With the centennial of the Great War upon us I expected more books and interest in the Lafayette Escadrille. This was, after all, a pioneering group of Americans that flew for France years before the US even declared war. Most of its surviving members went on to be the nucleus of the American Air Service. Without the Lafayette Escadrille and its larger fraternal organization, the Lafayette Flying Corps, the US Air Force might have begun as a debacle. Instead it was seeded with these combat veterans.
When I heard Steve Ruffin had a book out on the subject I was excited. In the last few years Jon Guttman and I both had written books on the Lafayette Escadrille – albeit mine was a biography of one of its more “unique” pilots, the rogue Bert Hall. I had to wonder…would Ruffin’s book really be able to stand out? There are a lot of books about this unit out there over the century since the war.
This one does stand out.
First, it is a photo history of the unit. Ruffin hit some of the same places I did for photos of the unit. What he brought to the table was context. Paul Rockwell’s photos are in boxes down at Washington and Lee University. Ninety-percent are unlabeled. Steve Ruffin dove into that treasure trove (and others) and not only identified the men, but where they were and when they were there. This book is chocked full of photographs, many of which we simply haven’t see.
Some of my favorite images Ruffin included were side-by-side shots of the men and machines, then a modern shot to show the same camera angle at the same locale today. I loved these then-and-now images. It is a testimony to how he must have buried himself in the research.
On top of that there are a lot of color images of the aircraft.
On the history itself, Mr. Ruffin did his work too. He did not give us a glossed-over summary of the unit but instead went to archival sources to tell the story. This is always a favorite of mine. Let the men speak in their own words – with their own letters.
My only critique of the book, albeit minor, comes purely from a historian’s slant only. It’s not footnoted. I would have liked to know where the sources of some of the quotes he had came from. And yes, that’s me being nitpicky, but I often find footnotes useful (and in some cases even entertaining). On a personal note: He dug up material that I missed in my own research when writing The Bad Boy, and I want to see where he found it!
Does Ruffin break new ground with this book? Yes. Some of the letters he has here have never seen the light of day in a century. He gives us some new tid bits that will appeal to WWI aviation historians.
The Lafayette Escadrille – a Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron, is available from Casemate Publishers for $37.95. It is well worth it if you are an aviation enthusiast of the era. If you are a buff, make sure you join the League of WWI Aviation Historians as well, www.overthefront.com