The Riverside Library
A Narrative of Air Fighting in France
JAMES NORMAN HALL
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY The Riverside Press Cambridge
COPYRIGHT, 1917 AND 1918, BY THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY COMPANY COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY JAMES NORMAN HALL ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published June, 1918
The Riverside Press CAMBRIDGE . MASSACHUSETTS PRINTED IN THE U.S.A.
TO SERGENT-PILOTE DOUGLAS MACMONAGLE KILLED IN COMBAT NEAR VERDUN SEPTEMBER 25, 1917
I. THE FRANCO-AMERICAN CORPS 1
II. PENGUINS 24
III. BY THE ROUTE OF THE AIR 47
IV. AT G. D. E. 79
V. OUR FIRST PATROL 107
VI. A BALLOON ATTACK 144
VII. BROUGHT DOWN 167
VIII. ONE HUNDRED HOURS 182
IX. "LONELY AS A CLOUD" 200
X. "MAIS OUI, MON VIEUX!" 209
XI. THE CAMOUFLAGED COWS 216
XII. CAFARD 226
LETTER FROM A GERMAN PRISON CAMP 233
THE FRANCO-AMERICAN CORPS
It was on a cool, starlit evening, early in September, 1916, that I first met Drew of Massachusetts, and actually began my adventures as a prospective member of the Escadrille Americaine. We had sailed from New York by the same boat, had made our applications for enlistment in the Foreign Legion on the same day, without being aware of each other's existence; and in Paris, while waiting for our papers, we had gone, every evening, for dinner, to the same large and gloomy-looking restaurant in the neighborhood of the Seine.
As for the restaurant, we frequented it, not assuredly because of the quality of the food. We might have dined better and more cheaply elsewhere. But there was an air of vanished splendor, of faded magnificence, about the place which, in the capital of a warring nation, appealed to both of us. Every evening the tables were laid with spotless linen and shining silver. The wineglasses caught the light from the tarnished chandeliers in little points of color. At the dinner-hour, a half-dozen ancient serving-men silently took their places about the room. There was not a sound to be heard except the occasional far-off honk of a motor or the subdued clatter of dishes from the kitchens. The serving-men, even the tables and the empty chairs, seemed to be listening, to be waiting for the guests who never came. Rarely were there more than a dozen diners-out during the course of an evening. There was something mysterious in these elaborate preparations, and something rather fine about them as well; but one thought, not without a touch of sadness, of the old days when there had been laughter and lights and music, sparkling wines and brilliant talk, and how those merrymakers had gone, many of them, long ago to the wars.
As it happened on this evening, Drew and I were sitting at adjoining tables. Our common citizenship was our introduction, and after five minutes of talk, we learned of our common purpose in coming to France. I suppose that we must have eaten after making this latter discovery. I vaguely remember seeing our old waiter hobbling down a long vista of empty tables on his way to and from the kitchens. But if we thought of our food at all, it must have been in a purely mechanical way.
Drew can talk—by Jove, how the man can talk!—and he has the faculty of throwing the glamour of romance over the most commonplace adventures. Indeed, the difficulty which I am going to have in writing this narrative is largely due to this romantic influence of his. I might have succeeded in writing a plain tale, for I have kept my diary faithfully, from day to day, and can set down our adventures, such as they are, pretty much as they occurred. But Drew has bewitched me. He does not realize it, but he is a weaver of spells, and I am so enmeshed in his moonshine that I doubt if I shall be able to write of our experiences as they must appear to those of our comrades in the Franco-American Corps who remember them only through the medium of the revealing light of day.
Not one of these men, I am sure, would confess to so strange an immediate cause for joining the aviation service, as that related to me by Drew, as we sat over our coffee and cigarettes, on the evening of our first meeting. He had come to France, he said, with the intention of joining the Legion Etrangere as an infantryman. But he changed his mind, a few days after his arrival in Paris, upon meeting Jackson of the American Aviation Squadron, who was on leave after a service of six months at the front. It was all because of the manner in which Jackson looked at a Turkish rug. He told him of his adventures in the most matter-of-fact way. No heroics, nothing of that sort. He had not a glimmer of imagination, he said. But he had a way of looking at the floor which was "irresistible," which "fascinated him with the sense of height." He saw towns, villages, networks of trenches, columns of toy troops moving up ribbons of road—all in the patterns of a Turkish rug. And the next day, he was at the headquarters of the Franco-American Corps, in the Champs Elysees, making application for membership.
It is strange that we should both have come to France with so little of accurate knowledge of the corps, of the possibilities for enlistment, and of the nature of the requirements for the service. Our knowledge of it, up to the time of sailing, had been confined to a few brief references in the press. It was perhaps necessary that its existence should not be officially recognized in America, or its furtherance encouraged. But it seemed to us at that time, that there must have been actual discouragement on the part of the Government at Washington. However that may be, we wondered if others had followed clues so vague or a call so dimly heard.
This led to a discussion of our individual aptitudes for the service, and we made many comforting discoveries about each other. It is permissible to reveal them now, for the particular encouragement of others who, like ourselves at that time, may be conscious of deficiencies, and who may think that they have none of the qualities essential to the successful aviator. Drew had never been farther from the ground than the top of the Woolworth building. I had once taken a trip in a captive balloon. Drew knew nothing of motors, and had no more knowledge of mechanics than would enable him to wind a watch without breaking the mainspring. My ignorance in this respect was a fair match for his.
We were further handicapped for the French service by our lack of the language. Indeed, this seemed to be the most serious obstacle in the way to success. With a good general knowledge of the language it seemed probable that we might be able to overcome our other deficiencies. Without it, we could see no way to mastering the mechanical knowledge which we supposed must be required as a foundation for the training of a military pilot. In this connection, it may be well to say that we have both been handicapped from the beginning. We have had to learn, through actual experience in the air, and at risk to life and limb, what many of our comrades, both French and American, knew before they had ever climbed into an aeroplane. But it is equally true that scores of men become very excellent pilots with little or no knowledge of the mechanics of the business.
In so far as Drew and I were concerned, these were matters for the future. It was enough for us at the moment that our applications had been approved, our papers signed, and that to-morrow we were leaving for the Ecole d'Aviation Militaire to begin our training. And so, after a long evening of pleasant talk and pleasanter anticipation of coming events, we left our restaurant and walked together through the silent streets to the Place de la Concorde. The great windy square was almost deserted. The monuments to the lost provinces bulked large in the dim lamplight. Two disabled soldiers hobbled across the bridge and disappeared in the deep shade of the avenue. Their service had been rendered, their sacrifices made, months ago. They could look about them now with a peculiar sense of isolation, and with, perhaps, a feeling of the futility of the effort they had made. Our adventures were all before us. Our hearts were light and our hopes high. As we stood by the obelisk, talking over plans for the morrow, we heard, high overhead, the faint hum of motors, and saw two lights, one green, one red, moving rapidly across the sky. A moment later the long, slender finger of a searchlight probed among little heaps of cloud, then, sweeping in a wide arc, revealed in striking outline the shape of a huge biplane circling over the sleeping city. It was one of the night guard of Paris.
On the following morning, we were at the Gare des Invalides with our luggage, a long half-hour before train-time. The luggage was absurdly bulky. Drew had two enormous suitcases and a bag, and I a steamer trunk and a family-size portmanteau. We looked so much the typical American tourists that we felt ashamed of ourselves, not because of our nationality, but because we revealed so plainly, to all the world military, our non-military antecedents. We bore the hallmark of fifty years of neutral aloofness, of fifty years of indifference to the business of national defense. What makes the situation amusing as a retrospect is the fact that we were traveling on third-class military passes, as befitted our rank as eleve-pilotes and soldiers of the deuxieme classe.
To our great discomfiture, a couple of poilus volunteered their services in putting our belongings aboard the train. Then we crowded into a third-class carriage filled with soldiers—permissionnaires, blesses, reformes, men from all corners of France and her colonies. Their uniforms were faded and weather-stained with long service. The stocks of their rifles were worn smooth and bright with constant usage, and their packs fairly stowed themselves upon their backs.
Drew and I felt uncomfortable in our smart civilian clothing. We looked too soft, too clean, too spick-and-span. We did not feel that we belonged there. But in a whispered conversation we comforted ourselves with the assurance that if ever America took her rightful stand with the Allies, in six months after the event, hundreds of thousands of American boys would be lugging packs and rifles with the same familiarity of use as these French poilus. They would become equally good soldiers, and soon would have the same community of experience, of dangers and hardships shared in common, which make men comrades and brothers in fact as well as in theory.
By the time we had reached our destination we had persuaded ourselves into a much more comfortable frame of mind. There we piled into a cab, and soon we were rattling over the cobblestones, down a long, sunlit avenue in the direction of B——. It was late of a mild afternoon when we reached the summit of a high plateau and saw before us the barracks and hangars of the Ecole d'Aviation. There was not a breath of air stirring. The sun was just sinking behind a bank of crimson cloud. The earth was already in shadow, but high overhead the light was caught and reflected from the wings of scores of avions which shone like polished bronze and silver. We saw the long lines of Bleriot monoplanes, like huge dragon-flies, and as pretty a sight in the air as heart could wish. Farther to the left, we recognized Farman biplanes, floating battleships in comparison with the Bleriots, and twin-motor Caudrons, much more graceful and alert of movement.
