A Marine Flyer in France Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the United States entered World War I, American aviation was still in its infancy, while Allied nations, particularly England and France, had seen significant advances in aviation strategy and technology. Long before the United States officially entered the war, American pilots had volunteered with the French Foreign Legion and the British Royal Flying Corps, but it was unclear how the country and its recently formed Marine Aviation Company would be involved. As the United States began preparing to join the fighting, Captain Alfred Austell Cunningham, a Georgia native and lifelong aviation enthusiast, was sent to France to study British and French airfields and planes. His diary provides an intimate look at an early American aviator and his observations in Europe during the war.

Summary Overview

When the United States entered World War I, American aviation was still in its infancy, while Allied nations, particularly England and France, had seen significant advances in aviation strategy and technology. Long before the United States officially entered the war, American pilots had volunteered with the French Foreign Legion and the British Royal Flying Corps, but it was unclear how the country and its recently formed Marine Aviation Company would be involved. As the United States began preparing to join the fighting, Captain Alfred Austell Cunningham, a Georgia native and lifelong aviation enthusiast, was sent to France to study British and French airfields and planes. His diary provides an intimate look at an early American aviator and his observations in Europe during the war.

Defining Moment

World War I was the first conflict in which airplanes played a major role. France, Britain, and Germany all raced to develop aircraft that were reliable, maneuverable, and able to withstand attack. Air supremacy was hotly contested, and as technology improved, the primary belligerents gained and then lost the advantage repeatedly. New technology was also unreliable and dangerous, and pilots on all sides had a very high mortality rate. In the United States, aviation was still a popular novelty, the first successful manned flight having been just over a decade earlier.

At the beginning of the war, aircraft were used only for reconnaissance, continuing the tradition of battlefield air observation that had been previously accomplished through tethered balloons. Germany had also employed zeppelins as scouts and bombers, but their vulnerability to weather, wind, and attack limited their utility. As airplanes came into wide use, pilots and aeronautic engineers began to learn by experience and experiment with new ways to use aircraft, including bombing raids, trench strafing, and air combat. By the time the United States joined the war in early 1917, planes were being used extensively by the British and French in both combat and scouting missions.

The US Army purchased its first airplane in 1909, but there was skepticism, particularly among senior officers, about its military usefulness. When the United States joined the war in 1917, there were American pilots already in France and England–approximately 175 served in the French Aéronautique Militaire, in a special division known as the Lafayette Escadrille, in 1916 and 1917–but there were few trained pilots and reliable aircraft in the service of the United States. At the onset of war, all branches of the military had fewer than 100 trained pilots combined. Flight training schools in the United States were also limited, and none had the ability or experience to teach combat skills. In preparation for large-scale American deployment in France and Belgium in 1917, several US officers with flight experience, including Alfred Cunningham, were sent to Europe to study aviation practices and facilities there. Cunningham flew in several combat missions with French pilots. As a direct result of his information, the Marine Aviation Company was commissioned in 1917. The company was later divided into two units: the First Marine Aeronautic Company, the first Marine air unit ever to see active service, began flying anti-submarine patrols in the Azores in January 1918, while the First Marine Aviation Force was deployed to France in July to support the Northern Bombing Group. By the end of the war, the Marines had participated in fifty-seven raids and dropped fifty-two thousand pounds of bombs.

At the beginning of the war, aircraft had been used for reconnaissance, bombing, and battlefield support. After it ended, the United States, spurred by the success of its 1918 campaigns, devoted significant resources to the development of a strong aviation program.

Author Biography

Alfred Austell Cunningham was born in Georgia in 1881. He developed an early interest in aeronautics and made his first ascent in a balloon in 1903. After a tour of duty during the Spanish-American War, Cunningham spent a decade as a civilian before joining the United States Marine Corps in 1909. While stationed in Philadelphia, he pursued his interest by renting planes and joining clubs dedicated to flying. In 1912, he was ordered to attend a new aviation camp that had been established at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. His arrival at the camp in May 1912 is considered the official beginning of aviation in the Marine Corps, though he did not actually fly until after his training in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in August.

