Cavalry of the Clouds by Alan Bott
INTRODUCTION. BY MAJOR-GENERAL W. S. BRANCKER
CAVALRY OF THE CLOUDS.
CHAPTER I. FLYING TO FRANCE
CHAPTER II. THE DAY'S WORK.
CHAPTER III. A SUMMER JOY-RIDE.
CHAPTER IV. SPYING OUT THE LAND.
CHAPTER V. THERE AND BACK.
CHAPTER VI. A CLOUD RECONNAISSANCE.
CHAPTER VII. ENDS AND ODDS.
CHAPTER VIII. THE DAILY ROUND.
LETTERS FROM THE SOMME.
I. LOOKING FOR TROUBLE.
II. “ONE OF OUR MACHINES IS MISSING.”
III. A BOMB RAID.
IV. SPYING BY SNAPSHOT.
V. THE ARCHIBALD FAMILY.
VI. BATTLES AND BULLETS.
VII. BACK IN BLIGHTY.
CAVALRY OF THE CLOUDS
CAPTAIN ALAN BOTT, M. C.
OF THE BRITISH ROYAL FLYING CORPS]
CAVALRY OF THE CLOUDS
(CAPT. ALAN BOTT, M.C.)
With an introduction by
MAJOR-GENERAL W. S. BRANCKER
(Deputy Director-General of Military Aëronautics)
GARDEN CITYNEW YORK
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE &COMPANY
Copyright, 1917, by
Doubleday, Page &Company
All rights reserved,
including that of translation into foreign languages,
including the Scandinavian
THE FALLEN OF UMPTY SQUADRON, R.F.C.
Of the part played by machines of war in this war of machinery the
wider public has but a vague knowledge. Least of all does it study the
specialised functions of army aircraft. Very many people show mild
interest in the daily reports of so many German aeroplanes destroyed,
so many driven down, so many of ours missing, and enraged interest in
the reports of bomb raids on British towns; but of aerial observation,
the main raison d'etre of flying at the front, they own to
As an extreme case of this haziness over matters aeronautic I will
quote the lay question, asked often and in all seriousness: Can an
aeroplane stand still in the air? Another surprising point of view is
illustrated by the home-on-leave experience of a pilot belonging to my
present squadron. His lunch companiona charming ladysaid she
supposed he lived mostly on cold food while in France.
Oh no, replied the pilot, it's much the same as yours, only
plainer and tougher.
Then you do come down for meals, deduced the lady. Only those who
have flown on active service can fully relish the comic savour of a
surmise that the Flying Corps in France remain in the air all day amid
all weathers, presumably picnicking, between flights, off sandwiches,
cold chicken, pork pies, and mineral waters.
These be far-fetched examples, but they serve to emphasise a general
misconception of the conditions under which the flying services carry
out their work at the big war. I hope that this my book, written for
the most part at odd moments during a few months of training in
England, will suggest to civilian readers a rough impression of such
conditions. To Flying Officers who honour me by comparing the
descriptions with their own experiences, I offer apology for whatever
they may regard as hot air, while submitting in excuse that the
narratives are founded on unexaggerated fact, as any one who served
with Umpty Squadron through the Battle of the Somme can bear witness.
I have expressed a hope that the chapters and letters will suggest a
rough impression of work done by R.F.C. pilots and observers in France.
A complete impression they could not suggest, any more than the work of
a Brigade-Major could be regarded as representative of that of the
General Staff. The Flying-Corps-in-the-Field is an organisation great
in numbers and varied in functions. Many separate duties are allotted
to it, and each separate squadron, according to its type of machine,
confines itself to two or three of these tasks.
The book, then, deals only with the squadron to which I belonged
last year, and it does not pretend to be descriptive of the Flying
Corps as a whole. Ours was a crack squadron in its day, and, as General
Brancker has mentioned in his Introduction, it held a melancholy record
in the number of its losses. Umpty's Squadron's casualties during
August, September, and October of 1916 still constitute a record for
the casualties of any one flying squadron during any three months since
the war began. Once eleven of our machines were posted as missing in
the space of two daysanother circumstance which has fortunately never
yet been equalled in R.F.C. history. It was a squadron that possessed
excellent pilots, excellent achievements, and the herewith testimonial
in a letter found on a captured German airman, with reference to the
machine of which we then had the Flying Corps monopoly: The
most-to-be-feared of British machines is the S.
Our duties were long reconnaissance, offensive patrols around German
air country, occasional escort for bombing craft, and occasional
photography. I have but touched upon other branches of army
aeronautics; though often, when we passed different types of machine, I
would compare their job to ours and wonder if it were more pleasant.
Thousands of feet below us, for example, were the artillery craft,
which darted backward and forward across the lines as from their height
of vantage they ranged and registered for the guns. On push days these
same buses were to be seen lower still, well within range of
machine-gun bullets from the ground, as they crawled and nosed over the
line of advance and kept intelligent contact between far-ahead
attacking infantry and the rear. Above the tangled network of enemy
defences roved the line photography machines, which provided the Staff
with accurate survey maps of the Boche defences. Parties of bombers
headed eastward, their lower wings laden with eggs for delivery at some
factory, aerodrome, headquarter, railway junction, or ammunition dump.
Dotted everywhere, singly or in formations of two, three, four, or six,
were those aristocrats of the air, the single-seater fighting scouts.
These were envied for their advantages. They were comparatively fast,
they could turn, climb, and stunt better and quicker than any
two-seater, and their petrol-tanks held barely enough for two hours, so
that their shows were soon completed. All these varied craft had their
separate functions, difficulties, and dangers. Two things only were
shared by all of usdodging Archie and striving to strafe the Air Hun.