But, most wonderful of all to us then, we saw a strange, new avion,—a biplane, small, trim, with a body like a fish. To see it in flight was to be convinced for all time that man has mastered the air, and has outdone the birds in their own element. Never was swallow more consciously joyous in swift flight, never eagle so bold to take the heights or so quick to reach them. Drew and I gazed in silent wonder, our bodies jammed tightly into the cab-window, and our heads craned upward. We did not come back to earth until our ancient, earth-creeping conveyance brought up with a jerk, and we found ourselves in front of a gate marked "Ecole d'Aviation Militaire de B——."
After we had paid the cabman, we stood in the road, with our mountain of luggage heaped about us, waiting for something to happen. A moment later a window in the administration building was thrown open and we were greeted with a loud and not over-musical chorus of
"Oh, say, can you see by the dawn's early light—"
It all came from one throat, belonging to a chap in leathers, who came down the drive to give us welcome.
"Spotted you toute suite" he said. "You can tell Americans at six hundred yards by their hats. How's things in the States? Do you think we're coming in?"
We gave him the latest budget of home news, whereupon he offered to take us over to the barracks. When he saw our luggage he grinned.
"Some equipment, believe me! Attendez un peu while I commandeer a battalion of Annamites to help us carry it, and we'll be on our way."
The Annamites, from Indo-China, who are quartered at the camp for guard and fatigue duty, came back with him about twenty strong, and we started in a long procession to the barracks. Later, we took a vindictive pleasure in witnessing the beluggaged arrival of other Americans, for in nine cases out of ten they came as absurdly over-equipped as did we.
Our barracks, one of many built on the same pattern, was a long, low wooden building, weather-stained without and whitewashed within. It had accommodation for about forty beds. One end of the room was very manifestly American. There was a phonograph on the table, baseball equipment piled in one corner, and the walls were covered with cartoons and pictures clipped from American periodicals. The other end was as evidently French, in the frugality and the neatness of its furnishings. The American end of the room looked more homelike, but the French end more military. Near the center, where the two nations joined, there was a very harmonious blending of these characteristics.
Drew and I were delighted with all this. We were glad that we were not to live in an exclusively American barracks, for we wanted to learn French; but more than this, we wanted to live with Frenchmen on terms of barrack-room familiarity.
By the time we had given in our papers at the captain's office and had passed the hasty preliminary examination of the medical officer, it was quite dark. Flying for the day was over, and lights gleamed cheerily from the barrack-room windows. As we came down the principal street of the camp, we heard the strains of "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," to a gramophone accompaniment, issuing from the chambre des Americains.
"See them shuffle along, Oh, ma honey babe, Hear that music and song."
It gave us the home feeling at once. Frenchmen and Americans were singing together, the Frenchmen in very quaint English, but hitting off the syncopated time as though they had been born and brought up to it as we Americans have.
Over in one corner, a very informal class in French-English pronunciation was at work. Apparently, this was tongue-twisters' night. "Heureux" was the challenge from the French side, and "Hooroo" the nearest approach to a pronunciation on the part of the Americans, with many more or less remote variations on this theme. An American, realizing how difficult it is for a Frenchman to get his tongue between his teeth, counter-challenged with "Father, you are withered with age." The result, as might have been expected, was a series of hissing sounds of z, whereupon there was an answering howl of derision from all the Americans. Up and down the length of the room there were little groups of two and three, chatting together in combinations of Franco-American which must have caused all deceased professors of modern languages to spin like midges in their graves. And throughout all this before-supper merriment, one could catch the feeling of good-comradeship which, so far as my experience goes, is always prevalent whenever Frenchmen and Americans are gathered together.
At the ordinaire, at supper-time, we saw all of the eleve-pilotes of the school, with the exception of the non-commissioned officers, who have their own mess. To Drew and me, but newly come from remote America, it was a most interesting gathering. There were about one hundred and twenty-five in all, including eighteen Americans. The large majority of the Frenchmen had already been at the front in other branches of army service. There were artillerymen, infantrymen, marines,—in training for the naval air-service,—cavalrymen, all wearing the uniforms of the arm to which they originally belonged. No one was dressed in a uniform which distinguished him as an aviator; and upon making inquiry, I found that there is no official dress for this branch of the service. During his period of training in aviation, and even after receiving his military brevet, a pilot continues to wear the dress of his former service, plus the wings on the collar, and the star-and-wings insignia on his right breast. This custom does not make for the fine uniform appearance of the men of the British Royal Flying Corps, but it gives a picturesqueness of effect which is, perhaps, ample recompense. As for the Americans, they follow individual tastes, as we learned later. Some of them, with an eye to color, salute the sun in the red trousers and black tunic of the artilleryman. Others choose more sober shades, various French blues, with the thin orange aviation stripe running down the seams of the trousers. All this in reference to the dress uniform. At the camp most of the men wear leathers, or a combination of leathers and the gray-blue uniform of the French poilu, which is issued to all Americans at the time of their enlistment.
We had a very excellent supper of soup, followed by a savory roast of meat, with mashed potatoes and lentils. Afterward, cheese and beer. I was slightly discomfited physically on learning that the beef was horse-meat, but Drew convinced me that it was absurd to let old scruples militate against a healthy appetite. In 1870 the citizens of France ate ragout de chat with relish. Furthermore, the roast was of so delicious a flavor and so closely resembled the finest cuts of beef, that it was easy to persuade one's self that it was beef, after all.
After the meal, to our great surprise, every one cleaned his dishes with huge pieces of bread. Such waste seemed criminal in a country beleaguered by submarines, in its third year of war, and largely dependent for its food-supply on the farm labor of women and children. We should not have been surprised if it had been only the Americans who indulged in this wasteful dish-cleansing process; but the Frenchmen did it, too. When I remarked upon this to one of my American comrades, a Frenchman, sitting opposite, said:—
"Pardon, monsieur, but I must tell you what we Frenchmen are. We are very economical when it is for ourselves, for our own families and purses, that we are saving. But when it is the Government which pays the bill, we do not care. We do not have to pay directly and so we waste, we throw away. We are so careful at home, all of our lives, that this is a little pleasure for us."
I have had this same observation made to me by so many Frenchmen since that time, that I believe there must be a good deal of truth in it.
After supper, all of the Americans adjourned for coffee to Ciret's, a little cafe in the village which nestles among the hills not far from the camp. The cafe itself was like any one of thousands of French provincial restaurants. There was a great dingy common room, with a sanded brick floor, and faded streamers of tricolor paper festooned in curious patterns from the smoky ceiling. The kitchen was clean, and filled with the appetizing odor of good cooking. Beyond it was another, inner room, "toujours reservee a mes Americains," as M. Ciret, the fat, genial patron continually asserted. Here we gathered around a large circular table, pipes and cigarettes were lighted, and, while the others talked, Drew and I listened and gathered impressions.
For a time the conversation did not become general, and we gathered up odds and ends of it from all sides. Then it turned to the reasons which had prompted various members of the group to come to France, the topic, above all others, which Drew and I most wanted to hear discussed. It seemed to me, as I listened, that we Americans closely resemble the British in our sensitive fear of any display of fine personal feeling. We will never learn to examine our emotions with anything but suspicion. If we are prompted to a course of action by generous impulses, we are anxious that others shall not be let into the secret. And so it was that of all the reasons given for offering their services to France, the first and most important was the last to be acknowledged, and even then it was admitted by some with a reluctance nearly akin to shame. There was no man there who was not ready and willing to give his life, if necessary, for the Allied cause, because he believed in it; but the admission could hardly have been dragged from him by wild horses.
But the adventure of the life, the peculiar fascination of it—that was a thing which might be discussed without reserve, and the men talked of it with a willingness which was most gratifying to Drew and me, curious as we were about the life we were entering. They were all in the flush of their first enthusiasms. They were daily enlarging their conceptions of distance and height and speed. They talked a new language and were developing a new cast of mind. They were like children who had grown up over night, whose horizons had been immeasurably broadened in the twinkling of an eye. They were still keenly conscious of the change which was upon them, for they were but fledgling aviators. They were just finding their wings. But as I listened, I thought of the time which must come soon, when the air, as the sea, will be filled with stately ships, and how the air-service will develop its own peculiar type of men, and build up about them its own laws and its own traditions.
As we walked back through the straggling village street to the camp, I tried to convey to Drew something of the new vision which had come to me during the evening. I was aglow with enthusiasm and hoped to strike an answering spark from him. But all that I was thinking and feeling then he had thought and felt long before. I am sure that he had already experienced, in imagination, every thrill, every keen joy, and every sudden sickening fear which the life might have in store for him. For this reason I forgave him for his rather bored manner of answering to my mood, and the more willingly because he was full of talk about a strange illusion which he had had at the restaurant. During a moment of silence, he had heard a clatter of hoof-beats in the village street. (I had heard them too. Some one rode by furiously.) Well, Drew said that he almost jumped from his seat, expecting M. Ciret to throw open the door and shout, "The British are coming!" He actually believed for a second or two that it was the year 1775, and that he was sitting in one of the old roadside inns of Massachusetts. The illusion was perfect, he said.
