William Thaw


To the young Americans with French sympathies who, at the beginning of the war, were eager to get into the real fighting as quickly as possible, the Foreign Legion offered the readiest means. Every able-bodied man who was willing to fight for France was welcomed as a brother to its ranks, whatever his nationality and without regard to his record. For scores of years the Legion had been famous, even notorious, as the refuge of soldiers of fortune, criminals, scapegraces and adventurers of all types---of all the outcasts of, society in fact. This unenviable reputation was no obstacle, however, in the way of the young Americans who were anxious to get into the fighting-lines by the easiest and quickest means possible. They were willing to take their chances. Their experiences varied because the regiments differed greatly in the character of the men. To Farnsworth and Morlae they were picturesque and interesting. Chapman found himself among "the scum of the Paris streets," and doubted if six months' training would make them fit for active service. That some of the regiments failed to conform in character to the traditions of the Legion may easily have been the case, if Genet was correct in his statement of January, 1916, that there had been about 48,000 volunteers enrolled in that body since the war began, of whom there were then only about 5,000 left fit for service.

One of the first of the American youths to join this famous organization was William Thaw, of Pittsburgh, who had been a member of the class of 1915 at Yale. As was the case with several other Americans, Thaw was destined to win renown not in the Legion but in the flying corps. His experiences in the Legion, however, were described in his letters to his family, which were printed in the Yale Alumni Weekly, in such a racy, breezy manner and with such a genuinely American sense of boyish humor, that some selections from them are well worth quoting. Incidentally it may be noted that at the very beginning, when practically all the rest of the world was in a state of more or less bewildered amazement at what was taking place in Belgium, this Yale youth grasped the essential, fundamental fact that this was to be a world-conflict between civilization and barbarism.

Under date of August :30, 1914, Thaw wrote:

I am going to take a part, however small, in the greatest and probably last, war in history, which has apparently developed into a fight of civilization against barbarism. That last reason may sound a bit grand and dramatic, but you would quite agree if you could hear the tales of French, Belgian and English soldiers who have come back here from the front....

Talk about your college education, it isn't in it with what a fellow can learn being thrown in with a bunch of men like this ! There are about 1200 here (we sleep on straw on the floor of the Ecole Professionel pour Jeunes Filles) and in our section (we sleep and drill by sections) there is some mixture, including a Columbia Professor (called "Shorty"), an old tutor who has numerous Ph.D.s, M.A.s, etc., a preacher from Georgia, a pro. gambler from Missouri, a former light-weight second rater, two dusky gentlemen, one from Louisiana and the other from Ceylon, a couple of hard guys from the Gopher Gang of lower N. Y., a Swede, Norwegian, a number of Poles, Brazilians, Belgians, etc. So you see it's some bunch! I sleep between the prize-fighter and a chap who used to work for the Curtiss Co. As for the daily routine it reminds me of Hill School, and then some; only instead of getting demerits for being naughty, you get short rations and prison.

Early in September the detachment was transferred to Toulouse, where it was joined by 500 veterans from the Legion in Africa. Nearly a month was spent in Toulouse in drilling and hardening the men for front-line work. Thaw was made a student-corporal. He wrote:

It is not a very exalted position, as you command only seven men. But it was a starter, and meant four cents a day instead of one, better shoes, and the power to put the guys you don't like in prison for four days instead of having to lick them personally! But of course now that we'll be with veterans there will have to be a lot of officers killed off before I get another chance. But it was a rare sight to see me drilling the awkward squad to which I was assigned. (A somewhat doubtful compliment to my abilities as a commander.) And that squad was some awkward. To add to my difficulties there were in it a chap from Flanders who spoke neither French nor English, a Russian who didn't speak French, a Frenchman who didn't speak English and some Americans and English with various linguistic accomplishments. It took me two hours to get them to obey about twenty simple commands with any sort of precision. But it was a lot of fun, even if I did lose half my voice and about 3 kilos.

Finally, early in October, Thaw's company was moved north to Camp de Mailly, Chalons-sur-Marne. This paragraph from a letter dated October ~ indicates the nature of Thaw's work as a scout:

Yesterday I got a new job, being one of the two scouts or éclaireurs de marche, for our squad of 17 men The other is a big Servian, who is beside me in ranks and who was wounded twice in the Balkan War. It's some job; you have to beat it off through the country, when your company is on the march, walk about three kilometres over rough ground, and, as far as I can see, get shot at, which gallant deed proves that the enemy are near and warns your comrades. The sergeant (he's always kidding us) consoled us by saying that he chose only men of great "sang froid " and skill with the rifle, and only the best marchers, whereupon I offered him a cigarette.

The cross-country "military marches," each man carrying the official equipment weighing 120 pounds, [Note: This weight was confirmed in a later letter from Thaw.] were severe tests of the endurance of the men:

I was agreeably surprised to find that I got less tired than most, and didn't even mind carrying an extra gun the last five kilos. It's just a matter of getting used to it; but, take it from me, in comparison a game of football is almost a joke, for you don't get a rest every fifteen minutes, and a game doesn't last seven hours.

