CAVALRY OF THE CLOUDS
CAVALRY OF THE CLOUDS
(CAPT. ALAN BOTT, M.C.)
With an introduction by
MAJOR-GENERAL W. S. BRANCKER
(Deputy Director-General of Military Aeronautics)
GARDEN CITY - NEW YORK DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY 1918
Copyright, 1917, by Doubleday, Page & Company
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian
THE FALLEN OF UMPTY SQUADRON, R.F.C.
Of the part played by machines of war in this war of machinery the wider public has but a vague knowledge. Least of all does it study the specialised functions of army aircraft. Very many people show mild interest in the daily reports of so many German aeroplanes destroyed, so many driven down, so many of ours missing, and enraged interest in the reports of bomb raids on British towns; but of aerial observation, the main raison d'etre of flying at the front, they own to nebulous ideas.
As an extreme case of this haziness over matters aeronautic I will quote the lay question, asked often and in all seriousness: "Can an aeroplane stand still in the air?" Another surprising point of view is illustrated by the home-on-leave experience of a pilot belonging to my present squadron. His lunch companion—a charming lady—said she supposed he lived mostly on cold food while in France.
"Oh no," replied the pilot, "it's much the same as yours, only plainer and tougher."
"Then you do come down for meals," deduced the lady. Only those who have flown on active service can fully relish the comic savour of a surmise that the Flying Corps in France remain in the air all day amid all weathers, presumably picnicking, between flights, off sandwiches, cold chicken, pork pies, and mineral waters.
These be far-fetched examples, but they serve to emphasise a general misconception of the conditions under which the flying services carry out their work at the big war. I hope that this my book, written for the most part at odd moments during a few months of training in England, will suggest to civilian readers a rough impression of such conditions. To Flying Officers who honour me by comparing the descriptions with their own experiences, I offer apology for whatever they may regard as "hot air," while submitting in excuse that the narratives are founded on unexaggerated fact, as any one who served with Umpty Squadron through the Battle of the Somme can bear witness.
I have expressed a hope that the chapters and letters will suggest a rough impression of work done by R.F.C. pilots and observers in France. A complete impression they could not suggest, any more than the work of a Brigade-Major could be regarded as representative of that of the General Staff. The Flying-Corps-in-the-Field is an organisation great in numbers and varied in functions. Many separate duties are allotted to it, and each separate squadron, according to its type of machine, confines itself to two or three of these tasks.
The book, then, deals only with the squadron to which I belonged last year, and it does not pretend to be descriptive of the Flying Corps as a whole. Ours was a crack squadron in its day, and, as General Brancker has mentioned in his Introduction, it held a melancholy record in the number of its losses. Umpty's Squadron's casualties during August, September, and October of 1916 still constitute a record for the casualties of any one flying squadron during any three months since the war began. Once eleven of our machines were posted as "missing" in the space of two days—another circumstance which has fortunately never yet been equalled in R.F.C. history. It was a squadron that possessed excellent pilots, excellent achievements, and the herewith testimonial in a letter found on a captured German airman, with reference to the machine of which we then had the Flying Corps monopoly: "The most-to-be-feared of British machines is the S——."
Our duties were long reconnaissance, offensive patrols around German air country, occasional escort for bombing craft, and occasional photography. I have but touched upon other branches of army aeronautics; though often, when we passed different types of machine, I would compare their job to ours and wonder if it were more pleasant. Thousands of feet below us, for example, were the artillery craft, which darted backward and forward across the lines as from their height of vantage they ranged and registered for the guns. On push days these same buses were to be seen lower still, well within range of machine-gun bullets from the ground, as they crawled and nosed over the line of advance and kept intelligent contact between far-ahead attacking infantry and the rear. Above the tangled network of enemy defences roved the line photography machines, which provided the Staff with accurate survey maps of the Boche defences. Parties of bombers headed eastward, their lower wings laden with eggs for delivery at some factory, aerodrome, headquarter, railway junction, or ammunition dump. Dotted everywhere, singly or in formations of two, three, four, or six, were those aristocrats of the air, the single-seater fighting scouts. These were envied for their advantages. They were comparatively fast, they could turn, climb, and stunt better and quicker than any two-seater, and their petrol-tanks held barely enough for two hours, so that their shows were soon completed. All these varied craft had their separate functions, difficulties, and dangers. Two things only were shared by all of us—dodging Archie and striving to strafe the Air Hun.
Since those days flying conditions on the Western Front have been much changed by the whirligig of aeronautical development. All things considered, the flying officer is now given improved opportunities. Air fighting has grown more intense, but the machines in use are capable of much better performance. The latest word in single-seater scouts, which I am now flying, can reach 22,000 feet with ease; and it has a maximum climb greater by a third, and a level speed greater by a sixth, than our best scout of last year. The good old one-and-a-half strutter (a fine bus of its period), on which we used to drone our way around the 150-mile reconnaissance, has disappeared from active service. The nerve-edging job of long reconnaissance is now done by more modern two-seaters, high-powered, fast, and reliable, which can put up a fight on equal terms with anything they are likely to meet. The much-discussed B.E., after a three-year innings, has been replaced for the most part by a better-defended and more satisfactory artillery bus. The F.E. and de Haviland pushers have likewise become obsolete. The scouts which we thought invincible last autumn are badly outclassed by later types.
For the rest, the Flying Corps in France has grown enormously in size and importance. The amount of work credited to each branch of it has nearly doubled during the past year—reconnaissance, artillery observation, photography, bombing, contact patrol, and, above all, fighting. Air scraps have tended more and more to become battles between large formations. But most significant is the rapid increase in attacks by low-flying aeroplanes on ground personnel and materiel, a branch which is certain to become an important factor in the winning of the war.
And this whirlwind growth will continue. The world at large, as distinct from the small world of aeronautics, does not realize that aircraft will soon become predominant as a means of war, any more than it reckons with the subsequent era of universal flight, when designers, freed from the subordination of all factors to war requirements, will give birth to machines safe as motor-cars or ships, and capable of carrying heavy freights for long distances cheaply and quickly. Speaking of an average pilot and a non-expert enthusiast, I do not believe that even our organisers of victory are yet aware of the tremendous part which aircraft can be made to take in the necessary humbling of Germany.
Without taking into account the limitless reserve of American aerial potentiality, it is clear that within a year the Allies will have at their disposal many thousands of war aeroplanes. A proper apportionment of such of them as can be spared for offensive purposes could secure illimitable results. If for no other cause it would shorten the war by its effect on civilian nerves. We remember the hysterical outburst of rage occasioned by the losses consequent upon a daylight raid on London of some fifteen machines, though the public had become inured to the million military casualties since 1914. What, then, would be the effect on German war-weariness if giant raids on fortified towns by a hundred or so allied machines were of weekly occurrence? And what would be the effect on our own public if giant raids on British towns were of weekly occurrence? Let us make the most of our aerial chances, and so forestall betrayal by war-weariness, civilian pacifism, self-centred fools, and strange people.
From an army point of view the probable outcome of an extensive aerial offensive would be still greater. Well-organised bomb raids on German aerodromes during the night and early morning have several times kept the sky clear of hostile aircraft during the day of an important advance. If this be achieved with our present limited number of bombing machines, much more will be possible when we have double or treble the supply. Imagine the condition of a particular sector of the advanced lines of communication if it were bombed every day by scores of aeroplanes. Scarcely any movement would be possible until bad weather made the attacks non-continuous; and few supply depots in the chosen area would afterwards remain serviceable. Infantry and artillery dependent upon this district of approach from the rear would thus be deprived of essential supplies.
Apart from extensive bombing, an air offensive of at least equal value may happen in the form of machine-gun attacks from above. To-day nothing seems to panic the Boche more than a sudden swoop by a low-flying aeroplane, generous of bullets, as those of us who have tried this game have noticed. No German trench, no emplacement, no battery position, no line of transport is safe from the R.F.C. Vickers and Lewis guns; and retaliation is difficult because of the speed and erratic movement of the attacking aeroplane. Little imagination is necessary to realise the damage, moral and material, which could be inflicted on any selected part of the front if it were constantly scoured by a few dozen of such guerilla raiders. No movement could take place during the daytime, and nobody could remain in the open for longer than a few minutes.
The seemingly far-fetched speculations above are commonplace enough in the judgment of aeronautical people of far greater authority and experience than I can claim. But they could only be brought to materialisation by an abnormal supply of modern aeroplanes, especially the chaser craft necessary to keep German machines from interference. Given the workshop effort to provide this supply, French and British pilots can be relied upon to make the most of it. I am convinced that war flying will be organised as a means to victory; but as my opinion is of small expert value I do not propose to discuss how it might be done. This much, however, I will predict. When, in some nine months' time—if the gods permit—a sequel to the present book appears, dealing with this year's personal experiences above the scene of battle, the aerial factor will be well on the way to the position of war predominance to which it is destined.