Now, why—etc., etc. At another time I should have been much interested; but in the presence of new and splendid realities I could not summon any enthusiasm for illusions. Nevertheless, I should have had to listen to him indefinitely, had it not been for an event which cut short all conversation and ended our first day at the Ecole d'Aviation in a truly spectacular manner.
Suddenly we heard the roar of motors just over the barracks, and, at the same time, the siren sounded the alarm in a series of prolonged, wailing shrieks. Some belated pilot was still in the air. We rushed out to the field just as the flares were being lighted and placed on the ground in the shape of an immense T, with the cross-bar facing in the direction from which the wind was coming. By this time the hum of motors was heard at a great distance, but gradually it increased in volume and soon the light of the flares revealed the machine circling rapidly over the piste. I was so much absorbed in watching it manoeuvre for a landing that I did not see the crowd scattering to safe distances. I heard many voices shouting frantic warnings, and so ran for it, but, in my excitement, directly within the line of descent of the machine. I heard the wind screaming through the wires, a terrifying sound to the novice, and glancing hurriedly over my shoulder, I saw what appeared to be a monster of gigantic proportions, almost upon me. It passed within three metres of my head and landed just beyond.
When at last I got to sleep, after a day filled with interesting incidents, Paul Revere pursued me relentlessly through the mazes of a weird and horrible dream. I was on foot, and shod with lead-soled boots. He was in a huge, twin-motor Caudron and flying at a terrific pace, only a few metres from the ground. I can see him now, as he leaned far out over the hood of his machine, an aviator's helmet set atilt over his powdered wig, and his eyes glowing like coals through his goggles. He was waving two lighted torches and shouting, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" in a voice strangely like Drew's.
Having simple civilian notions as to the amount of time necessary for dressing, Drew and I rose with the sound of the bugle on the following morning. We had promised each other that we would begin our new life in true soldier style, and so we reluctantly hurried to the wash-house, where we shaved in cold water, washed after a fashion, and then hurried back to the unheated barrack-room. We felt refreshed, morally and physically, but our heroic example seemed to make no impression upon our fellow aviators, whether French or American. Indeed, not one of them stirred until ten minutes before time for the morning appel, when, there was a sudden upheaval of blankets down the entire length of the room. It was as though the patients in a hospital ward had been inoculated with some wonderful, instantaneous-health-giving virus. Men were jumping into boots and trousers at the same time, and running to and from the wash-house, buttoning their shirts and drying their faces as they ran. It must have taken months of experiment to perfect the system whereby every one remained in bed until the last possible moment. They professed to be very proud of it, but it was clear that they felt more at ease when Drew and I, after a week of heroic, early-morning resolves, abandoned our daily test of courage. We are all Doctor Johnsons at heart.
It was a crisp, calm morning—an excellent day for flying. Already the mechanicians were bringing out the machines and lining them up in front of the hangars, in preparation for the morning work, which began immediately after appel. Drew and I had received notice that we were to begin our training at once. Solicitous fellow countrymen had warned us to take with us all our flying clothes. We were by no means to forget our goggles, and the fur-lined boots which are worn over ordinary boots as a protection against the cold. Innocently, we obeyed all instructions to the letter. The absurdity of our appearance will be appreciated only by air-men. Novices begin their training, at a Bleriot monoplane school, in Penguins—low-powered machines with clipped wings, which are not capable of leaving the ground. We were dressed as we would have no occasion to be dressed until we should be making sustained flights at high altitudes. Every one, Frenchmen and Americans alike, had a good laugh at our expense, but it was one in which we joined right willingly; and one kind-hearted adjudant-moniteur, in order to remove what discomfiture we may have felt, told us, through an interpreter, that he was sure we would become good air-men. The tres bon pilote could be distinguished, in embryo, by the way he wore his goggles.
The beginners' class did not start work with the others, owing to the fact that the Penguins, driven by unaccustomed hands, covered a vast amount of ground in their rolling sorties back and forth across the field. Therefore Drew and I had leisure to watch the others, and to see in operation the entire scheme by means of which France trains her combat pilots for the front. Exclusive of the Penguin, there were seven classes, graded according to their degree of advancement. These, in their order, were the rolling class (a second-stage Penguin class, in which one still kept on the ground, but in machines of higher speed); the first flying class—short hops across the field at an altitude of two or three metres; the second flying class, where one learned to mount to from thirty to fifty metres, and to make landings without the use of the motor; tour de piste (A)—flights about the aerodrome in a forty-five horse-power Bleriot; tour de piste (B)—similar flights in a fifty horse-power machine; the spiral class, and the brevet class.
Our reception committee of the day before volunteered his services as guide, and took us from one class to another, making comments upon the nature of the work of each in a bewildering combination of English and Americanized French. I understood but little of his explanation, although later I was able to appreciate his French translation of some of our breezy Americanisms. But explanation was, for the most part, unnecessary. We could see for ourselves how the prospective pilot advanced from one class to another, becoming accustomed to machines of higher and higher power, "growing his wings" very gradually, until at last he reached the spiral class, where he learned to make landings at a given spot and without the use of his motor, from an altitude of from eight hundred to one thousand metres, losing height in volplanes and serpentines. The final tests for the military brevet were two cross-country flights of from two hundred to three hundred kilometres, with landings during each flight, at three points, two short voyages of sixty kilometres each, and an hour flight at a minimum altitude of two thousand metres.
With all the activities of the school taking place at once, we were as excited as two boys seeing their first three-ring circus. We scarcely knew which way to turn in our anxiety to miss nothing. But my chief concern, in anticipation, had been this: how were English-speaking eleves-pilotes to overcome the linguistic handicap? My uneasiness was set at rest on this first morning, when I saw how neatly most of the difficulties were overcome. Many of the Americans had no knowledge of French other than that which they had acquired since entering the French service, and this, as I have already hinted, had no great utilitarian value. An interpreter had been provided for them through the generosity and kindness of the Franco-American Committee in Paris; but it was impossible for him to be everywhere at once, and much was left to their own quickness of understanding and to the ingenuity of the moniteurs. The latter, being French, were eloquent with their gestures. With the additional aid of a few English phrases which they had acquired from the Americans, and the simplest kind of French, they had little difficulty in making their instructions clear. Both of us felt much encouraged as we listened, for we could understand them very well.
As for the business of flying, as we watched it from below, it seemed the safest and simplest thing in the world. The machines left the ground so easily, and mounted and descended with such sureness of movement, that I was impatient to begin my training. I believed that I could fly at once, after a few minutes of preliminary instruction, without first going through with all the tedious rolling along the ground in low-powered machines. But before the morning's work was finished, I revised my opinion. Accidents began to happen, the first one when one of the "old family cuckoos," as the rolling machines were disdainfully called, showed a sudden burst of old-time speed and left the ground in an alarming manner.
It was evident that the man who was driving it, taken completely by surprise, had lost his head, and was working the controls erratically. First he swooped upward, then dived, tipping dangerously on one wing. In this sudden emergency he had quite forgotten his newly acquired knowledge. I wondered what I would do in such a strait, when one must think with the quickness and sureness of instinct. My heart was in my mouth, for I felt certain that the man would be killed. As for the others who were watching, no one appeared to be excited. A moniteur near me said, "Oh, la la! Il est perdu!" in a mild voice. The whole affair happened so quickly that I was not able to think myself into a similar situation before the end had come. At the last, the machine made a quick swoop downward, from a height of about fifty metres, then careened upward, tipped again, and diving sidewise, struck the ground with a sickening rending crash, the motor going at full speed. For a moment it stood, tail in air; then slowly the balance was lost, and it fell, bottom up, and lay silent.
An enterprising moving-picture company would have given a great deal of money to film that accident. It would have provided a splendid dramatic climax to a war drama of high adventure. Civilian audiences would have watched in breathless, awe-struck silence; but at a military school of aviation it was a different matter. "Oh, la la! Il est perdu!" adequately gauges the degree of emotional interest taken in the incident. At the time I was surprised at this apparent callousness, but I understood it better when I had seen scores of such accidents occur, and had watched the pilots, as in this case, crawl out from the wreckage, and walk sheepishly, and a little shaken, back to their classes. Although the machines were usually badly wrecked, the pilots were rarely severely hurt. The landing chassis of a Bleriot is so strong that it will break the force of a very heavy fall, and the motor, being in front, strikes the ground first instead of pinning the pilot beneath it.
