Eagle & dove

Marie Marvingt

In March 1915, an injured pilot of the French Aéronautique Militaire was transported to a field hospital behind Verdun, 200km east of Paris. There, one of his nurses learned he had been the only pilot available to fly an important bombing mission.

Within days, that nurse would become history’s first female combat pilot.

No ordinary nurse

This was still the early days of air warfare. It would be four more months before Anthony Fokker’s insightful EIndecker set the template for every successful fighter plane to follow and began its long and bloody ‘Fokker Scourge’. Even the defining horrors of Verdun and the Somme were respectively still 11 and 15 months away in the war’s bleak narrative.

In fact, air warfare was still so new that pilots were relatively rare and the loss of one could easily mean no one was available to take his place. 

This irreplaceable pilot, however, had not been delivered into the care of any ordinary nurse.

Marie Marvingt was a Major in the Red Cross and a trained surgical nurse. She came from a long line of military officers and had signed up without a second thought in August 1914. She had also experienced the new phenomenon of air war as early as December 26th, 1914, when a Zeppelin flew low over her hospital in the town of Nancy at dawn, dropping eleven bombs into the ground fog as it passed.

But most importantly, she was an accomplished pilot.

The unstoppable Marie Marvingt – ‘Fiancée of Danger’, aviation pioneer and so much more. (LoC P&P | ggbain.05523)

First women’s aviation records

Despite being the third woman to qualify for an Aviator’s Certificate (No.281) from the Aéro-Club de France, Marie had a string of aviation firsts to her name. Not least, as early as 1910 she had become the first woman to graduate from Hubert Latham’s flying school at Châlons near Mourmelon-le-Grand – mastering the famously difficult Antoinette Monoplane to do so. 

(She would also achieve an extraordinary record of more than 900 flights without breaking wood and was one of the very few Latham alumni to die of old age.)

Marie prepares to fly an Antoinette during the 1911 Meeting d’Aviation at St. Etienne, near Lyon.

She had won the first official records for height and distance awarded to a woman pilot. An accomplished balloonist, she had also been first to pilot a hot air ballon from Europe to England – in a storm and at night, no less!

First female combat pilot

By March 1915, Marie had hundreds of flights to her credit and had trained numerous male pilots. She was like a mother eagle to many of the pilots in the Aéronautique Militaire

Obviously, the idea that there were no pilots available for an important mission, when the accomplished Marie Marvingt stood right there, was preposterous!

Using her truly unique combination of fame, charm, aviation experience and logic, Marie soon persuaded the Escadrille’s commander that she would fly the mission. 

On March 25th, 1915, Mme. Marvingt became the first-ever female combat pilot. 

The type of aircraft is not recorded but she took off from the airfield and flew to a pre-arranged rendezvous point. From there, she and five other French pilots flew west to the German airfield at Frescaty, on the Moselle River near Metz, and bombed the enemy aerodrome.

For her courage on this and a subsequent raid, Marie was awarded the Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 avec Palmes and inducted into the Légion d’honneur.   

However, her historic milestone remained a state secret until 1932.

Above and beyond

In the meantime, Marie Marvingt had managed to enlist in the French Army and spent 42 days in uniform disguised as a man, including sustained stretches in the front lines. She was eventually wounded and discovered, after which she was sent to serve alongside the Italian Army in the Dolomites. 

Something about that man on the left… Marie as front-line soldier “Private Second Class Beaulieu” during her time with the French 42nd Battalion.

A skilled mountaineer since the 1890s, Marie served officially as a nurse but the reality was she was closer to a corpsman or medic, travelling up to the front to evacuate stretcher cases through deep snow, high cliffs, avalanches and glaciers – putting her alpine skills to the best possible use. 

She also flew reconnaissance missions over the mountainous war zone – putting her considerable aviation skills to their best possible use. 

All the while, she was officially a nurse. But another layer to her extraordinary life story is that she was also a respected journalist and she continued to file stories and send private letters from wherever she was sent. 

