A scientific romance and war novel from the Belle Époque: L’Aviateur du Pacifique of Captain Danrit (Émile Driant)

L’Aviateur du Pacifique.

Bonjour, bonjour, my reading friend. I hope the weather is nice in your little corner of paradise.

As you probably know, the decade between the first controlled and sustained flight of a powered aeroplane and the start of the First World War was / is among the most fascinating periods in the history of aviation. Yours truly must admit to having a particular affinity for this period. The fact that there are many websites which provide access to newspapers from various countries from these years, for free, only adds to its appeal. I’m cheap, what can I tell you.

I therefore invite you to a small excursion in the maze of time. Our destination is the year 1910.

On 1 July of that year, a new daily newspaper published in Montréal, Québec, which still existed as of 2020, began the publication of a scientific romance published in France in October 1909 in a beautiful Christmas present type edition. The last lines of L’Aviateur du Pacifique by Captain Danrit, the pen name of Émile Driant, a retired Armée de Terre officer, appeared in Le Devoir in October 1910, almost 15 weeks after the publication of the first lines of said story.

The illustrated Montréal weekly Le Samedi published Driant / Danrit’s text in 6 issues published in November and December 1911.

This being said (typed?), L’Aviateur du Pacifique first appeared in serial form, in Le Journal des Voyages, between October 1909 and July 1910. Translations appeared in 1909, in the Netherlands (Dutch), and in 1912, in Mexico (Spanish) and Vistula Land (Polish), a territory then under Russian control.

If I may be permitted a brief digression, Le Journal des Voyages was a very popular French illustrated weekly founded in 1877. It contained exciting and factual, at least theoretically, accounts of exploration and travel, all too often systematically racist, as well as accounts of adventures and scientific romance each more incredible than the next and also all too often systematically racist.

It should be noted that Le Journal des voyages published other Driant / Danrit scientific romances related to aviation. These included Les Robinsons de l’air and Au-dessus du continent noir, released in 1909-10 and 1911-12. These novels also appeared in book form. Les Robinsons de l’air was later reissued with a new title, Un dirigeable au Pôle Nord. Translations in German, Dutch and Czech of Les Robinsons de l’air arrived in bookstores before the end of 1914.

Driant / Danrit’s first work to include a flying machine, in this case a metal-covered airship, was nonetheless L’Invasion noire of 1894-95.

Why the hell did Le Devoir choose to publish a serial work like L’Aviateur du Pacifique which had nothing whatsoever to do with what was going on in Québec during the Belle Époque, you say, my reading friend ? A very good question.

As it turned out, the daily reported that L’Aviateur du Pacifique was the name of the next novel it planned to publish on 25 June 1910, a date which should ring a bell. No, no, I do not have in mind the promulgation of the edict of Pistres, on 25 June 864, by Carolus, the king of West Francia better known under the name of Charles II, or Charles the Bald – technically Charles with a shaved head but, well, let’s move on. I have in mind 25 June 1910, the first day of the Grande semaine d’aviation de Montréal, the first air show held in Québec / Canada, mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2018.

How did / does the plot of L’Aviateur du Pacifique unfold, you say? Another very good question and I can answer it.

As a conflict seemed about to break out between the Japanese Empire and the United States, a young, charming and brilliant French engineer and balloonist was responsible for delivering an airship to the United States Navy, in the Midway Islands, right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. During the trip, the ship carrying Maurice Rimbaut and the airship was torpedoed. Shipwrecked, our hero managed, however, to reach the Midway Islands, then besieged by the Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kaigun, in other words the Japanese imperial navy, and completely cut from the rest of the world because the submarine telegraph cables had been cut. Worse still, the Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kaigun seemingly deployed numerous trawlers equipped with radiotelegraphy equipment in order to jam any message sent by the garrison of the Midway Islands.

The Japanese Empire, feared the garrison, was preparing to launch a surprise attack against the Hawaiian Islands, or Sandwich Islands, an independent kingdom annexed in July 1898, despite the opposition of the local population, following a coup d’état mounted in January 1893 by the small American and European communities of the archipelago, but I digress. As an attack was about to be launched by the Japanese Empire, the American government had to be warned at all costs.

In just a few days, calling on plans he had with him, Rimbaut oversaw the making of a makeshift aeroplane by the American garrison. The young Frenchman then began an epic and eventful flight of around 30 hours during which he crossed, in 2 stages (!?), the 5 150 kilometres (3 200 miles) which separated the Midway Islands from California.

The ! and? in the previous sentence are due to the fact that no aeroplane could cross a distance of 5 150 kilometers before the 1920s and that there were / are no islands between the Midway Islands and California.

Outraged by the perfidy and treachery of the Japanese Empire, the American government declared war on it without further ado. A powerful fleet of the United States Navy quickly set sail, liberated the Hawaiian Islands, if I understand correctly, and rushed towards the Japanese archipelago. An epic naval battle ended in victory for the United States Navy.

The End. Well almost.