By the middle of October Thaw's battalion was in the front-line trenches. In the meantime his skill with the ride had won for him promotion to soldier of the first class, with a red stripe on his sleeve. He found the life monotonous and disappointing, however. Under date of November 27 he wrote:

War is wretched and quite uninteresting. Wish I were back dodging street cars on Broadway for excitement. Am that tired of being shot at! Got hit in the cap and bayonet---Do you mind ? Have been in the trenches now nearly six weeks. Haven't washed for twenty days. Expect to get a ten days' rest after another two weeks.

A month later he summarized his experiences thus:

We didn't make an attack and were attacked only once, and I doubt that, for I didn't see any Germans. I didn't even shoot when they gave the order "fire at will," and when I told the excited, spluttering little sergeant that there was nothing to shoot at (it was very dark) he said, shoot anyway, which I did at the German trenches 800 metres away, for by that time they were replying, in astonishment, no doubt, to our fire, and their bullets were snipping through the trees at us---which is my idea of some battle.

The humorous side of one episode appealed strongly to this American youth:

Another very exciting experience, of which I'd nearly forgotten to tell you, was when one night we received "sure dope" that there would be an attack, six of us, under the American corporal, Morlae, went out as an advance guard into an open trench 100 metres in front of the main line, the idea being that while the Germans were killing us off the others would be warned and have time to get ready. It was a peachy idea, but "les Boches" never showed up, and the "exciting experience" consisted in standing for thirteen hours in three inches of water and nearly dying of fright when a dozen cows came browsing across the meadows in perfect skirmish order. " C'est terrible, la guerre," as we Frenchmen say."

A month later Thaw was transferred at his request to the French aviation service.

~~ Edwin W. Morse, The Vanguard of American Volunteers in the Fighting Lines and in Humanitarian Service, August 1914 -- April 1917. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918).


The opening chapter of this book was devoted to some of the experiences of young William Thaw, of Yale, in the Foreign Legion. Its final chapter shall treat of the exploits in the aviation service of France and of the United States, of Major William Thaw, of Pittsburgh, now four years older than he was when he decided that this was to be a conflict between civilization and barbarism, and that it was up to him as a good American to take active part in it. At last accounts he was still fighting the Boches, the only survivor over the firing-lines of that gallant little band of American volunteers who formed the original Lafayette Escadrille, and the pioneer as well, in the French air service, of them all.

Thaw joined the Legion as the quickest and easiest way of getting into the firing-lines. But, as we have seen, his experience with this branch of the French service was disappointing, and as soon as he was able to pull enough official wires he got himself transferred, in December, 1914, into the French flying service. He was not altogether a novice in an air machine, for, like Norman Prince, he had done some flying in the United States before the war, though not, as he admits in one of his letters, over land. He returned to the United States on a brief furlough in the autumn of 1916; and this visit recalled to a writer in the Yale Alumni Weekly that at the beginning of his sophomore year Thaw had arrived at New Haven in a hydroaeroplane.

At the end of December, 1914, Thaw was at Mervel, attached to Escadrille D 6 of the French Aviation Corps as an observer. His capacity for this work and his personality evidently impressed the French officers, and they made his pathway easy. The contrast, moreover, between his present mode of life and that of the trenches made him very contented.

From the same group of Thaw's letters to his family from which quotations have already been made---originally published in the Yale Alumni Weekly--- a few more selections relating to this period may be taken. Thus, under date of December 2S, 1915, he wrote:

About three or four times a week I have to go on little joy-rides in a good machine (we have six 80-gnome Deperdussins) with a good pilot (two of the six here have won the Legion of Honor and two the Military Medal), mark the position of German batteries, and regulate by means of smoke signals the firing of our guns.

A career as an observer and as a regulator of artillery-fire did not, however, satisfy Thaw's ambition; he wanted to fly his own battle-plane ! So he schemed and maneuvered to secure admittance to a military training-camp, where he could obtain in time a license to fly. Finally, in February, 1915, he carried his point and was sent to the Reserve of Pilots, as it was called, Caudron Division, at Buc. His letter of February 14 tells how he evaded being sent to school at Pau:

They wanted to send me to the school at Pau, but I know what schools are, so I told them that my name was W. Caudron Thaw, and finally persuaded them to give me a try. I was rather up against it though, as I'd never flown on land, never with a rotary motor, never with the propeller in front, and never with that control, and at Buc they have nothing but the big regulation 80 H. P. machines. But one of my favorite mottoes is, "try anything once," so the second day I got a ten-minute ride as a passenger to get the feel of the machine, and since then, in the occasional streaks of fairly good weather, I have flown alone twice, and the Captain says that I can take the brevet militaire the first good day. But that is very simple, as they have eliminated the cross-country tests, and all you have to do is to stay up for one hour at two thousand metres.

So I hope to be back at the front in two or three weeks (and this time with a good job instead of being a ditch-digger), probably with my old escadrille, which, I believe, is going to change to Caudrons. Anyway, the Captain (of D. 6) who is now at Buc practicing, having changed from Dep. to Caudron, has asked to have me with him, whether he takes the same escadrille or not, so I should worry !