Marie disguised as a French poilu, serving in the trenches during WW1. (Wikipedia)

The sobering counterpoint to that, of course, is that if she were ever caught by the enemy – during her sojourns to the front or over enemy territory – she would almost certainly have been shot as a spy.  

Flying colours

Marie’s passion for aviation would continue her entire life.

Having flown as a balloon pilot in 1909 and an aeroplane pilot in 1910, she went on to obtain her helicopter license in 1960, aged 85. Along the way she also flew seaplanes, gliders and dirigibles. On her 80th birthday, she took a supersonic ride in a USAF F-100 Super Sabre based near her home at Nancy, but only as a passenger. 

Marie pilots an early jet-powered Djinn 1221 in February 1958.

She renewed her fixed wing license for the last time when she was 85 and passed the medical haut la main – with flying colours.

Saving grace

For all her courage and skill in the air, in the mountains, and in the field hospitals, Marie’s lifelong dream was to combine powered flight with medicine in what she called ‘air ambulances’.

Australia is justly proud of its pioneering Royal Flying Doctor Service, which was conceived by Lt John Clifford Peel (Australian Flying Corps) in 1917 and finally begun by the Reverend John Flynn at Cloncurry, Queensland, in 1926.

Ironically, in September 1918 Lt. Peel was killed in combat over France – the very land where Marie Marvingt had conceived and designed her air ambulance in 1910!

A drawing of Marie Marvingt’s concept for an air-ambulance, drawn by Émile Friant in 1914 and showing Marie as the nurse. Countless copies were sold as postcards to raise funds for her air ambulance cause. (Wikipedia)

By 1911 she was badgering her contacts in the military with her ideas for air rescue and then, when they refused to risk their wounded soldiers in the frail and unreliable contemporary aircraft, she began a tireless campaign or writing newspaper articles and giving lectures that traded off her fame, in order to raise the 36,000 francs needed to build her prototype. 

A year later she had raised the required amount and placed an order with the aircraft manufacturer Deperdussin. Unfortunately, in August 1913, owner-manager Armand Deperdussin embezzled the company’s funds and bankrupted the business leaving Marie’s half-finished plane in the hands of creditors. 

Unfazed, Marie simply started again. 

Mother of medivac

Following the outbreak of war in 1914, the French Army did experiment with her air ambulance concept and on occasion she flew surgeons up to the front lines where they could operate on wounded soldiers immediately behind the trenches.

During the course of the war, some 7,000 soldiers were airlifted to safety thanks largely to Marie’s vision – and despite there never being an organised air ambulance service.

Over the next 40 years, Marie would give more than 6,000 lectures promoting the benefits of air ambulances and raised funds for her Captaine Ècheman Award for improvements in air ambulance design.

She set up the first course and school for nurse-pilots, a role that evolved into today’s flight nurses.

In the 1920s she was a driving force in the establishment of civilian air rescue services in the (then) French colonies of North Africa. During the 1920s Rif War in Morocco, more than 5,000 people were transported by air ambulance. 

Following her death in 1963, her tomb and a commemorative plaque on her former home in Nancy, France, were inscribed with the epitaph ‘Pioneer of Medical Aviation’ (Pionnière de l’Aviation Sanitaire).

From a long list, she would surely agree that was her greatest achievement.

The plaque commemorating Marie Marvingt on her old home, Place de la Carrière, Nancy. (Lal.sacienne | wikipedia)

A pivotal female aviation pioneer

Given her countless accomplishments – and I’ve not told you about the time she rode the entire 4,497km (2,789 miles) Tour de France of 1908 alongside the recognised participants, because women were not allowed to compete; or how she surmounted most of the notable peaks in the French and Swiss Alps; how she cycled from Nancy to Paris (a distance of 280 km) aged 85;  or the countless awards she won for swimming, fencing, shooting, skiing, speed skating, luge and bobsledding – it seems incredible that Marie Marvingt is not a household name all over the world.