To anticipate a little, in more than four months of training at the Bleriot school there was not a single fatality, although as many as eleven machines were wrecked in the course of one working day, and rarely less than two or three. There were so many accidents as to convince me that Bleriot training for novices is a mistake from the economic point of view. The up-keep expense is vastly greater than in double-command biplane schools, where the student pilot not only learns to fly in a much more stable machine, but makes all his early flights in company with a moniteur who has his own set of controls and may immediately correct any mistakes in handling. But France is not guided by questions of expense in her training of pilotes de chasse, and opinion appears to be that single-command monoplane training is to be preferred for the airman who is to be a combat pilot. Certain it is that men have greater confidence in themselves when they learn to fly alone from the beginning; and the Bleriot, which requires the most delicate and sensitive handling, offers excellent preliminary schooling for the Nieuport and Spad, the fast and high-powered biplanes which are the avions de chasse above the French lines.
A spice of interest was added to the morning's thrills when an American, not to be outdone by his French compatriot, wrecked a machine so completely that it seemed incredible that he could have escaped without serious injury. But he did, and then we witnessed the amusing spectacle of an American, who had no French at all, explaining through the interpreter just how the accident had happened. I saw his moniteur, who knew no English, grin in a relieved kind of way when the American crawled out from under the wreckage. The reception committee whispered to me, "This is Pourquoi, the best bawler-out we've got. 'Pourquoi?' is always his first broadside. Then he wades in and you can hear him from one end of the field to the other. Attendez! this is going to be rich!"
Both of them started talking at once, the moniteur in French and the American in English. Then they turned to the interpreter, and any one witnessing the conversation from a distance would have thought that he was the culprit. The American had left the ground with the wind behind him, a serious fault in an airman, and he knew it very well.
"Look here, Pete," he said; "tell him I know it was my fault. Tell him I took a Steve Brody. I wanted to see if the old cuckoo had any pep in 'er. When I—"
"Pourquoi? Nom de Dieu! Qu'est-ce que je vous ai dit? Jamais faire comme ca! Jamais monter avec le vent en arriere! Jamais! Jamais!"
The others listened in hilarious silence while the interpreter turned first to one and then to the other. "Tell him I took a Steve Brody." I wondered if he translated that literally. Steve took a chance, but it is hardly to be expected that a Frenchman would know of that daring gentleman's history. In this connection, I remember a little talk on caution which was given to us, later, by an English-speaking moniteur. It was after rather a serious accident, for which the spirit of Steve Brody was again responsible.
"You Americans," he said, "when you go to the front you will get the Boche; but let me tell you, they will kill many of you. Not one or two; very many."
Accidents delayed the work of flying scarcely at all. As soon as a machine was wrecked, Annamites appeared on the spot to clear away the debris and take it to the repair-shops, where the usable portions were quickly sorted out. We followed one of these processions in, and spent an hour watching the work of this other department of aviation upon which our own was so entirely dependent. Here machines were being built as well as repaired. The air vibrated with the hum of machinery, with the clang of hammers upon anvils and the roar of motors in process of being tested.
There was a small army of women doing work of many kinds. They were quite apt at it, particularly in the department where the fine strong linen cloth which covers the wings was being sewn together and stretched over the framework. There were great husky peasant-women doing the hardest kind of manual labor. In these latter days of the great world-war, women are doing everything, surely, with the one exception of fighting. It is not a pleasant thing to see them, however strong they may be, doing the rough, coarse work of men, bearing great burdens on their backs as though they were oxen. There must be many now whose muscles are as hard and whose hands as horny as those of a stevedore. Several months after this time, when we were transferred to another school of aviation, one of the largest in Europe, we saw women employed on a much larger scale. They lived in barracks which were no better than our own,—not so good, in fact,—and roughed it like common soldiers.
Toward evening the wind freshened and flying was brought to a halt. Then the Penguins were brought from their hangars, and Drew and I, properly dressed this time, and accompanied by some of the Americans, went out to the field for our first sortie. As is usual on such occasions, there was no dearth of advice. Every graduate of the Penguin class had a method of his own for keeping that unmanageable bird traveling in a direct line, and every one was only too willing to give us the benefit of his experience. Finally, out of the welter of suggestions, one or two points became clear: it was important that one should give the machine full gas, and get the tail off the ground. Then, by skillful handling of the rudder, it might be kept traveling in the same general direction. But if, as usually happened, it showed willful tendencies, and started to turn within its own length, it was necessary to cut the contact, to prevent it from whirling so rapidly as to overturn.
Never have I seen a stranger sight than that of a swarm of Penguins at work. They looked like a brood of prehistoric birds of enormous size, with wings too short for flight. Most unwieldy birds they were, driven by, or more accurately, driving beginners in the art of flying; but they ran along the ground at an amazing speed, zigzagged this way and that, and whirled about as if trying to catch their own tails. As we stood watching them, an accident occurred which would have been laughable had we not been too nervous to enjoy it. In a distant part of the field two machines were rushing wildly about. There were acres of room in which they might pass, but after a moment of uncertainty, they rushed headlong for each other as though driven by the hand of fate, and met head-on, with a great rending of propellers. The onlookers along the side of the field howled and pounded each other in an ecstasy of delight, but Drew and I walked apart for a hasty consultation, for it was our turn next. We kept rehearsing the points which we were to remember in driving a Penguin: full gas and tail up at once. Through the interpreter, our moniteur explained very carefully what we were to do, and mounted the step, to show us, in turn, the proper handling of the gas manet and of the coupe-contact button. Then he stepped down and shouted, "Allez! en route!" with a smile meant to be reassuring.
I buckled myself in, fastened my helmet, and nodded to my mechanic.
"Coupe, plein gaz," he said.
"Coupe, plein gaz," I repeated.
He gave the propeller a few spins to suck in the mixture.
Again he spun the propeller, and the motor took. I pulled back my manet, full gas, and off I went at what seemed to me then breakneck speed. Remembering instructions, I pushed forward on the lever which governs the elevating planes, and up went my tail so quickly and at such an angle that almost instinctively I cut off my contact. Down dropped my tail again, and I whirled round in a circle—my first cheval de bois, as this absurd-looking manoeuvre is called. I had forgotten that I had a rudder. I was like a man learning to swim, and could not yet cooerdinate the movements of my hands and feet. My bird was purring gently, with the propeller turning slowly. It seemed thoroughly domesticated, but I knew that I had but to pull back on that manet to transform it into a rampant bird of prey. Before starting again I looked about me, and there was Drew racing all over the field. Suddenly he started in my direction as if the whole force of his will was turned to the business of running me down. Luckily he shut off his motor, and by the grace of the law of inertia came to a halt when he was within a dozen paces of me.
We turned our machines tail to tail and started off in opposite directions, but in a moment I was following hard after him. Almost it seemed that those evil birds had wills of their own. Drew's turned as though it were angry at the indignity of being pursued. We missed each other, but it was a near thing, and, not being able to think fast enough, I stalled my motor, and had to await helplessly the assistance of a mechanic. Far away, at our starting-point, I could see the Americans waving their arms and embracing each other in huge delight, and then I realized why they had all been so eager to come with us to the field. They had been through all this. Now they were having their innings. I could hear them shouting, although their voices sounded very thin and faint. "Why don't you come back?" they yelled. "This way! Here we are! Here's your class!" They were having the time of their vindictive lives, and knew very well that we would go back if we could.
Finally we began to get the hang of it, and we did go back, although by circuitous routes. But we got there, and the moniteur explained again what we were to do. We were to anticipate the turn of the machine with the rudder, just as in sailing a boat. Then we understood the difficulty. In my next sortie, I fixed my eye upon the flag at the opposite side of the field, and reached it without a single cheval de bois. I could have kissed the Annamite who was stationed there to turn the machines which rarely came. I had mastered the Penguin! I had forced my will upon it, compelled it to do my bidding! Back across the field I went, keeping a direct course, and thinking how they were all watching, the moniteur, doubtless, making approving comments. I reduced the gas at the proper time, and taxied triumphantly up to the starting-point.
But no one had seen my splendid sortie. Now that I had arrived, no one paid the least attention to me. All eyes were turned upward, and following them with my own, I saw an airplane outlined against a heaped-up pile of snow-white cloud. It was moving at tremendous speed, when suddenly it darted straight upward, wavered for a second or two, turned slowly on one wing and fell, nose-down, turning round and round as it fell, like a scrap of paper. It was the vrille, the prettiest piece of aerial acrobatics that one could wish to see. It was a wonderful, an incredible sight. Only seven years ago Bleriot crossed the English Channel, and a year earlier the world was astonished at the exploits of the Wright brothers, who were making flights, straight-line flights, of from fifteen to twenty minutes' duration!
Some one was counting the turns of the vrille. Six, seven, eight; then the airman came out of it on an even keel, and, nosing down to gather speed, looped twice in quick succession. Afterward he did the retournement, turning completely over in the air and going back in the opposite direction; then spiraled down and passed over our heads at about fifty metres, landing at the opposite side of the field so beautifully that it was impossible to know when the machine touched the ground. The airman taxied back to the hangars and stopped just in front of us, while we gathered round to hear the latest news from the front.
For he had left the front, this birdman, only an hour before! I was incredulous at first, for I still thought of distances in the old way. But I was soon convinced. Mounted on the hood was the competent-looking Vickers machine gun, with a long belt of cartridges in place, and on the side of the fuselage were painted the insignia of an escadrille.
