Today is Bastille Day, and the 100th anniversary of Quentin Roosevelt's death.
Teaching Americans How to Shoot
We introduced a Japanese friend of ours to the Vintage Aero Flying Museum, and he was surprised by the cockades painted on the wings, wanting to know why Allied aircraft had bulls-eyes painted on their wings. Good question, though we pointed out the Iron Cross could also make a good lineup for crosshairs....
There is a story, from Eddie Rickenbacker, about using the cockade as a bulls-eye. In summer 1918, an Allied aircraft had crashed in no man's land (the pilot lived, but thinking he was beyond German lines, surrendered to the Germans), and an American artillery squadron, new to their job, was using it for target practice. Apparently they were not good shots.
That night the humorous Boches in the trenches went out and secured the little machine. The next morning the American gunners saw the top plane [wing] of the Nieuport standing upright in the German front line trench. The bulls-eye cocard, which was brightly painted with red and blue circles around the big white center, stood directly facing them as much as to say.:
" Now! Here is the target! Take another try at it! "
WWI Pilots Were Hardly Wimps
It is a very strong statement for a WWI pilot to say that another pilot was notorious for bravery. In comparing aviation to other positions in the military, Eddie Rickenbacker said that he (unlike James Norman Hall) was not familiar enough with other positions to say for sure which was worst, but that being a pilot carried with it constant threats that wore one down.
But the fact that the aviator knows he is constantly under the possibility of sudden death every time he sets foot in his machine, whether it be death from bullets and shells or from the possible collapse of his machine in mid-air—this constant nerving of mind and body against the daily perils which surround him undoubtedly counts heavily against his strength after many weeks of daily service.
Then There Was Quentin Roosevelt
However, Rickenbacker said Quentin Roosevelt was notable among the aviators.
He was reckless to such a degree that his commanding officers had to caution him repeatedly about the senselessness of his lack of caution. His bravery was so notorious that we all knew he would either achieve some great spectacular success or be killed in the attempt. Even the pilots in his own Flight would beg him to conserve himself and wait for a fair opportunity for a victory.
Rickenbacker had noted that air warfare was a new science, with most of its discoveries still ahead.
Take it all in all, this whole game of war aviation is so new that any day some newcomer may happen upon a clever trick that none of us has before thought of. I suppose the Huns are sitting up nights the same as we are, trying to devise some startling innovation in the still crude science of air-fighting.
So, Rickenbacker said, the Germans must have been greatly confused by the new developments in American tactics after Roosevelt shot down a German by getting lost.
Facing the Best Germany Had
One hundred years ago, Rickenbacker was in the hospital again with a serious ear infection, wondering which of his comrades would still be there when he returned to the squadron.
The Germans had realized they had one last chance to win this war and they were giving it their all; even munitions workers were being summoned to fight before the full force of the Americans arrived - the wartime equivalent of eating your seed corn.
The best German pilots were deployed near Paris, including Richthofen's Flying Circus (which had been led by his successor Wilhelm Reinhard until he was killed in an accident in early July, and thereafter by Hermann Goering.) Rickenbacker learned the Flying Circus was sharing a field with Jasta 2, the squadron Boelcke had started. And near that was Jasta 3.
And, in the Opposing Corner...
Against these top aviators (and their new D.VIIs) were arrayed some very tired and demoralized French aviators, including many who would rather have remained on the ground, and the few Americans who were already there and (at least marginally) trained. "Consequently the few American squadrons who were suddenly plunged into the thick of this ferocious conflict at Château-Thierry found that they were overwhelmingly outnumbered, poorly supported and lamentably equipped, both in machines and experience."
Quentin Roosevelt Shot Down
One of the Americans lost during July was Quentin Roosevelt. At that time the airplanes on both sides were mainly strafing trenches and causing traffic jams on highways to the front.
Roosevelt, with four other American aircraft, was strafing when they encountered seven German aircraft also out to strafe, so the aircraft started fighting each other. However, it appears to have been a trap, as Roosevelt noticed there were more aircraft - from the Flying Circus - coming down on them from above, and he broke off to attack them. The first the others knew of the other flight of Germans was when they saw Roosevelt's Nieuport falling to earth. Faced with these odds, they retreated, and only then found who was missing. They were soon informed by German wireless that Roosevelt had been shot down by Sgt Thom of the Flying Circus and buried with full military honors.
The Effect on World History
Naturally Roosevelt's death was international news, and a picture taken of his body beside his broken aircraft was turned into a German propaganda postcard. However, in the end the propaganda had the reverse effect, as it showed German soldiers that in the short time America had been in the war, the son of an American President had fought and died in one of the most dangerous jobs there was, while the Kaiser and his sons were doing just fine after four years. Such thoughts, at a desperate point in their fight, did not inspire the common German soldier to die for king and country.
In Other News
There were other deaths at this time that would get international attention, change the course of history, and be remembered throughout the century to come. Two days later, on July 16th, the Romanov dynasty, which had been in place since 1613, came to an end. "Anything more horrible than the last week of the family cannot be imagined."
Links About Quentin Roosevelt
- The Tragic, Too-Soon Death of Quentin Roosevelt - although the statistics in the line about "eighty percent died in combat" seem questionable unless aircraft accidents are counted as combat. Includes what Theodore Roosevelt wrote in reaction to his son's death.
- Two Roosevelt Sons in Normandy Graves Theodore Roosevelt Jr. died in the next world war, on July 12th, 26 years later.
- World War I: Quentin Roosevelt's Story Library of Congress blog
- World War I Letters Show Theodore Roosevelt's Unbearable Grief After the Death of His Son Smithsonian.com's excerpt from My Fellow Soldiers. Regarding American promises compared to American planes, "'I saw one official statement about the hundred squadrons we are forming to be on the front by June,' [Quentin Roosevelt] wrote. 'That doesn’t seem funny to us over here,—it seems criminal, for they will expect us to produce the result that one hundred squadrons would have.' Currently, there were all of two squadrons at Issoudun."
- The Son Who Was Everything to Theodore Roosevelt - includes a great quote: "At a social function, a haughty matron asked Quentin how he dealt with the more 'common boys' at his public school, and the youth’s response surely made his father quite proud. 'I don’t know what you mean,' Quentin told her. 'My father says there are only four kinds of boys: good boys and bad boys and tall boys and short boys; that’s all the kinds of boys there are.'"
- Quentin Roosevelt "This young officer declared that in the judgement of many [Roosevelt's death] was the largest single factor in the breaking of the morale of the German army."