Sprightly 85-year-old Marie on her beloved bicycle, after having ridden from Nancy to Paris in 1960.

It’s more extraordinary that she is not as famous as Harriet Quimby, Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart, Jacquie Cochrane or Nancy Bird-Walton in aviation circles. In fact, she could stand shoulder to shoulder with Chuck Yeager or Neil Armstrong.

She was a towering aviation pioneer and multiple record holder…

first female air combat pilot…

military recon pilot…

founder of medical aviation…

and much more.

It is a glowing resumé, by any measure.

Amelia Earhart and Marie, together after speaking to 2,500 women members of the US National Aeronautical Association, Chicago, 1937.

Fiancée of Danger

I am immensely grateful to author Rosalie Maggio for bringing Marie Marvingt’s accomplishments to my attention. 

Rosalie has written two biographies of this great sportswoman, aviator and benefactor – the first, Marie Marvingt, La Femme d’un Siècle (1991) in French and her most recent, a completely new work, in English. 

Marie Marvingt, Fiancée of Danger, was published in 2019 by MacFarland & Company (ISBN 978-1-4766-7550-3). As evidence of just what a human dynamo Marvingt was for her entire life, the chapters are organised by theme, rather than as a chronological progression.

As Maggio explains in her preface:  Marie engaged in …so many disparate domains, often simultaneously, that it would otherwise be difficult to tease out what she actually accomplished in each.

Marie’s remarkable life has been comprehensively researched and wonderfully well retold. If you are looking for a hero and inspiration in aviation, start with hers.

And, on that note, it is a privilege to leave the last word Rosalie Maggio:

Marie Marvingt belongs in the canon of exceptional human beings, in the annals of sports, in any book of “firsts”, in the history of the women’s movement, as a role model in children’s books, and as a name commonly recognized by most people.

Amen to that.

Marie poses at the controls of a 1911 Deperdussin, a type she flew after the closure of Antoinette.

Marie Marvingt:
The most important pilot you’ve probably never heard of.

  • First to fly a ballon from France to England across the North Sea (in gale conditions)
  • Won or placed in many major balloon events of her day.
  • Third woman in the world to obtain a pilot’s license
  • Set the world’s first aviation records for women
  • First female combat pilot, first female bomber pilot
  • Served as a reconnaissance pilot
  • Balloon, airplane, seaplane. glider and helicopter pilot
  • Invented the ambulance-airplane
  • Established air-rescue groups and trained personnel
  • Gave thousands of conferences around the world promoting air-rescue
  • Wrote, directed, starred in two documentaries on air-rescue
  • History’s first flight nurse
  • Toured the United States twice
  • Gave a conference with Amelia Earhart in Chicago
  • Her bronze wings can be found in the Flyers’ Chapel at the Mission Inn, in California
  • Outshot an entire army division to be honoured as a first-class shot by the French Minister of War
  • Fought in the front lines of WWI disguised as a man
  • Served as an Alpine trooper in WWI, skiing in provisions, skiing out injured soldiers
  • Received a Croix de Guerre avec Palmes for her war work
  • Inducted into the Legion d’Honneur
  • Decorated Resistance hero of WWII
  • Certified nurse and Red Cross Major
  • Surgical nurse during wartime
  • Invented a new surgical suture
  • Placed first in two major canoe races
  • Winner of several swimming competitions
  • Established swimming for girls in high schools
  • Opened the first civilian ski school in France
  • First Frenchwoman to swim the length of the Seine through Paris
  • Completed the 1908 Tour de France 
  • Won 20 first prizes at Chamonix in winter sports
  • First woman to win the Léon Auscher Cup
  • International bobsled championship
  • Ranked #5 internationally as a mountain climber
  • First to reach the summit of several Alpine peaks 
  • Awarded a Gold Medal from the French Academy of Sports for being expert at all sports (the only person ever to be so honoured)
  • Spent years in North Africa, forming air-rescue groups and giving conferences
  • Accompanied French, Italian, and Spanish troops as war correspondent in North Africa
  • Taught health and hygiene to indigenous peoples
  • First white woman to cross the Sahara, driving a six-wheeled Fiat
  • Invented metal skis for in the sand dunes of North Africa
  • Established a skiing school in North Africa
  • Journalist for 50 years, submitting stories on sports, aviation, aeronautics, celebrities
  • Either invented or, at the least, hugely popularised, culottes

For the complete story, read Marie Marvingt, Fiancée of Danger (Rosalie Maggio, McFarland Publishing, 2019, ISBN 978-1-4766-7550-3).