I. FLYING TO FRANCE 3
II. THE DAY'S WORK 27
III. A SUMMER JOY-RIDE 49
IV. SPYING OUT THE LAND 71
V. THERE AND BACK 90
VI. A CLOUD RECONNAISSANCE 117
VII. ENDS AND ODDS 140
VIII. THE DAILY ROUND 170
LETTERS FROM THE SOMME
I. LOOKING FOR TROUBLE 195
II. "ONE OF OUR MACHINES IS MISSING" 205
III. A BOMB RAID 213
IV. SPYING BY SNAPSHOT 220
V. THE ARCHIBALD FAMILY 235
VI. BATTLES AND BULLETS 243
VII. BACK IN BLIGHTY 252
BY MAJOR-GENERAL W. S. BRANCKER
(DEPUTY DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF MILITARY AERONAUTICS)
Every day adds something to the achievements of aviation, brings to light yet another of its possibilities, or discloses more vividly its inexhaustible funds of adventure and romance.
This volume, one of the first books about fighting in the air, is written by a fighting airman. The author depicts the daily life of the flying officer in France, simply and with perfect truth; indeed he describes heroic deeds with such moderation and absence of exaggeration that the reader will scarcely realise that these stories are part of the annals of a squadron which for a time held a record in the heaviness of its losses.
The importance of the aerial factor in the prosecution of the war grows apace. The Royal Flying Corps, from being an undependable and weakly assistant to the other arms, is now absolutely indispensable, and has attained a position of almost predominant importance. If the war goes on without decisive success being obtained by our armies on the earth, it seems almost inevitable that we must depend on offensive action in the air and from the air to bring us victory.
We in London have had some slight personal experience of what a very weak and moderately prosecuted aerial offensive can accomplish. With the progress of the past three years before us, it needs little imagination to visualise the possibilities of such an offensive, even in one year's time; and as each succeeding year adds to the power of rival aerial fleets, the thought of war will become almost impossible.
War has been the making of aviation; let us hope that aviation will be the destruction of war.
W. S. BRANCKER.
August 1, 1917.
CAVALRY OF THE CLOUDS
CAVALRY OF THE CLOUDS
FLYING TO FRANCE
All units of the army have known it, the serio-comedy of waiting for embarkation orders.
After months of training the twelvetieth battalion, battery, or squadron is almost ready for a plunge into active service. Then comes, from a source which cannot be trailed, a mysterious Date. The orderly-room whispers: "June the fifteenth"; the senior officers' quarters murmur: "France on June the fifteenth"; the mess echoes to the tidings spread by the subaltern-who-knows: "We're for it on June the fifteenth, me lad"; through the men's hutments the word is spread: "It's good-bye to this blinking hole on June the fifteenth"; the Home receives a letter and confides to other homes: "Reginald's lot are going to the war on June the fifteenth"; finally, if we are to believe Mr. William le Queux, the Military Intelligence Department of the German Empire dockets a report: "Das zwoelfzigste Battalion (Batterie oder Escadrille) geht am 15 Juni nach Frankreich."
June opens with an overhaul of officers and men. Last leave is distributed, the doctor examines everybody by batches, backward warriors are worried until they become expert, the sergeant-major polishes his men on the grindstone of discipline, the C.O. indents for a draft to complete establishment, an inspection is held by an awesome general. Except for the mobilisation stores everything is complete by June 10.
But there is still no sign of the wanted stores on the Date, and June 16 finds the unit still in the same blinking hole, wherever that may be. The days drag on, and Date the second is placed on a pedestal.
"Many thanks for an extra fortnight in England," says the subaltern-who-knows; "we're not going till June the twenty-seventh."
The adjutant, light duty, is replaced by an adjutant, general service. Mobilisation stores begin to trickle into the quartermaster's reservoir. But on June 27 the stores are far from ready, and July 6 is miraged as the next Date. This time it looks like business. The war equipment is completed, except for the identity discs.
On July 4 a large detachment departs, after twelve hours' notice, to replace casualties in France. Those remaining in the now incomplete unit grow wearily sarcastic. More last leave is granted. The camp is given over to rumour. An orderly, delivering a message to the C.O. (formerly stationed in India) at the latter's quarters, notes a light cotton tunic and two sun-helmets. Sun-helmets? Ah, somewhere East, of course. The men tell each other forthwith that their destination has been changed to Mesopotamia.
A band of strangers report in place of the draft that went to France, and in them the N.C.O.'s plant esprit de corps and the fear of God. The missing identity discs arrive, and a fourth Date is fixed—July 21. And the dwellers in the blinking hole, having been wolfed several times, are sceptical, and treat the latest report as a bad joke.
"My dear man," remarks the subaltern-who-knows, "it's only some more hot air. I never believed in the other dates, and I don't believe in this. If there's one day of the three hundred and sixty-five when we shan't go, it's July the twenty-first."
And at dawn on July 21 the battalion, battery, or squadron moves unobtrusively to a port of embarkation for France.
Whereas in most branches of the army the foundation of this scaffolding of postponement is indistinct except to the second-sighted Staff, in the case of the Flying Corps it is definitely based on that uncertain quantity, the supply of aeroplanes. The organisation of personnel is not a difficult task, for all are highly trained beforehand. The pilots have passed their tests and been decorated with wings, and the mechanics have already learned their separate trades as riggers, fitters, carpenters, sailmakers, and the like. The only training necessary for the pilot is to fly as often as possible on the type of bus he will use in France, and to benefit by the experience of the flight-commanders, who as a rule have spent a hundred or two hours over Archie and the enemy lines. As regards the mechanics, the quality of their skilled work is tempered by the technical sergeant-major, who knows most things about an aeroplane, and the quality of their behaviour by the disciplinary sergeant-major, usually an ex-regular with a lively talent for blasting.
The machines comprise a less straight-forward problem. The new service squadron is probably formed to fly a recently adopted type of aeroplane, of which the early production in quantities is hounded by difficulty. The engine and its parts, the various sections of the machine itself, the guns, the synchronising gear, all these are made in separate factories, after standardisation, and must then be co-ordinated before the craft is ready for its test. If the output of any one part fall below what was expected, the whole is kept waiting; and invariably the quantity or quality of output is at first below expectation in some particular. Adding to the delays of supply others due to the more urgent claims of squadrons at the front for machines to replace those lost or damaged, it can easily be seen that a new squadron will have a succession of Dates.
Even when the machines are ready, and the transport leaves with stores, ground-officers, and mechanics, the period of postponement is not ended. All being well, the pilots will fly their craft to France on the day after their kit departs with the transport. But the day after produces impossible weather, as do the five or six days that follow. One takes advantage of each of these set-backs to pay a further farewell visit to one's dearest or nearest, according to where the squadron is stationed, until at the last the dearest or nearest says: "Good-bye. I do hope you'll have a safe trip to France to-morrow morning. You'll come and see me again to-morrow evening, won't you?"
At last a fine morning breaks the spell of dud weather, and the pilots fly away; but lucky indeed is the squadron that reaches France without delivering over part of its possessions to that aerial highwayman the forced landing.
It was at an aerodrome forty minutes distant from London that we patiently waited for flying orders. Less than the average delay was expected, for two flights of the squadron were already on the Somme, and we of the third flight were to join them immediately we received our full complement of war machines. These, in those days, were to be the latest word in fighting two-seaters of the period. Two practice buses had been allotted to us, and on them the pilots were set to perform landings, split-"air" turns, and stunts likely to be useful in a scrap. For the rest, we sorted ourselves out, which pilot was to fly with which observer, and improved the machines' accessories.
An inspiration suggested to the flight-commander, who although an ex-Civil Servant was a man of resource, that mirrors of polished steel, as used on the handlebars of motor-cycles, to give warning of roadcraft at the rear, might be valuable in an aeroplane. Forthwith he screwed one to the sloping half-strut of his top center-section. The trial was a great success, and we bought six such mirrors, an investment which was to pay big dividends in many an air flight.
Next the flight-commander made up his mind to bridge the chasm of difficult communication between pilot and observer. Formerly, in two-seaters with the pilot's seat in front, a message could only be delivered on a slip of paper or by shutting off the engine, so that one's voice could be heard; the loss of time in each case being ill afforded when Huns were near. An experiment with a wide speaking-tube, similar to those through which a waiter in a Soho restaurant demands cotelettes milaneses from an underground kitchen, had proved that the engine's roar was too loud for distinct transmission by this means. We made a mouthpiece and a sound-box earpiece, and tried them on tubes of every make and thickness; but whenever the engine was at work the words sounded indistinct as words sung in English Opera. One day a speedometer behaved badly, and a mechanic was connecting a new length of the rubber pitot-tubing along which the air is sucked from a wingtip to operate the instrument. Struck with an idea, the pilot fitted mouthpiece and earpiece to a stray piece of the tubing, and took to the air with his observer. The pair conversed easily and pleasantly all the way to 10,000 feet. The problem was solved, and ever afterwards pilot and observer were able to warn and curse each other in mid-air without waste of time. The high-powered two-seaters of to-day are supplied with excellent speaking-tubes before they leave the factories; but we, who were the first to use a successful device of this kind on active service, owed its introduction to a chance idea.
