WWI: The Strange Link Between Fort Douaumont and America’s First Air Ace | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

WWI: The Strange Link Between Fort Douaumont and America’s First Air Ace

Fort Douaumont
Aerial view of Fort Douaumont early in 1916 before major destruction in the Battle of Verdun.

Today, we are delighted to share a very interesting article by Chris Templin, who has traveled with our senior historian Chris Anderson on our WWI: War to End All Wars Tour.

WWI: The Strange Link Between Fort Douaumont and America’s First Air Ace

By Chris Templin

If you have been lucky enough to join Steven Ambrose Historical Tours on our WWI: War to End All Wars Tour, you will no doubt remember visiting the site of the remains of mighty Fort Douaumont in the Verdun battlefield area. Fort Douaumont was the jewel in the crown of a two ring defensive circle, consisting of nineteen forts, built north of the city of Verdun and east of the Meuse River.

Construction of the fort, on some of the highest ground near the village of Douaumont, began in 1885. The fort was designed as an improvement on some of the other forts in the area including Fort Vaux, which had been completed the year before, and was meant to tie the forts in together as a network of supporting artillery fire, with Fort Douaumont having a pop-up, rotating, 155mm gun turret providing additional support from the center of the line to all of the other flanking forts. Fort Douaumont, as well as some of the other forts like Vaux, Souville, Moulainville and others, were improved and reinforced all the way up until 1913 to make the strongest defense for the Verdun area.

Douaumont in particular was built as strong as possible. Two underground levels with a steel reinforced concrete roof, thirty-nine foot thick, with a layer of cushioning sand to protect it from above. A dry moat with an entrance in the rear of the fort ran all the way around the perimeter. These were machine gun lined at the corners to fire down the length of the trench, protecting it from any who would get close. Five 75mm guns, including one in an identical turret to the 155mm gun, additional machine guns and observation positions were spread all over the complex with overlapping fields of fire to make approaching the fort a daunting task for any would be attacking force.

Despite the impressive measures taken to create this network of protective forts, the events of 1914, during the German invasion of Belgium, caused the French General Staff to mistakenly begin to doubt the ability of their forts to withstand the new German siege mortars. France watched in disbelief as the new German guns laid waste to Belgian fort after Belgian fort, reducing some to rubble in just a short two days of shelling. Other Belgian forts lasted longer but some surrendered without a shot after witnessing the fate of nearby forts in their defensive chain.

The French feared the same fate would befall their forts so in August of 1915, General Joffre approved steps to remove or reduce the garrison at the forts in the Verdun area. Fort Douaumont was stripped of her armaments including four of her 75mm guns and most of her defensive weapons. The 155mm and 75mm pop-up guns could not be removed as they were built into the turrets themselves. The number of soldiers was cut to almost none and replaced with older, less experienced reservists. Command of the fort system was turned over to the local city defense force and it was no longer part of the field army.

The Germans started the Battle of Verdun on February 21st of 1916. They sent their 5th Army south to attack the forts above Verdun and within three to four days they reached the sparsely defended Fort Douaumont. The Germans captured the fort with no resistance and shocked the French Army by occupying it for the next eight months. The French were outraged and decided they needed to retake the forts. Part of their response included the newly formed SPA124, The Lafayette Escadrille!

The Americans are coming but some were already here

At the start of “The war to end all wars,” the official American position was neutrality. However, some Americans felt the need to act, to get involved in the escalating European conflict. These American volunteers came from varying backgrounds and their journeys to the service of France took many paths.

Some were rebelling against their parents’ staunch opposition to U.S. involvement in the war. They joined the Foreign Legion, booked passage on ships and set sail for France. Others were hard working tradesmen who had been born in France to American parents and now felt the need to support the country of their birth. One had joined the American military earlier to get his citizenship and after discharge, was adventuring around the world and found himself drawn into the fighting. One other had deserted from the U.S. Navy to enlist in the Legion under a false name.

Although they took many different routes and had just as many different motivations, all of these men had a similar goal, to serve. Ambulance drivers, mechanics, pilots and soldiers, they were looking to form an American Volunteer unit that could help in the war and on March 14th of 1916, some of them would get their chance. The Director of French military aeronautics announced plans to form “The Escadrille Americaine” of all United States pilots and personnel.

Due to the neutrality of the United States in the war, this announcement caused quite the uproar by German diplomats so on the 16th of April of 1916, N124, The Lafayette Escadrille was formed. The name was chosen in honor of the French General who volunteered his services to the Americans in the Revolutionary War. This new unit would consist of seven American pilots commanded by two French officers and they would fly the Nieuport type aeroplane, thus the N(ieuport) 124 unit designation.

