First to Fight – Steven Tom

Review by Adrian Roberts.

The Lafayette Escadrille, the unit of American Volunteers with the French Aviation Militaire prior to the US entry into W.W.I, has become an important part of the US national heritage. This was the beginning of what became the American Century and these young men were motivated by idealism and adventure. This book tells the story of Kiffin Rockwell who stated clearly he was fighting for the good of humanity, but, like many of the other volunteers, gave his life in that cause. 

There have been many such books recently that attempt, with varying success, to be biographies of one individual airman, often less well-known than the famous aces. The problem is that often there can be very little material on a young man who died aged 24 (in Rockwell’s case) and did not leave a diary, or write a book, and whose flying career lasted less than nine months, so the author relies on a considerable amount of padding. Fortunately, Kiffin Rockwell wrote copious letters, many of which have survived. They were collated by his brother Paul, who was wounded serving with the Foreign Legion and became the Lafayette’s publicist—he was aware this was history in the making—and, of course, much more has been published and researched about this unit than almost any other of a similar size (N124 was its official designation).

Steven Tom, a retired USAF officer, has used these advantages extremely well. There is padding, but it is of a high quality. The chapter on the general development of aerial warfare in the Great War is a comprehensive introduction to the subject, assuming no previous knowledge, while avoiding oversimplification and cliché and being balanced on the more contentious issues. As there are no major errors in this chapter, it feels safe to trust the rest of the book. There is a comprehensive index, a huge bibliography and very full referencing. Letters and accounts from many other airmen and other sources are quoted. Such thorough research is to be commended; it is almost a pity the author did not use the book to cover the history of the Lafayette Escadrille as a whole. He covers the physiological and psychological effects of combat at high altitude and extreme cold and does not shy away from discussing the inter-personal tensions among the American pilots or conflict with the French authorities. These were, after all, highly motivated and individualistic young men with commensurate egos. 

The photos are few in number and poor in reproduction and there is nothing in the title to indicate the subject of the book. If the hardback version’s cover was lost, a reader would have to go to the prologue before finding it was about Rockwell. However, in every important respect, this excellent book sets the standards for this type of biography. 

ISBN 978-0-81173-8-040

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