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Great European Lives: Roland Garros

Roland Garros had every intention of pursuing a career as a concert pianist. An air show outside Reims during the late summer of 1909 changed all that.

Aviation came of age at an air show outside Reims during the late summer of 1909. Held during the third week in August, the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne brought the world’s leading fliers to the north-east of France for a thrilling week of races and exhibition flights. Among the leather-clad celebrities climbing cheerily into their flimsy machines, bumping them across the grass and heaving them into the air was Louis Blériot, less than a month after his historic flight across the English Channel. Sponsored by a confederation of local champagne producers including Moët & Chandon, Mumm and Bollinger, the air show became practically a temporary city among the farmers’ fields on the Plain of Betheny. An estimated 500,000 people attended, making use of a 600-cover tented restaurant, a specially-constructed railway station and a post office from which 50,000 postcards would be sent every day of the event. One of the curious many who journeyed from Paris to watch these magnificent men in their flying machines was a 20-year-old music student named Roland Garros, a man who would find the entire direction of his life changed irrevocably over a few short hours. There was an innocence about the Grande Semaine, coming as it did during those few years prior to the First World War when aviation was purely the preserve of the adventurer, when flying was about nothing more than the thrill of taking a machine into the air and staying there. Dangerous it might have been, but these earliest of aircraft never reached great altitudes or speeds and the collapsible nature of their wooden frames meant mishaps rarely led to death or serious injury. The sackloads of postcards being lobbed into open train carriages were penned in awe of the miracle of flight and the marvels of human achievement on display that week in the French countryside. When he stepped off the train onto the temporary wooden platform, to be carried along towards the arena by the excited throng, Garros had every intention of pursuing a career as a concert pianist. Before the year was out he would blow his entire savings on a small Demoiselle aircraft and go on to become one of the world’s most famous and innovative flyers. It would be a glorious career, if a short one: on October 5, 1918, Garros was killed when his aircraft was shot down over the Ardennes by a squadron of German Fokker aircraft. Barely a month before the end of the war, it was also the day before his 30th birthday, leaving him eternally young and a poignant symbol of aviation’s loss of innocence. The blazing Icarus descent of that fatal crash was barely 30 miles across shell-blasted mud from where he’d stood in wide-eyed wonder at the Grande Semaine that day, but in the nine intervening years he’d won countless races, set numerous aviation records, become a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention a noted French war hero, changed the face of aerial combat and staged one of the most audacious escapes from a prisoner-of-war camp in military history. Garros scaled heights both metaphorical and literal, setting records for altitude first in September 1911 when he reached 12,960 feet over Dinard on the coast of Brittany and then a year later when he soared to 18,410 feet above Trouville in Normandy, so high that he found trouble breathing and his engine repeatedly cut out due to the thinness of the atmosphere. Two years later he became the first man to fly non-stop across the Mediterranean, an eight-hour, 800 mile odyssey that even the most accomplished flyers thought was barely possible. In the milky dawn light of September 23, 1913, he took off in his Morane-Saulnier plane from Fréjus on the southern coast of France with 250 litres of fuel on board. A shade under eight hours later, having skirted Corsica and Sardinia, he landed in the late afternoon heat of Bizerte on the Tunisian coast with barely five litres in the tank. When he stepped onto the quayside at Marseille after taking a steamer home he was hoisted shoulder-high by the teeming crowd awaiting his arrival and a journalist asked if the next step was to fly across the Atlantic. Garros declared the idea ‘madness’ but by the following summer he was starting to draw up plans for an assault on the crossing, tempted by the whopping £10,000 bounty offered up by the British newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe. War brought an end to talk of such adventurous frivolity. Although he’d been born on the French Indian Ocean territory of Réunion and spent most of his childhood in Indochina Garros was as patriotic a Frenchman as any born and raised in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower itself. When war was declared in July 1914 by chance he was teaching at a flying school in Germany and, fearful of being interned, left immediately without even packing his belongings, making his way to the Swiss border and then on to Paris to present himself for enlistment. Initially flying reconnaissance and observer missions, it wasn’t long before Garros and his pilot colleagues became active combatants. It was a clumsy business: dropping bombs by hand or firing handguns at enemy machines in the air. Machine guns were awkward; they had to be fired either to the side of the fuselage with associated balance issues, or running the risk of hitting the propeller if fired straight on. Garros devised a system of triangular stainless steel deflectors bolted to the back of his propeller blades that protected the hardware and eliminated the danger of unfortunate rebounds damaging plane or pilot. Combined with his extraordinary skill as a flyer this inventiveness helped him bring down four German aircraft, three of them in the space of three weeks in the spring of 1915. On April 18 that year, however, having killed his engine in order to swoop fast and low, machine-gunning a troop train, Garros found his fuel line clogged by his steep angle of descent and was forced to crash-land in a field behind the German lines not far from Ypres. He attempted to set fire to the plane in order that it didn’t fall into enemy hands but, hearing approaching soldiers, fled the crash site and hid for hours in a ditch, hoping that the cover of night might allow him to make his way back to safety. As dusk fell he was discovered and sent to a prison camp in Magdeburg. ‘Another 15 minutes and the darkness would have saved me,’ he recalled later. Frustrated at having to kick his heels in the camp, Garros tried and failed to escape on a number of occasions but the arrival behind the wire of fellow pilot Anselme Marchal – captured when he crash landed returning from a mission to drop propaganda leaflets over Berlin – led to one of the war’s more extraordinary stories. In February 1918, through a combination of theft and ingenuity, the flyers managed to construct two German officers’ uniforms for themselves and, with Marchal a fluent German speaker, tricked their way out of the camp. They headed west for the Netherlands, sleeping in cemeteries and even spending one afternoon lying low in a Hannover cinema. After a journey of some 300 miles they were in Rotterdam and taking a boat to England from where they made their way back to Paris, to be greeted by Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau brandishing a Legion d’Honneur for both of them. ‘I am going back to the front to join my squadron as soon as I have had some training and can get abreast of the new developments,’ Garros told the New York Times having not sat in an aircraft for nearly three years. ‘You know what it is like coming back from the grave. One has to learn over again.’ One thing that had changed in his absence was Anton Fokker developing an interval machine gun for aircraft, its timing designed to avoid the propeller blades altogether. Indeed it was the Fokker machine gun that brought down France’s greatest aviation hero a day prior to his 30th birthday, when his was one of four French planes ambushed by a squadron of Germans. Bullets sliced through the air and planes twisted, veered and chased in all directions until smoke billowed from one of the French aircraft and it arced gracefully out of the sky. Garros’s body was buried not far from where it was pulled from the wreckage, at Vouziers. Two weeks earlier Garros had met the dancer Isadora Duncan at the Paris apartment of a mutual friend and played Chopin on the piano for her. When he escorted back to her hotel through deserted streets later that night she danced for him as he sat on the edge of a fountain in the Place de la Concorde. ‘His sad, black eyes shone with the fire of the battles that raged not far from us,’ Duncan wrote later, ‘and he told me he tried not to think about death. Shortly afterwards the Angel of Heroes took him up and carried him away.’