|By Eric C. Rodenberg
PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — With their leather flying helmet, goggles, scarf, leather overcoat and cavalry boots, the World War I fighter pilot cut a dashing figure.
And Henri Farré was not to be left out of the action. As soon as war was declared on France, Farré – an artist making a good living in Argentina – was on the first boat out to Europe to enlist.
At a portly 43 years old, the artist flew combat missions with French and English pilots half his age. He became one of the “Flyboys,” sharing meals and living in quarters with pilots, while flying with them on day and nighttime missions.
Sitting directly behind the pilot, with bombs rattling around under his feet, Farré drew out the action on a sketch pad and drawing material strapped to his thigh. Occasionally, he would reach under his seat, select a bomb and throw it overboard.
Once on the safety of the ground, Farré would take the sketch pad, retreat to his studio and transcribe what he had witnessed to oil on large and small canvases.
He painted more than 176 war-time canvasses not only illustrating dog fights and marauding aircraft, but also capturing in his oils the bodies of dead or wounded pilots falling to earth.
The early years of air warfare were relatively primitive as recounted in Farré’s book Sky Fighters of France. In 1914, aircraft armament consisted of a carbine in the cockpit. Many of the early planes flew with a grappling hook trailing under the plane in hopes of “hooking” an enemy plane in mid-flight.
Few of these early attempts were successful.
During the course of the war, France was to produce 68,000 aircraft; 52,000 of them were lost in battle. Most of these were lost in the early years.
Within the next three years, however, innovations – such as synchronized machine guns capable of firing behind a propeller and wing-mounted rockets – made the “aeroplane” a more effective killing machine.
During these early years, Farré was often in the thick of battle.
“He did not perform his task by hovering in the clouds miles from the battlefield,” his 1934 obituary in The New York Times declared. “He circled right over the scene of action and, oblivious to the shells, noted the details, which he sketched as soon as he reached the ground. He never got a scratch.”
“I was lucky, that’s all,” he said. “Many of the pilots flying near me were killed or wounded.”
Farré was initially commissioned as a Lieutenant, and then promoted to Observateur Bombardier au Groupe d’Escadrille de Bombardment (Observer/Bombardier). In reality, though, Farré was appointed by the French government to record the air-fighting from the skies.
As the official “Artist of the Armee de l’Air,” Farré’s work is highly regarded for its historical accuracy.
“Farré is considered the most realistic of all the World War I air painters,” according to Curator Brett Stolle from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which owns 69 Farré paintings. “He painted everything the French and Americans flew. He traveled widely throughout the front, gaining valuable information on enemy movements.”
His paintings are not only valued for their artistic renderings, but also capture key moments in aviation history.
A painting recently discovered on the wall of a modest home in Rhode Island records the first air-to-air missile victory by the British. Further research by the auctioneer who discovered the painting shed light not only on the provenance of the piece, but also corrected a footnote to history.
“My wife found the painting hanging on a wall when she went to a yard sale,” said Auctioneer Web Wilson, owner of www.AntiquesYes.com. “She asked the lady about the picture, and asked if she had any more related material.”
The painting, a rarity considered missing in Farré’s oeuvre, had been in the same family for nearly 100 years.
The Farré painting, depicting an epic battle above the Battle of the Somme on Sept. 16, 1916, will be on an Internet auction on Wilson’s website from Nov. 9-16. Several other pieces of Farré-related material will also be on sale at the site, including a signed 1917 portfolio of his work.
The material came from the consignor’s grandmother, who as a Red Cross volunteer, was introduced to Farré during his American tour in 1917. The tour, featuring 176 of Farré’s air war paintings, was organized by the American and French governments. The advertised purpose was to generate aid for the widows and orphans of slain pilots as well as aiding wounded French airman.
The political emphasis, however, was to boost the American war effort as the U.S. was mobilizing to join the fray.
The painting that Farré sold to the young Red Cross volunteer in New York during the opening days of his national tour misidentified the pilot credited with making the first air-to-air missile victory, according to Wilson.
Farré, who learned of the epic air battle secondhand, incorrectly identified the pilot as “Capt. Summers.” Fortunately, the League of World War I Aviation Historians from the United Kingdom revealed the true story:
“On Sept. 15, 1916, during Battle of the Somme – Gen. Trechard (in command of the RFC) asked for volunteers to attack observation balloons. Capt. Albert Ball, 2nd. Lt. A.M. Walters, 2nd Lt. Euan Gilchrist and Capt. A.S.M. Summers all took off in Nieuports armed with LePrieur Rockets. Ball and Walters found their balloon targets hauled down so instead attacked some German planes.
“Ball missed with his rockets but shot down an enemy fighter with his machine gun. His wingman Walters fired his rockets at one of the LVG two-seaters (A German observation plane) and saw a rocket hit the LVG in the fuselage, setting it aflame. This may very well have been the first air-to-air rocket victory against a heavier than air target.
“Meanwhile, Gilchrist and Capt. A.S.M. Summers destroyed their balloons, but Summers was sadly shot down by anti-aircraft fire. So, it was not Summers but Walters who destroyed an enemy airplane with LePrieur rockets. Farré somehow heard a garbled account of this action and mixed up the names of the combatants.”
Farré can be excused for his error. Not only was the aerial action intense, the pitched battle in the trenches on ground defined the horror of warfare. By the end of the battle in December, the British had suffered 420,000 casualties, including nearly 60,000 the first day alone. The French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.
For his war efforts, Farré received the Legion of Honor from France and other decorations. Later in life he was awarded the gold medal of the Salon des Artistes Francais for his art work.
After the war, Farré moved to Chicago where he married a woman’s fashion designer. He lived in the United States, while exhibiting his work at a Paris salon, for 10 years before dying in 1934.