Since those days flying conditions on the Western Front have been
much changed by the whirligig of aeronautical development. All things
considered, the flying officer is now given improved opportunities. Air
fighting has grown more intense, but the machines in use are capable of
much better performance. The latest word in single-seater scouts, which
I am now flying, can reach 22,000 feet with ease; and it has a maximum
climb greater by a third, and a level speed greater by a sixth, than
our best scout of last year. The good old one-and-a-half strutter (a
fine bus of its period), on which we used to drone our way around the
150-mile reconnaissance, has disappeared from active service. The
nerve-edging job of long reconnaissance is now done by more modern
two-seaters, high-powered, fast, and reliable, which can put up a fight
on equal terms with anything they are likely to meet. The
much-discussed B.E., after a three-year innings, has been replaced for
the most part by a better-defended and more satisfactory artillery bus.
The F.E. and de Haviland pushers have likewise become obsolete. The
scouts which we thought invincible last autumn are badly outclassed by
For the rest, the Flying Corps in France has grown enormously in
size and importance. The amount of work credited to each branch of it
has nearly doubled during the past yearreconnaissance, artillery
observation, photography, bombing, contact patrol, and, above all,
fighting. Air scraps have tended more and more to become battles
between large formations. But most significant is the rapid increase in
attacks by low-flying aeroplanes on ground personnel and materiel, a
branch which is certain to become an important factor in the winning of
And this whirlwind growth will continue. The world at large, as
distinct from the small world of aeronautics, does not realize that
aircraft will soon become predominant as a means of war, any more than
it reckons with the subsequent era of universal flight, when designers,
freed from the subordination of all factors to war requirements, will
give birth to machines safe as motor-cars or ships, and capable of
carrying heavy freights for long distances cheaply and quickly.
Speaking of an average pilot and a non-expert enthusiast, I do not
believe that even our organisers of victory are yet aware of the
tremendous part which aircraft can be made to take in the necessary
humbling of Germany.
Without taking into account the limitless reserve of American aerial
potentiality, it is clear that within a year the Allies will have at
their disposal many thousands of war aeroplanes. A proper apportionment
of such of them as can be spared for offensive purposes could secure
illimitable results. If for no other cause it would shorten the war by
its effect on civilian nerves. We remember the hysterical outburst of
rage occasioned by the losses consequent upon a daylight raid on London
of some fifteen machines, though the public had become inured to the
million military casualties since 1914. What, then, would be the effect
on German war-weariness if giant raids on fortified towns by a hundred
or so allied machines were of weekly occurrence? And what would be the
effect on our own public if giant raids on British towns were of weekly
occurrence? Let us make the most of our aerial chances, and so
forestall betrayal by war-weariness, civilian pacifism, self-centred
fools, and strange people.
From an army point of view the probable outcome of an extensive
aerial offensive would be still greater. Well-organised bomb raids on
German aerodromes during the night and early morning have several times
kept the sky clear of hostile aircraft during the day of an important
advance. If this be achieved with our present limited number of bombing
machines, much more will be possible when we have double or treble the
supply. Imagine the condition of a particular sector of the advanced
lines of communication if it were bombed every day by scores of
aeroplanes. Scarcely any movement would be possible until bad weather
made the attacks non-continuous; and few supply depôts in the chosen
area would afterwards remain serviceable. Infantry and artillery
dependent upon this district of approach from the rear would thus be
deprived of essential supplies.
Apart from extensive bombing, an air offensive of at least equal
value may happen in the form of machine-gun attacks from above. To-day
nothing seems to panic the Boche more than a sudden swoop by a
low-flying aeroplane, generous of bullets, as those of us who have
tried this game have noticed. No German trench, no emplacement, no
battery position, no line of transport is safe from the R.F.C. Vickers
and Lewis guns; and retaliation is difficult because of the speed and
erratic movement of the attacking aeroplane. Little imagination is
necessary to realise the damage, moral and material, which could be
inflicted on any selected part of the front if it were constantly
scoured by a few dozen of such guerilla raiders. No movement could take
place during the daytime, and nobody could remain in the open for
longer than a few minutes.
The seemingly far-fetched speculations above are commonplace enough
in the judgment of aeronautical people of far greater authority and
experience than I can claim. But they could only be brought to
materialisation by an abnormal supply of modern aeroplanes, especially
the chaser craft necessary to keep German machines from interference.
Given the workshop effort to provide this supply, French and British
pilots can be relied upon to make the most of it. I am convinced that
war flying will be organised as a means to victory; but as my opinion
is of small expert value I do not propose to discuss how it might be
done. This much, however, I will predict. When, in some nine months'
timeif the gods permita sequel to the present book appears, dealing
with this year's personal experiences above the scene of battle, the
aerial factor will be well on the way to the position of war
predominance to which it is destined.
INTRODUCTION. BY MAJOR-GENERAL W. S.
(DEPUTY DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF MILITARY AËRONAUTICS)
Every day adds something to the achievements of aviation, brings to
light yet another of its possibilities, or discloses more vividly its
inexhaustible funds of adventure and romance.
This volume, one of the first books about fighting in the air, is
written by a fighting airman. The author depicts the daily life of the
flying officer in France, simply and with perfect truth; indeed he
describes heroic deeds with such moderation and absence of exaggeration
that the reader will scarcely realise that these stories are part of
the annals of a squadron which for a time held a record in the
heaviness of its losses.
The importance of the aerial factor in the prosecution of the war
grows apace. The Royal Flying Corps, from being an undependable and
weakly assistant to the other arms, is now absolutely indispensable,
and has attained a position of almost predominant importance. If the
war goes on without decisive success being obtained by our armies on
the earth, it seems almost inevitable that we must depend on offensive
action in the air and from the air to bring us victory.
We in London have had some slight personal experience of what a very
weak and moderately prosecuted aerial offensive can accomplish. With
the progress of the past three years before us, it needs little
imagination to visualise the possibilities of such an offensive, even
in one year's time; and as each succeeding year adds to the power of
rival aerial fleets, the thought of war will become almost impossible.
