George Guynemer

Monument at Poelkapelle

The monument is easily found as it sits in the centre of the main roundabout in the centre of the village. There is ample parking space nearby should you wish to stop and take a closer look.

France's favourite son of the skies

Georges Guynemer was born in Paris on 24 December 1894 and by the time he was to die in air combat over Poelkapelle in 1917 he would have become France's most favoured Ace, a hero very much of his own time.

Guynemer could not have been described as a model pupil at school but afterwards became interested in mechanics and fell in love with the idea of flying from the moment he saw his first aircraft.

Remarkably, considering what he would achieve, Guynemer's slight build caused him to be rejected for service five times before he finally managed on 23 November 1914 to grab himself a place as a mechanic.

Having managed to get into the service he then managed to get himself accepted for flying lessons winning his brevet (No 1832) in April 1915. He was promoted to Caporal at the same time.

The Cigognes

On 8th June 1915 he joined his first and only operational unit, Escadrille MS3. This would later change its title to Spa 3, as French units were numbered according to the aircraft they were using. The unit was part of the Cigognes - The Storks - and carried an emblem on their aircraft as can be seen on the monument here at Poelkapelle.

His first aircraft was named Vieux Charles (Old Charles) and Guynemer stuck with it throughout all the planes he would fly.

 

The fight with Ernst Udet

At this stage of the war flying still tended to be an individual affair with the aviators going up either alone or sometimes with a second. Chivalry was still part of the game in the air and the pilots came to have enormous respect for one another - witness the funeral with military honours given to von Richtofen by the Australians.

Ernst Udet was the only high scoring German pilot to survive the war and he recounts having a gun jam on him in the midst of a dogfight on 6 June 1917 with Guynemer. At the time Udet had little experience and having recognised the words Vieux Charles and the Cigogne on the side of the enemy aircraft realised that he was pitted against France's greatest pilot.

Udet tried everything he could to get away but Guynemer stuck to him. The one time he thought he had a chance his guns jammed and he found himself left a flying target.

Guynemer must have realised his opponent was helpless for he flew past, waving a hand at Udet and then disappeared as fast as he had arrived.


Guynemer rose steadily through the ranks becoming a Capitaine in February 1917. His tally of victories also rose and were marked by periods of great activity with sometimes three or four victories on the one day. Other times the strain on the 22 year old were obviously beginning to tell and he was badly in need of leave.

On returning to St Pol sur mer (near Dunkerque) on 4 September 1917 as head of the Cigognes he had been credited with 53 victories. However, like many of the young pilots from all the air services, he had a presentiment of his own vulnerability and had little doubts that he would not survive for much longer.

 

The end

On the morning of 11 September 1917 Guynemer took of in company of Lieutenant Bozon-Verduraz to patrol the area around Langemark (The Battle for the Menin Road would take place on the 20th - Part of 3rd Ypres, Passchendaele).

What happened seems to be a bit confusing. About 09:30 hours whilst flying at 4,000 metres over Poelkapelle, Guynemer spotted a German biplane and dove to take it out. As he was doing so eight German Albatros fighters arrived on the scene and made to intercept the Frenchmen.

Bozon-Verduraz broke off realising that they were outnumbered and thought his squadron commander had as well. Returning to base there he found no sign of Guynemer.

The Mystery Remains

As in the best of all heroic deaths there was a great deal of controversy and mystery surrounding Guynemer's last moments. For many months, the French population refused to believe he was dead, rumours circulated that he had been captured or had come down over the sea.

It would appear that one way or another Guynemer had in fact been shot down. Later investigations showed that German Infantry reached the crash site and identified Guynemer from his papers. Whilst hit a number of times, a head wound was put down as the official cause of death.

No sooner had all this happened than the German Infantry had to take cover from a British barrage on the area which as part of the build up to the offensive would last until the 20th and destroyed both pilot and aircraft.

Guynemer's body was never found.

A few weeks later the German pilot Kurt Wisserman of Jasta 3 was credited by German Papers having downed the French Ace. By this time Wisserman was himself dead.

To add yet further mystery and intrigue, the French Ace René Fonck claimed to have shot down Wisserman in retaliation for Guynemer - but how he had done this when at that stage Wisserman hadn't been credited with the victory I am not certain.

There is also a theory that Wisserman actually fell victim to the RFC's famous No 56 Squadron - led at this moment by Jimmy McCudden.

 
The Guynemer Monument at Poelkapelle

A legend - An example to all

Guynemer had taken part in more than 600 aerial combats and was shot down seven times and survived. He provoked an overwhelming admiration in all who fought alongside or against him. Unlike René Fonck who would become the Allies top scoring Ace with 75 victories, Guynemer had a certain charm and a youthful passion about him that the public adored and it was thus to him that most of the adoration and sentiment fell.

This monument here at Poelkapelle was erected by Belgian pilots the stork on the monument flying in the last known direction of Vieux Charles.

The inscription on the base reads:

11 September 1917

In this corner of a Belgium ravaged by war, a French hero fell in the defence of violated rights.
Georges Guynemer whose wings of victory granted him at twenty one an incomparable glory in the skies of combat.
The Belgian pilots who had the honour to fight at his side raised this monument in testimony to their admiration born in the brotherhood of arms

8 July 1923

The Panthéon

Another monument to Georges Guynemer stands outside the HQ Armée de l'air in Paris.

In the crypt of the Pantheon, resting place of many of France's most illustrious citizens, there is a plaque dedicated to Georges Guynemer:

Killed on the field of honour on September 11th 1917. A legendary hero, fallen, at the height of his glory, after three years of brilliant struggle. He will remain the purest symbol of the qualities of his race; indomitable tenacity, fierce energy, sublime courage. Driven by the most unshakeable faith in victory he bequeaths to the French soldier an imperishable memory which will exalt the spirit of sacrifice and result in the noblest of imitations.

 

The Legacy

cigognes_2 (9K)

In the modern Armée de l'air of France Guynemer's traditions live on.

The Attack Squadron 1/2 based at Dijon was born out of the SPA 3 and SPA 103 and continues to bear the name of the Cigognes and to wear a modified version of Guynemer's blazon.

During the Second World War whilst based in the UK the Squadron became officially known as 329 Squadron RAF; flying Spitfires.

Guynemer's motto of Faire Face was adopted by the Air College. Roughly translated as - Face it- my neighbour's lad Jean-Jacques probably has it better though longer: in the face of difficult odds, grit your teeth and continue.

The Air Services Memorial at St Omer The Air Services Memorial at St Omer