The Lafayette Escadrille (from the French Escadrille de Lafayette) was an escadrille of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire, during World War I composed largely of American volunteer pilots flying fighters.
Dr. Edmund L. Gros, director of the American Ambulance Service, and Norman Prince, who was later killed, an American expatriate already flying for France, led the efforts to persuade the French government of the value of a volunteer American air unit fighting for France. The aim was to have their efforts recognized by the American public and thus, it was hoped, the resulting publicity would rouse interest in abandoning neutrality and joining the fight. Authorized by the French Air Department on 21 March 1916, the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124) was deployed on April 20 in Luxeuil-les-Bains, France. Despite their slow progress with public popularity in America, the squadron proved the benefits of aerial combat to both sides. Before World War I, planes were not considered instruments of combat.
Not all American pilots were in Lafayette Escadrille; other American pilots fought for France as part of the Lafayette Flying Corps.[N 1]
The squadron was then moved closer to the front to Bar-le-Duc. A German objection filed with the U.S. government, over the actions of a supposed neutral nation, led to the name change to Lafayette Escadrille in December 1916, as the original name implied that the U.S. was allied to France rather than neutral.
The unit's aircraft, mechanics, and uniforms were French, as was the commander, Captain Georges Thenault. Five French pilots were also on the roster, serving at various times. Raoul Lufbery, a French-born American citizen, became the squadron's first, and ultimately their highest scoring flying ace with 16 confirmed victories before the pilots of the squadron were inducted into the U.S. Air Service.
The first major action seen by the squadron was 13 May 1916 at the Battle of Verdun and five days later, Kiffin Rockwell would record the unit's first aerial victory. On June 23, the Escadrille would suffer its first fatality when Victor Chapman was shot down over Douaumont. The unit was posted to the front until September 1916, when the unit was moved back to Luxeuil-les-Bains in 7 Army area. On September 23, Rockwell was killed when his Nieuport was downed by the gunner in a German Albatross observation plane and in October Norman Prince was shot down during battle. The squadron, flying the Nieuport 11 scout, suffered heavy losses, but its core group of 38 was rapidly replenished by other Americans arriving from overseas. So many volunteered that the Lafayette Flying Corps was formed and many Americans thereafter serving with other French air units such as Michigan's Fred Zinn, who was a pioneer of aerial photography, fought as part of the French Foreign Legion and later the French Aéronautique militaire. Altogether, 265 American volunteers served in the Corps.
On 8 February 1918, the squadron was disbanded and 12 of its American members inducted into the Air Service as members of the 103rd Aero Squadron. For a brief period it retained its French aircraft and mechanics. Most of its veteran members were set to work training newly-arrived American pilots. The 103rd was credited with a further 45 kills before the Armistice went into effect on November 11.