One by one our six war machines arrived and were allotted to their respective pilots. Each man treated his bus as if it were an only child. If another pilot were detailed to fly it the owner would watch the performance jealously, and lurid indeed was the subsequent talk if an outsider choked the carburettor, taxied the bus on the switch, or otherwise did something likely to reduce the efficiency of engine or aeroplane. On the whole, however, the period of waiting was dull, so that we welcomed comic relief provided by the affair of the Jabberwocks.
The first three machines delivered from the Rafborough depot disappointed us in one particular. The movable mounting for the observer's gun in the rear cockpit was a weird contraption like a giant catapult. It occupied a great deal of room, was stiff-moving, reduced the speed by about five miles an hour owing to head resistance, refused to be slewed round sideways for sighting at an angle, and constantly collided with the observer's head. We called it the Christmas Tree, the Heath Robinson, the Jabberwock, the Ruddy Limit, and names unprintable. The next three buses were fitted with Scarff mountings, which were as satisfactory as the Jabberwocks were unsatisfactory.
Then, late in the evening, one of the new craft was crashed beyond repair. At early dawn a pilot and his observer left their beds, walked through the rain to the aerodrome, and sneaked to the flight shed. They returned two hours later, hungry, dirty, and flushed with suppressed joy. After breakfast we found that the crashed bus had lost a Scarff mounting, and the bus manned by the early risers had found one. The gargoyle shape of a discarded Jabberwock sprawled on the floor.
At lunch-time another pilot disappeared with his observer and an air of determination. When the shed was opened for the afternoon's work the Jabberwock had been replaced on the machine of the early risers, and the commandeered Scarff was affixed neatly to the machine of the quick-lunchers. While the two couples slanged each other a third pilot and observer sought out the flight-commander, and explained why they were entitled to the disputed mounting. The pilot, the observer pointed out, was the senior pilot of the three; the observer, the pilot pointed out, was the senior observer. Was it not right, therefore, that they should be given preferential treatment? The flight-commander agreed, and by the time the early-risers and quick-lunchers had settled their quarrel by the spin of a coin, the Scarff had found a fourth and permanent home.
The two remaining Jabberwocks became an obsession with their unwilling owners, who hinted darkly at mutiny when told that no more Scarffs could be obtained, the Naval Air Service having contracted for all the new ones in existence. But chance, in the form of a Big Bug's visit of inspection, opened the way for a last effort. In the machine examined by the Big Bug, an exhausted observer was making frantic efforts to swivel an archaic framework from back to front. The Big Bug looked puzzled, but passed on without comment. As he approached the next machine a second observer tried desperately to move a similar monstrosity round its hinges, while the pilot, stop-watch in hand, looked on with evident sorrow. The Big Bug now decided to investigate, and he demanded the reason for the stop-watch and the hard labour.
"We've just timed this mounting, sir, to see how quickly it could be moved for firing at a Hun. I find it travels at the rate of 6.5 inches a minute."
"Disgraceful," said the Big Bug. "We'll get them replaced by the new type." And get them replaced he did, the R.N.A.S. contract notwithstanding. The four conspirators have since believed themselves to be heaven-born strategists.
Followed the average number of delays due to crashed aeroplanes and late stores. At length, however, the transport moved away with our equipment, and we received orders to proceed by air a day later. But next day brought a steady drizzle, which continued for some forty-eight hours, so that instead of proceeding by air the kitless officers bought clean collars. Then came two days of low, clinging mist, and the purchase of shirts. A fine morning on the fifth day forestalled the necessity of new pyjamas.
At ten of the clock we were in our machines, saying good-bye to a band of lucky pilots who stayed at home to strafe the Zeppelin and be petted in the picture press and the Piccadilly grillroom. "Contaxer!" called a mechanic, facing the flight-commander's propeller. "Contact!" replied the flight-commander; his engine roared, around flew the propeller, the chocks were pulled clear, and away and up raced the machine. The rest followed and took up their appointed places behind the leader, at a height chosen for the rendezvous.
We headed in a south-easterly direction, passing on our left the ragged fringe of London. At this point the formation was not so good as it might have been, probably because we were taking leave of the Thames and other landmarks. But four of the twelve who comprised the party have since seen them, and of these four one was to return by way of a German hospital, a prison camp, a jump from the footboard of a train, a series of lone night-walks that extended over two months, and an escape across the frontier of Neutralia, while two fellow-fugitives were shot dead by Boche sentries.
Above the junction of Redhill the leader veered to the left and steered by railway to the coast. Each pilot paid close attention to his place in the group, for this was to be a test of whether our formation flying was up to the standard necessary for work over enemy country. To keep exact formation is far from easy for the novice who has to deal with the vagaries of a rotary engine in a machine sensitive on the controls. The engine develops a sudden increase of revolutions, and the pilot finds himself overhauling the craft in front; he throttles back and finds himself being overhauled by the craft behind; a slight deviation from the course and the craft all around seem to be swinging sideways or upwards. Not till a pilot can fly his bus unconsciously does he keep place without repeated reference to the throttle and instrument-board.
Beyond Redhill we met an unwieldy cloudbank and were forced to lose height. The clouds became denser and lower, and the formation continued to descend, so that when the coast came into view we were below 3000 feet.
A more serious complication happened near Dovstone, the port which was to be our cross-Channel springboard. There we ran into a mist, thick as a London fog. It covered the Channel like a blanket, and completely enveloped Dovstone and district. To cross under these conditions would have been absurd, for opaque vapour isolated us from the ground and cut the chain of vision which had bound together the six machines. We dropped through the pall of mist and trusted to Providence to save us from collision.
Four fortunate buses emerged directly above Dovstone aerodrome, where they landed. The other two, in one of which I was a passenger, came out a hundred feet over the cliffs. We turned inland, and soon found ourselves travelling over a wilderness of roofs and chimneys. A church-tower loomed ahead, so we climbed back into the mist. Next we all but crashed into the hill south of Dovstone. We banked steeply and swerved to the right, just as the slope seemed rushing towards us through the haze.
Once more we descended into the clear air. Down below was a large field, and in the middle of it was an aeroplane. Supposing this to be the aerodrome, we landed, only to find ourselves in an uneven meadow, containing, besides the aeroplane already mentioned, one cow, one pond, and some Brass Hats. As the second bus was taxiing over the grass the pilot jerked it round sharply to avoid the pond. His undercarriage gave, the propeller hit the earth and smashed itself, and the machine heeled over and pulled up dead, with one wing leaning on the ground.
Marmaduke, our war baby, was the pilot of the maimed machine. He is distinctly young, but he can on occasion declaim impassioned language in a manner that would be creditable to the most liver-ridden major in the Indian Army. The Brass Hats seemed mildly surprised when, after inspecting the damage, Marmaduke danced around the unfortunate bus and cursed systematically persons and things so diverse as the thingumy fool whose machine had misled us into landing, the thingumy pond, the thingumy weather expert who ought to have warned us of the thingumy Channel mist, the Kaiser, his aunt, and his contemptible self.
He was no what-you-may-call-it good as a pilot, shouted Marmaduke to the ruminative cow, and he intended to leave the blank R.F.C. for the Blanky Army Service Corps or the blankety Grave-diggers Corps. As a last resort, he would get a job as a double-blank Cabinet Minister, being no blank-blank good for anything else.
The Brass Hats gazed and gazed and gazed. A heavy silence followed Marmaduke's outburst, a silence pregnant with possibilities of Staff displeasure, of summary arrest, of—laughter. Laughter won. The Brass Hats belonged to the staff of an Anzadian division in the neighbourhood, and one of them, a young-looking major with pink riding breeches and a prairie accent, said—
"Gentlemen, some beautiful birds, some beautiful swear, and, by Abraham's trousers, some beautiful angel boy."
Marmaduke wiped the foam from his mouth and apologised.
"Not at all," said the Brass Hat from one of our great Dominions of Empire, "I do it every day myself, before breakfast generally."
Meanwhile the news of our arrival had rippled the calm surface of the daily round at Dovstone. Obviously, said the good people to each other, the presence of three aeroplanes in a lonely field, with a guard of Anzadians around the said field, must have some hidden meaning. Perhaps there had been a German air raid under cover of the mist. Perhaps a German machine had been brought down. Within half an hour of our erratic landing a dozen people in Dovstone swore to having seen a German aeroplane touch earth in our field. The pilot had been made prisoner by Anzadians, added the dozen eye-witnesses.
