Rockwell, a legend of the Lafayette Escadrille

Rockwell, a legend of the Lafayette Escadrille

  • French flag with signatures of aviators.

  • Kiffin Rockwell's grave in Luxeuil.


French flag with signatures of aviators.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. G. Ojeda

Kiffin Rockwell's grave in Luxeuil.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

Rockwell, a Lafayette legend

The La Fayette squadron, made up of young American pilots, volunteer fighters on the French side before the United States entered the war (April 6, 1917), was created on April 20, 1916 in Luxeuil-les-Bains. One of the first seven pilots of the squadron, Kiffin Rockwell is also the second to die, shot down by the enemy on September 23, 1916. After the war, commemorative events will be held regularly in Luxeuil to honor the memory of Rockwell and, thereby, to keep alive the memory of the legendary squadron, symbol of the Franco-American alliance.

Image Analysis

Signatures and commemoration

French flag with signatures of aviators shows a tricolor which obviously has a story. Worn (the red part is even partially frayed and, therefore, less wide than the other two bands), soiled (a few spots here and there), faded colors, we can think that it accompanied the aviators of the Escadrille La Fayette during their various front line assignments. In the blue part, three eyelets provided for the passage of the halyard which allowed it to be hoisted. The central white part bears multiple inscriptions: signatures and dedications of the different pilots, names of places and battles, drawings (an airplane on the left), symbols and slightly longer sentences. The shades of color and sharpness they present can be explained by the staggering of the inscriptions over time (from 1916 to 1918), the quality of the inks used (some held up less than others) or even the way in which they have been made. Particularly noteworthy are the signature of Georges Thénault, the squadron commander (bottom center), a design of the French rooster and the old motto of the Foreign Legion (from 1848 to 1920), "Value and Discipline ».

Kiffin Rockwell's grave, in Luxeuil features a commemoration scene that civilian costumes allow to date from the 1920s or early 1930s. The large crowd crowding around the aviator's grave fills most of the space. At this solemn moment, all are frozen, at attention for the soldiers (officers, judging by the uniforms), and all eyes are focused on the same point, in the foreground. Rockwell's grave thus structures the entire image, even though it is almost completely hidden from viewers by the flags tilted above the grave in tribute.

The American and French flags, as well as other military banners mingle, all decorated with inscriptions legible only in part (we distinguish the words "Luxeuil", "old", "volunteers") and insignia (the Cross of war for example). The loudspeakers visible on the post in the background suggest that the commemoration takes place in music. Further to the right is the astonishing image of the bust of a man standing outside the cemetery, respectfully uncovering himself. Beyond the surrounding wall, a few houses, trees, the town of Luxeuil with the church steeple in the distance.


Flag value

These images have a strong symbolic value, quite moving: both express the commitment of these young Americans for France, in whose name they have sometimes fallen. So, French flag with signatures of aviators does it mark the inscription (in the literal as well as figurative sense) of the pilots (and their feats of arms) in the nation, at least during the period of time which marks (literally as well as figuratively, again) the flag, that is to say during the existence of the squadron (which is confirmed by the dates that can be read there). The mention of the Foreign Legion recalls, for its part, that the members of the squadron mostly belonged to this corps, a condition for integrating the French army and fighting in its ranks when their country was still neutral.

Likewise Kiffin Rockwell's grave, in Luxeuil says the alliance of the two countries (the flags), and almost Rockwell's membership of the two nations, via his incorporation into the French army (again recalled by the flags). In this last photograph and in a rather striking effect, the poles armed with pikes seem to converge and give the impression that the banners unite to cover the grave with a symbolic shroud and finish enveloping Rockwell in these different bodies. The place of the ceremony (Luxeuil, where the squadron was born) completes its fate with that of the squadron and that of France.

  • aviation
  • Lafayette squadron
  • United States
  • War of 14-18
  • American intervention


Annette BECKER, The Monuments to the dead: heritage and memory of the Great War, Paris, Errance, 1988. Jean GISCLON, Hunters in the La Fayette group, 1916-1945, Paris, Nel, 1997. Jean GISCLON, L'Escadrille La Fayette. De l'Escadrille La Fayette au La Fayette Squadron, 1916-1945, Paris, France Empire, 1975 Dennis GORDON, The Lafayette Flying Corps The American Volunteers in the French Air Service in World War I, Atglen, A Schiffer Military History Book , 1991. Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, the first world war, Paris, Fayard, 2004. “The Escadrille La Fayette”, in review Icare n ° 158 (1996) and n ° 160 (1997).

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Rockwell, a legend of the Lafayette Escadrille"