Under date of April 7 Thaw wrote that the French aviation centre had been moved from Buc to Bourget, only a few miles from Paris, which was easily reached by tram-car. Evidently he had made good progress, for he said that he had been acting as a sort of instructor, "teaching green observateurs how to observe."

At the time of writing Thaw had just reached the front again and was glad to be there:

The Caudron, though very slow (113 kils. p. h.*), is really a remarkable little machine. Day before yesterday four of us came over here to Lunéville, where we are located indefinitely on the champ des manoeuvres, about 8 kils. behind the lines; the other two are coming over later.... It is interesting to note that although I am supposed here to be a pretty good pilote, it was my first cross-country flight. And it certainly is sport sailing along through the clouds, steering by map and compass.

Under date of April 18 Thaw wrote of his first meeting with a German "Taube":

Another short letter, just to say " Hello " and "tout va bien."---The past few days since I wrote you have passed very quickly---just enough work to seem to be busy, and very, very interesting work at that. Have made six reconnaissances to date, and to-morrow morning I do my first regulating of artillery fire, having tried out my wireless to-day. Have so far flown about 1200 kils.* over German territory and have more than once brought back fairly important information. So, as I said before, it certainly feels great to be really doing something.---Met my first and only "Taube" last Thursday morning, and, believe me, I was scared. But so was he and beat it straight down, much to my relief, as we were 40 kils. from our lines.---Every day something new' something exciting. It's a great life.

McConnell notes that during the autumn of 1915 Thaw was doing excellent work at the front as the pilot of a Caudron biplane carrying an observer. During the autumn and winter, however, he was co-operating heartily with Norman Prince and Elliott Cowdin in their efforts to persuade the French authorities to allow them to form a purely American flying squadron.

When, late in the winter, the project seemed likely to succeed, Thaw is found elaborately planning to have Captain Thenault appointed to the command of the new squadron. Thus in a letter dated February 21, 1916, Victor Chapman wrote:

Now we must have a French Captain. But first, as to the people who are running this. They are, of course, the three you know---Thaw, Cowdin and Prince. Thaw, though the youngest, has perhaps more weight, being a sous-Lieutenant. Thaw wants his old chief at his Caudron Escadrille, Capitaine Thenault, a charming fellow, but young. Balsan, after being asked to look into the matter, gave some uncertain answer. Thaw wants him if it's physically possible. Meanwhile we wait, and if nothing is done, we greatly fear that Thenault may be definitely refused us and some service" Capitaine be dumped upon us to make our life unpleasant.

Thaw as usual carried his point: Captain Thenault was put in command of the Lafayette Escadrille, with Lieutenant de Laage de Mieux second in command. A year later Edmond Genet, in one of his letters describing the American Escadrille as it then was, wrote of Thenault:

We have a very pleasant captain of the escadrille, and the lieutenant (de Laage) is a dandy fellow. Of course, Thaw, who is a lieutenant, looks out for us a good deal, but de Laage is our regular lieutenant. Both he and the captain speak English---particularly de Laage. We all eat together in one mess, and our cook is an A1 man.

Thaw and Cowdin had become expert fighting pilots before the Lafayette Escadrille was finally assembled on the Alsatian front in May, 1916, and had seen service at Verdun, where Cowdin had brought down a German machine, and by so doing had become the first American to win the Médaille Militaire "the highest decoration," McConnell calls it, "that can be awarded a non-commissioned officer or private." Almost before the members of the squadron had got settled at Bar-le-Duc, after the transfer from the Alsatian front, Thaw brought down a Fokker one morning. In the afternoon of the same day, however, in a big combat far behind the German lines, he was wounded in the arm. His wound bled profusely, but he succeeded in landing just within the French lines, although in a dazed condition. French soldiers carried him, too weak to walk, to a field dressing-station, and from there he was sent to a Paris hospital. On his recovery he rejoined the American Escadrille.

The latest information concerning him was in a news despatch dated April 24, 1918, which stated that Major Thaw---like Lufbery, he had been taken into the aviation service of the United States Army with the rank of major--- commanding the Lafayette Escadrille, had just brought down his fifth enemy plane and a captive balloon on the same day, and that he was thenceforth to be classed among the "aces" in aviation in France. Long may he live to fly !

~~ Edwin W. Morse, The Vanguard of American Volunteers in the Fighting Lines and in Humanitarian Service, August 1914 -- April 1917. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918).

William Thaw of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, served with the foreign Legion, August 21 to December 24, 1914. He enlisted in French Aviation Service on December 24, 1914, and earned his brevet March 15, 1915. He served at the front with Escadrilles D-6, C-42, and N-65 until April 15, 1916, when he transferred to the Lafayette Escadrille. He served as a lieutenant with the Lafayette until Feruary 18, 1918. On January 26, 1918, he was commissioned as major, U.S. Air Service, and served as commanding officer of the 103d Pursuit Squadron until August 10, 1918. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel November 12, 1918, and served as commanding officer of the 3d Pursuit Group until the Armistice. He was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, Legion of Honor, and Croix de Guerre with four palms and two stars.

~~ Walt Brown, Jr., An American for Lafayette: The Diaries of E.C.C. Genet, Lafayette Escadrille. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981), p 23.