Americans All! – An aerial view of the war to end all wars

As commemorations this month mark the centennial of America’s involvement in the First World War, we are confronted with images resurrected from a century prior. The square-jawed “doughboys” with cigarettes pressed between their lips seem as foreign to us as lighting up on a plane in 2017. Yet many of the myths animating our forebears 100 years ago continue to confound us today. For some historical perspective, consider the story of pilot Stephen Henley Noyes.

Between 1914-18, much of the world squandered its citizenry and industry in a 500-mile trench gouged from Belgium’s North Sea coast to the Franco-Swiss border.

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From the original inscription: “French Biplane Spad.” From the Stephen H. Noyes papers [1472]

“There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity,” wrote ambulance driver Ernest Hemingway. “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.”

The United States entered this crucible in 1917, no longer able to swallow a policy of neutrality in the face of unrestricted German submarine warfare and the “Zimmerman Telegram,” a document leak that would make Julian Assange blush.

The visual record of this “Great War” ranges widely, differing in medium, subject, and purpose.

Many of us are familiar with the period’s purple propaganda, including the inaugural appearance of Uncle Sam’s exhortative “I Want You for U.S. Army” poster. Much less familiar are aerial photographs afforded by the airplane’s adoption as a military tool.

Noyes’ records, owned by the Historical Society, offer a bird’s-eye view onto the grim reality of mechanized conflict, what historian Niall Ferguson terms the “pity of war.”

In 1917, American servicemen entering the cockpit of their “flying coffins” – as the highly flammable planes were popularly known – were older than aviation itself. It had been only 14 years since the Wright Brothers solved the “flying problem.”

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Assortment of pilots and planes. From the Stephen H. Noyes papers [1472]

Much of today’s aerial orthodoxy had yet to be established. Parachuting, for example, was considered unmanly and therefore discouraged. Many of the wooden machines looked more like the Wrights’ flimsy Flyer than airborne weapons.

Nevertheless, pilots became a fixation of the public and press. Not only were aviators granted a freedom of movement denied to infantry stuck in the trenches, but the dramatic “dogfight” – one pilot pitted against another – came to represent a nostalgic ideal of battle absent from the static, anonymous war down below.

This heroic sentiment is absent in Noyes’ photograph albums.

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Undated portrait of Captian Stephen Noyes. From the Stephen H. Noyes papers [1472]

A Rhode Islander by birth, he arrived in Philadelphia in 1912 to work as a bridge designer for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In those heady days of early flight, the city served as an epicenter of aviation technology and pilot instruction. Captivated by the machine, the mechanically minded Noyes first took to the air while attending the Essington-based Philadelphia Aviation School.

As a form of personal preparedness in 1916, Noyes enlisted in the Officer Reserve Corps. After the April 1917 declaration of war, he arrived “over there” in September.

Piloting a SPAD S.XI – a French-designed, two-seat biplane – the majority of Noyes’ missions involved intelligence-gathering. He and a navigator-cum-photographer would travel deep behind enemy lines to reconnoiter troop movements and positions.

To capture these images, Noyes would ascend to a (relatively) safe altitude of 4,000 to 5,000 feet. In an open cockpit, this was no small feat of frigid endurance.

Other reconnaissance flights, however, called for Noyes to fly much closer to the German Mausers aimed at his unarmored cockpit. For his conspicuous bravery, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross.

His missions are documented in unusually rich photograph albums featuring scores of aerial views rarely found outside of government repositories.

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No Man’s Land. From the Stephen H. Noyes papers [1472]

These snapshots – which Army intelligence officers stitched together to construct battlefield panoramas – reveal the Western Front’s lunar landscape and, with it, the human and environmental devastation unleashed by mechanized war.

Pockmarked with craters from “drumfire” barrages, the countryside mirrors the shellacked psyches of soldiers and civilians caught in the inferno. To flip through Noyes’ albums, one could be forgiven for thinking scarcely a single tree – or human being – remained standing in eastern France.

With the aid of a magnifier, viewers can spot soldiers in the trenches like so many huddled ants. Other exposures depict enemy pilots engulfed in hellfire and curls of noxious gas on its way to melting American lungs. In between missions, Noyes snapped photographs of fellow aviators – whose life expectancies were measured in weeks – and refugees rendered homeless.

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From the original inscription: “Launching a gas attack.” From the Stephen H. Noyes papers [1472]

This was not a glorious war, on the ground or in the air.

Noyes’ life after the November 1918 armistice remains hazy, with his collection revealing little of his peacetime years.

From the conditions in which soldiers fought to the impact upon civilian populations, Noyes’ albums present a nuanced portrait of a conflict so horrid that survivors earnestly believed it to be the “war to end all wars.”

In 1909, Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion lit up the best-seller list. Because of economic interdependence between Britain and the European continent, war had become futile – or so his thesis ran. Five years later, these enlightened nations would send their manhood to drown in mud.

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From the original inscription: “Boche (nimble again) burns up a French observation plane.” From the Stephen H. Noyes papers [1472]

Commercial liability is not a stopgap against our baser instincts, nor is the interconnectedness between “global citizens” afforded by social media. Politicians that dog-whistle tunes of blood and soil should take a ride in Noyes’ cockpit, lest we sleepwalk into the same mistakes of a century ago.


This article originally appeared in the April 16, 2017 Philadelphia Inquirer as part of HSP’s weekly series, Memory Stream.

Join HSP on Monday, May 24, for “Americans All!,” a free program exploring the legacy of foreign-born soldiers serving in the U.S. Army during the First World War.

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