The pilot was recognized as soon as he removed his helmet and goggles. He had been a moniteur at the school in former days, and was well known to some of the older Americans. He greeted us all very cordially, in excellent English, and told us how, on the strength of a hard morning's work over the lines, he had asked his captain for an afternoon off that he might visit his old friends at B——.
As soon as he had climbed down, those of us who had never before seen this latest type of French avion de chasse, crowded round, examining and admiring with feelings of awe and reverence. It was a marvelous piece of aero-craftsmanship, the result of more than two years of accumulating experience in military aviation. It was hard to think of it as an inanimate thing, once having seen it in the air. It seemed living, intelligent, almost human. I could readily understand how it is that airmen become attached to their machines and speak of their fine points, their little peculiarities of individuality, with a kind of loving interest, as one might speak of a fine-spirited horse.
While the mechanicians were grooming this one, and replenishing the fuel-tanks, Drew and I examined it line by line, talking in low tones which seemed fitting in so splendid a presence. We climbed the step and looked down into the compact little car, where the pilot sat in a luxuriously upholstered seat. There were his compass, his altimetre, his revolution-counter, his map in its roller case, with a course pricked out on it in a red line. Attached to the machine gun, there was an ingenious contrivance by means of which he fired it while still keeping a steady hand on his controls. The gun itself was fired directly through the propeller by means of a device which timed the shots. The necessity for accuracy in this timing device is clear, when one remembers that the propeller turns over at a normal rate of between fifteen hundred and nineteen hundred revolutions per minute.
It was with a chastened spirit that I looked from this splendid fighting 'plane, back to my little three-cylinder Penguin, with its absurd clipped wings and its impudent tail. A moment ago it had seemed a thing of speed, and the mastery of it a glorious achievement. I told Drew what my feeling was as I came racing back to the starting-point, and how brief my moment of triumph had been. He answered me at first in grunts and nods, so that I knew he was not listening. Presently he began to talk about romance again, the "romance of high adventure," as he called it. "All this"—moving his arm in a wide gesture—was but an evidence of man's unconquerable craving for romance. War itself was a manifestation of it, gave it scope, relieved the pent-up longings for it which could not find sufficient outlet in times of peace. Romance would always be one of the minor, and sometimes one of the major causes for war, indirectly of course, but none the less really; for the craving for it was one reason why millions of men so readily accepted war at the hands of the little groups of diplomats who ruled their destinies.
Half an hour later, as we stood watching the little biplane again climbing into the evening sky, I understood, in a way, what he was driving at, and with what keen anticipation he was looking forward to the time when we too would know all that there was to know of the joy of flight. Higher and higher it mounted, now and then catching the sun on its silver wings in a flash of light, growing smaller and smaller, until it vanished in a golden haze, far to the north. It was then four o'clock. In an hour's time the pilot would be circling down over his aerodrome on the Champagne front.
BY THE ROUTE OF THE AIR
The winter of 1916-17 was the most prolonged and bitter that France has known in many years. It was a trying period to the little group of Americans assembled at the Ecole Militaire d'Aviation, eager as they were to complete their training, and to be ready, when spring should come, to share in the great offensive, which they knew would then take place on the Western front. Aviation is a waiting game at the best of seasons. In winter it is a series of seemingly endless delays. Day after day, the plain on the high plateau overlooking the old city of V—— was storm-swept, a forlorn and desolate place as we looked at it from our windows, watching the flocks of crows as they beat up against the wind, or as they turned, and were swept with it, over our barracks, crying and calling derisively to us as they passed.
"Birdmen do you call yourselves?" they seemed to say. "Then come on up; the weather's fine!"
Well they knew that we were impostors, fair-weather fliers, who dared not accept their challenge.
It is strange how vague and shadowy my remembrance is of those long weeks of inactivity, when we were dependent for employment and amusement on our own devices. To me there was a quality of unreality about our life at B——. Our environment was, no doubt, partly responsible for this feeling. Although we were not far distant from Paris,—less than an hour by train,—the country round about our camp seemed to be quite cut off from the rest of the world. With the exception of our Sunday afternoons of leave, when we joined the boulevardiers in town, we lived a life as remote and cloistered as that of some brotherhood of monks in an inaccessible monastery. That is how it appeared to me, although here again I am in danger of making it seem that my own impressions were those of all the others. This of course was not true. The spirit of the place appealed to us, individually, in widely different ways, and upon some, perhaps, it had no effect at all.
Sometimes we spent our winter afternoons of enforced leisure in long walks through country roads which lay empty to the eye for miles. They gave one a sense of loneliness which colored thought, not in any sentimental way, but in a manner very natural and real. The war was always in the background of one's musings, and while we were far removed from actual contact with it, every depopulated country village brought to mind the sacrifice which France has made for the cause of all freedom-loving nations. Every roadside cafe, long barren of its old patronage, was an evidence of the completeness of the sacrifice. Americans, for the most part, are of an unconquerably healthy cast of mind; but there were few of us who could frequent these places light-heartedly.
Paris was our emotional storehouse, to use Kipling's term, during the time we were at B——. We spent our Sunday afternoons there, mingling with the crowds on the boulevards, or, in pleasant weather, sitting outside the cafes, watching the soldiers of the world go by. The streets were filled with permissionnaires from all parts of the Western front, and there were many of those despised of all the rest, the embusques, as they are called, who hold the comfortable billets in safe places well back of the lines. It was very easy to distinguish them from the men newly arrived from the trenches, in whose eyes one saw the look of wonder, almost of unbelief, that there was still a goodly world to be enjoyed. It was often beyond the pathetic to see them trying to satisfy their need for all the wholesome things of life in a brief seven days of leave; to see the family parties at the modest restaurants on the side streets, making merry in a kind of forced way, as if every one were thinking of the brevity of the time for such enjoyment.
Scarcely a week went by without bringing one or two additional recruits to the Franco-American Corps. We wondered why they came so slowly. There must have been thousands of Americans who would have been, not only willing, but glad to join us; and yet the opportunities for doing so had been made widely known. For those who did come this was the legitimate by-product of glorious adventure and a training in aviation not to be surpassed in Europe. This was to be had by any healthy young American, almost for the asking; but our numbers increased very gradually, from fifteen to twenty-five, until by the spring of 1917 there were fifty of us at the various aviation schools of France. Territorially we represented at least a dozen states, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There were rich men's sons and poor men's sons among our number; the sons of very old families, and those who neither knew nor cared what their antecedents were.
The same was true of our French comrades, for membership in the French air service is not based upon wealth or family position or political influence. The policy of the Government is as broad and democratic as may be. Men are chosen because of an aptitude that promises well, or as a reward for distinguished service at the front. A few of the French eleves-pilotes had been officers, but most of them N.C.O.'s and private soldiers in infantry or artillery regiments. This very wide latitude in choice at first seemed "laxitude" to some of us Americans. But evidently, experience in training war pilots, and the practical results obtained by these men at the front, have been proof enough to the French authorities of the folly of setting rigid standards, making hard-and-fast rules to be met by prospective aviators. As our own experience increased, we saw the wisdom of a policy which is more concerned with a man's courage, his self-reliance, and his powers of initiative, than with his ability to work out theoretical problems in aerodynamics.
There are many French pilots with excellent records of achievement in war-flying who have but a sketchy knowledge of motor and aircraft construction. Some are college-bred men, but many more have only a common-school education. It is not at all strange that this should be the case, for one may have had no technical training worth mentioning; one may have only a casual speaking acquaintance with motors, and a very imperfect idea of why and how one is able to defy the law of gravity, and yet prove his worth as a pilot in what is, after all, the best possible way—by his record at the front.
A judicious amount of theoretical instruction is, of course, not wanting in the aviation schools of France; but its importance is not exaggerated. We Americans, with our imperfect knowledge of the language, lost the greater part of this. The handicap was not a serious one, and I think I may truthfully say that we kept pace with our French comrades. The most important thing was to gain actual flying experience, and as much of it as possible. Only in this way can one acquire a sensitive ear for motors, and an accurate sense of flying speed: the feel of one's machine in the air. These are of the greatest importance. Once the pilot has developed this airman's sixth sense, he need not, and never does, worry about the scantiness of his knowledge of the theory of flight.
Sometimes the winds would die away and the thick clouds lift, and we would go joyously to work on a morning of crisp, bright winter weather. Then we had moments of glorious revenge upon the crows. They would watch us from afar, holding noisy indignation meetings in a row of weather-beaten trees at the far side of the field. And when some inexperienced pilot lost control of his machine and came crashing to earth, they would take the air in a body, circling over the wreckage, cawing and jeering with the most evident delight. "The Oriental Wrecking Company," as the Annamites were called, were on the scene almost as quickly as our enemies the crows. They were a familiar sight on every working day, chattering together in their high-pitched gutturals, as they hauled away the wrecked machines. They appeared to side with the birds, and must have thought us the most absurd of men, making wings for ourselves, and always coming to grief when we tried to use them.
