Edmond Genet



The following excerpt is from Edwin W. Morse, The Vanguard of American Volunteers (NY: Scribners, 1918):

"Edmond Genet, whose home was in Ossining, New York, sailed for France at the end of January, 1915. He had already been in the service oŁ the United States Navy, and was on the battleship Georgia in Vera Cruz harbor in the previous spring. He was, as he wrote his chum on the eve of sailing, "born to be a wanderer." Yet he was a youth of great independence and of resolute will, so that when he came to a full realization of the nature of the conflict and of the peril in which his beloved France was placed, his decision was prompt and was followed by immediate action. His high sense of duty and the call of the blood left him no alternative but to take his chances in the great war, as he phrased it, with the French. He had no illusions as to the probable outcome of his venture, but his religion---he was a devout Churchman ---enabled him to face the worst that might happen to him with composure of mind and with a resolute heart. "I expect to have to give up my life on the battle-field," he wrote to a friend. "I care nothing about that. Death to me is but the beginning of another life ---better and sweeter. I do not fear it." ...

Early in February, 1915, Genet carried out the definite plan which he had formed before he left America of enlisting in the Foreign Legion. After nearly two months in various training camps his regiment was put into the trenches in northern France, where, with alternate periods of rest and mild trench warfare, he passed many weeks. Finally, on September 22, in a short letter to his mother, he wrote that a "big fight" was coming. ...

Soon after this terrific battle Genet's regiment of the Foreign Legion went into retirement near Paris, and he saw no more active service in its ranks. During the winter he was in this rest-camp, with occasional visits to Paris, where he saw much of his friends the Wheelers, Dr. Wheeler having recovered from the wound in his leg. In the spring of 1916 Genet was able to secure a transfer from the Foreign Legion to the French aviation corps, a change for which he had been working since the previous autumn. ..."

The following excerpt is from Herbert Molloy Mason's Lafayette Escadrille, pp 167-170, describing Genet's first arrival at the Lafayette Escadrille, on 22 January 1917, with a look back to Genet's role in the disastrous assault on the Bois Sabot by the First Regiment of the Foreign Legion in September 1915:

"A replacement came up to Cachy (Mason is mistaken here: it wasn't Cachy but St Just) on a day when the clouds were almost hugging the frozen earth and a day so cold even Soubiran stayed in bed to keep warm, leaving the forbidden game to shiver unmolested in the snow. No flying was possible, yet the pilots gathered around the stove in the hut distinctly heard the unmistakable sound of a rotary engine blipping its way down toward the ground. The Escadrille pilots, having once peered outside that morning, knew there would not be-- could not be-- any man fool enough to fly in the forbidding muck that enveloped the valley of the Somme. This knowledge was final and indisputable-- yet, some madman or drunk was up there trying to let down. Then they heard the intermittent popping as the plane was taxied down the field; the engine was cut and there remained only the sound of the wind whistling through the cracks in the walls.

Moments later the door of the hut burst open and what appeared to be an animated teddy bear walked down the length of the hut, unwinding layers of silk and wool as he approached the stove. When the unveiling was complete, the pilots could only gape at the bared face before them. A snub nose red with cold was planted between rosy cheeks that showed no trace of beard. Closely cropped blond hair topped a head that measured no more than 5 feet 6 inches from the floor. On closer inspection, a downy moustache appeared. If he was sixteen years old, it would be a miracle.

His name was Edmond Charles Clinton Genet, he had just turned twenty and his home was in Ossining, NY--"You know, where Sing-Sing is located." Genet was all eyes and all questions and all eagerness. There was the flair of an eighteenth-century gallant about him, somehow agreeably mixed with an unabashed Boy Scout's attitude toward the war: to Genet, the Germans were not simply "the enemy," they were arch villains, "scoundrels of the worst sort imaginable." and worthy of the sternest punishment that decent men could mete out. In his haste to close with the hated Boche, Genet had left the depot (Cachy) without orders to fly directly to Cachy (St Just); when he learned that most of the time was spent in bed trying to keep warm, or idling the hours away at cards, he was visibly let down.

Bit by bit the background of this unlikely-looking warrior seeped out, but few details came from him. He was the great-great-grandson of Citizen Genet, who had been sent to American by the French Revolutionary Government in 1793. Citizen Genet liked America so well he decided to stay and raise a family. Thus this distinguished heritage partially accounted for the diminutive corporal's desired to fight for the land of his fathers. The others at Cachy tended to regard Genet as more of a mascot than a fighting addition to the muster roll, but when they learned he had taken part in the assault on the Bois Sabot, Genet seemed to grow several inches.

