Made of fabric and metal struts, the tailfin of the Sopwith is situated at the tail of the plane and ensures its stability in flight.
As explained by the inscription on the right side of the object, this is the tailfin of a Sopwith 1½ Strutter, a British-designed single- or two-seater aircraft used as a fighter or observer aircraft or as a bomber. This British biplane was flown by several squadrons of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) from early 1916 onwards but, strangely, it was used more by the French Aeronautical Service. It was manufactured under license in France, with more than 4,500 planes being made with the Sopwith 1A2 variants for reconnaissance, 1B2 and 1B1 for bombing. The Sopwith 1A2s were above all used on the Hauts de Meuse front in 1917, notably at the time of the second battle of Verdun (August 1917).
The distinctive feature of this tailfin, recuperated by warrant officer Marie-Louis Planson after his crash in 1917, is that it represents a trompe l’œil dog giving the illusion that it is passing through the tailfin’s fabric: on one side you can see the animal facing you, and on the other there’s a view of its backside. We don’t know who this dog was or who it belonged to. It’s likely that it was the pilot’s pet, or perhaps the squadron’s mascot.
The dating of this painting poses a problem: was it an illustration made in memory of the accident, or was it a personal insignia painted on the aircraft, as could be done by any of the pilots assigned to this squadron, which was responsible for directing the fire of the heavy artillery of the 37th army corps?
The inscription also mentions the pilot’s accident on 5th June 1917, when his squadron was engaged on the Chemin des Dames front.
In a letter he wrote to his mother on 24th September 1917, Marie-Louis Planson described an accident that had happened the day before due to engine failure at an altitude of 180 metres. The ensuing emergency landing ended up with the plane crashing into a shelter on his aerodrome at Tartiers, in Aisne, at a speed of more than 150 kph. Was there some confusion between the date indicated on the tailfin and the one reported in the letter, or where these two distinct crashes? In this letter sent from an ambulance based in the Soissons area, the pilot seeks to reassure his mother, telling her that with the exception of some serious injuries to his face, he had come out of it without any broken bones, because he had managed to keep a cool head. In fact, he suffered a number of bodily injuries, and the letter makes no mention of the observer accompanying Planson, pilot officer Jourde, who was also injured in the crash.
This artistically re-purposed object became a very personal keepsake, testifying to the combatants’ desire to preserve the memory of their experiences during the Great War. It was donated to the Comité National du Souvenir de Verdun – the owner of the Verdun Memorial’s collections – in May 2019 by Robert Saint-Juvin, the son of one of Mr Planson’s friends.
Because of its impressive size this object requires an adequate space where it can be stored flat. Owing to their fragility, the painted elements must be sheltered from light to preserve the brightness of their colours. This composite object, made from very different types of materials, needs a stable conservation atmosphere with a temperature maintained between 18 and 20 °C, and a relative humidity of 50 % ±5%.
Flying Officer Louis PLANSON’s oral testimony is kept at the Service Historique de la Défense de Vincennes (classification mark AI 8 Z 434), as are those of 180 other French First World War pilots, among whom some thirty fought in the skies above Verdun.