A fine pairing - Marcel JeanJean & Alan Nichols
About a year ago I read "Letters Home" by Nancy Nichols and reviewed it in this blog.
This book is a collection of letters written by Alan Nichols, a Stanford student who left California to join the American Field Service and drive ambulances in France. This occurred well before the United States joined the war. After driving ambulances for almost a year, Alan went on a demonstration flight with a local pilot. He immediately decided to leave the AFS and train to fly for the Lafayette Flying Corps. Most of the letters focus on his time of training in Avord and Tours.
While doing some online research, I stumbled upon some wonderful cartoon images of a Breliot Penguin plowing thru a crowd of people. The image was full of detail, people running for cover, dogs chasing the plane, pilots with uniforms from different countries. It lined up so closely with Alan's descriptions that I started searching for more to figure out who the artist was. The image was low resolution and hard to read. I ran into a few more images and on a forum someone mentioned the artists name as Marcel JeanJean. I found very little information about Marcel in the United States. I had to translate what I could find into English. I found out that he joined the infantry in 1914, but trained to become a reconnaissance pilot in 1917, the same time that Alan was getting his training.
Where Alan wrote letters... Marcel drew cartoons.
He had collection of cartoons that documented his training in aviation and his time in the war. He published them in a sketchbook in 1919 called "Souse Les Cocardes" (Under the Roundels).
A whole sketchbook? Really! I was desperate to see what was inside. To complete the Franco / US connection, through one of the forums I post on, a friend in France was able to send me high quality scans for a number of the images from the sketchbook. I thought it would be a great gift to be able to share them with you by pairing Alan's words with Marcel's pictures.
Hopefully with two points of view of the same experience you might gain a better understanding what it would be like to be trained as an Aviator in France during World War I at the Ecole d'Aviation Militaire!
“On the following Thursday got on the train for Bourges, and continued to Avord. The aviation school is about a mile and a half away, covering an enormous area. Each set of hangers is its own city….The camp is simply immense. I am told there are over 600 machines here, and in the evening there are so many in the air that they look like gnats on a summer evening. I counted twenty at one time last night, but it is hard to do it because they are always landing and rising”
"I am now supplied with a complete blue outfit of the French poilu and the wonderful shoes of the French Army. I have also a leather coat and trousers and a thick padded helmet (not of steel)……My bed is a board on two little saw horses with a straw tick on top. It really is quite comfortable."
"There is the regular eating joint called “The Ordinaire” and also a canteen where one can buy meals. At 10a.m. comes a regular meal. I don’t know whether to call it breakfast or lunch. It includes soup, meat, potatoes, sometimes lentils, beans or peas, bread, water and sometimes confiture ( jam). There is usually a riot around the door before it is opened. The confiture of the army is not so sweet as our jam, but is more like applesauce. The bread, which I have come to like, and from which you have to trim off the dirtiest parts with your knife, would probably have ruined my appetite for a month if I had been offered it at home, but here it is different. We tear it up and devour it in great chunks."
“I am classed in the preliminary Bleriot School, which is the “Penguin” class. The machines are old worn out Bleriots with very short wings and slow motors. They run along the ground but cannot rise. The tail comes up and rides freely in the air, so the machine runs only on two wheels. The idea is to steer it straight, which is no cinch! It’s funny to watch the others try to steer their Penguins straight. It’s a tricky job, and before one knows it the thing swings around and skids sideways or turns completely around. When it does this they call it a “cheval de bois” ( wooden horse).”
“It looks as if there wouldn’t be many machines left by the time we get there! There were four big Caudrons smashed today by the Russians and one Nieuport. There are a bunch of Russians training here and some Frenchmen, but mostly Americans. There have been about four Penguins broken up and now the Lieut. said that the next one who breaks one gets 6 to 8 days in jail. One fellow just go 10 days in jail for breaking a machine.”
"There is nothing here but Caudrons. They start on the single motored ones, with double control, but very soon the pupils run them alone, the monitor giving signals as to what to do by punching the pupil in the back. The idea is to rush the pupil right along, and of the boys who came from Avord one week ago is already “lachered” (flying alone)."
"The other day an inspection was announced. We had to take down all our things, fold them on the shelf, fold up our bedding, sweep out and stand at attention. The inspectors were a bunch of American officers and they gave us the “raspberry“ by serenely walking past and not even looking in the direction of our door."
“The appearance of a bunch of new Farman pusher bombing machines here has led to a lot of wondering whether they are going to shove up Legion men on them. I’ll bomb the place myself if they do! I came here to fly a fighting plane, and dropping bombs on people is not to my taste.”
"I finished up at Tours at last, rushed downtown and got a pair of wings to put on my collar. I am now breveted and am a corporal in the French Army. The officials said I was O.K. for Nieuport if I wished to fly a fighting machine, so I chose it and most go back to that vile Avord to train for chasse machines."
Based on the pairing of pictures and words Marcel JeanJean and Alan Nichols had a lot in common for this short period of time. Their futures could not have been more different.
Marcel became the official illustrator for the Department of the Air in France. He was also the author of a number of popular children's books and magazines. His passion for aviation, aircraft and machines spanned his whole career. His simple cartoons communicated so much emotion in such simple ways. He lived a full life and died in 1974.
Alan's letters focused on the nine months he spent being trained to become a pilot for the Lafayette Flying Corps. In March 1918 he was assigned to Escadrille Spad 85. Bad weather kept him on the ground and frustrated for the next two months. He finally saw real action in early May. In the middle of May he shot down his first enemy. He was so proud of that moment he wrote several identical letters describing the sorte and sent it to several friends.
In June his family got the news that he had died from wounds he received while in an air battle.
I am always humbled by how the record of historical events unfold. It was dumb luck that Calder and Wolfe ended up at the same party and Wolfe decide to write it down. Alan Nichol's letters only exist because a family member preserved them and turned it into a project to publish them. I found the book at the bottom of a pile in a used book store.
I feel a little lucky to have stumbled onto both these stories. Hope you have enjoyed them as well.