Such an event clearly called for investigation by Dovstone's detective intellects. We were honoured by a visit from two special constables, looking rather like the Bing Boys. Their collective eagle eye grasped the situation in less than a second. I happened to be standing in the centre of the group, still clad in flying kit. The Bing Boys decided that I was their prey, and one of them advanced, flourishing a note-book.
"Excuse me, sir," said he to a Brass Hat, "I represent the civil authority. Will you please tell me if this"—pointing to me—"is the captive baby-killer?"
"Now give us the chorus, old son," said Marmaduke. Explanations followed, and the Bing Boys retired, rather crestfallen.
It is embarrassing enough to be mistaken for a German airman. It is more embarrassing to be mistaken for an airman who shot down a German airman when there was no German airman to shoot down. Such was the fate of the four of us—two pilots and two observers—when we left our field to the cow and the conference of Brass Hats, and drove to the Grand Hotel. The taxi-driver, who, from his enthusiastic civility, had clearly never driven a cab in London, would not be convinced.
"No, sir," he said, when we arrived at the hotel, "I'm proud to have driven you, and I don't want your money. No, sir, I know you avi-yaters are modest and aren't allowed to say what you've done. Good day, gentlemen, and good luck, gentlemen."
It was the same in the Grand Hotel. Porters and waiters asked what had become of "the Hun," and no denial could fully convince them. At a tango tea held in the hotel that afternoon we were pointed out as the intrepid birdmen who had done the deed of the day. Flappers and fluff-girls further embarrassed us with interested glances, and one of them asked for autographs.
Marmaduke rose to the occasion. He smiled, produced a gold-tipped fountain-pen, and wrote with a flourish, "John James Christopher Benjamin Brown. Greetings from Dovstone."
But Marmaduke the volatile was doomed to suffer a loss of dignity. He had neglected to bring an emergency cap, which an airman on a cross-country flight should never forget. Bareheaded he accompanied us to a hatter's. Here the R.F.C. caps of the "stream-lined" variety had all been sold, so the war baby was obliged to buy a general service hat. The only one that fitted him was shapeless as a Hausfrau, ponderous as a Bishop, unstable as a politician, grotesque as a Birthday Honours' List. It was a nice quiet hat, we assured Marmaduke—just the thing for active service. Did it suit him? Very well indeed, we replied—made him look like Lord Haldane at the age of sixteen. Marmaduke bought it.
The monstrosity brought us a deal of attention in the streets, but this Marmaduke put down to his fame as a conqueror of phantom raiders. He began, however, to suspect that something was wrong when a newsboy shouted, "Where jer get that 'at, leftenant?" The question was unoriginal and obvious; but the newsboy showed imagination at his second effort, which was the opening line of an old music-hall chorus: "Sidney's 'olidays er in Septembah!" Marmaduke called at another shop and chose the stiffest hat he could find.
By next morning the mist had cleared, and we flew across the Channel, under a curtain of clouds, leaving Marmaduke to fetch a new machine. When you visit the Continent after the war, friend the reader, travel by the Franco-British service of aerial transport, which will come into being with the return of peace. You will find it more comfortable and less tiring; and if you have a weak stomach you will find it less exacting, for none but the very nervous are ill in an aeroplane, if the pilot behaves himself. Also, you will complete the journey in a quarter of the time taken by boat. Within fifteen minutes of our departure from Dovstone we were in French air country. A few ships specked the sea-surface, which reflected a dull grey from the clouds, but otherwise the crossing was monotonous.
We passed up the coast-line as far as the bend at Cape Grisnez, and so to Calais. Beyond this town were two sets of canals, one leading south and the other east. Follow the southern group and you will find our immediate destination, the aircraft depot at Saint Gregoire. Follow the eastern group and they will take you to the Boche aircraft depot at Lille. Thus were we reminded that tango teas and special constables belonged to the past.
The covey landed at Saint Gregoire without mishap, except for a bent axle and a torn tyre. With these replaced, and the supplies of petrol and oil replenished, we flew south during the afternoon to the river-basin of war. Marmaduke arrived five days later, in time to take part in our first patrol over the lines. On this trip his engine was put out of action by a stray fragment from anti-aircraft. After gliding across the trenches, he landed among some dug-outs inhabited by sappers, and made use of much the same vocabulary as when he crashed at Dovstone Marmaduke shot down several Hun machines during the weeks that followed, but on the very day of his posting for a decoration a Blighty bullet gave him a return ticket to England and a mention in the casualty list. When last I heard of him he was at Dovstone aerodrome, teaching his elders how to fly. I can guess what he would do if at the Grand Hotel there some chance-introduced collector of autographs offered her book. He would think of the cow and the Brass Hats, smile, produce his gold-tipped fountain-pen, and write with a flourish, "John James Christopher Benjamin Brown. Greetings from Dovstone."
 Officers from Headquarters.
THE DAY'S WORK.
For weeks we had talked guardedly of "it" and "them"—of the greatest day of the Push and the latest form of warfare. Details of the twin mysteries had been rightly kept secret by the red-hatted Olympians who really knew, though we of the fighting branches had heard sufficient to stimulate an appetite for rumour and exaggeration. Consequently we possessed our souls in impatience and dabbled in conjecture.
Small forts moving on the caterpillar system of traction used for heavy guns were to crawl across No Man's Land, enfilade the enemy front line with quick-firing and machine guns, and hurl bombs on such of the works and emplacements as they did not ram to pieces,—thus a confidential adjutant, who seemed to think he had admitted me into the inner circle of knowledge tenanted only by himself and the G.S.O. people (I., II., and III., besides untabbed nondescripts). Veterans gave tips on war in the open country, or chatted airily about another tour of such places as Le Catelet, Le Cateau, Mons, the Maubeuge district, and Namur. The cautious listened in silence, and distilled only two facts from the dubious mixture of fancy. The first was that we were booked for a big advance one of these fine days; and the second that new armoured cars, caterpillared and powerfully armed, would make their bow to Brother Boche.
The balloon of swollen conjecture floated over the back of the Front until it was destroyed by the quick-fire of authentic orders, which necessarily revealed much of the plan and many of the methods. On the afternoon of September 14 all the officers of our aerodrome were summoned to an empty shed. There we found our own particular General, who said more to the point in five minutes than the rumourists had said in five weeks. There was to be a grand attack next morning. The immediate objectives were not distant, but their gain would be of enormous value. Every atom of energy must be concentrated on the task. It was hoped that an element of surprise would be on our side, helped by a new engine of war christened the Tank. The nature of this strange animal, male and female, was then explained.
Next came an exposition of the part allotted to the Flying Corps. No German machines could be allowed near enough to the lines for any observation. We must shoot all Hun machines at sight and give them no rest. Our bombers should make life a burden on the enemy lines of communication. Infantry and transport were to be worried, whenever possible, by machine-gun fire from above. Machines would be detailed for contact work with our infantry. Reconnaissance jobs were to be completed at all costs, if there seemed the slightest chance of bringing back useful information.
No more bubbles of hot air were blown around the mess table. Only the evening was between us and the day of days. The time before dinner was filled by the testing of machines and the writing of those cheerful, non-committal letters that precede big happenings at the front. Our flight had visitors to dinner, but the shadow of to-morrow was too insistent for the racket customary on a guest night. It was as if the electricity had been withdrawn from the atmosphere and condensed for use when required. The dinner talk was curiously restrained. The usual shop chatter prevailed, leavened by snatches of bantering cynicism from those infants of the world who thought that to be a beau sabreur of the air one must juggle verbally with life, death, and Archie shells. Even these war babies (three of them died very gallantly before we reassembled for breakfast next day) had bottled most of their exuberance. Understanding silences were sandwiched between yarns. A wag searched for the Pagliacci record, and set the gramophone to churn out "Vesti la Giubba." The guests stayed to listen politely to a few revue melodies, and then slipped away. The rest turned in immediately, in view of the jobs at early dawn.
"Night, everybody," said one of the flight-commanders. "Meet you at Mossy-Face in the morning!"
In the morning some of us saw him spin earthwards over Mossy-Face Wood, surrounded by Hun machines.
Long before the dawn of September 15, I awoke to the roar of engines, followed by an overhead drone as a party of bombers circled round until they were ready to start. When this noise had died away, the dull boom of an intense bombardment was able to make itself heard. I rolled over and went to sleep again, for our own show was not due to start until three hours later.
