It is generally accepted that Frenchman Georges Boillot was the greatest racing driver of the 1912-14 era. William Court, in his book “Power And Glory” (a title the BBC borrowed for its recent motor-racing TV series) refers to Boillot as “THE non-such of the age — the great Georges who bestrode the Grand Prix field for three tragically brief years till he was enveloped in the holocaust of 1914”. Court places Boillot with other such greats as Ralph de Palma, Murphy, Bordino. Goux, Benoist, Varzi, Fagioli, Nuvolari, Caracciola, Chiron and Ascari in the period 1912-33, and captions one of his pictures: “Living Legend — Boillot had by 1913 acquired almost a legendary fame”.
This swarthy, moustachioed driver with dark, parted hair had far less opportunity to achieve fame and acclaim then than had drivers in later times when races were more prolific. But in a restricted period of important races Boillot won the 1912 and 1913 French Grands Prix for Peugeot, in cars he had helped to design with his team-mates Jules Goux, Paul Zuccarelli and the masterful draughtsman Ernest Henry, besides winning a voiturette race and placing second in two others, and doing well in hill-climbs.
Rumour says that he insisted on large steering wheels on the Peugeots, to combat a weak left arm, but I see no photographic evidence of this, although some verisimilitude is given to the idea by a photograph captioned “Boillot cornering fast, holding the car with his strong right arm”. Be that as it may, there is no doubt of Georges’ ability and daring, his perseverance, bravery and skill. This was demonstrated to the last degree in that fateful Grand Prix at Lyon on the eve of war in 1914, when Boillot gave all for his Homeland but was vanquished by the well-organised Mercedes team, which was too much for his hard-driven 4 1/2-litre Peugeot which broke down, leaving Georges weeping by the roadside, thwarted of the hoped-for victory for France, at this critical time.
As Kent Karslake wrote, “It was the end of an era: it was something more than racing when a German aeroplane shot Georges Boillot’s from the skies and ensured that one of the greatest racing-drivers of all time should never race again”. We know how Boillot’s life ended but the details have never, to my knowledge, been revealed. So I have been doing a little research, from which a few facts have evolved. When war broke out Boillot enlisted in the French Army, serving as a driver to General Goffre. Soon, however, he obtained a transfer to the Service & Aviation, at first as a Sergent, the equivalent of a Sergeant in England.
Had he flown aeroplanes prior to the war, Boillot would presumably have been posted straight into the Air Service. However, men were taught very quickly to become pilots in those anxious days and Boillot was shortly to find himself a Lieutenant, in Escadrille SPA 17, in which his brother Andre also served — there is a picture of him, in officer’s uniform, holding his dog, with other members of this Escadrille, which was known as the Sportsmen’s unit. because its personnel came largely from those who had engaged in sporting pursuits. It was commanded by Capitaine l’Hermite. (After the war Andre Boillot also drove racing cars, with some success, winning, for instance, the 1919 Targa Florio in a pre-war 2 1/2-litre Peugeot in spite of going off the road six times, after which he twice won the Coppa Florio, before turning to touring-car races in sleeve-valve Peugeots. The third brother had died in the trenches, during the war).
Some accounts say Georges Boillot was shot down fatally in 1916. This is incorrect, because more accurate records show that in March 1917 he was engaged, with the French International Rugby Captain, Maurice Boyau, in bombing the German aerodrome at Marirnbois, setting fire to the hangars, which earned for Boyau, whose score at the end of the was was 35 enemy machines destroyed, his first citation. Whether Sergent Boillot was a pilot in another aeroplane or Boyau’s bomb-aimer on that occasion, I do not know. However, when Boyau went out in June 1917 to attack German observation balloons he was accompanied by Lt d’Hautefeuille and Sergent Boillot; again I cannot define whether Boillot was a pilot or a gunner. In August 1917 Boyau set out on a low-level attack on Fresnes-en-Saulsia railway station and he is reported as being accompanied by four others, one of whom was Boillot, buildings occupied by German troops being blown up. This seems to suggest that Boillot was flying his own machine, probably a Nieuport. He had attained the rank of Lieutenant, the equal of Flying Officer in the RFC/RAF. He is known to have flown also in the Escadrille SPA 84. probably as an Aviation de Chasse pilot engaged on bombing and fighting missions.
Quite how the end came no-one seems to know. The celebrated motoring journalist W F Bradley writes of him going in unaccompanied to mix it with seven Messerschmits and being shot through the head. As these aeroplanes did not appear until after WWI this disposes of this assumption; perhaps Bradley meant to say Pfalz or Halberstadts. What is certain is that before the great Georges Boillot had met his end he was credited with having destroyed five enemy machines — I say “machines” instead of aeroplanes because these citations included observation balloons. (In doing such research names are seen which could have been those of pilots who were later to appear on the motor-racing scene, such as, for instance, Robert Bloch (rank of Adjudant — five enemy destroyed), which recalls Lorraines at Le Mans, and Andre Dubonnet (Sergent — six enemy destroyed), a name linked with Hispano Suizas).