New Zealand Embassy Paris, France

In French and New Zealand skies

An adventurous French aviator holds a special place in the shared memories of France and New Zealand in the First World War.  Claude Couturier made his home in New Zealand in 1912 before returning home at the outbreak of war at his own expense when he joined the French air force, the Aviation Militaire.  He enlisted as a pilot under training at Étample on 27 April 1915 and was posted to Escadrille (Squadron) MF2, an observation squadron which "spotted" the fall of French artillery fire, on 20 May 1915.

Caudron biplanes of the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company during the First World War

Claude Couturier and his Blériot at Rolleston, Christchurch

On 1 September, barely four months later, Sergent pilot Couturier and his observer Lieutenant Moisan were airborne  reporting artillery fire when they were attacked by two enemy machines.  Within minutes both had received at least four serious wounds. Couturier tried to reach the French lines but died while they were 300 metres above the trenches. The aircraft crashed  near Parois, 19 kilometres west of Verdun and they are buried at Nécropole Nationale de Vauquois, Meuse.

Couturier was born at Le Creusot in 1888 and his parents were Monsieur and Madame Couturier of Clichy, near Paris. Clearly artistic, creative and engaged in the fine arts, he was a talented sculptor and it was said that he had been at the Paris studio of the celebrated early French impressionist Stanislas Lépine (1835-1892).   He became fascinated by aviation and moved in 1906 to the United States where he set up a decorating business in Seattle.

In 1911 he learned to fly with the aeronautical pioneers, the Wright Brothers at Dayton, Ohio, and was issued Aero Club of America Certificate No 70 on 25 October 1911.  Evidently a capable airman, he was offered a position by the Wright Brothers but became interested in aviation possibilities in New Zealand, arriving in Auckland in October 1912 where he explained that he was interested in setting up a flying school in either New Zealand or Australia. "He is a stalwart man...and appears to possess great nerve," commented a journalist.

Eventually he joined a New Zealand inventor James Walsh, from Otago, who had been in the United States and bought a rebuilt Blériot monoplane that had been damaged in a fatal crash.  In the process, its original Gnome rotary engine had been replaced by a 50 horse power Roberts engine which unfortunately proved to be unreliable.   Walsh, an American associate and the Blériot arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, on 30 March 1912.  Couturier finally purchased the machine, which appeared at many country fairs and shows, where the engine would be run up with much noise and excitement.   Eventually he settled in Christchurch and set up a base on farmland at Rolleston, south of the city.

He worked on improvements to the Blériot, which made it easier to fly, but the major problem was the engine and he stated that he was barely able to climb more than five metres during his many "hops".  Couturier clearly liked New Zealand and told The Press newspaper,
"This country is a fine place for flying, and I had hoped that sufficient interest could have been aroused amongst the business section to start an aeroplane factory. Canterbury is the finest part of the Dominion for aviation, as the country is so flat and good landing places easy to find."

Europe was drifting towards conflict and after the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, Couturier returned to France to enrol in the Aviation Militaire. The Blériot remained in Christchurch and was sold in 1917 by auction to a prominent local automobile dealer Dexter & Crozier Limited who in turn sold it to the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company which had been established at Sockburn, ironically not far from Rolleston, to train New Zealand pilots for the war.   The veteran Blériot, with its unreliable engine, was used as a "penguin", a non-flyer on which trainees could learn how to handle an aircraft.  It disappeared in the early 1920s.

Two Caudron biplanes with the Blériot at Sockburn, 1917

Two Caudron biplanes with the Blériot at Sockburn, 1917

So ended the story of the aviator Claude Couturier, the "young man of striking appearance" who made such an impact.  He was the first airman with New Zealand connections to die over the Western Front.

But this was not the only aviation connection between France and New Zealand during the war as the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company purchased two Caudron aircraft to train pilots.

Caudron biplanes of the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company during the First World War

Caudron biplanes of the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company during the First World War.

More than 600 New Zealanders served in the air war of 1914-18. As New Zealand did not have an air force, they served with the British Royal Flying Corps, the British Royal Naval Air Service and the Australian Flying Corps, mainly over the Western Front, the air defence of the United Kingdom, the Channel, the North Sea and over Gallipoli and the Middle East. A total of 76 died of whom 65 were killed flying.

New Zealand airmen came from three sources: those who joined directly in the United Kingdom, those given basic flying training  by the two private schools, the New Zealand Flying School at Auckland and the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company at Christchurch. Others joined the Royal lying Corps or Royal Naval Air Service (which were merged into the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918) from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Canterbury (NZ) Aviation company pilots and a Caudron at Sockburn, Christchurch, in 1918.

Canterbury (NZ) Aviation company pilots and a Caudron at Sockburn, Christchurch, in 1918.

At least 12 commanded squadrons and many  reached  high rank. Perhaps the most prominent was Captain K L Caldwell, DFC, MC, Croix de Guerre of Auckland who became New Zealand's highest-scoring pilot with 20 victories. He ended the war as commanding officer of 74 Squadron, one of the RAF's leading fighter squadrons.  Major Keith Park would later achieve distinction, as an Air Chief-Marshal in the Royal Air Force, when he led the air defences over London in the Battle of Britain in 1940.


All pictures are from the RNZAF Museum and reproduced with its authority. This is gratefully acknowledged, as is the ready assistance of aviation historian Errol Martyn.

© Brian Lockstone, Paris, September 2012

Official logo for New Zealand's WW100 commemorations

The First World War (1914–1918) was one of the most significant events of the 20th Century and had a seismic impact on New Zealand society. The legacy of the war, the growing attendance at Anzac Day ceremonies in New Zealand, and the steady increase in the number of visitors to battlefields in Turkey and Europe demonstrate a continuing interest in its significance.

The New Zealand Government has developed WW100 New Zealand, an official programme to mark the First World War Centenary from 2014 to 2018. The programme is led by the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Hon. Maggie Barry.

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