The Flying Corps programme on the great day was a marvel of organisation. The jobs fitted into one another, and into the general tactical scheme of the advance, as exactly as the parts of a flawless motor. At no time could enemy craft steal toward the lines to spy out the land. Every sector was covered by defensive patrols which travelled northward and southward, southward and northward, eager to pounce on any black-crossed stranger. Offensive patrols moved and fought over Boche territory until they were relieved by other offensive patrols. The machines on artillery observation were thus worried only by Archie, and the reconnaissance formations were able to do their work with little interruption, except when they passed well outside the patrol areas. Throughout the day those guerillas of the air, the bombing craft, went across and dropped eggs on anything between general headquarters and a railway line. The corps buses kept constant communication between attacking battalions and the rear. A machine first reported the exploit of the immortal Tank that waddled down High Street, Flers, spitting bullets and inspiring sick fear. And there were many free-lance stunts, such as Lewis gun attacks on reserve troops or on trains.
The three squadrons attached to our aerodrome had to the day's credit two long reconnaissances, three offensive patrols, and four bomb raids. Six Hun machines were destroyed on these shows, and the bombers did magnificent work at vital points. At 2 A.M. they dropped eggs on the German Somme headquarters. An hour later they deranged the railway station of a large garrison town. For the remaining time before sunset they were not so busy. They merely destroyed an ammunition train, cut two railway lines, damaged an important railhead, and sprayed a bivouac ground.
An orderly called me at 4.15 A.M. for the big offensive patrol. The sky was a dark-grey curtain decorated by faintly twinkling stars. I dressed to the thunderous accompaniment of the guns, warmed myself with a cup of hot cocoa, donned flying kit, and hurried to the aerodrome. There we gathered around C., the patrol leader, who gave us final instructions about the method of attack. We tested our guns and climbed into the machines.
By now the east had turned to a light grey with pink smudges from the forefinger of sunrise. Punctually at five o'clock the order, "Start up!" passed down the long line of machines. The flight-commander's engine began a loud metallic roar, then softened as it was throttled down. The pilot waved his hand, the chocks were pulled from under the wheels, and the machine moved forward. The throttle was again opened full out as the bus raced into the wind until flying speed had been attained, when it skimmed gently from the ground. We followed, and carried out the rendezvous at 3000 feet.
The morning light increased every minute, and the grey of the sky was merging into blue. The faint, hovering ground-mist was not sufficient to screen our landmarks. The country below was a shadowy patchwork of coloured pieces. The woods, fantastic shapes of dark green, stood out strongly from the mosaic of brown and green fields. The pattern was divided and subdivided by the straight, poplar-bordered roads peculiar to France.
We passed on to the dirty strip of wilderness which is the actual front. The battered villages and disorderly ruins looked like hieroglyphics traced on wet sand. A sea of smoke rolled over the ground for miles. It was a by-product of one of the most terrific bombardments in the history of trench warfare. Through it hundreds of gun-flashes twinkled, like the lights of a Chinese garden.
Having reached a height of 12,000 feet, we crossed the trenches south of Bapaume. As the danger that stray bullets might fall on friends no longer existed, pilots and observers fired a few rounds into space to make sure their guns were behaving properly.
Archie began his frightfulness early. He concentrated on the leader's machine, but the still-dim light spoiled his aim, and many of the bursts were dotted between the craft behind. I heard the customary wouff! wouff! wouff! followed in one case by the hs-s-s-s-s of passing fragments. We swerved and dodged to disconcert the gunners. After five minutes of hide-and-seek, we shook off this group of Archie batteries.
The flight-commander headed for Mossy-Face Wood, scene of many air battles and bomb raids. An aerodrome just east of the wood was the home of the Fokker star, Boelcke. C. led us to it, for it was his great ambition to account for Germany's best pilot.
While we approached, I looked down and saw eight machines with black Maltese crosses on their planes, about three thousand feet below. They had clipped wings of a peculiar whiteness, and they were ranged one above the other, like the rungs of a Venetian blind. A cluster of small scouts swooped down from Heaven-knows-what height and hovered above us; but C. evidently did not see them, for he dived steeply on the Huns underneath, accompanied by the two machines nearest him. The other group of enemies then dived.
I looked up and saw a narrow biplane, apparently a Roland, rushing towards our bus. My pilot turned vertically and then side-slipped to disconcert the Boche's aim. The black-crossed craft swept over at a distance of less than a hundred yards. I raised my gun-mounting, sighted, and pressed the trigger. Three shots rattled off—and my Lewis gun ceased fire.
Intensely annoyed at being cheated out of such a splendid target, I applied immediate action, pulled back the cocking-handle and pressed the trigger again. Nothing happened. After one more immediate action test, I examined the gun and found that an incoming cartridge and an empty case were jammed together in the breech. To remedy the stoppage, I had to remove spade-grip and body cover. As I did this, I heard an ominous ta-ta-ta-ta-ta from the returning German scout. My pilot cart-wheeled round and made for the Hun, his gun spitting continuously through the propeller. The two machines raced at each other until less than fifty yards separated them. Then the Boche swayed, turned aside, and put his nose down. We dropped after him, with our front machine-gun still speaking. The Roland's glide merged into a dive, and we imitated him. Suddenly a streak of flame came from his petrol tank, and the next second he was rushing earthwards, with two streamers of smoke trailing behind.
I was unable to see the end of this vertical dive, for two more single-seaters were upon us. They plugged away while I remedied the stoppage, and several bullets ventilated the fuselage quite close to my cockpit. When my gun was itself again, I changed the drum of ammunition, and hastened to fire at the nearest Hun. He was evidently unprepared, for he turned and moved across our tail. As he did so, I raked his bus from stem to stern. I looked at him hopefully, for the range was very short, and I expected to see him drop towards the ground at several miles a minute. He sailed on serenely. This is an annoying habit of enemy machines when one is sure that, by the rules of the game, they ought to be destroyed. The machine in question was probably hit, however, for it did not return, and I saw it begin a glide as though the pilot meant to land. We switched our attention to the remaining Hun, but this one was not anxious to fight alone. He dived a few hundred feet, with tail well up, looking for all the world like a trout when it drops back into water. Afterwards he flattened out and went east.
During the fight we had become separated from the remainder of our party. I searched all round the compass, but could find neither friend nor foe. We returned to the aerodrome where hostile craft were first sighted. There was no sign of C.'s machine or of the others who dived on the first group of Huns. Several German machines were at rest in the aerodrome.
Finding ourselves alone, we passed on towards the lines. I twisted my neck in every direction, for over enemy country only a constant look out above, below, and on all sides can save a machine from a surprise attack. After a few minutes, we spotted six craft bearing towards us from a great height. Through field-glasses I was able to see their black crosses, and I fingered my machine-gun expectantly.
The strangers dived in two lots of three. I waited until the first three were within 300 yards' range and opened fire. One of them swerved away, but the other two passed right under us. Something sang to the right, and I found that part of a landing-wire was dangling helplessly from its socket. We thanked whatever gods there be that it was not a flying-wire, and turned to meet the next three Huns. We swerved violently, and they pulled out of their dive well away from us. With nose down and engine full out, we raced towards the lines and safety. Three of the attackers were unable to keep up with us and we left them behind.
The other three Germans, classed by my pilot as Halberstadts, had a great deal more speed than ours. They did not attack at close quarters immediately, but flew 200 to 300 yards behind, ready to pounce at their own moment. Two of them got between my gun and our tail-plane, so that they were safe from my fire. The third was slightly above our height, and for his benefit I stood up and rattled through a whole ammunition-drum. Here let me say I do not think I hit him, for he was not in difficulties. He dived below us to join his companions, possibly because he did not like being under fire when they were not. To my surprise and joy, he fell slick on one of the other two Hun machines. This latter broke into two pieces, which fell like stones. The machine responsible for my luck side-slipped, spun a little, recovered, and went down to land. The third made off east.
In plain print and at a normal time, this episode shows little that is comic. But when it happened I was in a state of high tension, and this, combined with the startling realisation that a Hun pilot had saved me and destroyed his friend, seemed irresistibly comic. I cackled with laughter and was annoyed because my pilot did not see the joke.
We reached the lines without further trouble from anything but Archie. The pink streaks of daybreak had now disappeared beneath the whole body of the sunrise, and the sky was of that intense blue which is the secret of France. What was left of the ground-mist shimmered as it congealed in the sunlight. The pall of smoke from the guns had doubled in volume. The Ancre sparkled brightly.
We cruised around in a search for others of our party, but found none. A defensive patrol was operating between Albert and the trenches. We joined it for half an hour, at the end of which I heard a "Halloa!" from the speaking-tube.
"What's up now?" I asked.
"Going to have a look at the war," was the pilot's reply.
Before I grasped his meaning he had shut off the engine and we were gliding towards the trenches. At 1200 feet we switched on, flattened out, and looked for movement below. There was no infantry advance at the moment, but below Courcelette what seemed to be two ungainly masses of black slime were slithering over the ground. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. One of them actually crawled among the scrap-heaps that fringed the ruins of the village. Only then did the thought that they might be Tanks suggest itself. Afterwards I discovered that this was so.