We made progress regardless of all this skepticism. It was necessarily slow, for beginners at a single-command monoplane school are permitted to fly only under the most favorable weather conditions. Even then, old Mother Earth, who is not kindly disposed toward those of her children who leave her so jauntily, would clutch us back to her bosom, whenever we gave her the slightest opportunity, with an embrace that was anything but tender. We were inclined to think rather highly of our own courage in defying her; and sometimes our vanity was increased by our moniteurs. After an exciting misadventure they often gave expression to their relief at finding an amateur pilot still whole, by praising his "presence of mind" in too generous French fashion.
We should not have been so proud, I think, of our own little exploits, had we remembered those of the pioneers in aviation, so many of whom lost their lives in experiment with the first crude types of the heavier-than-air machines. They were pioneers in the fine and splendid meaning of the word—men to be compared in spirit with the old fifteenth-century navigators. We were but followers, adventuring, in comparative safety, along a well-defined trail.
This, at any rate, was Drew's opinion. He would never allow me the pleasure of indulging in any flights of fancy over these trivial adventures of ours. He would never let me set them off against "the heroic background" of Paris. As for Paris, we saw nothing of war there, he would say, except the lighter side, the homecoming, leave-enjoying side. We needed to know more of the horror and the tragedy of it. We needed to keep that close and intimate to us as a right perspective for our future adventures. He believed it to be our duty as aviators to anticipate every kind of experience which we might have to meet at the front. His imagination was abnormally vivid. Once he discussed the possibility of "falling in flames," which is so often the end of an airman's career. I shall never again be able to take the same whole-hearted delight in flying that I did before he was so horribly eloquent upon the subject. He often speculated upon one's emotions in falling in a machine damaged beyond the possibility of control.
"Now try to imagine it," he would say: "your gasoline tanks have been punctured and half of your fuselage has been shot away. You believe that there is not the slightest chance for you to save your life. What are you going to do—lose your head and give up the game? No, you've got to attempt the impossible"; and so on, and so forth.
I would accuse him of being morbid. Furthermore, I saw no reason why we should plan for terrible emergencies which might never arrive. His answer was that we were military pilots in training for combat machines. We had no right to ignore the grimness of the business ahead of us. If we did, so much the worse for us when we should go to the front. But beyond this practical interest, he had a great curiosity about the nature of fear, and a great dread of it, too. He was afraid that in some last adventure, in which death came slowly enough for him to recognize it, he might die like a terror-stricken animal, and not bravely, as a man should.
We did not often discuss these gruesome possibilities, although this was not Drew's fault. I would not listen to him; and so he would be silent about them until convinced that the furtherance of our careers as airmen demanded additional unpleasant imaginings. There was something of the Hindoo fanatic in him; or perhaps it was the outcropping of the stern spirit of his New England forbears. But when he talked of the pleasant side of the adventures before us, it was more than compensation for all the rest. Then he would make me restless and impatient, for I did not have his faculty of enjoyment in anticipation. The early period of training, when we were flying only a few metres above the ground, seemed endless.
At last came the event which really marked the beginning of our careers as airmen: the first tour de piste, the first flight round the aerodrome. We had talked of this for weeks, but when at last the day for it came, our enthusiasm had waned. We were eager to try our wings and yet afraid to make the start.
This first tour de piste was always the occasion for a gathering of the Americans, and there was the usual assembly present. The beginners were there to shiver in anticipation of their own forthcoming trials, and the more advanced pilots, who had already taken the leap, to offer gratuitous advice.
"Now don't try to pull any big league stuff. Not too much rudder on the turns. Remember how that Frenchman piled up on the Farman hangars when he tried to bank the corners."
"You'll find it pretty rotten when you go over the woods. The air currents there are something scandalous!"
"Believe me, it's a lot worse over the fort. Rough? Oh, la la!"
"And that's where you have to cut your motor and dive, if you're going to make a landing without hanging up in the telephone wires."
"When you do come down, don't be afraid to stick her nose forward. Scare the life out of you, that drop will, but you may as well get used to it in the beginning."
"But wait till we see them redress! Where's the Oriental Wrecking Gang?"
"Don't let that worry you, Drew: pan-caking isn't too bad. Not in a Bleriot. Just like falling through a shingle roof. Can't hurt yourself much."
"If you do spill, make it a good one. There hasn't been a decent smash-up to-day."
These were the usual comforting assurances. They did not frighten us much, although there was just enough truth in the warnings to make us uneasy. We took our hazing as well as we could inwardly, and of course with imperturbable calm outwardly; but, to make a confession, I was somewhat reluctant to hear the businesslike "Allez! en route!" of our moniteur.
When it came, I taxied across to the other side of the field, turned into the wind, and came racing back, full motor. It seemed a thing of tremendous power, that little forty-five-horsepower Anzani. The roar of it struck awe into my soul, and I gripped the controls in no very professional manner. Then, when I had gathered full ground speed, I eased her off gently, and up we went, over the class and the assembled visitors, above the hangars, the lake, the forest, until, at the halfway point, my altimetre registered three hundred and fifty metres. Out of the corner of my eye I saw all the beautiful countryside spread out beneath me, but I was too busily occupied to take in the prospect. I was watching my wings, nervously, in order to anticipate and counteract the slightest pitch of the machine. But nothing happened, and I soon realized that this first grand tour was not going to be nearly so bad as we had been led to believe. I began to enjoy it. I even looked down over the side of the fuselage, although it was a very hasty glance.
All the time I was thinking of the rapidly approaching moment when I should have to come down. I knew well enough how the descent was to be made. It was very simple. I had only to shut off my motor, push forward with my "broom-stick,"—the control connected with the elevating planes,—and then wait and redress gradually, beginning at from six to eight metres from the ground. The descent would be exciting, a little more rapid than Shooting the Chutes. Only one could not safely hold on to the sides of the car and await the splash. That sort of thing had sometimes been done in aeroplanes, by over-excited pilots. The results were disastrous, without exception.
The moment for the decision came. I was above the fort, otherwise I should not have known when to dive. At first the sensation was, I imagine, exactly that of falling, feet foremost; but after pulling back slightly on the controls, I felt the machine answer to them, and the uncomfortable feeling passed. I brought up on the ground in the usual bumpy manner of the beginner. Nothing gave way, however, so this did not spoil the fine rapture of a rare moment. It was shared—at least it was pleasant to think so—by my old Annamite friend of the Penguin experience, who stood by his flag nodding his head at me. He said, "Beaucoup bon," showing his polished black teeth in an approving grin. I forgot for the moment that "beaucoup bon" was his enigmatical comment upon all occasions, and that he would have grinned just as broadly had he been dragging me out from a mass of wreckage.
Drew came in a few moments later, making an almost perfect landing. In the evening we walked to a neighboring village, where we had a wonderful dinner to celebrate the end of our apprenticeship. It was a curious feast. We had little to say to one another, or, better, we were both afraid to talk. We were under an enchantment which words would have broken. After a silent meal, we walked all the way home without speaking.
We started off together on our triangles. That was in April, just passed, so that I have now brought this casual diary almost up to date. We were then at the great school of aviation at A—— in central France, where, for the first time, we were associated with men in training for every branch of aviation service, and became familiar with other types of French machines. But the brevet tests, which every pilot must pass before he becomes a military aviator, were the same in every department of the school. The triangles were two cross-country flights of two hundred kilometres each, three landings to be made en route, and each flight to be completed within forty-eight hours. In addition, there were two short voyages of sixty kilometres each—these preceded the triangular tests—and an hour of flight at a minimum altitude of sixty-five hundred feet.
The short voyages gave us a delightful foretaste of what was to come. We did them both one afternoon, and were at the hangars at five o'clock on the following morning, ready to make an early start. A fresh wind was blowing from the northeast, but the brevet moniteur, who went up for a short flight to try the air, came back with the information that it was quite calm at twenty-five hundred feet. We might start, he said, as soon as we liked.
Drew, in his joy, embraced the old woman who kept a coffee-stall at the hangars, while I danced a one-step with a mechanician. Neither of them was surprised at this procedure. They were accustomed to such emotional outbursts on the part of aviators who, by the very nature of their calling, were always in the depths of despair or on the farthest jutting peak of some mountain of delight. Our departure had been delayed, day after day, for more than a week, because of the weather. We were so eager to start that we would willingly have gone off in a blizzard.
During the week of waiting we had studied our map until we knew the location of every important road and railroad, every forest, river, canal, and creek within a radius of one hundred kilometres. We studied it at close range, on a table, and then on the floor, with the compass-points properly orientated, so that we might see all the important landmarks with the birdman's eye. We knew our course so well, that there seemed no possibility of our losing direction.
Our military papers had been given us several days before. Among these was an official-looking document to be presented to the mayor of any town or village near which we might be compelled to land. It contained an extract from the law concerning aviators, and the duty toward them of the civilian and military authorities. In another was an itemized list of the amounts which might be exacted by farmers for damage to growing crops: so much for an atterrissage in a field of sugar-beets, so much for wheat, etc. Besides these, we had a book of detailed instructions as to our duty in case of emergencies of every conceivable kind—among others, the course of action to be followed if we should be compelled to land in an enemy country. At first sight this seemed an unnecessary precaution; but we remembered the experience of one of our French comrades at B——, who started confidently off on his first cross-country flight. He lost his way and did not realize how far astray he had gone until he found himself under fire from German anti-aircraft batteries on the Belgian front.
