Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Capturing the Great War from Above (France, 1918)

In the collection of the Imperial War Museum the authors recently found a remarkable film by photographic officer Captain Edwin H. Cooper, showing his preparations for a staged battle between the American ace Eddie Rickenbacker and a captured German plane. During the making of this movie Cooper's plane crashed but he survived miraculously.

Lieutenant Edwin H. Cooper, getting ready for a motion picture flight. Aviation School, Issoudon, 12 December 1917. Signal Corps picture, courtesy Harry B. Kidd

Distinguished Service Cross for Extraordinary Bravery 

Edwin H. Cooper (1881-1948) featured before in this weblog. He was the photographic officer with the 26th "Yankee" Division and in 1917 Cooper was one of the first official cameramen to land in France with the American Expeditionary Force. In a previous weblog we described how Cooper risked his life while filming the American attack on Château-Thierry. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his extraordinary bravery during this offensive. Cooper also appears in a recent documentary that we produced - Mobilizing Movies! - on the U.S. Signal Corps cameramen of the First World War.

In his memoirs Cooper explained how he got interested in aerial photography. When he landed at St. Nazaire in October 1917 one of the first things he noticed was a huge observation balloon above the harbor. He immediately decided he wanted to experience the thrill of covering the war from above: "We passed over a very beautiful little chateau which reminded me of a toy house in a well kept Christmas yard. The coast of Brittany is very rocky, jutting out into the water, which was a most wonderful blue. This was the most beautiful ride I ever had. On reaching St. Nazaire we circled over the town, the pilot maneuvering so we could approach the pile of automobiles by making a long glide and at the proper time for me to crank the motion picture camera. I made a mistake by putting my hand up broadside to grasp the crank. The wind pressure was so great that it snapped my hand back, hitting me in the face, and I had to offer my hand knife-wise against the wind, and even at that the cranking was very difficult."

Capturing the American Aces

In December 1917 Cooper went to Issoudon, the training camp for American aviators. There he met most of the American aces, such as Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Meissner and President Roosevelt's son, Quentin. Many of these men he would encounter again at the 94th Aero-Squadron near Toul. Cooper pictured the training period for the aviators, starting with the roulier class. This was a plane with the propellers clipped to keep the machine from rising from the ground. From there he followed the training of the aviators from one field to another and finally to the acrobatic field. Each day he was in the air and by then he had decided he wanted to join the Air Service.

Major Raoul Lufbery at the 94th Aero-Squadron, photographed by Lt. Edwin Cooper on April 18, 1918. Signal Corps photograph courtesy Harry B. Kidd

Cooper also photographed Lafayette Escadrille ace, Major Raoul Lufbery, shortly before his death:

"I shall always remember the luncheon I had with Major Lufbery on the Friday
before he was killed. He never talked aviation or his exploits, but that day he
mentioned the fact, referring to a boy that had gone down in flames, that if he was
ever in flames he would jump. That afternoon I photographed him in front of his
plane. The following Sunday afternoon they received word at the field that there
was a Boche plane coming toward Toul. The flight on duty started up and they
had hardly reached a good height when the Boche plane was seen over Toul.

It fell down out of control and everyone thought it had been hit by the artillery.
It narrowly escaped hitting a building, but righted and started to zoom up. A
lieutenant told me, who was standing on the balcony of the Comedie Hotel in Toul,
that it was so low he could have hit it with an orange. The flight did not see the
Boche, but Lufbery went up after him alone. He was on the German's trail chasing
him hard toward Germany, when presently a puff of smoke was seen in Lufbery's
plane. The plane stalled. He climbed out and jumped, evidently trying to reach
the river running under it, but instead landed on a picket fence near the home of a
French peasant. When Major Huffer went after his body the French people had
moved it to the mairie and completely covered it with wild flowers. They brought
down the German just as he reached the lines and found there had been a gunner
lying down in the fusilage who had fired the bullet. Several days later, I made
the picture of Lufbery' s funeral."

Fearless Aerial Photographer

Picture from Eddie Rickenbacker to his friend Captain Cooper

Lieutenant Cooper was by all accounts a fearless aerial photographer. Because of his audacity he was admitted as a charter member of the Gimper Club at 94th Aero-Squadron. To join this exclusive club one had to do a stunt or be a true ace. There is a picture of these club members, taken in the summer of 1918, including Lt. Cooper together with his friend Eddie Rickenbacker. Judging from a report in the trade press, Cooper must have qualified for the Gimper Club not because he had shot down German planes but as a result of his remarkable stunts: "To get a proper focus, he would climb out of his seat in an airplane, slid out to the tail of the machine, and there complete his work. His weight had caused the tail to dip, and the pilot had to loop the loop several times to save their lives", the Bulletin of Photography reported in October 1918.

Lost footage found at Critical Past and the Imperial War Museum

The opening movie scenes that we found are from the Imperial War Museum and were taken on October 18, 1918 when Cooper had just been promoted to Captain. You see him fitting his Debrie motion picture camera to a gun position inside the cockpit of a Liberty plane. Cooper went up in a two-seater together with Jimmy Meissner that day. Rickenbacker in his book Fighting the Flying Circus (1919) described how their plane crashed a couple of miles outside of the aerodrome. "We hurried over, expecting to find the occupants badly injured, as the Liberty appeared to be a total wreck. But out stepped Jimmy and Captain Cooper, neither of them the worse for their experience. And to complete our surprise, the camera, although covered with the débris of the machine, was quite unhurt!"

The wrecked Liberty plane, showing Cooper's movie camera attached to the observer's seat. Photographer: Sgt. Gideon Eikleberry, Signal Corps cameraman, 26th Division, A.E.F. Location: Rembercourt, Meurthe et Moselle, France. Date: October 18, 1918. Courtesy Harry B. Kidd

Undaunted by the crash Cooper three days later again cranked his movie camera while filming a staged battle between Rickenbacker inside a Spad and a captured German plane. This time his flight had a safe landing. Cooper's film of this duel in the sky has been found in the stock collection of Critical Past. The original footage must have looked quite spectacular. In order to make the dogfight look realistic the planes shot special tracer bullets. At the end of the film when the German plane went down landing flares that had been fitted under the wings were set on fire. According to Rickenbacker, the German plane even had a dummy pilot installed that was thrown out of the aircraft as the plane dived down. Rickenbacker mentioned the fighting looked so real a French artillery unit opened fire, mistaking the German plane for a real enemy aircraft. Cooper's historic footage also has a close-up of pilot Jimmy Meissner in the front seat of his plane.

We have edited these scenes from the Imperial War Museum and Critical Past on our YouTube channel. Enjoy!


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