The machine rocked violently as a projectile hurtled by underneath us. The pilot remembered the broken landing-wire and steered for home. After landing, we compared notes with others who had returned from the expedition. C., we learned, was down at last, after seventeen months of flying on active service, with only one break for any appreciable time. He destroyed one more enemy before the Boches got him. In the dive he got right ahead of the two machines that followed him. As these hurried to his assistance, they saw an enemy plane turn over, show a white, gleaming belly, and drop in zig-zags. C.'s bus was then seen to heel over into a vertical dive and to plunge down, spinning rhythmically on its axis. Probably he was shot dead and fell over on to the joystick, which put the machine to its last dive. The petrol tank of the second machine to arrive among the Huns was plugged by a bullet, and the pilot was forced to land. Weeks later, his observer wrote us a letter from a prison camp in Hanover. The third bus, perforated by scores of bullet-holes, got back to tell the tale.
C. was one of the greatest pilots produced by the war. He was utterly fearless, and had more time over the German lines to his credit than any one else in the Flying Corps. It was part of his fatalistic creed that Archie should never be dodged, and he would go calmly ahead when the A.-A. guns were at their best. Somehow, the bursts never found him. He had won both the D.S.O. and the M.C. for deeds in the air. Only the evening before, when asked lightly if he was out for a V.C., he said he would rather get Boelcke than the V.C.; and in the end Boelcke probably got him, for he fell over the famous German pilot's aerodrome, and that day the German wireless announced that Boelcke had shot down two more machines. Peace to the ashes of a fine pilot and a very brave man!
Two observers, other than C.'s passenger, had been killed during our patrol. One of them was "Uncle," a captain in the Northumberland Fusiliers. A bullet entered the large artery of his thigh. He bled profusely and lost consciousness in the middle of a fight with two Huns. When he came to, a few minutes later, he grabbed his gun and opened fire on an enemy. After about forty shots the chatter of the gun ceased, and through the speaking-tube a faint voice told the pilot to look round. The pilot did so, and saw a Maltese-cross biplane falling in flames. But Uncle had faded into unconsciousness again, and he never came back. It is more than possible that if he had put a tourniquet round his thigh, instead of continuing the fight, he might have lived.
A great death, you say? One of many such. Only the day before I had helped to lift the limp body of Paddy from the floor of an observer's cockpit. He had been shot over the heart. He fainted, recovered his senses for ten minutes, and kept two Huns at bay until he died, by which time the trenches were reached.
Imagine yourself under fire in an aeroplane at 10,000 feet. Imagine that only a second ago you were in the country of shadows. Imagine yourself feeling giddy and deadly sick from loss of blood. Imagine what is left of your consciousness to be stabbed insistently by a throbbing pain. Now imagine how you would force yourself in this condition to grasp a machine-gun in your numbed hand, pull back the cocking-handle, take careful aim at a fast machine, allowing for deflection, and fire until you sink into death. Some day I hope to be allowed to visit Valhalla for half an hour, that I may congratulate Paddy and Uncle.
We refreshed ourselves with cold baths and hot breakfast. In the mess the fights were reconstructed. Sudden silences were frequent—an unspoken tribute to C. and the other casualties. But at lunch-time we were cheered by the news that the first and second objectives had been reached, that Martinpuich, Courcelette, and Flers had fallen, and that the Tanks had behaved well.
After lunch I rested awhile before the long reconnaissance, due to start at three. Six machines were detailed for this job; though a faulty engine kept one of them on the ground. The observers marked the course on their maps, and wrote out lists of railway stations. At 3.30 we set off towards Arras.
Archie hit out as soon as we crossed to his side of the front. He was especially dangerous that afternoon, as if determined to avenge the German defeat of the morning. Each bus in turn was encircled by black bursts, and each bus in turn lost height, swerved, or changed its course to defeat the gunner's aim. A piece of H.E. hit our tail-plane, and stayed there until I cut it out for a souvenir when we had returned.
The observers were kept busy with note-book and pencil, for the train movement was far greater than the average, and streaks of smoke courted attention on all the railways. Rolling stock was correspondingly small, and the counting of the trucks in the sidings was not difficult. Road and canal transport was plentiful. As evidence of the urgency of all this traffic, I remarked that no effort at concealment was made. On ordinary days, a German train always shut off steam when we approached; and often I saw transport passing along the road one minute, and not passing along the road the next. On September 15 the traffic was too urgent for time to be lost by hide-and-seek.
We passed several of our offensive patrols, each of which escorted us while we were on its beat. It was curious that no activity could be noticed on enemy aerodromes. Until we passed Mossy-Face on the last lap of the homeward journey we saw no Hun aircraft. Even there the machines with black crosses flew very low and did not attempt to offer battle.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened until we were about to cross the trenches north of Peronne. Archie then scored an inner. One of his chunks swept the left aileron from the leader's machine, which banked vertically, almost rolled over, and began to spin. For two thousand feet the irregular drop continued, and the observer gave up hope. Luckily for him, the pilot was not of the same mind, and managed to check the spin by juggling with his rudder-controls. The bus flew home, left wing well down, with the observer leaning far out to the right to restore equilibrium, while the icy rush of air boxed his ears.
We landed, wrote our reports, and took them to headquarters. The day's work had been done, which was all that mattered to any extent, and a very able general told us it was "dom good." But many a day passed before we grew accustomed to the absence of Uncle and Paddy.
And so to bed, until we were called for another early morning show.
A SUMMER JOY-RIDE.
It happened late in the afternoon, one August dog-day. No wind leavened the languid air, and hut, hangar, tent, and workshop were oppressive with a heavy heat, so that we wanted to sleep. To taxi across the grass in a chase for flying speed, to soar gently from the hot ground, and, by leaning beyond the wind-screen, to let the slip-stream of displaced air play on one's face—all this was refreshing as a cold plunge after a Turkish bath. I congratulated myself that I was no longer a gunner, strenuous over interminable corrections, or tiredly alert in a close observation post.
Our party consisted of four machines, each complete with pilot, observer, and several hundred rounds of ammunition. The job was an offensive patrol—that is to say, we were to hunt trouble around a given area behind the Boche lines. A great deal of the credit for our "mastery of the air"—that glib phrase of the question-asking politician—during the Somme Push of 1916, belongs to those who organised and those who led these fighting expeditions over enemy country. Thanks to them, our aircraft were able to carry out reconnaissance, artillery observation, and photography with a minimum of interruption, while the German planes were so hard pressed to defend their place in the air that they could seldom guide their own guns or collect useful information. To this satisfactory result must be added the irritative effect on enemy morale of the knowledge that whenever the weather was fine our machines hummed overhead, ready to molest and be molested.
Offensive patrols are well worth while, but for the comfort of those directly concerned they are rather too exciting. When friends are below during an air duel a pilot is warmly conscious that should he or his machine be crippled he can break away and land, and there's an end of it. But if a pilot be wounded in a scrap far away from home, before he can land he must fly for many miles, under shell fire and probably pursued by enemies. He must conquer the blighting faintness which accompanies loss of blood, keep clear-headed enough to deal instantaneously with adverse emergency, and make an unwilling brain command unwilling hands and feet to control a delicate apparatus. Worst of all, if his engine be put out of action at a spot beyond gliding distance of the lines, there is nothing for it but to descend and tamely surrender. And always he is within reach of that vindictive exponent of frightfulness, Archibald the Ever-Ready.
As we climbed to 4000 feet the machines above threw glints of sunlight on the screen of blue infinity. We ranged ourselves and departed. Passing the red roofs and heart-shaped citadel of Doulens and a jagged wood suggestive of a lion rampant, we followed the straight road to Arras. Arrived there, the leader turned south, for we were not yet high enough. As we moved along the brown band of shell-pocked desolation we continued to climb. Patches of smoke from the guns hovered over the ground at intervals. A score of lazy-looking kite balloons hung motionless.
By the time we reached Albert our height was 12,000 feet, and we steered eastward over the ground gained in the June-July advance. Beyond the scrap-heap that once was Pozieres two enormous mine craters showed up, dented into the razed surface, one on either side of the Albert-Bapaume road. Flying very low a few buses were working on trench reconnaissance. The sunshine rebounded from the top of their wings, and against the discoloured earth they looked like fireflies. A mile or so behind the then front lines were the twin villages of Courcelette and Martinpuich, divided only by the road. Already they were badly battered, though, unlike Pozieres, they still deserved the title of village. Le Sars, which sat astride the road, nearer Bapaume, had been set afire by our guns, and was smoking.
In those days, before the methodical advance of the British artillery had begun to worry the stronghold overmuch, Bapaume was a hotbed of all the anti-aircraft devilries. We therefore swerved toward the south. Archie was not to be shaken off so easily, and we began a series of erratic deviations as he ringed with black puffs first one machine, then another. The shooting was not particularly good; for although no clouds intervened between the guns and their mark, a powerful sun dazzled the gunners, who must have found difficulty in judging height and direction. From Archie's point of view, the perfect sky is one screened from the sunlight, at 20,000 to 30,000 feet, by a mantle of thin clouds against which aircraft are outlined boldly, like stags on a snow-covered slope.