The most interesting paper of all was our Ordre de Service, the text of which was as follows:
It is commanded that the bearer of this Order report himself at the cities of C—— and R——, by the route of the air, flying an avion Caudron, and leaving the Ecole Militaire d'Aviation at A—— on the 21st of April, 1917, without passenger on board.
Signed, LE CAPITAINE B—— Commandant de l'Ecole.
We read this with feelings which must have been nearly akin to those of Columbus on a memorable day in 1492 when he received his clearance papers from Cadiz. "By the route of the air!" How the imagination lingered over that phrase! We had the better of Columbus there, although we had to admit that there was more glamour in the hazard of his adventure and the uncertainty of his destination.
Drew was ready first. I helped him into his fur-lined combination and strapped him to his seat. A moment later he was off. I watched him as he gathered height over the aerodrome. Then, finding that his motor was running satisfactorily, he struck out in an easterly direction, his machine growing smaller and smaller until it vanished in the early morning haze. I followed immediately afterward, and had a busy ten minutes, being buffeted this way and that, until, as the brevet moniteur had foretold, I reached quiet air at twenty-five hundred feet.
This was my first experience in passing from one air current to another. It was a unique one, for I was still a little incredulous. I had not entirely lost my old boyhood belief that the wind went all the way up.
I passed over the old cathedral town of B——at fifteen hundred metres. Many a pleasant afternoon had we spent there, walking through its narrow, crooked streets, or lounging on the banks of the canal. The cathedral too was a favorite haunt. I loved the fine spaciousness of it. Looking down on it now, it seemed no larger than a toy cathedral in a toy town, such as one sees in the shops of Paris. The streets were empty, for it was not yet seven o'clock. Strips of shadow crossed them where taller roofs cut off the sunshine. A toy train, which I could have put nicely into my fountain-pen case, was pulling into a station no larger than a wren's house. The Greeks called their gods "derisive." No doubt they realized how small they looked to them, and how insignificant this little world of affairs must have appeared from high Olympus.
There was a road, a fine straight thoroughfare converging from the left. It led almost due southwest. This was my route to C——. I followed it, climbing steadily until I was at two thousand metres. I had never flown so high before. "Over a mile!" I thought. It seemed a tremendous altitude. I could see scores of villages and fine old chateaux, and great stretches of forest, and miles upon miles of open country in checkered patterns, just beginning to show the first fresh green of the early spring crops. It looked like a world planned and laid out by the best of Santa Clauses for the eternal delight of all good children. And for untold generations only the birds have had the privilege of seeing and enjoying it from the wing. Small wonder that they sing. As for non-musical birds—well, they all sing after a fashion, and there is no doubt that crows, at least, are extremely jealous of their prerogative of flight.
My biplane was flying itself. I had nothing to do other than to give occasional attention to the revolution counter, altimetre, and speed-dial. The motor was running with perfect regularity. The propeller was turning over at twelve hundred revolutions per minute without the slightest fluctuation. Flying is the simplest thing in the world, I thought. Why doesn't every one travel by route of the air? If people knew the joy of it, the exhilaration of it, aviation schools would be overwhelmed with applicants. Biplanes of the Farman and Voisin type would make excellent family cars, quite safe for women to drive. Mothers, busy with household affairs, could tell their children to "run out and fly" a Caudron such as I was driving, and feel not the slightest anxiety about them. I remembered an imaginative drawing I had once seen of aerial activity in 1950. Even house pets were granted the privilege of traveling by the air route. The artist was not far wrong except in his date. He should have put it at 1925. On a fine April morning there seemed no limit to the realization of such interesting possibilities.
I had no more than started on my southwest course, as it seemed to me, when I saw the spires and the red-roofed houses of C——, and, a kilometre or so from the outskirts, the barracks and hangars of the aviation school where I was to make the first landing. I reduced the gas, and, with the motor purring gently, began a long, gradual descent. It was interesting to watch the change in the appearance of the country beneath me as I lost height. Checkerboard patterns of brown and green grew larger and larger. Shining threads of silver became rivers and canals, tiny green shrubs became trees, individual aspects of houses emerged. Soon I could see people going about the streets and laundry-maids hanging out the family washing in the back gardens. I even came low enough to witness a minor household tragedy—a mother vigorously spanking a small boy. Hearing the whir of my motor, she stopped in the midst of the process, whereupon the youngster very naturally took advantage of his opportunity to cut and run for it. Drew doubted my veracity when I told him about this. He called me an aerial eavesdropper and said that I ought to be ashamed to go buzzing over towns at such low altitudes, frightening housemaids, disorganizing domestic penal institutions, and generally disturbing the privacy of respectable French citizens. But I was unrepentant, for I knew that one small boy in France was thinking of me with joy. To have escaped maternal justice with the assistance of an aviator would be an event of glorious memory to him. How vastly more worth while such a method of escape, and how jubilant Tom Sawyer would have been over such an opportunity when his horrified warning, "Look behind you, aunt!" had lost efficacy.
Drew had been waiting a quarter of an hour, and came rushing out to meet me as I taxied across the field. We shook hands as though we had not seen each other for years. We could not have been more surprised and delighted if we had met on another planet after long and hopeless wanderings in space.
While I superintended the replenishing of my fuel and oil tanks he walked excitedly up and down in front of the hangars. He was an odd-looking sight in his flying clothes, with a pair of Meyrowitz goggles set back on his head, like another set of eyes, gazing at the sky with an air of wide astonishment. He paid no attention to my critical comments, but started thinking aloud as soon as I rejoined him.
"It was lonely! Yes, by Jove! that was it. A glorious thing, one's isolation up there; but it was too profound to be pleasant. A relief to get down again, to hear people talk, to feel the solid earth under one's feet. How did it impress you?"
This was like Drew. I felt ashamed of the lightness of my own thoughts, but I had to tell him of my speculations upon after-the-war developments in aviation: nurses flying Voisins, with the cars filled with babies; old men having after-dinner naps in twenty-three-metre Nieuports, fitted, for safety, with Sperry gyroscopes; family parties taking comfortable outings in gigantic biplanes of the R-6 type; mothers, as of old, gazing apprehensively at speed-dials, cautioning fathers about "driving too fast," and all of the rest.
Drew looked at me reprovingly, to be sure, but he felt the need, just as I did, of an outlet to his feelings, and so he turned to this kind of comic relief with the most delightful reluctance. He quickly lost his reserve, and in the imaginative spree which followed we went far beyond the last outposts of absurdity. We laughed over our own wit until our faces were tired. However, I will not be explicit about our folly. It might not be so amusing from a critical point of view.
After our papers have been viseed at the office of the commandant, we hurried back to our machines, eager to be away again. We were to make our second landing at R——. It was about seventy kilometres distant and almost due north. The mere name of the town was an invitation. Somewhere, in one of the novels of William J. Locke, may be found this bit of dialogue:—
"But, master," said I, "there is, after all, color in words. Don't you remember how delighted you were with the name of a little town we passed through on the way to Orleans? R——? You were haunted by it and said it was like the purple note of an organ."
We were haunted by it, too, for we were going to that very town. We would see it long before our arrival—a cluster of quaint old houses lying in the midst of pleasant fields, with roads curving toward it from the north and south, as though they were glad to pass through so delightful a place. Drew was for taking a leisurely route to the eastward, so that we might look at some villages which lay some distance off our course. I wanted to fly by compass in a direct line, without following my map very closely. We had planned to fly together, and were the more eager to do this because of an argument we had had about the relative speed of our machines. He was certain that his was the faster. I knew that, with mine, I could fly circles around him. As we were not able to agree on the course, we decided to postpone the race until we started on the homeward journey. Therefore, after we had passed over the town, he waved his hand, bent off to the northeast, and was soon out of sight.
I kept straight on, climbing steadily, until I was again at five thousand feet. As before, my motor was running perfectly and I had plenty of leisure to enjoy the always new sensation of flight and to watch the wide expanse of magnificent country as it moved slowly past. I let my mind lie fallow, and every now and then I would find it hauling out fragments of old memories which I had forgotten that I possessed.
I recalled, for the first time in many years, my earliest interpretations of the meanings of all the phenomena of the heavens. Two old janitor saints had charge of the floor of the skies. One of them was a jolly old man who liked boys, and always kept the sky swept clean and blue. The other took a sour delight in shirking his duties, so that it might rain and spoil all our fun. Perhaps it was Drew's sense of loneliness and helplessness so far from earth, which made me think of winds and clouds in friendly human terms. However that may be, these reveries, hardly worthy of a military airman, were abruptly broken into.
