I’ll be up front with you: this isn’t really about a memorial to the missing, although five of the men commemorated on its walls are, in fact, among the missing. But this is perhaps the most unique US WW1 memorial, and its location in the Paris ‘burbs makes it a high profile one, too. In fact, it’s just a few hundred yards away from the Memorial to the French Resistance of WW2.
On January 10th, the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial was in the news because the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) took over management of the site from a private foundation. This is particularly noteworthy because the ABMC has a long-standing policy of not ‘adopting’ memorials built by others. There are many WW1 memorials in France that are in dire need of repair and maintenance and the only hope for the future of these would be ABMC intervention.
The memorial was dedicated in 1928, paid for by private donations, including many from former members of the units. It was the final work of the noted French architect Alexandre Marcel and features a half-scale replica of the Arc de Triomphe (details are different), with wing colonnades and a crypt underneath. In the front there is a reflecting pool with a fountain. Inscriptions on the façade are in French and on the back in English. The interior surfaces bear the names of the 265 Americans who served as aviators with the French in the war.
In the crypt there are 68 sarcophagi, one for each of the American volunteers who died in war service. However, only fifty of these contain the remains of Americans; 13 Americans are buried elsewhere and as mentioned above five are missing. Since there are empty spaces three French pilots who served with the Americans are also buried in the crypt.
There are several unique aspects to this site. No other ABMC WW1 facility has non-American burials. Also, there are listed on the walls of the right-hand wing the names of French airmen belonging to the heritage squadrons who were lost in 1940; no other French ABMC site commemorates persons who didn’t serve with US forces. If that’s not enough, this is also the only US WW1 cemetery that has entombments rather than in-ground burials.
The Lafayette Escadrille was the familiar name for Escadrille No. 124 in the French Air Service. It was created on April 20th, 1916 and mostly made up of American volunteers. Originally called the Escadrille Américaine, the name was changed to ‘Lafayette’ due to protests made to the US government by the Germans.
The name is well-known. There have been books (Nordhoff and Hall’s Falcons of France stands out) and movies (the latest was Flyboys in 2006). They were a diverse bunch: some very young, some not so much, some Ivy leaguers, some not, some wealthy, some not, rogues, playboys, intellectuals, lawyers and adventurers. They had two things in common: they were Americans (some sort of) and they could fly aircraft (some sort of).
Only 38 actually served in E 124, along with several French pilots, while the rest either served in the Lafayette Flying Corps (Group de Chasse 21), which was a Foreign Legion formation, or individually in other French units.
After the US entered the war, the E 124 pilots were transferred to the 94th Squadron and the GC 21 pilots to the 103rd Squadron, both in the US Army Air Service.
The 94th Fighter Squadron exists today in the US Air Force, flying the F-22 Raptor out of RAF Lakenheath,
and E 124 is still in the French Armée de l’Air, known in today’s nomenclature as SPA 124 (Jeanne d’Arc); their Mirage 2000B and C interceptors are based at L’Orange Caritat in Provence.