A few minutes in a south-easterly direction brought us to the Bois d'Havrincourt, a large ungainly wood, the shape of which was something between the ace of spades and the ace of clubs. This we knew as Mossy-Face. The region around it was notorious in R.F.C. messes as being the chief centre of the Boche Flying Corps on the British Front.
From the south-west corner Archie again scattered burst and bark at our group, but his inaccuracy made dodging hardly necessary. A lull followed, and I twisted my neck all round the compass, for, in the presence of hostile aeroplanes, Archie seldom behaves, except when friendly machines are about. Two thousand feet below three biplanes were approaching the wood from the south. Black crosses showed up plainly on their grey-white wings. We dropped into a dive toward the strangers.
Under normal conditions a steep dive imparts a feeling of being hemmed in from every side. One takes a deep breath instinctively, and the novice to flying will grip the fuselage, as if to avoid being crushed. And, indeed, a passenger in a diving aeroplane is hemmed in, by the terrific air-pressure to which the solid surface is subjected. If he attempt to stand up or lean over the side, he will be swept back, after a short struggle, beneath the shelter of wind-screen and fuselage. But when diving on a Hun, I have never experienced this troubled sensation, probably because it has been swamped under the high tension of readiness for the task. All the faculties must be concentrated on opening the attack, since an air duel is often decided in the first few seconds at close quarters. What happens during these few seconds may depend on a trifle, such as the position of the gun-mounting, an untried drum of ammunition, a slight swerve, or firing a second too soon or too late. An airman should regard his body as part of the machine when there is a prospect of a fight, and his brain, which commands the machine, must be instinctive with insight into what the enemy will attempt.
As we dived, then, I estimated the angle at which we might cross the Boche trio, watched for a change of direction on their part, slewed round the gun-mounting to the most effective setting for what would probably be my arc of fire, and fingered the movable back-sight. At first the Huns held to their course as though quite unconcerned. Later, they began to lose height. Their downward line of flight became steeper and steeper, and so did ours.
Just as our leading bus arrived within range and began to spit bullets through the propeller, a signal rocket streaked from the first Boche biplane, and the trio dived almost vertically, honking the while on Klaxon horns. We were then at about 6000 feet.
We were expecting to see the Huns flatten out, when—"Wouff! wouff! wouff! wouff! wouff!" said Archie. The German birds were not hawks at all; they were merely tame decoys used to entice us to a pre-arranged spot, at a height well favoured by A.-A. gunners. The ugly puffs encircled us, and it seemed unlikely that an aeroplane could get away without being caught in a patch of hurtling high explosive. Yet nobody was hit. The only redeeming feature of the villain Archibald is that his deeds are less terrible than his noise, and even this is too flat to be truly frightful. Although I was uncomfortable as we raced away, the chorused wouffs! reminded me of an epidemic of coughing I heard in church one winter's Sunday, while a fatuous sermon was read by a dull-voiced vicar.
Mingled with the many black bursts were a few green ones, probably gas shells, for Archie had begun to experiment with the gas habit. Very suddenly a line of fiery rectangles shot up and curved towards us when they had reached three-quarters of their maximum height. They rose and fell within thirty yards of our tail. These were "onions," the flaming rockets which the Boche keeps for any hostile aircraft that can be lured to a height between 4000 and 6000 feet.
I yelled to V., my pilot, that we should have to dodge. We side-slipped and swerved to the left. A minute later the stream of onions had disappeared, greatly to my relief, for the prospect of a fire in the air inspires in me a mortal funk. Soon we were to pass from the unpleasant possibility to the far more unpleasant reality.
Once outside the unhealthy region, we climbed to a less dangerous height. Again we became the target for a few dozen H.E. shells. We broke away and swooped downward. Some little distance ahead, and not far below, was a group of five Albatross two-seaters. V. pointed our machine at them, in the wake of the flight-commander's bus.
Next instant the fuselage shivered. I looked along the inside of it and found that a burning shell fragment was lodged on a longeron, half-way between my cockpit and the tail-plane. A little flame zigzagged over the fabric, all but died away, but, being fanned by the wind as we lost height, recovered and licked its way toward the tail. I was too far away to reach the flame with my hands, and the fire extinguisher was by the pilot's seat. I called for it into the speaking-tube. The pilot made no move. Once more I shouted. Again no answer. V.'s earpiece had slipped from under his cap. A thrill of acute fear passed through me as I stood up, forced my arm through the rush of wind, and grabbed V.'s shoulder.
"Fuselage burning! Pass the fire extinguisher!" I yelled.
My words were drowned in the engine's roar; and the pilot, intent on getting near the Boches, thought I had asked which one we were to attack.
"Look out for those two Huns on the left," he called over his shoulder.
"Pass the fire extinguisher!"
"Get ready to shoot, blast you!"
"Fire extinguisher, you ruddy fool!"
A backward glance told me that the fire was nearing the tail-plane at the one end and my box of ammunition at the other, and was too serious for treatment by the extinguisher unless I could get it at once. Desperately I tried to force myself through the bracing-struts and cross-wires behind my seat. To my surprise, head and shoulders and one arm got to the other side—a curious circumstance, as afterwards I tried repeatedly to repeat this contortionist trick on the ground, but failed every time. There I stuck, for it was impossible to wriggle farther. However, I could now reach part of the fire, and at it I beat with gloved hands. Within half a minute most of the fire was crushed to death. But a thin streak of flame, outside the radius of my arm, still flickered towards the tail. I tore off one of my gauntlets and swung it furiously on to the burning strip. The flame lessened, rose again when I raised the glove, but died out altogether after I had hit it twice more. The load of fear left me, and I discovered an intense discomfort, wedged in as I was between the two crossed bracing-struts. Five minutes passed before I was able, with many a heave and gasp, to withdraw back to my seat.
By now we were at close grips with the enemy, and our machine and another converged on a Hun. V. was firing industriously. As we turned, he glared at me, and knowing nothing of the fire, shouted: "Why the hell haven't you fired yet?" I caught sight of a Boche bus below us, aimed at it, and emptied a drum in short bursts. It swept away, but not before two of the German observer's bullets had plugged our petrol tank from underneath. The pressure went, and with it the petrol supply. The needle on the rev.-counter quivered to the left as the revolutions dropped, and the engine missed on first one, then two cylinders. V. turned us round, and, with nose down, headed the machine for the trenches. Just then the engine ceased work altogether, and we began to glide down.
All this happened so quickly that I had scarcely realised our plight. Next I began to calculate our chances of reaching the lines before we would have to land. Our height was 9000 feet, and we were just over nine and a half miles from friendly territory. Reckoning the gliding possibilities of our type of bus as a mile to a thousand feet, the odds seemed unfavourable. On the other hand, a useful wind had arisen from the east, and V., a very skilful pilot, would certainly cover all the distance that could be covered.
I located our exact position and searched the map for the nearest spot in the lines. The village of Bouchavesnes was a fraction south of due west, and I remembered that the French had stormed it two days previously. From the shape of the line before this advance, there was evidently a small salient, with Bouchavesnes in the middle of the curve. I scribbled this observation on a scrap of paper, which I handed to V. with the compass direction. V. checked my statements on the map, nodded over his shoulder, and set a course for Bouchavesnes.
Could we do it? I prayed to the gods and trusted to the pilot. Through my mind there flitted impossible plans to be tried if we landed in Boche territory. After setting fire to the machine we would attempt to hide, and then, at night-time, creep along a communication trench to the enemy front line, jump across it in a gap between the sentries, and chance getting by the barbed wire and across No Man's Land. Or we would steal to the Somme, float down-stream, and somehow or other pass the entanglements placed across the river by the enemy. Wouff! wouff! Archie was complicating the odds.
Further broodings were checked by the sudden appearance of a German scout. Taking advantage of our plight, its pilot dived steeply from a point slightly behind us. We could not afford to lose any distance by dodging, so V. did the only thing possible—he kept straight on. I raised my gun, aimed at the wicked-looking nose of the attacking craft, and met it with a barrage of bullets. These must have worried the Boche, for he swerved aside when a hundred and fifty yards distant, and did not flatten out until he was beneath the tail of our machine. Afterwards he climbed away from us, turned, and dived once more. For a second time we escaped, owing either to some lucky shots from my gun or to the lack of judgment by the Hun pilot. The scout pulled up and passed ahead of us. It rose and manoeuvred as if to dive from the front and bar the way.
Meanwhile, four specks, approaching from the west, had grown larger and larger, until they were revealed as of the F.E. type—the British "pusher" two-seater. The Boche saw them, and hesitated as they bore down on him. Finding himself in the position of a lion attacked by hunters when about to pounce on a tethered goat, he decided not to destroy, for in so doing he would have laid himself open to destruction. When I last saw him he was racing north-east.