The final phase of the 1915 French offensive in the Champagne began in September, with a massed assault against the heavily fortified positions of the Navarin Farm and an innocent-looking patch of woods called the Bois Sabot, or Horseshoe Wood. Lying across a wide stretch of featureless ground, the Bois Sabot appeared only as a dark green clumping of scrubby trees and masses of secondary growth. Close up, however, the position was revealed for what it was: a natural defense bastion formed of thickly interlocking trees and branches in the form of a horseshoe, with the open end facing the level ground across which any attack would have to come. The Germans had laced the wood with thirty-two machine gun nests, countless mortars, quick-firing fieldpieces and Minnenwerfer, which threw canisters filled with scrap metal and one hundred pounds of explosive. thick belts of barbed wire crisscrossed the woods in depth-- most of it hidden in the heavy undergrowth, and the carefully sited machine guns were protected by bunkers made of reinforced concrete. To withstand the bombardment that always signaled the beginning of any French infantry assault, the German troops defending the Bois Sabot were provided with deep dugouts and trenches covered over with elephant iron and, in some places, concrete roofs. With justification, German Army engineers believed Horseshoe Wood impregnable against frontal attack.

The First Regiment of the Foreign Legion, among whose ranks numbered Soldat Edmond Genet, had been selected to carry the Bois Sabot following the bloody and futile attacks launched earlier by Algerian tirailleurs. While the wood was taking a pounding from the French guns, the Legionnaires in the jump-off trenches could look out across the naked ground in front of them and see "the ghastly wrecks of the Colonials who lay before the German line, the sickly pallor of their hands and faces in awful contrast with the pools of blood around them." Then, at three-thirty in the afternoon, the whistles blew and the First Regiment scrambled from cover and began the assault against one of the most perfectly prepared defensive positions on the Western Front. Incredibly, they went forward in parade ground formation.

Genet recalled that they "started the advance in solid columns of fours, each section a unit. It was wonderful, that slow advance-- not a waiver, not a break. Through the storm of shell the Legion moved forward. Officers in advance with the commandant at the head . . . inspired us all to calmness and courage. Shells were bursting everywhere. One lost his personal feelings. He simply became a unit, a machine."

Shrapnel raked through the close-packed columns of Legionnaires, who broke into a trot and dashed across the barren plain to get at the Horseshoe. To the howl of bursting shells and the terrifying explosions of the mines was added the crackle of the machine guns as they began systematically sweeping the thinning ranks. The murderous fire was "so thick that falling men were turned over and over and rolled along the ground like dead leaves before a late autumn wind." Genet and an Italian volunteer ran into the gale of lead. The other man lost his nerve, then his reason, then his life. Genet somehow made it back to the remnants of hs section. The attack had failed utterly, and at hideous cost. Of two companies alone, totaling 500 men, only 31 survived. Genet's bravery went unrewarded; all his officers lay dead in the Bois Sabot and there was no one left to write him up.

Although this enfant terrible had much to learn concerning the wisdom of flying in winter weather that grounded even mallards, it was evident there was little he needed to be taught about carrying the war to the enemy."

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Corrections

As Douglas Jones pointed out, Mason based his rendering of Genet's first arrival at the landing field of the Escadrille Americaine on the original account by E.C. Parsons in his book The Great Adventure. It appears that Parsons and Mason were mistaken as to the location of Genet's foolhardy flight. It was not from Plessis Belleville to Cachy that Genet flew, but from Cachy to St Just, where the squadron was in the process of establishing its new base.

I went back through all of Genet's diary entries for the period he was at Plessis Belleville, and not once did he ferry a Nieuport from there to Cachy, as Parsons (and Mason) recorded. Had he done so, particularly without specific orders as Parsons reported, I can't imagine he would have failed to mention it in his diary. He seems to have noted and described every flight he took in every machine throughout his training. The only plane he ferried in January 1917 was a Nieuport from Cachy to St Just, but he did so following the specific orders of Capt Thenault on 22 January. He had first arrived at Cachy three days before, on the 19th, by foot-- not by plane. The ferry flight from Cachy to St Just, on the other hand, was undertaken-- in accord with Parson's (and Mason's) account--under a very low cloud cover.

Parsons was not actually present. He had left Plessis Belleville sometime earlier on that same day, the 22nd, and was making his way to join the squadron-- whether at Cachy or St Just is uncertain. When Genet arrived back at Plessis that evening, he was expecting to find Parsons, but learned that Parsons had left for the squadron that morning. So Genet did not see Parsons either at Cachy or St Just. It appears, then, that Parsons heard the story second-hand and misunderstood which field Genet had landed at-- and perhaps did a little embellishing regarding the part about flying without orders. Or perhaps when Genet landed at St Just, he invented the part about flying without orders himself.

Mason appears to have taken Parsons' story at face value, without checking it against Genet's diary.

~~ BJ Omanson

Edmond Genet was the first American flier to die after the United States declared war against Germany , shot down by anti-aircraft artillery on April 17th, 1917.