The Vanishing Hero and the Revenge that Never Happened

Excerpted from Myths and Mysteries of the Great War in the Air, Part 1 by O’Brien Browne. Published in World War One Illustrated #1, Fall 2013. This issue is still available for purchase here. This issue also included an introductory game: Zeppelin Raider! that can play solitaire. Read more about the other issues of WWOI and our projects here. Help us to preserve the stories of this critical period of history. Here’s how.

Georges Guynemer

Georges Guynemer by “Lucien” (unknown painter), Musée de la Légion d’Honneur et des Ordres de Chevalerie, Paris

Never underestimate the power of a good story. World War I was perhaps the last opportunity for a fighter pilot to become a hero in the medieval sense the word. It was not unusual for propagandists to embellish the career of popular pilots to the level of heroic legend. However, the facts usually do not match up to the myths.

One such myth is that Capitaine Georges Guynemer flew into the clouds, never to be seen again.

Guynemer was a French ace with 53 air to air kills credited to him before his death. At his memorial service, a French general stated, “[Guynemer] had disappeared in empyrean glory through a miraculous assumption.” This is certainly a romantic notion.

Writers picked up on the general’s statement and repeated it endlessly. The repetition made it as though the good Captain had actually vanished into the clouds rather than met his death. In fact, Capitaine Guynemer had been shot down on September 10, 1917 by Leutnant Wissemann near Poelkapelle. A German doctor examined his body. A shot through the head had killed him.

The French Get Revenge?

A myth related to the first is that French Ace of Aces René Fonck Killed Ltn. Wissemann, the Pilot Who Shot Down Guynemer. Propagandists credited Fonck with killing Wissemann in a delicious and often repeated tale of vengeance for the death of Guynemer.

Not true. Captain Geoffrey Hilton Bowman and Lt. T. C. Hoidge of the Royal Flying Corps shot down Wissemann on September 28, 1917, a little over two weeks after the fall of the French ace.

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