There was now no obstacle to the long glide. As we went lower, the torn ground showed up plainly. From 2000 feet I could almost count the shell-holes. Two battery positions came into view, and near one of them I saw tracks and could distinguish movements by a few tiny dots. It became evident that, barring accident, we should reach the French zone.
When slightly behind the trenches a confused chatter from below told us that machine-guns were trained on the machine. By way of retaliation, I leaned over and shot at what looked like an emplacement. Then came the Boche front line, ragged and unkempt. I fired along an open trench. Although far from fearless as a rule, I was not in the least afraid during the eventful glide. My state of intense "wind up" while the fuselage was burning had apparently exhausted my stock of nervousness. I seemed detached from all idea of danger, and the desolated German trench area might have been a side-show at a fair.
We swept by No Man's Land at a height of 600 feet, crossed the French first- and second-line trenches, and, after passing a small ridge, prepared to settle on an uneven plateau covered by high bracken. To avoid landing down wind and down-hill, the pilot banked to the right before he flattened out. The bus pancaked gently to earth, ran over the bracken, and stopped two yards from a group of shell-holes. Not a wire was broken. The propeller had been scored by the bracken, but the landing was responsible for no other damage. Taking into consideration the broken ground, the short space at our disposal, and the fact that we landed cross-wind, V. had exhibited wonderful skill.
We climbed out, relieved but cantankerous. V., still ignorant of the fire, wanted to know why my gun was silent during our first fight; and I wanted to know why he hadn't shut off the engine and listened when I shouted for the fire extinguisher. Some French gunners ran to meet us. The sight that met them must have seemed novel, even to a poilu of two and a half years' understanding.
Supposing that the aeroplane had crashed, they came to see if we were dead or injured. What they found was one almost complete aeroplane and two leather-coated figures, who cursed each other heartily as they stood side by side, and performed a certain natural function which is publicly represented in Brussels by a famous little statue.
"Quels types!" said the first Frenchman to arrive.
An examination of the bus revealed a fair crop of bullet holes through the wings and elevator. A large gap in one side of the fuselage, over a longeron that was charred to powder in parts, bore witness to the fire. Petrol was dripping from the spot where the tank had been perforated. On taking a tin of chocolate from his pocket, V. found it ripped and gaping. He searched the pocket and discovered a bright bullet at the bottom. We traced the adventures of that bullet; it had grazed a strut, cut right through the petrol union, and expended itself on the chocolate tin.
Soon our attention was attracted to several French machines that were passing through a barrage of Archie bursts. The bombardment of an aeroplane arouses only the sporting instinct of the average soldier. His interest, though keen, is directed towards the quality of the shooting and the distance of the shells for their target; his attitude when watching a pigeon-shoot would be much the same. But an airman has experience of what the aeroplane crews must be going through, and his thought is all for them. He knows that dull, loud cough of an Archie shell, the hiss of a flying fragment, the wicked black puffs that creep towards their mark and follow it, no matter where the pilot may swerve. Should a friendly machine tumble to earth after that rare occurrence, a direct hit, all the sensations of an uncontrolled nose-dive are suggested to his senses. He hears the shriek of the up-rushing air, feels the helpless terror. It hurts him to know that he is powerless to save a friend from certain death. He cannot even withdraw his eyes from the falling craft. I was glad we had not viewed the disaster while we were in the air, for nothing is more unnerving than to see another machine crumbled up by a direct hit when Archie is firing at yourself.
"Me," said a French gunner by my side, "I prefer the artillery." With which sentiment I have often agreed when dodging Archie, though at every other time I prefer the Flying Corps work to all other kinds of fighting.
V. disappeared to phone the Squadron Commander, and I was left with the crippled bus and the crowd of Frenchmen. The poilus questioned me on subjects ranging from the customary length of a British officer's moustache to the possible length of the war. Yes, we had been hit in a fight with Boche aeroplanes. Yes, there had also been a slight fire on board. Yes, I had great fear at the time. Yes, I would accept a cigarette with pleasure. No, it was untrue that England contained four million civilian embusques of military age. No, the report that officers of the British Flying Corps received fifty francs a day was inaccurate, unfortunately. But no, my good-for-nothing opinion was that we should not finish the Boche within a year; and so on.
"How is it," said one man in faded uniform, "that the British always manage to keep themselves correct and shaven?"
"La barbe!" interrupted another; "the Tommies don't keep clean on the Somme. Even the lilies of the etat-majeur can't." And he began to quote:
"Si ma fi-fi-fiancee me voyait, Elle m' dirait en me donnant cinq sous: 'Va t' faire raser!' mais moi, j' repondrais Que moi j'ai toujours les memes deux joues."
V. was away for an hour and a half and when he did return it was to announce that he had been unable to phone because the line was blocked under pressure of important operations. Deciding to report in person, we declined an offer of hospitality from the French officers, but gratefully accepted a guard for the machine, and the loan of a car.
A young lieutenant accompanied us as far as Amiens. There we stopped for supper, and were joined by some civilian friends of our French companion. The filet de sole au vin blanc engendered a feeling of deep content. Now that it was over, I felt pleased with the day's excitement and the contrast it afforded. Three hours beforehand it seemed likely that the evening would see us prisoners. Yet here we were, supping in a comfortable hotel with three charming ladies and the widow Clicquot.
Arrived at the aerodrome, we visited the hut inhabited by the Squadron Commander, who wore pyjamas and a smile of welcome. We were just in time, he said, to rescue our names from the list of missing. Our tale impressed him so much that, after making arrangements for the stranded bus to be brought back by a repair party, he remarked: "You can both have a rest to-morrow."
"Welcome home, you rotten night-bird," said my tent companion, and mentioned in a hurt tone that our flight was booked for the 5 A.M. reconnaissance. But my last thought before sinking into sleep was of the blessed words: "You can have a rest to-morrow."
SPYING OUT THE LAND.
For thirty hours the flight had "stood by" for a long reconnaissance. We were dragged from bed at 4.30 of dawn, only to return gratefully beneath the blankets three-quarters of an hour later, when a slight but steady rain washed away all chance of an immediate job. The drizzle continued until after sundown, and our only occupations throughout the day were to wade from mess to aerodrome, aerodrome to mess, and to overhaul in detail machines, maps, guns, and consciences.
Next morning again we dressed in the half-light, and again went back to bed in the daylight. This time the show had been postponed because of low clouds and a thick ground-mist that hung over the reeking earth. It was a depressing dawn—clammy, moist, and sticky.
But by early afternoon the mist had congealed, and the sheet of clouds was torn to rags by a strong south-west wind. The four craft detailed for the reconnaissance were therefore lined outside their shed, while their crews waited for flying orders. I was to be in the leading bus, for when C.'s death left vacant the command of A Flight, the good work of my pilot had brought him a flight-commandership, a three-pipped tunic, and a sense of responsibility which, to my relief, checked his tendency to over-recklessness. He now came from the squadron office with news of a changed course.
"To get the wind behind us," he explained, "we shall cross well to the south of Peronne. Next, we go to Boislens. After that we pass by Nimporte, over the Foret de Charbon to Siegecourt; then up to Le Recul and back by Princebourg, St. Guillaume, and Toutpres.
"As regards the observers, don't forget to use your field-glasses on the rolling stock; don't forget the precise direction of trains and motor transport; don't forget the railways and roads on every side; don't forget the canals; and for the Lord's and everybody else's sake, don't be surprised by Hun aircraft. As regards the pilots—keep in close formation when possible; don't straggle and don't climb above the proper height."
The pilots ran their engines once more, and the observers exchanged information about items such as Hun aerodromes and the number of railway stations at each large town. An air reconnaissance is essentially the observer's show; its main object being to supply the "I" people at headquarters with private bulletins from the back of the German front. The collection of reconnaissance reports is work of a highly skilled nature, or ought to be. Spying out the land is much more than a search of railways, roads, and the terrain generally. The experienced observer must know the German area over which he works rather better than he knows Salisbury Plain. The approximate position of railway junctions and stations, aerodromes, factories, and depots should be familiar to him, so that he can without difficulty spot any new feature. Also he must be something of a sleuth, particularly when using smoke as a clue. In the early morning a thin layer of smoke above a wood may mean a bivouac. If it be but a few miles behind the lines, it can evidence heavy artillery. A narrow stream of smoke near a railway will make an observer scan the line closely for a stationary train, as the Boche engine-drivers usually try to avoid detection by shutting off steam. The Hun has many other dodges to avoid publicity. When Allied aircraft appear, motor and horse transport remain immobile at the roadside or under trees. Artillery and infantry are packed under cover; though, for that matter, the enemy very rarely move troops in the daytime, preferring the night or early morning, when there are no troublesome eyes in the air.