying Corps (also known as the Franco-American Flying Corps) was never a unit per se, instead it is a name used to describe all of the American pilots, to include the Lafayette Escadrille pilots, who flew for the French during World War I. The exact number of actual pilots who flew for the French is open to question and many different numbers exist depending on who is counting. The numbers range from as low as 180 to over 300. The generally accepted, most oft-quoted number of men who were recognized as having successfully completed French flight training or received their “brevets,” is 209. Of this 209, 180 would actually serve at the Front in combat. With this number in mind then, 180 American pilots flew in 66 French pursuit escadrilles and 27 bomber/observer escadrilles.

The reasons that the Americans flew with the French instead of the USAS after America’s entrance into the war are as varied as the pilots themselves. Some, like Lafayette Escadrille pilot Edward Parsons, preferred to remain with the French instead of pursuing an American commission. There are some who were rejected by the USAS in the United States for various reasons and found it easier to join the French ranks. There are also those who had fought with the French in the Foreign Legion or on the ground, and who found it easier to just remain in the French system as opposed to returning all the way to America.

As a whole, the Lafayette Flying Corps achieved 199 confirmed victories. Thirteen men would become aces. Fifty-nine would die in combat and six from training accidents. Nineteen would be wounded and fifteen became prisoners of war.[1]


On 4 August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. As part of the British Empire, Canada was brought into the war, a war in which airplanes changed forever the way nations do battle.

Initially Canada entered into the hostilities with only a handful of airmen. By 1918 there were 22 000, a large contingent of which were American volunteers that joined the war prior to the U.S. entry. For the most part Americans were spread fairly evenly throughout the Flying Corps without regard and it was not unusual to find any number of them listed in paperwork and on rosters as being from the country in which they enlisted. That said, a third of the pilots in the British air services who downed thirty or more enemy aircraft were listed as Canadians. Of seven British pilots credited with fifty or more victories, four were listed as Canadians, including two aces that survived the war — William A. "Billy" Bishop with 72 victories, and Raymond Collishaw with 60.

Most images of First World War aviators is one of flamboyant gallantry, but the truth is that hundreds of young men died horrible deaths in their flying machines. Some 1563 gave their lives, and well over half that number were decorated, three with the Victoria Cross: A. A. McLeod, W. G. Barker, and the previously mentioned Bishop.

In 1944 British playwright and author William Somerset Maugham, who had seen the carnage of World War I at field level because he was a former volunteer ambulance driver --- one of the so-called Literary Ambulance Drivers of the time --- had his novel "The Razor's Edge" published. The story takes place just after the end of World War I and follows a young American Maugham calls Larry Darrell as he searches for spiritual awakening. At the start of the war Darrell had gone to Canada, enlisted in the Canadian military at age sixteen and was flying through them for the British in France by 1917. In the 1950s a teenage boy in southern California met in real life the same man Maugham used as a role model for Darrell in the novel. The following is some of what the boy related about that man:

"Another thing was his World War I adventures. He really didn't discuss it much except telling me that at age seventeen he was a fighter pilot flying for the British through Canada and that his best friend had died in front of his eyes.(see) However, when I was growing up there was an 'old' man that tended the oil derricks not far from where I lived. Every year on the Fourth of July he would take a bunch of us kids to the top on one of the derricks to watch the fireworks being shot off in the surrounding communities. He lived in a combination caretakers shack, repair shop near the wells. One day I took my mentor to his place just for the heck of it. On his wall were several framed photographs of biplanes with men standing around in front of them dressed in WW I flight regalia. Come to find out the oil well man had been a pilot fighting for the French in the Lafayette Flying Corps and was one of the men in the photos. Next thing I knew my Mentor and the oil well man were swaping war stories about everything from pulling thousand foot long Zeppelins out of the sky using Twin Vickers armed with tracers to R & R in Paris. My Mentor flew Sopwith Camels, the oil well man Nieuport 11s. I learned more about WW I in those few hours than all my years in school." (source)

In FOOTNOTE 3, The Razor's Edge: True or False the following is presented:

"In Razor's Edge Notes as well as found in the novel, it is stated that Darrell was wounded twice in the war. The nature of those wounds are not discussed, nor did my spiritual guide and Mentor ever mention any such wounds. However --- and I discuss this elsewhere -- Maugham, being the ambulance driver he was, the wounds could have played a role in the two meeting in the first place. When I asked my mentor about scars I saw on his shoulder one day, he simply replied, 'Jousting with dragons.' Later I would figure out he meant the giant hydrogen filled airships called Zeppelins." (source)







[1] SOURCE: Hudson, James J., Hostile Skies (Syracuse University Press, 1968), p. 236.


James J. Hudson (1919-1991) was a historian, World War II fighter pilot, and University of Arkansas Graduate School dean. Born in Lavaca, Arkansas, Hudson attended the University of Arkansas during the 1940s where he earned his bachelor and master's degrees in history. He received a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1952. During World War II, Hudson served in the United States Army Air Corps as a fighter pilot in the European theater and was decorated for bravery in combat. He began teaching at the University of Arkansas in 1952, specializing in military and Civil War history, and became dean of the Graduate School in 1972. His writing and research interests centered mainly on military aviation and the Civil War. Hudson published two books on World War I flyers, Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I (1968) and In Clouds of Glory: American Airmen Who Flew With the British During the Great War (1990).