N124 was gifted its first aeroplane for training purposes. It was an old, weaponless Nieuport 10 but its service to the unit would be short lived. One of the Americans took the old plane up for a joyride and crashed it into a hanger, destroying the hanger and the plane but somehow weathered the crash without a scratch. It would be another week until the unit received three brand new Nieuport 16s and three Nieuport 11s and the Americans set to work training and familiarizing themselves with their new planes. The French commander tried to teach good tactics and ease the Americans into the fighting.

On May 19th of 1916, the unit was ordered to the Verdun area to support General Nivelle. Their new aerodrome would be at Behonne which was on a plateau, surrounded by deep ravines. They would stay in a stone villa between the airfield and the town of Bar-le-Duc. Nivelle was about to launch the counteroffensive to retake Fort Douaumont and N124 would help provide air cover. The Americans would perform well, in fact downing one or two enemy planes in the first week of operation.

So as it happened, during fighting in the air east of Vaux and west of Etain, the Americans received their first casualties of the war. Three of N124s pilots took wounds and one of them was shot through the elbow during an overeager attack on twelve German planes that broke down into chaos. While all three pilots survived their encounters that day, the elbow wound required a replacement pilot to be call up.

America’s First Ace

Gervais Raoul Victor Lufbery, the third son of a New York chemist father and a Parisian mother was born on March 14th 1885, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Raoul’s mother past away before he reached the age of one. His father soon remarried and then moved back to America, leaving Raoul and his two brothers to live with their French relatives. Lufbery would run away from home at the age of seventeen, leaving his job at a chocolate factory and starting a lifetime of adventure for the young man.

Gervais Raoul Lufbery
Gervais Raoul Lufbery (1885-1918)

Working various jobs, he traveled through Germany, the Balkans and Turkey, visiting North Africa by way of Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. In 1906, Raoul and his brother Charles traveled to Wallingford, Connecticut, to visit their father only to learn that he had just left for France. Lufbery would work at a silver factory for two years in Wallingford but he would never meet his father.

On the road again, Lufbery would see Cuba, work as a baker in New Orleans and a hotel waiter in San Francisco. He then joined the U.S. Army, gaining his naturalized American citizenship and serving active duty in the Philippines. He was a natural marksman and won prizes as the best in his regiment. After his discharge he went on to travel to Japan, China and India. In Cochin-china he saw his first aeroplane and in Calcutta he made friends with a French exhibition flyer named Pourpe and signed on as his mechanic.

Traveling all over with Pourpe, Lufbery found himself back in France to buy a new Morane Saulnier monoplane only to have war with Germany break out. Pourpe immediately enlisted and volunteered his plane for service, and Lufbery likewise signed up with the Foreign Legion, transferring a few days later to again be a mechanic for Pourpe. Pourpe was killed shortly after and Lufbery found himself joining the air service to become a pilot, initially flying two-seater bombers.

With the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille, Lufbery was transferred to fighter planes and put in the replacement pool for N124. When called upon to replace the pilot with the elbow wound, Lufbery never looked back, making a name for himself as a deadly fighter. He would be credited with sixteen confirmed victories and three probable with his first five victories all coming during the Verdun campaign earning him the status as America’s first Ace in just his first five months on the line.

Raoul Lufbery would go on to earn the French Medaille Militaire, the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre with ten palm clusters and rise in rank to Sergent and then Sous-lieutenant. When the Americans finally did arrive in late 1917, Lufbery was commissioned into the USAS and given command of the 94th Pursuit Squadron and promoted to Major.

Sadly, on May 19th of 1918, Major Lufbery was attacking a German two-seater when his Nieuport 28 was hit and caught fire. Rather than face the flames, some think he chose to jump from his doomed plane and fall to his death. He was thirty three at the time and is buried at the Lafayette Memorial in Paris. Some went on to increase their total with other units later in the war, only Lufbery achieved ace status as a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, The American Volunteer Airmen.

Travel on the WWI: War to End All Wars Tour

Our World War I: War to End All Wars Tour explores the most significant sites along the old Western Front, seeing where history was made and discussing the Great War’s terrible consequences. You will travel with senior historian Chris Anderson, a WWI expert. After college, he lived in the UK for a year exclusively to interview British veterans of the Great War. Later, as assistant curator at the Historical Society of the Militia and National Guard, he had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many surviving American Doughboys.

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