War has been the making of aviation; let us hope that aviation will
be the destruction of war.
W. S. BRANCKER.
August 1, 1917.
CAVALRY OF THE CLOUDS.
CAVALRY OF THE CLOUDS
CHAPTER I. FLYING TO FRANCE
All units of the army have known it, the serio-comedy of waiting for
After months of training the twelvetieth battalion, battery, or
squadron is almost ready for a plunge into active service. Then comes,
from a source which cannot be trailed, a mysterious Date. The
orderly-room whispers: June the fifteenth; the senior officers'
quarters murmur: France on June the fifteenth; the mess echoes to the
tidings spread by the subaltern-who-knows: We're for it on June the
fifteenth, me lad; through the men's hutments the word is spread:
It's good-bye to this blinking hole on June the fifteenth; the Home
receives a letter and confides to other homes: Reginald's lot are
going to the war on June the fifteenth; finally, if we are to believe
Mr. William le Queux, the Military Intelligence Department of the
German Empire dockets a report: Das zwölfzigste Battalion (Batterie
oder Escadrille) geht am 15 Juni nach Frankreich.
June opens with an overhaul of officers and men. Last leave is
distributed, the doctor examines everybody by batches, backward
warriors are worried until they become expert, the sergeant-major
polishes his men on the grindstone of discipline, the C.O. indents for
a draft to complete establishment, an inspection is held by an awesome
general. Except for the mobilisation stores everything is complete by
But there is still no sign of the wanted stores on the Date, and
June 16 finds the unit still in the same blinking hole, wherever that
may be. The days drag on, and Date the second is placed on a pedestal.
Many thanks for an extra fortnight in England, says the
subaltern-who-knows; we're not going till June the twenty-seventh.
The adjutant, light duty, is replaced by an adjutant, general
service. Mobilisation stores begin to trickle into the quartermaster's
reservoir. But on June 27 the stores are far from ready, and July 6 is
miraged as the next Date. This time it looks like business. The war
equipment is completed, except for the identity discs.
On July 4 a large detachment departs, after twelve hours' notice, to
replace casualties in France. Those remaining in the now incomplete
unit grow wearily sarcastic. More last leave is granted. The camp is
given over to rumour. An orderly, delivering a message to the C.O.
(formerly stationed in India) at the latter's quarters, notes a light
cotton tunic and two sun-helmets. Sun-helmets? Ah, somewhere East, of
course. The men tell each other forthwith that their destination has
been changed to Mesopotamia.
A band of strangers report in place of the draft that went to
France, and in them the N.C.O.'s plant esprit de corps and the
fear of God. The missing identity discs arrive, and a fourth Date is
fixedJuly 21. And the dwellers in the blinking hole, having been
wolfed several times, are sceptical, and treat the latest report as a
My dear man, remarks the subaltern-who-knows, it's only some more
hot air. I never believed in the other dates, and I don't believe in
this. If there's one day of the three hundred and sixty-five when we
shan't go, it's July the twenty-first.
And at dawn on July 21 the battalion, battery, or squadron moves
unobtrusively to a port of embarkation for France.
Whereas in most branches of the army the foundation of this
scaffolding of postponement is indistinct except to the second-sighted
Staff, in the case of the Flying Corps it is definitely based on that
uncertain quantity, the supply of aeroplanes. The organisation of
personnel is not a difficult task, for all are highly trained
beforehand. The pilots have passed their tests and been decorated with
wings, and the mechanics have already learned their separate trades as
riggers, fitters, carpenters, sailmakers, and the like. The only
training necessary for the pilot is to fly as often as possible on the
type of bus he will use in France, and to benefit by the experience of
the flight-commanders, who as a rule have spent a hundred or two hours
over Archie and the enemy lines. As regards the mechanics, the quality
of their skilled work is tempered by the technical sergeant-major, who
knows most things about an aeroplane, and the quality of their
behaviour by the disciplinary sergeant-major, usually an ex-regular
with a lively talent for blasting.
The machines comprise a less straight-forward problem. The new
service squadron is probably formed to fly a recently adopted type of
aeroplane, of which the early production in quantities is hounded by
difficulty. The engine and its parts, the various sections of the
machine itself, the guns, the synchronising gear, all these are made in
separate factories, after standardisation, and must then be
co-ordinated before the craft is ready for its test. If the output of
any one part fall below what was expected, the whole is kept waiting;
and invariably the quantity or quality of output is at first below
expectation in some particular. Adding to the delays of supply others
due to the more urgent claims of squadrons at the front for machines to
replace those lost or damaged, it can easily be seen that a new
squadron will have a succession of Dates.
Even when the machines are ready, and the transport leaves with
stores, ground-officers, and mechanics, the period of postponement is
not ended. All being well, the pilots will fly their craft to France on
the day after their kit departs with the transport. But the day after
produces impossible weather, as do the five or six days that follow.
One takes advantage of each of these set-backs to pay a further
farewell visit to one's dearest or nearest, according to where the
squadron is stationed, until at the last the dearest or nearest says:
Good-bye. I do hope you'll have a safe trip to France to-morrow
morning. You'll come and see me again to-morrow evening, won't you?
At last a fine morning breaks the spell of dud weather, and the
pilots fly away; but lucky indeed is the squadron that reaches France
without delivering over part of its possessions to that aerial
highwayman the forced landing.
It was at an aerodrome forty minutes distant from London that we
patiently waited for flying orders. Less than the average delay was
expected, for two flights of the squadron were already on the Somme,
and we of the third flight were to join them immediately we received
our full complement of war machines. These, in those days, were to be
the latest word in fighting two-seaters of the period. Two practice
buses had been allotted to us, and on them the pilots were set to
perform landings, split-"air turns, and stunts likely to be useful in
a scrap. For the rest, we sorted ourselves out, which pilot was to fly
with which observer, and improved the machines' accessories.
