By Jon Guttman
From Volume 23 Issue 1 (February 2016)
One of the most famous American aviation organizations during World War I was not attached to any air arm of the United States. Long before their country declared war against Germany in April 1917, great numbers of Americans volunteered to serve the Allied cause, some as ambulance drivers, some as combatants in the French Foreign Legion and some in the French air service.
In April 1916 an entire fighter squadron, escadrille N.124, was formed out of American volunteers, save for the commander, Capitaine Georges Thenault, and his deputy, Lieutenant Alfred de Laage de Meux. Its nickname of l’Escadrille Américaine, caused diplomatic problems with Germany, but the pilots thought the alternative title, l’Escadrille des Volontaires, was too prosaic and failed at what they regarded as part of their goal — to goad their country into the war on the Allied side. They finally settled on a metaphoric reference to a French officer who had volunteered to fight for George Washington during the War for Independence, with the sobriquet Escadrille Lafayette.
When more volunteers came in than could be accommodated in the escadrille, Dr. Edmond Gros and other sponsors of the operation expanded it into an organization called the Lafayette Flying Corps (LFC), through which airmen were farmed out to other units. Of the 269 pilots, observers and bombardiers who entered French service through the LFC, 38 served in N.124. The others included aces and other veterans whose experience would be invaluable later when they transferred to the U.S. Army and Navy, as well as a tragic number of men who died in combat, in accidents or of disease. Several authors emerged from their ranks, most famously Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, as well as Eugene Jacques Bullard, the first black American to qualify as an aviator.
Equally unique, but relatively overlooked by posterity, is the sole LFC pilot who was not a United States citizen. His name was Alfred Pelton and his nationality was Canadian.
Alfred Digby Pelton was born on September 9, 1886 in Montreal, Quebec, the son of Godfrey Pelton, a hardware merchant, and Harriet Anne Pelton. He received primary education in Westmount and later at Bishop College School, Lennoxville.
At about the time Pelton married Louise Moody of Terrebonne, north of Montreal, he learned that his older brother George, who was serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, had been killed in France. Seized with an insatiable desire to avenge his brother’s death, Pelton was also determined to do it in the air. By then the Royal Flying Corps had established its Canadian Training Plan, through which thousands of like-minded Canadians would go to the front and serve with disproportionate distinction. When Pelton tried to sign up, however, he was rejected due to his age, which as of September 1916, was 30.
Undeterred, Pelton traveled to New York, booked sea passage to France and upon arrival enlisted in the Foreign Legion, after which he promptly applied for transfer to the Aéronautique Militaire. His extraordinary effort bore fruit, as he was accepted on February 19, 1917, and reported for flight school at Avord on the 27th. There he earned military pilot’s brevet No. 7529 flying a Caudron G.3 on July 16. Promoted to caporal on July 24, he went on to aerobatic training at Pau and final training with the Groupes des Divisions d’Entraînement at Plessis-Belleville prior to unit assignment.
During this time Pelton trained alongside several Americans, with whom he quickly became fast friends. At their suggestion he applied for membership in the Lafayette Flying Corps. The executive committee, swayed by the keenness he displayed, decided to make an exception of Pelton, who thus became the only “foreigner” officially accepted in the LFC.
While Pelton and his colleagues trained away, the United States had entered the war on April 6. Although the LFC volunteers greeted the news with cheers, most of them doubted that their country would be swift in mobilizing its forces in the near future, and continued the process of working their way into French escadrilles.
On September 27, 1917, Caporal Pelton was assigned to escadrille N.151. He was destined to be its only foreign member. As LFC pilots — and chroniclers — Nordhoff and Hall described it, “Throughout the autumn and early winter of 1917, he acted as host to every American who landed at his aerodrome at Chaux, near Belfort, on the Vosges Sector, and many of them who landed there will long remember his friendly, cordial greeting and his warm-hearted hospitality.”
N.151 was in a relatively quiet sector at that time, and opportunities for action were rare. One exception came on October 20, in the wake of the “Silent Raid,” a nocturnal high-altitude bombing attack on England using 11 Zeppelins that came to grief amid gale-force winds that scattered the airships. Thrown far off course, some were driven as far as the Vosges region. There French anti-aircraft fire brought down L45, six pilots of N.152 shot down L49 and two members of N.151, Sous-lieutenant Henri Léon Hirsch and Caporal Alfred Ambrosio, attacked L50 as it was drifting along at 2,000 metres in altitude, killing Kapitänleutnant Roderich Schwonder and several crewmen before the airship, out of fuel, crashed into a hillside near Dammartin. There the main gondola broke off and the 16 surviving crewmen aboard it were taken prisoner. Shorn of considerable weight, the airship lifted off again and, blown along by the wind, was last seen near Fréjus before it and the four remaining crewmen aboard vanished somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea.
Another success for the escadrille came on November 14, when Sergents Albin Counord, Marc Aumaitre and Gabriel Chambel brought a reconnoitring DFW C.V. down near Helbach where its crew, Gefreiter Schmalfuss and Leutnant Moering of Flieger Abteilung (Artillerie) 223, were taken prisoner. Four days later Hirsch was promoted to lieutenant. Such events, in which he got to play no direct role, were about as exciting as life seemed to get for Pelton, but that was about to change.
On December 1, Pelton was reassigned to N.97, but was then released to take a three-week winter furlough to Canada. Upon his return to France on March 5, 1918, he joined his new unit at Villeneuve-les-Vertus. Commanded by the recently promoted Capitaine Hervé Conneau, the escadrille had recently replaced its Nieuport scouts with Spad XIIIs and VIIs, and was redesignated accordingly as Spa.97. Two days before Pelton’s return the unit acquired another LFC member in the person of 24-year-old Walter Raymond York from Somerville, Massachusetts, who had left the U.S. Naval Air Corps in hopes of seeing more action with the French.