Cunningham spent significant time in the air in 1912 and 1913, training other pilots and testing the capabilities of various planes. At the insistence of his fiancée, Cunningham gave up flying for over a year, until April 1915, when his wife relented, and he resumed his training. Cunningham continued to advocate for Marine Corps aviation and served on various advisory boards that advised the military on the placement of air bases across the country. After being sent to Europe in 1917 to study air tactics and facilities, he formed the Marine Aviation Company, for which he was awarded the Navy Cross. After the war, Cunningham continued to serve in the Marine Corps until retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1935. He died in Florida in 1939.

Document Analysis

The diary of Alfred Cunningham differs significantly in tone from the official reports that he made on air bases in Europe. In his private writing, he was free to make observations that fell outside the purview of his assignment. Some of his complaints could be those of any tourist: he misses his wife, his train is slow, and his hotel is cold. He comments on the great beauty of the countryside but also notes that there are American soldiers everywhere. Cunningham appreciated the history of France, and he notes the lingering effects of the French Revolution in the town of Bourges, where he spent a cold, lonely night. The next day he made his way to the military flight school in Avord, where he made a study of the conditions. Cunningham was very impressed with the school, which was by far the largest in France, with eight hundred planes and three thousand mechanics. He was accompanied on his flights by Captain Levy, who was the chief of flying and spoke good English. Cunningham, while appreciative of the friendliness of his host, was also put off by Levy’s boasting and bravado. He notes that his time at Avord offered the best glimpse of the “business side of the war” and the extraordinary danger that pilots were in. On average, one pilot was lost per day, and Cunningham reports flying over a wrecked plane in which a pilot had died the day before. Under such circumstances, a certain amount of bravado is to be expected, and part of the strategy for maintaining this outlook is silence about pilots who are killed. Cunningham notes that “they keep the deaths as quiet as possible.”

Cunningham’s diary offers a look at the multinational force in France. His guide in Avord is American, a former ambulance driver. Almost a quarter of the Americans serving with the French flying corps were former members of the American Field Service, a volunteer ambulance service that was set up in Paris at the beginning of the war. Cunningham also notes the presence of Russian pilots training at the school, though they did not seem to be well liked by the French. Cunningham himself is most critical of the United States Army (he exempts Marine and Navy officers like himself), though he does describe the French as “the dirtiest people I ever saw.” He finds American soldiers everywhere and wonders why they are so scattered about. He also reports that US Army officers visited the school and were disrespectful to the French, prompting Cunningham to feel “ashamed of the Americans.” He is also irritated by the presence of numerous Army officers in Paris “who seem to have nothing to do” and suggests that they be sent to the front and made to work.

Essential Themes

Alfred Cunningham’s diary is a snapshot of aviation in France just after the United States’ entry into the war. In addition to providing valuable information about airfields and pilot training, it offers insight into the wartime experience of an American who had never been abroad and a view of the US Army as it came to France to join the war effort. Cunningham seems provincial at times, complaining that women in Paris were painted and powdered and that the French bathrooms were inadequate, but he also provides a glimpse of how lonely it was for a military man far away from his home and family. Cunningham spends a great deal of time wondering about whether he will receive a letter from his wife and falling into depression when one does not arrive. Records such as this enhance our understanding of the war experience.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Alfred Austell Cunningham.” National Aviation Hall of Fame. Natl. Aviation Hall of Fame, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.
  • Church, Frances Conover. Diary of a WWI Pilot: Ambulances, Planes, and Friends; Harvey Conover’s Adventures in France, 1917–1918. Spokane: Conover, 2004. Print.
  • Cunningham, Alfred A. Marine Flyer in France: The Diary of Captain Alfred A. Cunningham, November 1917–January 1918. Washington: GPO, 1974. Print.
  • Frandsen, Bert. Hat in the Ring: The Birth of American Air Power in the Great War. Washington: Smithsonian, 2003. Print.
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