An inspiration suggested to the flight-commander, who although an
ex-Civil Servant was a man of resource, that mirrors of polished steel,
as used on the handlebars of motor-cycles, to give warning of roadcraft
at the rear, might be valuable in an aeroplane. Forthwith he screwed
one to the sloping half-strut of his top center-section. The trial was
a great success, and we bought six such mirrors, an investment which
was to pay big dividends in many an air flight.
Next the flight-commander made up his mind to bridge the chasm of
difficult communication between pilot and observer. Formerly, in
two-seaters with the pilot's seat in front, a message could only be
delivered on a slip of paper or by shutting off the engine, so that
one's voice could be heard; the loss of time in each case being ill
afforded when Huns were near. An experiment with a wide speaking-tube,
similar to those through which a waiter in a Soho restaurant demands
côtelettes milanèses from an underground kitchen, had proved that
the engine's roar was too loud for distinct transmission by this means.
We made a mouthpiece and a sound-box earpiece, and tried them on tubes
of every make and thickness; but whenever the engine was at work the
words sounded indistinct as words sung in English Opera. One day a
speedometer behaved badly, and a mechanic was connecting a new length
of the rubber pitot-tubing along which the air is sucked from a wingtip
to operate the instrument. Struck with an idea, the pilot fitted
mouthpiece and earpiece to a stray piece of the tubing, and took to the
air with his observer. The pair conversed easily and pleasantly all the
way to 10,000 feet. The problem was solved, and ever afterwards pilot
and observer were able to warn and curse each other in mid-air without
waste of time. The high-powered two-seaters of to-day are supplied with
excellent speaking-tubes before they leave the factories; but we, who
were the first to use a successful device of this kind on active
service, owed its introduction to a chance idea.
One by one our six war machines arrived and were allotted to their
respective pilots. Each man treated his bus as if it were an only
child. If another pilot were detailed to fly it the owner would watch
the performance jealously, and lurid indeed was the subsequent talk if
an outsider choked the carburettor, taxied the bus on the switch, or
otherwise did something likely to reduce the efficiency of engine or
aeroplane. On the whole, however, the period of waiting was dull, so
that we welcomed comic relief provided by the affair of the
The first three machines delivered from the Rafborough depôt
disappointed us in one particular. The movable mounting for the
observer's gun in the rear cockpit was a weird contraption like a giant
catapult. It occupied a great deal of room, was stiff-moving, reduced
the speed by about five miles an hour owing to head resistance, refused
to be slewed round sideways for sighting at an angle, and constantly
collided with the observer's head. We called it the Christmas Tree, the
Heath Robinson, the Jabberwock, the Ruddy Limit, and names unprintable.
The next three buses were fitted with Scarff mountings, which were as
satisfactory as the Jabberwocks were unsatisfactory.
Then, late in the evening, one of the new craft was crashed beyond
repair. At early dawn a pilot and his observer left their beds, walked
through the rain to the aerodrome, and sneaked to the flight shed. They
returned two hours later, hungry, dirty, and flushed with suppressed
joy. After breakfast we found that the crashed bus had lost a Scarff
mounting, and the bus manned by the early risers had found one. The
gargoyle shape of a discarded Jabberwock sprawled on the floor.
At lunch-time another pilot disappeared with his observer and an air
of determination. When the shed was opened for the afternoon's work the
Jabberwock had been replaced on the machine of the early risers, and
the commandeered Scarff was affixed neatly to the machine of the
quick-lunchers. While the two couples slanged each other a third pilot
and observer sought out the flight-commander, and explained why they
were entitled to the disputed mounting. The pilot, the observer pointed
out, was the senior pilot of the three; the observer, the pilot pointed
out, was the senior observer. Was it not right, therefore, that they
should be given preferential treatment? The flight-commander agreed,
and by the time the early-risers and quick-lunchers had settled their
quarrel by the spin of a coin, the Scarff had found a fourth and
The two remaining Jabberwocks became an obsession with their
unwilling owners, who hinted darkly at mutiny when told that no more
Scarffs could be obtained, the Naval Air Service having contracted for
all the new ones in existence. But chance, in the form of a Big Bug's
visit of inspection, opened the way for a last effort. In the machine
examined by the Big Bug, an exhausted observer was making frantic
efforts to swivel an archaic framework from back to front. The Big Bug
looked puzzled, but passed on without comment. As he approached the
next machine a second observer tried desperately to move a similar
monstrosity round its hinges, while the pilot, stop-watch in hand,
looked on with evident sorrow. The Big Bug now decided to investigate,
and he demanded the reason for the stop-watch and the hard labour.
We've just timed this mounting, sir, to see how quickly it could be
moved for firing at a Hun. I find it travels at the rate of 6.5 inches
Disgraceful, said the Big Bug. We'll get them replaced by the new
type. And get them replaced he did, the R.N.A.S. contract
notwithstanding. The four conspirators have since believed themselves
to be heaven-born strategists.
Followed the average number of delays due to crashed aeroplanes and
late stores. At length, however, the transport moved away with our
equipment, and we received orders to proceed by air a day later. But
next day brought a steady drizzle, which continued for some forty-eight
hours, so that instead of proceeding by air the kitless officers bought
clean collars. Then came two days of low, clinging mist, and the
purchase of shirts. A fine morning on the fifth day forestalled the
necessity of new pyjamas.
At ten of the clock we were in our machines, saying good-bye to a
band of lucky pilots who stayed at home to strafe the Zeppelin and be
petted in the picture press and the Piccadilly grillroom. Contaxer!
called a mechanic, facing the flight-commander's propeller. Contact!
replied the flight-commander; his engine roared, around flew the
propeller, the chocks were pulled clear, and away and up raced the
machine. The rest followed and took up their appointed places behind
the leader, at a height chosen for the rendezvous.
