The Way of the Eagle
Charles J. Biddle
Casemate, Havertown, Pennsylvania, 2016, 348 pages
Book Review published on: February 7, 2020
The Way of the Eagle is an incredibly personal account of an American World War I aviation ace’s flying experiences over the trenches of Western Europe. Shortly upon his return to the United States following the conclusion of World War I, Maj. Charles Biddle used his diaries and the many letters he sent family members to document his account of life and death over the skies of Belgium and France from the spring of 1917 to the war’s end in November 1918.
Biddle, a Princeton graduate from a prominent Philadelphia family, chose to enlist in the French Foreign Legion (Aviation Division) ahead of America’s formal entry in World War I in the spring of 1917 instead of attending Harvard Law School in the fall of the same year. Although America initially maintained a policy of neutrality at the onset of World War I, many Americans like Biddle sympathized with the Allies and felt a sense of duty in volunteering. Interestingly, among the first Americans to involve themselves in the Great War, independent of the U.S. military, were wealthy young men who were recent graduates from elite U.S. universities and colleges.
Biddle’s memoirs in The Way of the Eagle document everything from his application to join the French Foreign Legion to his learning how to fly, his time spent in French units like Escadrille N. 73 and Escadrille Lafeyette, and his eventual command of the 13th Aero Squadron and the 4th Pursuit Group of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Understanding and exploiting the air domain and the use of aviation assets were truly in the embryonic stage during World War I. Biddle’s account of learning how to fly and his progression through the various flight schools is astonishing; flight students basically had to train themselves. Flight training began in Bleriot monoplanes known as Penguins that had smaller engines and cut-down wings so they could not fly. After they mastered learning how to steer straight in the Penguins, which had a max speed of about forty miles per hour, they graduated to the Rouleur class. The Rouleur-class machines had larger engines and full-length wings, but students were still not allowed to leave the ground. The third phase, the Decolleur class, is where students actually start flying—first by just popping up a few feet and then shutting off the engine and letting the machine settle back onto the ground. Biddle eventually graduated to the Nieuport class, was promoted to the rank of corporal, and was designated a pilote aviateur.
Upon his designation as an aviator, Cpl. Biddle joined French Escadrille N. 73, Groupe de Combat 12, otherwise known as Le Groupe Brocard. The majority of The Way of the Eagle documents Biddle’s time in Escadrille N. 73 and Escadrille Lafeyette (103rd Aero Squadron AEF) flying a French-built, single-seat biplane fighter aircraft known as the “Spad,” which got its name from the designer Societe Pour L’Aviation Derives (Aviation Derivatives Society). Much of what he writes about in his letters not only describes his personal flying experiences but also highlights many of the great French aces like Capt. Guynemer and Lt. Fonck, who between them had 139 official aerial victories. In his letters home, Biddle also writes about several American aviators including Oliver Chadwick, Stewart Walcott, and Hobart Baker, who he refers to as having the highest moral character and being the best men he had ever met. As a side note, Hobart Baker, also a Princeton man, is considered one of the greatest American-born ice hockey players of his time. The Hobey Baker Award, established in his honor, is given annually to the best men’s college hockey player.
What makes The Way of the Eagle such an important World War I memoir is the rarity of first-hand account publications that examine American aviation volunteers during this period. The book is enlightening, enjoyable, and an extremely quick read that illuminates the stress and perils of aerial combat during World War I, where the majority of the dogfights took place between thirty and two hundred feet. Although there are many locations and names omitted from Biddle’s letters for operational security reasons at the time, that lack of information in no way detracts from the reader’s understanding of the events as they took place. The Way of the Eagle is a must read for military fliers—it is like discovering the lineage of your family tree. Many modern-day basic aerobatic maneuvers can be traced back to this fledgling era of aviation, like the Immelmann turn, named after German World War I fighter ace Max Immelmann. Lastly, if you ever have the opportunity to visit the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Alabama, you will see some of the best-preserved biplanes from this era, and the squadron insignias of the 103rd and 13th Aero Squadrons, AEF, proudly displayed on the museum’s walls.
Book Review written by: Capt. James F. Buckley, U.S. Navy, Retired, Fort Belvoir, Virginia