My recent acquisition of LSU Great War stereo slides yielded quite a few treasures, and this might be the best of them, as well as the weirdest. It’s not weird in terms of its subject matter, which is wonderful – but we’ll get to that later. It’s weird in terms of the fact that it lacked any sort of standard caption, and lacked a standard number (“8914” was handwritten in black, but wasn’t found in the records of the Jordan/Ference Collection). Like many of the slides in the collection, it featured a handwritten note in fine blue pen, but I find it hard enough to read French with all its diacritics and such when it’s nicely written – and this was scrawled:
After 20 minutes of frustrating attempts to get a translation out of Google Translate, I decided to have a go at tossing the image up on Reddit in order to obtain a proper translation. Less than an hour latter, a kind Redditor had proposed a tentative translation: “Commandant(?) Robert next to a Hun plane he shot down.” This made sense – with the exception of ‘Commandant’. I asked whether it could be ‘Lt’ instead of ‘Ct’, thus changing “Commandant” to “Lieutenant”, and the Redditor not only affirmed this, but pointed me to the likely subject and date!
On 1 April 1915, two surveillance biplanes took to the skies in the area around Soissons. The German plane was an Albatros B.II, the first of which was tested only a year prior. Boasting a 120 HP engine, a short wingspan, and a strange arrangement – the pilot sat in the rear cockpit, with the observer in front, which blocked the pilot’s view of the skies ahead, as well as the observer’s view of the ground below. Nevertheless, this was a fast and agile bird, having set the world record for height (4,500 m / 14764 ft) the year prior. It was manned by two Germans, Lieutenant Engelhorn and Oberlieutenant Wittenburg.
The French plane was a Morane-Saulnier Type L, or officially, MoS-3, with the designation “#27”. In flight since 1913, the Type L would evolve to be the first fighter plane used by the French, and these early fighters were operational by April 1915. But #27 was not such a craft – it was a standard two-seater surveillance biplane in use by Escadrille MS 12, with room for a pilot and an observer. It was neither as fast nor as maneuverable as the Albatros, but it boasted two things that the German craft could not – as observer, Lieutenant Jean Robert, with his trusty carbine rifle, and as pilot, Sergeant Jean Navarre, soon to be a top Ace in the French Air Force.
As both planes were designated as reconnaissance craft, neither was equipped with any sort of weaponry. When they met in the skies on the first day of April, it was to be air combat – with terrestrial weaponry. Robert and Engelhorn fired their rifles at their respective enemies, and it was quickly over – a crack shot, Robert wounded both men and damaged the Albatros’s radiator, forcing it to make an emergency landing; wounded, the Germans did not resist capture. The Albatros was the real prize though – and this was the first air victory for MS 12, and the fourth for the French overall.
And so goes the story of the brief – but important – air battle over Soissons on 1 April 1915. Navarre was awarded with the Médaille militaire, and Robert with the Légion d’honneur. Both men were promoted. Navarre went on to achieve 12 confirmed victories and 15 uncredited ones in just over a year; wounded in 1916, he didn’t rejoin the front until just before the war’s end; he died in 1919 attempting to perform a stunt against explicit orders, flying his craft through the Arc de Triomphe. I have been unable to find out much else about Robert through the various sites I’ve looked at – besides this photograph:
This photograph was enough though. Because, circuitously, it was proof that what I was looking at through my Unis stereoscope was an image of Lieutenant Robert next to the plane he’d shot from the sky. The Redditor who had helped me out – both with the translation and with the link to the site from which this image was borrowed – had identified the subject of my stereoview:
The still photo above and the stereoscopic photograph I was viewing were almost certainly taken within minutes of each other – note the shadow, the posture, even the wrinkles in the Lieutenant’s pants. And now, the weirdly-number-and-title-free LSU stereoview in my latest acquisition has a beautiful context that makes it just that much more enjoyable to view.