We headed in a south-easterly direction, passing on our left the
ragged fringe of London. At this point the formation was not so good as
it might have been, probably because we were taking leave of the Thames
and other landmarks. But four of the twelve who comprised the party
have since seen them, and of these four one was to return by way of a
German hospital, a prison camp, a jump from the footboard of a train, a
series of lone night-walks that extended over two months, and an escape
across the frontier of Neutralia, while two fellow-fugitives were shot
dead by Boche sentries.
Above the junction of Redhill the leader veered to the left and
steered by railway to the coast. Each pilot paid close attention to his
place in the group, for this was to be a test of whether our formation
flying was up to the standard necessary for work over enemy country. To
keep exact formation is far from easy for the novice who has to deal
with the vagaries of a rotary engine in a machine sensitive on the
controls. The engine develops a sudden increase of revolutions, and the
pilot finds himself overhauling the craft in front; he throttles back
and finds himself being overhauled by the craft behind; a slight
deviation from the course and the craft all around seem to be swinging
sideways or upwards. Not till a pilot can fly his bus unconsciously
does he keep place without repeated reference to the throttle and
Beyond Redhill we met an unwieldy cloudbank and were forced to lose
height. The clouds became denser and lower, and the formation continued
to descend, so that when the coast came into view we were below 3000
A more serious complication happened near Dovstone, the port which
was to be our cross-Channel springboard. There we ran into a mist,
thick as a London fog. It covered the Channel like a blanket, and
completely enveloped Dovstone and district. To cross under these
conditions would have been absurd, for opaque vapour isolated us from
the ground and cut the chain of vision which had bound together the six
machines. We dropped through the pall of mist and trusted to Providence
to save us from collision.
Four fortunate buses emerged directly above Dovstone aerodrome,
where they landed. The other two, in one of which I was a passenger,
came out a hundred feet over the cliffs. We turned inland, and soon
found ourselves travelling over a wilderness of roofs and chimneys. A
church-tower loomed ahead, so we climbed back into the mist. Next we
all but crashed into the hill south of Dovstone. We banked steeply and
swerved to the right, just as the slope seemed rushing towards us
through the haze.
Once more we descended into the clear air. Down below was a large
field, and in the middle of it was an aeroplane. Supposing this to be
the aerodrome, we landed, only to find ourselves in an uneven meadow,
containing, besides the aeroplane already mentioned, one cow, one pond,
and some Brass Hats. As the second bus was taxiing over the grass
the pilot jerked it round sharply to avoid the pond. His undercarriage
gave, the propeller hit the earth and smashed itself, and the machine
heeled over and pulled up dead, with one wing leaning on the ground.
Marmaduke, our war baby, was the pilot of the maimed machine. He is
distinctly young, but he can on occasion declaim impassioned language
in a manner that would be creditable to the most liver-ridden major in
the Indian Army. The Brass Hats seemed mildly surprised when, after
inspecting the damage, Marmaduke danced around the unfortunate bus and
cursed systematically persons and things so diverse as the thingumy
fool whose machine had misled us into landing, the thingumy pond, the
thingumy weather expert who ought to have warned us of the thingumy
Channel mist, the Kaiser, his aunt, and his contemptible self.
He was no what-you-may-call-it good as a pilot, shouted Marmaduke to
the ruminative cow, and he intended to leave the blank R.F.C. for the
Blanky Army Service Corps or the blankety Grave-diggers Corps. As a
last resort, he would get a job as a double-blank Cabinet Minister,
being no blank-blank good for anything else.
The Brass Hats gazed and gazed and gazed. A heavy silence followed
Marmaduke's outburst, a silence pregnant with possibilities of Staff
displeasure, of summary arrest, oflaughter. Laughter won. The Brass
Hats belonged to the staff of an Anzadian division in the
neighbourhood, and one of them, a young-looking major with pink riding
breeches and a prairie accent, said
Gentlemen, some beautiful birds, some beautiful swear, and, by
Abraham's trousers, some beautiful angel boy.
Marmaduke wiped the foam from his mouth and apologised.
Not at all, said the Brass Hat from one of our great Dominions of
Empire, I do it every day myself, before breakfast generally.
Meanwhile the news of our arrival had rippled the calm surface of
the daily round at Dovstone. Obviously, said the good people to each
other, the presence of three aeroplanes in a lonely field, with a guard
of Anzadians around the said field, must have some hidden meaning.
Perhaps there had been a German air raid under cover of the mist.
Perhaps a German machine had been brought down. Within half an hour of
our erratic landing a dozen people in Dovstone swore to having seen a
German aeroplane touch earth in our field. The pilot had been made
prisoner by Anzadians, added the dozen eye-witnesses.
Such an event clearly called for investigation by Dovstone's
detective intellects. We were honoured by a visit from two special
constables, looking rather like the Bing Boys. Their collective eagle
eye grasped the situation in less than a second. I happened to be
standing in the centre of the group, still clad in flying kit. The Bing
Boys decided that I was their prey, and one of them advanced,
flourishing a note-book.
Excuse me, sir, said he to a Brass Hat, I represent the civil
authority. Will you please tell me if thispointing to meis the
Now give us the chorus, old son, said Marmaduke. Explanations
followed, and the Bing Boys retired, rather crestfallen.
It is embarrassing enough to be mistaken for a German airman. It is
more embarrassing to be mistaken for an airman who shot down a German
airman when there was no German airman to shoot down. Such was the fate
of the four of ustwo pilots and two observerswhen we left our field
to the cow and the conference of Brass Hats, and drove to the Grand
Hotel. The taxi-driver, who, from his enthusiastic civility, had
clearly never driven a cab in London, would not be convinced.
No, sir, he said, when we arrived at the hotel, I'm proud to have
driven you, and I don't want your money. No, sir, I know you avi-yaters
are modest and aren't allowed to say what you've done. Good day,
gentlemen, and good luck, gentlemen.