The relatively leisurely pace of squadron life during the winter underwent a dramatic change on March 21, when the Germans launched their Kaiserschlacht, an all-out offensive intended to defeat Britain and France before the United States reached the front in full strength. The first phase, Operation Michael, was an attempt to drive a wedge between the British and French armies in northern France. As one consequence of that threat, on
March 26 Spa.97 was ordered to move from Villeneuve-les-Vertus to Plessis-Belleville, about 19 kilometres southeast of Senlis.
Alfred Pelton was in the “real war” now, a fact impressed upon the entire escadrille on March 27, when Sous-lieutenant Paul Alfred Van Ingelandt failed to return from a patrol. Typifying France’s veteran airmen, Ingelandt had seen service with MF.5, C.104 and Détachement N.510 of F.44 before being assigned to N.97 on July 1, 1917, and in the course of his career had been made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur as well as receiving the Médaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre with one bronze star, one gold star and two palms. Just what became of him on March 27 has never been ascertained and he was listed as missing in action.
Spa.97 got some of its own back on April 12, when Sous-lieutenant Julien Guertiau, Maréchal-des-Logis Eugène Legagneux and Caporal Gabriel Chayne burned an enemy kite balloon. In accordance with French practice, credit was shared among all three participants as the first for Chayne and Legagneux, but making Guertiau — a former reconnaissance pilot with four previous victories and the Médaille Militaire with C.43 prior to his transfer to the fighter outfit on December 6, 1917 — an ace.
The next day Spa.97 moved from Le Plessis-Belleville to Montagne, about 22 kilometres west of Amiens. Caporal Louis Boyer destroyed a balloon north of Contoire on the April 22. Brigadier Paul Teulat, flying a Spad XIII, disappeared during a patrol on May 10. Lieutenant Robert Robin destroyed a balloon in flames at Mézières on May 15. Although he had yet to score any confirmed aerial victories, Caporal Pelton seems to have been giving creditably stalwart service in support of his squadron mates, for he was promoted to maréchal-des-logis on May 22.
On May 27 the Germans redirected their offensive on the French in the Chemin-des-Dames region with Operation Blücher, driving toward Château Thierry and the Aisne River. As part of the French response, on the 29th Spa.97 departed Montagne for Raray, about 25 kilometres south-southwest of Compiègne. The next day Legagneux, in collaboration with Maréchal-des-Logis Marc Coupillaud of Spa.37, burned another balloon west of Saponay.
On May 31, Maréchal-des-Logis Pelton, flying Spad XIII S8166, went missing after a combat over Soissons. His comrades at Spa.97 and in the LFC anxiously hoped that he had been taken prisoner, but it took four months before the Allies learned through the International Red Cross of his ultimate fate. He had indeed been killed in action, at age 31.
Given the heavy amount of activity over the sector on May 31, it is all but impossible to ascertain who shot Pelton down. Jagdstaffel 26 of Jagdgeschwader III, however, claimed four Spads west or southwest of Soissons. The nearest may have been a Spad claimed near the Compiègne Forest at 1706 hours by Vizefeldwebel Christian Mesch, his first of an eventual 13 victories. Two other Spads were claimed about that same time over Mortefontaine, southwest of Soissons, by Offizierstellvertreter Otto Esswein, bringing his tally to 12, to which he would add no more before he was himself shot down and killed on July 21. Oberleutnant Maximillian von Förster of Jasta 27 also claimed a Spad west of Soissons at 1810 hours, but some records describe his victim as a “Spad two-seater,” which might correspond to a Salmson 2A2 of Sal.106 brought down in French lines with its observer, Lieutenant Paul Vimon, wounded. One other Allied pilot killed near Soissons that day was Lieutenant Antoine Arnoux de Maison-Rouge of Spa.78, who had formerly been the Escadrille Lafayette’s second deputy commander.
As Pelton had been motivated by the death of his brother, so were his brothers in arms keen to avenge his loss as they fought on to turn the tide against the Germans and then go on to the offensive. On September 15 Guertiau, together with Adjutant Jean Lucas and Sergent Germaine Corcelle, shot down an enemy plane near Gorze, possibly resulting in the deaths of Unteroffiziere Wilhelm Danzmann and Erich Dittmar of Schlachtstaffel (ground attack squadron) 36, who fatally crashed at Antilly to the northeast. It was Guertiau’s eighth and last confirmed victory, the second for Lucas and first for Corcelle. At 1620 hours that afternoon Corcelle was also credited with a Fokker D.VII at Lorry, while Sergent Walter York downed another in flames near Preny. These victories did not come without cost, however; Sous-Lieutenant Lucien Martin, who had only arrived at Spa.97 six days before, went missing in action.
At war’s end, Spa.97’s total tally stood at 17 planes and eight balloons destroyed, for the loss of two pilots killed, one died of wounds and four missing in action, as well as one killed and one injured in accidents. Awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm and commissioned a sous-lieutenant, Walter York survived the war, only to fall ill with influenza and pneumonia while shipping home. He married Helen Ireland on April 26, 1919, but in July 1920 he became sick again, with what proved to be intestinal tuberculosis. After an unsuccessful operation he died of heart failure, his wife at his side, at Saranac Lake, New York, on January 6, 1921, aged 27.
Alfred Pelton’s remains were eventually located and ultimately reinterred at the Lafayette Flying Corps Memorial at Marne-la-Coquette outside of Paris. His name is also inscribed on the War Memorial at Soissons, where it continues to puzzle many visitors who try to trace him to a British or Canadian unit, only to draw a blank — unaware of his unique status as “Mort pour France” through the Lafayette Flying Corps.