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Rediscovering the 'Belgian Aviator'

A few days ago, I received a cryptic email that read, "It's a long time that you have post it...The soldier was my grand father Jacques Heynen (1892-1985). Can you send me the images of the postcard?” Ihonestly didn’t know to what the writer was referring, but I had the sense English was not his first language. I replied, “Sorry, I don’t remember the image. Can you send me a link to the original post?”


Not more than 10 minutes passed since the foreign writer had first contacted me, that I was relinked to a post I had made in 2006 on the Aerodrome forum ( where WWI aviation enthusiasts interact with each other. I immediately recognized the photo: A sepia-toned, real photo postcard of a soldier in a French uniform with “Belgian aviator 1916” written across the bottom. The back had a short message in French and was signed, “Heynen, J.” I had posted images on the forum with the hope that the aviation scholars of the forum might shed some light on the military career of Mr. Heynen.

As with many forum questions, mine stirred a bit of speculation over the next few days. In fact, a couple of French participants verified that there was no pilot with that name who flew during WWI for either the French or the Belgians. Though there had been a swirl of activity discussing the possible career of the Belgian Heynen, within three days of posting my question, the thread went silent. As things go in most forums, other posts captured the members’ attention and any thoughts about the “aviator” Heynen went into hibernation along with the thread.

I, too, moved ahead. As for most collectors, when the adrenaline rush of the purchase and the initial research has subsided, I start looking for the next “collecting fix.” First, though, I slipped the photo of J. Heynen into an album together with notes of the scant info I gleaned. His image receded into the ranks of thousands of other images of the Belgian soldiers I have amassed. Though his image held a notable position in the album, I only briefly noticed him during the past years when I thumbed through the pages. That is, until I received that intriguing email the other day.


Besides recognizing that email I received was translated to English by a computer program, I noticed the sender’s surname was “Heynen”—the same as the “aviator”. After a couple more emails, I learned he was the grandson of Jacques Heynen. In fact, he included a photograph taken of his grandfather while serving in the Belgian Army in 1924. Now he really had my attention!


I quickly grabbed the album where I knew I had the “Belgian Aviator” stored along with other WWI pilot images. Turning to the page, my eyes darted between deep comparisons of my postcard photo and the 1924 photograph of the emailer’s grandfather. The distinctive facial shadows were recognizable in both images. It didn’t take me long to determine that I, indeed, possessed a WWI photograph of the man’s grandfather.


There has been some really good works on French WWI equipment published since I first acquired the photo. Two stand-out volumes are Laurent Mirouze and Stephane Dekerle’s paramount work, The French Army in the First World War, 1914 to 1918: Uniforms, Equipment, Armament (2006, 2007: Verlag Militaria, Vienna and available from AGM Ohio, I grabbed those two volumes, along with a couple of others and began my attempt to understand the image.

My “Belgian aviator” was clearly dressed in what appeared to be a French horizon blue uniform. In fact, his tunic was the style the French adopted in 1913, and indeed, was a favorite with pilots. His collar insignia, the style adopted in 1915, however, was not of an aviator but of a foot regiment, particularly, the 1st Regiment. In fact, that made more sense than being an aviator when I consider the French inscription on the reverse, “A souvenir for my sweet pen pal, signed, ‘A Belgian in Morroco, Heynen J. Legion Etrangere.” Heynen wasn’t a pilot, he was in the French Foreign Legion!

Most likely, he joined the stream of foreign volunteers who wanted to fight for France in the early days of the war. These volunteers were formed into four "march regiments" of the Foreign Legion. By November 1915, the Legion units remaining on the Western Front were reorganized into a single "march regiment" designated, 1er Régiment de Marche de la Légion Étrangère, RMLE or, “the 1st Foreign Legion Marching Regiment.” That would explain the “1” unit designation on Heynen’s collar.


Furthermore, the two medals on his chest appear to be a Colonial Medal with one bar and a Morocco Commemorative Medal with one bar. The latter was awarded to soldiers who served in Morocco between 1907 and 1912. That would mean Heynen had served with the French for some time. In fact, the three chevrons on his sleeve indicate he served at least 2 years (1st stripe=1 year, subsequent stripes=6 months each).

I am left to speculate why he signed the photo, “Un belge an Moroc” (A Belgian in Morocco). Clearly, his medals indicate he had been in Morocco sometime in the span of 1909-1912. The Colonial Medal was awarded for service in Morocco in 1915 to put down the tribal revolt in the Rif Mountains. This still doesn’t jive with the date of his inscription, “8-4-1917,” nor does the photo appear to have been taken in Morocco. Rather, it has the feel of being made in France.

My new-found Belgian friend and I continue to piece together the details as the history of his grandfather unfolds before us. All of this fun is the result of an 8-year-old forum posting. The longevity of the forum and that inquiry has led to many hours of exciting research and discovery—long after the initial thrill of finding the image had passed.

Who says collecting isn’t forever? The joys of discovery is what keeps me going in the hobby—not just for the hunt of new artifacts, but to uncover the nuggets of history that fuels my passion.

Keep finding the good stuff,

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

“Jacques Heynen 1er Régiment de Marche de la Légion Étrangère

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