It was the same in the Grand Hotel. Porters and waiters asked what
had become of the Hun, and no denial could fully convince them. At a
tango tea held in the hotel that afternoon we were pointed out as the
intrepid birdmen who had done the deed of the day. Flappers and
fluff-girls further embarrassed us with interested glances, and one of
them asked for autographs.
Marmaduke rose to the occasion. He smiled, produced a gold-tipped
fountain-pen, and wrote with a flourish, John James Christopher
Benjamin Brown. Greetings from Dovstone.
But Marmaduke the volatile was doomed to suffer a loss of dignity.
He had neglected to bring an emergency cap, which an airman on a
cross-country flight should never forget. Bareheaded he accompanied us
to a hatter's. Here the R.F.C. caps of the stream-lined variety had
all been sold, so the war baby was obliged to buy a general service
hat. The only one that fitted him was shapeless as a Hausfrau,
ponderous as a Bishop, unstable as a politician, grotesque as a
Birthday Honours' List. It was a nice quiet hat, we assured
Marmadukejust the thing for active service. Did it suit him? Very
well indeed, we repliedmade him look like Lord Haldane at the age of
sixteen. Marmaduke bought it.
The monstrosity brought us a deal of attention in the streets, but
this Marmaduke put down to his fame as a conqueror of phantom raiders.
He began, however, to suspect that something was wrong when a newsboy
shouted, Where jer get that 'at, leftenant? The question was
unoriginal and obvious; but the newsboy showed imagination at his
second effort, which was the opening line of an old music-hall chorus:
Sidney's 'olidays er in Septembah! Marmaduke called at another shop
and chose the stiffest hat he could find.
By next morning the mist had cleared, and we flew across the
Channel, under a curtain of clouds, leaving Marmaduke to fetch a new
machine. When you visit the Continent after the war, friend the reader,
travel by the Franco-British service of aerial transport, which will
come into being with the return of peace. You will find it more
comfortable and less tiring; and if you have a weak stomach you will
find it less exacting, for none but the very nervous are ill in an
aeroplane, if the pilot behaves himself. Also, you will complete the
journey in a quarter of the time taken by boat. Within fifteen minutes
of our departure from Dovstone we were in French air country. A few
ships specked the sea-surface, which reflected a dull grey from the
clouds, but otherwise the crossing was monotonous.
We passed up the coast-line as far as the bend at Cape Grisnez, and
so to Calais. Beyond this town were two sets of canals, one leading
south and the other east. Follow the southern group and you will find
our immediate destination, the aircraft depôt at Saint Gregoire. Follow
the eastern group and they will take you to the Boche aircraft depôt at
Lille. Thus were we reminded that tango teas and special constables
belonged to the past.
The covey landed at Saint Gregoire without mishap, except for a bent
axle and a torn tyre. With these replaced, and the supplies of petrol
and oil replenished, we flew south during the afternoon to the
river-basin of war. Marmaduke arrived five days later, in time to take
part in our first patrol over the lines. On this trip his engine was
put out of action by a stray fragment from anti-aircraft. After gliding
across the trenches, he landed among some dug-outs inhabited by
sappers, and made use of much the same vocabulary as when he crashed at
Dovstone Marmaduke shot down several Hun machines during the weeks that
followed, but on the very day of his posting for a decoration a Blighty
bullet gave him a return ticket to England and a mention in the
casualty list. When last I heard of him he was at Dovstone aerodrome,
teaching his elders how to fly. I can guess what he would do if at the
Grand Hotel there some chance-introduced collector of autographs
offered her book. He would think of the cow and the Brass Hats, smile,
produce his gold-tipped fountain-pen, and write with a flourish, John
James Christopher Benjamin Brown. Greetings from Dovstone.
 Officers from Headquarters.
CHAPTER II. THE DAY'S WORK.
For weeks we had talked guardedly of it and themof the
greatest day of the Push and the latest form of warfare. Details of the
twin mysteries had been rightly kept secret by the red-hatted Olympians
who really knew, though we of the fighting branches had heard
sufficient to stimulate an appetite for rumour and exaggeration.
Consequently we possessed our souls in impatience and dabbled in
Small forts moving on the caterpillar system of traction used for
heavy guns were to crawl across No Man's Land, enfilade the enemy front
line with quick-firing and machine guns, and hurl bombs on such of the
works and emplacements as they did not ram to pieces,thus a
confidential adjutant, who seemed to think he had admitted me into the
inner circle of knowledge tenanted only by himself and the G.S.O.
people (I., II., and III., besides untabbed nondescripts). Veterans
gave tips on war in the open country, or chatted airily about another
tour of such places as Le Catelet, Le Cateau, Mons, the Maubeuge
district, and Namur. The cautious listened in silence, and distilled
only two facts from the dubious mixture of fancy. The first was that we
were booked for a big advance one of these fine days; and the second
that new armoured cars, caterpillared and powerfully armed, would make
their bow to Brother Boche.
The balloon of swollen conjecture floated over the back of the Front
until it was destroyed by the quick-fire of authentic orders, which
necessarily revealed much of the plan and many of the methods. On the
afternoon of September 14 all the officers of our aerodrome were
summoned to an empty shed. There we found our own particular General,
who said more to the point in five minutes than the rumourists had said
in five weeks. There was to be a grand attack next morning. The
immediate objectives were not distant, but their gain would be of
enormous value. Every atom of energy must be concentrated on the task.
It was hoped that an element of surprise would be on our side, helped
by a new engine of war christened the Tank. The nature of this strange
animal, male and female, was then explained.