Marie Marvingt (right) with Mlle Carton, daughter of Marie’s ballon-maker, at the Grand prix de l’Aéro Club de France 1910. Marie is wearing her trademark culottes. (Agence Rol |Wikipedia)

14 thoughts on “Eagle & dove

  1. WOW! Great to see a new airscape post – and what a post. I don’t know how you keep finding such fascinating gems.

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    1. Absolutely. Marie Maggio said apart from the challenge of just cataloguing everything Marie Marvingt did, there is the problem of convincing people she really did do all the things ascribed to her… but there is evidence for all of it. A phenomenal life!

  2. What a life she led! A difficult act to follow? More like impossible! Yet, as the article says; she is undoubtedly the most famous woman you’ve never heard of. That is nothing short of a travesty! As you say, her name ought to be right up there with Yeager, Armstrong, Johnson and all the other “greats” but I’d venture to say that she outshone even those! A fascinating article David. Many thanks for posting it!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the story, Mitch. I am but the messenger of course… It’s not like there’s nothing online (or in the world’s libraries, for old time’s sake) about Marie Marvingt. However, you have to know the name to search for it. It’s my privilege to help keep her story on people’s radar. Preserving the memory – and example – of aviators like her matters.

  3. All power to Marie and her accomplishments. Lt Clifford Peel’s letter to Rev. John Flynn in 1917 did list the costs, endurance and other factors relating to an aeroplane and a doctor. Flynn published that letter in The Inlander as Editor in 1917. Flynn had the vision/task to take Peel’s idea to Qantas, who converted a DH50, with room for a patient lying horizontal and a doctor in the rear cabin. Often a passenger accompanied as a relative and no doubt was able to assist the doctor in some cases, leading to today’s RFDS Flight Nurses. Flynn’s major achievement was to see that without a wireless in remote homesteads, the Aerial Ambulance would be “75% futile” as there was no method to call it to an emergency. He undertook field experiments and that’s another story, but in 1926, he found Alfred Traeger who invented the pedal powered wireless to bring Flynn’s pioneering remote health service together. Flynn designed it with a base in Cloncurry from where the inaugural medical flight originated in 1928. It linked the Nursing Hostels he had built in W.A., Qld, S.A. and the N.T. at the time. He then gave it to the people to run (local committees) and the Presbyterian Church acquiesced. It brought the government in and saw to its financial future. Flynn’s herculean effort was built on the ground work of people like Marie and Clifford. I’ve written a screenplay about his effort from 1911-1928, the years in which he laboured to give his generation the RFDS, which has developed over the past century, giving ‘Flynn of the Inland’ something of a reputation as a person who thought in centuries… “beyond next Christmas” as he often said. Flynn was a complex person and not easy to get to know at this distance, but when I find the right producer, Peel et al and all will be revealed. Thanks for the inspirational post and bravo to the author of Marie’s biography.

    1. Hi Russell, I thought I might hear from you when I invoked the names of Peel and Flynn! Thank you so much for providing some extra information around the history of the RFDS. It makes a valuable addition to Marie Marvingt’s passion for aero-medical services. You’re right, of course, to point out that the Flying Doctor was conceived solely as a civilian relief and the inclusion of two-way radio was almost as vital to its success as the aeroplane itself.
      The bottom line is that we are unfeasibly lucky to have such an incredible service operating in this huge and sparsely populated country.

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