I presume that Rimbaut found time to marry the pretty Kate Heuzey, the daughter of the commander of the Midway Islands naval base.

A person who is interested in the history of the Second World War in the Pacific Ocean theatre of operation cannot fail to note some names very present in said history: the Midway Islands and the Hawaiian Islands for example.

This being said (typed?), the work of fiction published before the conflict which most resembled what happened between 1941 and 1945 appeared in 1925. The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931- 1933 was / is a fascinating work by an Anglo-American spy / journalist / author. Conspiracy enthusiasts are reminded that Hector Charles Bywater died suddenly in August 1940, at the age of 55. Some people believe that he was... murdered by the Japanese government, but I digress.

Are you so fascinated by this peroration that a brief biographical interlude would lower your blood pressure? Very good.

Émile Driant was born in September 1855. Shocked by the defeat of France during the Franco-Prussian / German War of 1870, he decided not to pursue a career in law, like his father. Driant wanted to be a soldier. He was then just 20 years old. Having become an infantry officer, Driant seemingly had a bright future.

A practicing Catholic, Driant was one of the many officers whose name was found in a secret ministerial file intended to limit the careers of officers whose faith was a little too visible. Outraged by what he believed to be an unacceptable interference on the part of French Freemasonry, Driant got involved in anti-Masonic leagues and did not hesitate to express his views before senior officers. Put back in his place and aware that his chances of advancing in the military hierarchy were quite small, he resigned in 1905 and entered politics.

Mind you, the fact that Driant was the son-in-law of Major General Georges Ernest Jean-Marie Boulanger, who had died in September 1891, may not have helped matters. If I may be permitted a brief digression, Boulanger was a very popular officer around whom a populist movement, the boulange or boulangisme, was formed, whose most enthusiastic members proposed the holding of a coup d’état, in… 1889. Ours is a small world, isn’t it, and… 1889? 1789? The capture of the Bastille in July 1789? You had me scared for a second there, my reading friend.

A member of a centre-right Catholic party, Driant defended the interests of the Armée de Terre in the Assemblée nationale from the spring of 1910 to August 1914, when the First World War broke out. He then asked to return to the Armée de Terre. Posted to the front in the fall of 1915, Driant died in February 1916 with the vast majority of the men in his unit. He was only 60 years old.

Driant began to write novels, scientific romances each more apocalyptic than the next more precisely, in 1888. Dare we say that he was one of the inventors of the military scientific romance?

Anxious not to damage the reputation of the Armée de Terre and / or to avoid the wrath of the military hierarchy and / or government, Driant used a pen name, Danrit, which fooled no one. In fact, he was not the only officer to do so. French aviation pioneer Louis Ferdinand Ferber used an assumed name, de Rue, when he participated in aerial competitions in 1908-09.

All of Driant / Danrit’s work was / is steeped in a patriotism, dare we say chauvinism, which was somewhat, if not strongly anti-Semitic, imperialistic, militaristic, racist, sexist and xenophobic. The Jules Verne militaire, as he was sometimes / often called, was, in short, a white man of his time. Sorry. Sorry. And yes, Jules Gabriel Verne was mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since June 2018.

Driant / Danrit feared, or believed, that a cataclysmic conflict between France, its people and government, too often incapable of seeing the danger, according to him, and an almost hereditary enemy such as the German Empire or the British Empire, yes, yes, the treacherous Albion, was practically inevitable. The French Armée de Terre and Marine nationale had to be ready to prevent France from being crushed. To do this, both needed a constant influx of brave and devoted young men whom Driant / Danrit hoped to motivate through books which had an all in all quite narrow and limited pedagogism.

For Driant / Danrit, the technological marvels presented in his novels only served to support or make possible the demonstrations of bravery of his French heroes. In fact, his works reviewed many technological marvels from 1888 to 1912, in 14 titles representing 24 volumes, from submarine to aeroplanes to airship. Would you believe that L’Aviateur du Pacifique was / is among the very first so-called realistic works of fiction which used an aeroplane to advance their story?

Driant / Danrit even mentioned the use of asphyxiating gases, but only against African attackers, considered inferior by the vast majority of Europeans and North Americans of the Belle Époque – and by too many of them in 2020.

Anyone looking for a lot of poetry, dare I say a lot of humanity or compassion, in the work of Driant / Danrit would be a little disappointed.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the conquest of the air by aviators and their aeroplanes, often French, let’s not forget, was yet another unparalleled demonstration of the blissful optimism of a white elite. Was not / is not humanity condemned or doomed to progress in perpetuity, if yours truly may be permitted to anachronically paraphrase the French sociologist / economist / demographer Alfred Sauvy, himself paraphrased around 1968 by René Lévesque, a Québec gentleman mentioned in September, November and December 2018 issues of our you know what?

The horrors of the First World War would quickly challenge the miracles of technical progress, among other things. The Belle Époque was indeed over and done with.

Be well, my reading friend.

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Rénald Fortier