Next came an exposition of the part allotted to the Flying Corps. No
German machines could be allowed near enough to the lines for any
observation. We must shoot all Hun machines at sight and give them no
rest. Our bombers should make life a burden on the enemy lines of
communication. Infantry and transport were to be worried, whenever
possible, by machine-gun fire from above. Machines would be detailed
for contact work with our infantry. Reconnaissance jobs were to be
completed at all costs, if there seemed the slightest chance of
bringing back useful information.
No more bubbles of hot air were blown around the mess table. Only
the evening was between us and the day of days. The time before dinner
was filled by the testing of machines and the writing of those
cheerful, non-committal letters that precede big happenings at the
front. Our flight had visitors to dinner, but the shadow of to-morrow
was too insistent for the racket customary on a guest night. It was as
if the electricity had been withdrawn from the atmosphere and condensed
for use when required. The dinner talk was curiously restrained. The
usual shop chatter prevailed, leavened by snatches of bantering
cynicism from those infants of the world who thought that to be a beau
sabreur of the air one must juggle verbally with life, death, and
Archie shells. Even these war babies (three of them died very gallantly
before we reassembled for breakfast next day) had bottled most of their
exuberance. Understanding silences were sandwiched between yarns. A wag
searched for the Pagliacci record, and set the gramophone to churn out
Vesti la Giubba. The guests stayed to listen politely to a few revue
melodies, and then slipped away. The rest turned in immediately, in
view of the jobs at early dawn.
Night, everybody, said one of the flight-commanders. Meet you at
Mossy-Face in the morning!
In the morning some of us saw him spin earthwards over Mossy-Face
Wood, surrounded by Hun machines.
Long before the dawn of September 15, I awoke to the roar of
engines, followed by an overhead drone as a party of bombers circled
round until they were ready to start. When this noise had died away,
the dull boom of an intense bombardment was able to make itself heard.
I rolled over and went to sleep again, for our own show was not due to
start until three hours later.
The Flying Corps programme on the great day was a marvel of
organisation. The jobs fitted into one another, and into the general
tactical scheme of the advance, as exactly as the parts of a flawless
motor. At no time could enemy craft steal toward the lines to spy out
the land. Every sector was covered by defensive patrols which travelled
northward and southward, southward and northward, eager to pounce on
any black-crossed stranger. Offensive patrols moved and fought over
Boche territory until they were relieved by other offensive patrols.
The machines on artillery observation were thus worried only by Archie,
and the reconnaissance formations were able to do their work with
little interruption, except when they passed well outside the patrol
areas. Throughout the day those guerillas of the air, the bombing
craft, went across and dropped eggs on anything between general
headquarters and a railway line. The corps buses kept constant
communication between attacking battalions and the rear. A machine
first reported the exploit of the immortal Tank that waddled down High
Street, Flers, spitting bullets and inspiring sick fear. And there were
many free-lance stunts, such as Lewis gun attacks on reserve troops or
The three squadrons attached to our aerodrome had to the day's
credit two long reconnaissances, three offensive patrols, and four bomb
raids. Six Hun machines were destroyed on these shows, and the bombers
did magnificent work at vital points. At 2 A.M. they dropped eggs on
the German Somme headquarters. An hour later they deranged the railway
station of a large garrison town. For the remaining time before sunset
they were not so busy. They merely destroyed an ammunition train, cut
two railway lines, damaged an important railhead, and sprayed a bivouac
An orderly called me at 4.15 A.M. for the big offensive patrol. The
sky was a dark-grey curtain decorated by faintly twinkling stars. I
dressed to the thunderous accompaniment of the guns, warmed myself with
a cup of hot cocoa, donned flying kit, and hurried to the aerodrome.
There we gathered around C., the patrol leader, who gave us final
instructions about the method of attack. We tested our guns and climbed
into the machines.
By now the east had turned to a light grey with pink smudges from
the forefinger of sunrise. Punctually at five o'clock the order, Start
up! passed down the long line of machines. The flight-commander's
engine began a loud metallic roar, then softened as it was throttled
down. The pilot waved his hand, the chocks were pulled from under the
wheels, and the machine moved forward. The throttle was again opened
full out as the bus raced into the wind until flying speed had been
attained, when it skimmed gently from the ground. We followed, and
carried out the rendezvous at 3000 feet.
The morning light increased every minute, and the grey of the sky
was merging into blue. The faint, hovering ground-mist was not
sufficient to screen our landmarks. The country below was a shadowy
patchwork of coloured pieces. The woods, fantastic shapes of dark
green, stood out strongly from the mosaic of brown and green fields.
The pattern was divided and subdivided by the straight, poplar-bordered
roads peculiar to France.
We passed on to the dirty strip of wilderness which is the actual
front. The battered villages and disorderly ruins looked like
hieroglyphics traced on wet sand. A sea of smoke rolled over the ground
for miles. It was a by-product of one of the most terrific bombardments
in the history of trench warfare. Through it hundreds of gun-flashes
twinkled, like the lights of a Chinese garden.
Having reached a height of 12,000 feet, we crossed the trenches
south of Bapaume. As the danger that stray bullets might fall on
friends no longer existed, pilots and observers fired a few rounds into
space to make sure their guns were behaving properly.
Archie began his frightfulness early. He concentrated on the
leader's machine, but the still-dim light spoiled his aim, and many of
the bursts were dotted between the craft behind. I heard the customary
wouff! wouff! wouff! followed in one case by the
hs-s-s-s-s of passing fragments. We swerved and dodged to
disconcert the gunners. After five minutes of hide-and-seek, we shook
off this group of Archie batteries.
The flight-commander headed for Mossy-Face Wood, scene of many air
battles and bomb raids. An aerodrome just east of the wood was the home
of the Fokker star, Boelcke. C. led us to it, for it was his great
ambition to account for Germany's best pilot.
While we approached, I looked down and saw eight machines with black
Maltese crosses on their planes, about three thousand feet below. They
had clipped wings of a peculiar whiteness, and they were ranged one
above the other, like the rungs of a Venetian blind. A cluster of small
scouts swooped down from Heaven-knows-what height and hovered above us;
but C. evidently did not see them, for he dived steeply on the Huns
underneath, accompanied by the two machines nearest him. The other
group of enemies then dived.