All at once, I realized that, while my biplane was headed due north, I was drifting north and west. This seemed strange. I puzzled over it for some time, and then, brilliantly, in the manner of the novice, deduced the reason: wind. I was being blown off my course, all the while comfortably certain that I was flying in a direct line toward R——. Our moniteurs had often cautioned us against being comfortably certain about anything while in the air. It was our duty to be uncomfortably alert. Wind! I wonder how many times we had been told to keep it in mind at all times, whether on the ground or in the air? And here was I forgetting the existence of wind on the very first occasion. The speed of my machine and the current of air from the propeller had deceived me into thinking that I was driving dead into whatever breeze there was at that altitude. I discovered that it was blowing out of the east, therefore I headed a quarter into it, to overcome the drift, and looked for landmarks.
I had not long to search. Wisps of mist obstructed the view, and within ten minutes a bank of solid cloud cut it off completely. I had only a vague notion of my location with reference to my course, but I could not persuade myself to come down just then. To be flying in the full splendor of bright April sunshine, knowing that all the earth was in shadow, gave me a feeling of exhilaration. For there is no sensation like that of flight, no isolation so complete as that of the airman who has above him only the blue sky, and below, a level floor of pure white cloud, stretching in an unbroken expanse toward every horizon. And so I kept my machine headed northeast, that I might regain the ground lost before I discovered the drift northwest. I had made a rough calculation of the time required to cover the seventy kilometres to R—— at the speed at which I was traveling. The rest I left to Chance, the godfather of all adventurers.
He took the initiative, as he so frequently does with aviators who, in moments of calm weather, are inclined to forget that they are still children of earth. The floor of dazzling white cloud was broken and tumbled into heaped-up masses which came drifting by at various altitudes. They were scattered at first and offered splendid opportunities for aerial steeplechasing. Then, almost before I was aware of it, they surrounded me on all sides. For a few minutes I avoided them by flying in curves and circles in rapidly vanishing pools of blue sky. I feared to take my first plunge into a cloud, for I knew, by report, what an alarming experience it is to the new pilot.
The wind was no longer blowing steadily out of the east. It came in gusts from all points of the compass. I made a hasty revision of my opinion as to the calm and tranquil joys of aviation, thinking what fools men are who willingly leave the good green earth and trust themselves to all the winds of heaven in a frail box of cloth-covered sticks.
The last clear space grew smaller and smaller. I searched for an outlet, but the clouds closed in and in a moment I was hopelessly lost in a blanket of cold drenching mist.
I could hardly see the outlines of my machine and had no idea of my position with reference to the earth. In the excitement of this new adventure I forgot the speed-dial, and it was not until I heard the air screaming through the wires that I remembered it. The indicator had leaped up fifty kilometres an hour above safety speed, and I realized that I must be traveling earthward at a terrific pace. The manner of the descent became clear at the same moment. As I rolled out of the cloud-bank, I saw the earth jauntily tilted up on one rim, looking like a gigantic enlargement of a page out of Peter Newell's "Slant Book." I expected to see dogs and dishpans, baby carriages and ash-barrels roll out of every house in France, and go clattering off into space.
AT G. D. E.
Somewhere to the north of Paris, in the zone des armees, there is a village, known to all aviators in the French service as G. D. E. It is the village through which pilots who have completed their training at the aviation schools pass on their way to the front; and it is here that I again take up this journal of aerial adventure.
We are in lodgings, Drew and I, at the Hotel de la Bonne Rencontre, which belies its name in the most villainous fashion. An inn at Rochester in the days of Henry the Fourth must have been a fair match for it, and yet there is something to commend it other than its convenience to the flying field. Since the early days of the Escadrille Lafayette, many Americans have lodged here while awaiting their orders for active service. As I write, J. B. is asleep in a bed which has done service for a long line of them. It is for this reason that he chose it, in preference to one in a much better state of repair which he might have had. And he has made plans for its purchase after the war. Madame Rodel is to keep careful record of all its American occupants, just as she has done in the past. She is pledged not to repair it beyond the bare necessity which its uses as a bed may require, an injunction which it was hardly necessary to lay upon her, judging by the other furniture in our apartment. Drew is not sentimental, but he sometimes carries sentiment to extremities which appear to me absurd.
When I attempt to define, even to myself, the charm of our adventures thus far, I find it impossible. How, then, make it real to others? To tell of aerial adventure one needs a new language, or, at least, a parcel of new adjectives, sparkling with bright and vivid meaning, as crisp and fresh as just-minted bank-notes. They should have no taint of flatness or insipidity. They should show not the faintest trace of wear. With them, one might hope, now and then, to startle the imagination, to set it running in channels which are strange and delightful to it. For there is something new under the sun: aerial adventure; and the most lively and unjaded fancy may, at first, need direction toward the realization of this fact. Soon it will have a literature of its own, of prose and poetry, of fiction, biography, memoirs, of history which will read like the romance it really is. The essayists will turn to it with joy. And the poets will discover new aspects of beauty which have been hidden from them through the ages; and as men's experience "in the wide fields of air" increases, epic material which will tax their most splendid powers.
This brings me sadly back to my own purpose, which is, despite many wistful longings of a more ambitious nature, to write a plain tale of the adventures of two members—prospective up to this point—of the Escadrille Lafayette. To go back to some of those earlier ones, when we were making our first cross-country flights, I remember them now with a delight which, at the time, was not unmixed with other emotions. Indeed, an aviator, and a fledgling aviator in particular, often runs the whole gamut of human feeling during a single flight. I did in the course of half an hour, reaching the high C of acute panic as I came tumbling out of the first cloud of my aerial experience. Fortunately, in the air the sense of equilibrium usually compels one to do the right thing, and so, after some desperate handling of my "broom-stick," as the control is called which governs ailerons and elevating planes, I soon had the horizons nicely adjusted again. What a relief it was! I shut down my motor and commenced a more gradual descent, for I was lost, of course, and it seemed wiser to land and make inquiries than to go cruising over half of France looking for one among hundreds of picturesque old towns. There were at least a dozen within view. Some of them were at least a three hours' walk distant from each other. But in the air! I was free to go whither I would, and swiftly.
After leisurely deliberation I selected one surrounded by wide fields which appeared to be as level as a floor. But as I descended the landscape widened, billowing into hills and folding into valleys. By sheer good luck, nothing more, I made a landing without accident. My Caudron barely missed colliding with a hedge of fruit trees, rolled down a long incline, and stopped not ten feet short of a small stream. The experience taught me the folly of choosing landing-ground from high altitudes. I needn't have landed, of course, but I was then so much an amateur that the buffeting of cross-currents of air near the ground awed me into it, come what might. The village was out of sight over the crest of the hill. However, thinking that some one must have seen me, I decided to await developments where I was.
Very soon I heard a shrill, jubilant shout. A boy of eight or ten years was running along the ridge as fast as he could go. Outlined against the sky, he reminded me of silhouettes I had seen in Paris shops, of children dancing, the very embodiment of joy in movement. He turned and waved to some one behind, whom I could not see, then came on again, stopping a short distance away, and looking at me with an air of awe, which, having been a small boy myself, I was able to understand and appreciate. I said, "Bonjour, mon petit," as cordially as I could, but he just stood there and gazed without saying a word. Then the others began to appear: scores of children, and old men as well, and women of all ages, some with babies in their arms, and young girls. The whole village came, I am sure. I was mightily impressed by the haleness of the old men and women, which one rarely sees in America. Some of them were evidently well over seventy, and yet, with one or two exceptions, they had sound limbs, clear eyes, and healthy complexions. As for the young girls, many of them were exceptionally pretty; and the children were sturdy youngsters, not the wan, thin-legged little creatures one sees in Paris. In fact, all of these people appeared to belong to a different race from that of the Parisians, to come from finer, more vigorous stock.
They were very curious, but equally courteous, and stood in a large circle around my machine, waiting for me to make my wishes known. For several minutes I pretended to be busy attending to dials and valves inside the car. While trying to screw my courage up to the point of making a verbless explanation of my difficulty, some one pushed through the crowd, and to my great relief began speaking to me. It was Monsieur the Mayor. As best I could, I explained that I had lost my way and had found it necessary to come down for the purpose of making inquiries. I knew that it was awful French, but hoped that it would be intelligible, in part at least. However, the Mayor understood not a word, and I knew by the curious expression in his eyes that he must be wondering from what weird province I hailed. After a moment's thought he said, "Vous etes Anglais, monsieur?" with a smile of very real pleasure. I said, "Non, monsieur, Americain."
That magic word! What potency it has in France, the more so at that time, perhaps, for America had placed herself definitely upon the side of the Allies only a short time before. I enjoyed that moment. I might have had the village for the asking. I willingly accepted the role of ambassador of the American people. Had it not been for the language barrier, I think I would have made a speech, for I felt the generous spirit of Uncle Sam prompting me to give those fathers and mothers, whose husbands and sons were at the front, the promise of our unqualified support. I wanted to tell them that we were with them now, not only in sympathy, but with all our resources in men and guns and ships and aircraft. I wanted to convince them of our new understanding of the significance of the war. Alas! this was impossible. Instead I gave each one of an army of small boys the privilege of sitting in the pilot's seat, and showed them how to manage the controls.