Nieuport 23 – a photo with a story

Photographs, such as this one of a Nieuport 23, tell stories about the people that took them or of the ones that look at us from long-forgotten times and places. Today I want to tell you the story of a photograph showing a Nieuport 23. Or, better said, the image of a Nieuport 23 aircraft belonging to the Imperial Russian Air Service in 1917 appeared on a piece of photographic paper due to chemical processing.

It all started a few years back when I acquired 16 photographs dating from W.W. I. with planes and pilots of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among the numerous black crosses painted on the aircraft that clearly indicate their origin, I spotted a Russian roundel and a hard-to-misinterpret symbol: Adam’s Head – the skull and intersecting bones that symbolize immortality. The aircraft, a Nieuport 23. On the back side of the photograph, handwritten, was the name Kozakov. At first, the name did not give me any clues. After a while, I started to read more about Russian aviation at the time of WWI. And what a surprise! Kozakov was not just anyone but the No. 1 ace of the Czarist aviation with 20 confirmed aerial victories. He had also been on the Romanian front. So, I continued my research about Major Aleksandr Kozakov. He flew planes like Morane-Saulnier, Spad SA2, Nieuport 11 and 17. But he never flew the Nieuport 23. So, the Nieuport 23 in the picture wasn’t his. Had the person that had written down his name made a mistake?! Very likely, because after a while, I identified the Nieuport 23 pilot’s name as Boris Guber. A pilot from the same military unit as Kozakov, hence the name on the photograph. In fact, Major Kozakov was the commanding officer of that unit.

To shed more light on the situation, starting in 1916, the Imperial Russian Air Service was organized in Battle Aviation Groups (the equivalent of modern Air Flotilla). Each Battle Aviation Group consisted of more Aerial Detachments (the equivalent of current Squadrons). Lieutenant Boris Guber was a pilot in the Battle Aviation Group no.1, which consisted of Aerial Detachments no. 2, 4, and 19. Guber flew in the 19th Detachment, while Kozakov in the 4th Detachment. They were in the same unit, but the Nieuport 23 belonged to someone other than Kozakov. The Nieuport 23 in the photograph, marked with the serial number N3598, was captured by the Austro-Hungarian army in November 1917. It had become a plane in Guber’s Detachment on August 16th, 1917. When it was captured, the Nieuport 23 registered 27 hours and 45 minutes in aerial combat, as Victor Kulikov’s book Russian Aces in World War I stated.

Then I remembered what the man I had the photographs from told me – his great-grandfather had given them to him. He had origins in Transilvania (a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time) and had fought in the Austro-Hungarian army. The place where the Nieuport 23 was captured and the photo taken remains a mystery, possibly on the Russian or Romanian front, where the Czarist army was slowly disintegrating under the influence of the Russian Revolution in November 1917. The photographs’ owner had probably been enrolled in the Austro-Hungarian aviation or the Military Photographic Service. This could explain the consistent pack of photos, each carefully dated 1918. The year ended not only the madness of the Great War but also empires when each survivor began their journey back home: some back to Austria, others to Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and who knows where else.

To conclude this story, who is right about this Nieuport 23? The historians or the one who firmly wrote the name Kozakov twice on the photo and its reverse? And who could be the character watching us from behind the Nieuport 23 tail, dressed in an Austro-Hungarian uniform? Could he be the original owner of the photograph and who sent his memories of these events over the years?!

Most likely, we will never know.

Kozakov Nieuport 17

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