I looked up and saw a narrow biplane, apparently a Roland, rushing
towards our bus. My pilot turned vertically and then side-slipped to
disconcert the Boche's aim. The black-crossed craft swept over at a
distance of less than a hundred yards. I raised my gun-mounting,
sighted, and pressed the trigger. Three shots rattled offand my Lewis
gun ceased fire.
Intensely annoyed at being cheated out of such a splendid target, I
applied immediate action, pulled back the cocking-handle and pressed
the trigger again. Nothing happened. After one more immediate action
test, I examined the gun and found that an incoming cartridge and an
empty case were jammed together in the breech. To remedy the stoppage,
I had to remove spade-grip and body cover. As I did this, I heard an
ominous ta-ta-ta-ta-ta from the returning German scout. My pilot
cart-wheeled round and made for the Hun, his gun spitting continuously
through the propeller. The two machines raced at each other until less
than fifty yards separated them. Then the Boche swayed, turned aside,
and put his nose down. We dropped after him, with our front machine-gun
still speaking. The Roland's glide merged into a dive, and we imitated
him. Suddenly a streak of flame came from his petrol tank, and the next
second he was rushing earthwards, with two streamers of smoke trailing
I was unable to see the end of this vertical dive, for two more
single-seaters were upon us. They plugged away while I remedied the
stoppage, and several bullets ventilated the fuselage quite close to my
cockpit. When my gun was itself again, I changed the drum of
ammunition, and hastened to fire at the nearest Hun. He was evidently
unprepared, for he turned and moved across our tail. As he did so, I
raked his bus from stem to stern. I looked at him hopefully, for the
range was very short, and I expected to see him drop towards the ground
at several miles a minute. He sailed on serenely. This is an annoying
habit of enemy machines when one is sure that, by the rules of the
game, they ought to be destroyed. The machine in question was probably
hit, however, for it did not return, and I saw it begin a glide as
though the pilot meant to land. We switched our attention to the
remaining Hun, but this one was not anxious to fight alone. He dived a
few hundred feet, with tail well up, looking for all the world like a
trout when it drops back into water. Afterwards he flattened out and
During the fight we had become separated from the remainder of our
party. I searched all round the compass, but could find neither friend
nor foe. We returned to the aerodrome where hostile craft were first
sighted. There was no sign of C.'s machine or of the others who dived
on the first group of Huns. Several German machines were at rest in the
Finding ourselves alone, we passed on towards the lines. I twisted
my neck in every direction, for over enemy country only a constant look
out above, below, and on all sides can save a machine from a surprise
attack. After a few minutes, we spotted six craft bearing towards us
from a great height. Through field-glasses I was able to see their
black crosses, and I fingered my machine-gun expectantly.
The strangers dived in two lots of three. I waited until the first
three were within 300 yards' range and opened fire. One of them swerved
away, but the other two passed right under us. Something sang to the
right, and I found that part of a landing-wire was dangling helplessly
from its socket. We thanked whatever gods there be that it was not a
flying-wire, and turned to meet the next three Huns. We swerved
violently, and they pulled out of their dive well away from us. With
nose down and engine full out, we raced towards the lines and safety.
Three of the attackers were unable to keep up with us and we left them
The other three Germans, classed by my pilot as Halberstadts, had a
great deal more speed than ours. They did not attack at close quarters
immediately, but flew 200 to 300 yards behind, ready to pounce at their
own moment. Two of them got between my gun and our tail-plane, so that
they were safe from my fire. The third was slightly above our height,
and for his benefit I stood up and rattled through a whole
ammunition-drum. Here let me say I do not think I hit him, for he was
not in difficulties. He dived below us to join his companions, possibly
because he did not like being under fire when they were not. To my
surprise and joy, he fell slick on one of the other two Hun machines.
This latter broke into two pieces, which fell like stones. The machine
responsible for my luck side-slipped, spun a little, recovered, and
went down to land. The third made off east.
In plain print and at a normal time, this episode shows little that
is comic. But when it happened I was in a state of high tension, and
this, combined with the startling realisation that a Hun pilot had
saved me and destroyed his friend, seemed irresistibly comic. I cackled
with laughter and was annoyed because my pilot did not see the joke.
We reached the lines without further trouble from anything but
Archie. The pink streaks of daybreak had now disappeared beneath the
whole body of the sunrise, and the sky was of that intense blue which
is the secret of France. What was left of the ground-mist shimmered as
it congealed in the sunlight. The pall of smoke from the guns had
doubled in volume. The Ancre sparkled brightly.
We cruised around in a search for others of our party, but found
none. A defensive patrol was operating between Albert and the trenches.
We joined it for half an hour, at the end of which I heard a Halloa!
from the speaking-tube.
What's up now? I asked.
Going to have a look at the war, was the pilot's reply.
Before I grasped his meaning he had shut off the engine and we were
gliding towards the trenches. At 1200 feet we switched on, flattened
out, and looked for movement below. There was no infantry advance at
the moment, but below Courcelette what seemed to be two ungainly masses
of black slime were slithering over the ground. I rubbed my eyes and
looked again. One of them actually crawled among the scrap-heaps that
fringed the ruins of the village. Only then did the thought that they
might be Tanks suggest itself. Afterwards I discovered that this was
The machine rocked violently as a projectile hurtled by underneath
us. The pilot remembered the broken landing-wire and steered for home.
After landing, we compared notes with others who had returned from the
expedition. C., we learned, was down at last, after seventeen months of
flying on active service, with only one break for any appreciable time.
He destroyed one more enemy before the Boches got him. In the dive he
got right ahead of the two machines that followed him. As these hurried
to his assistance, they saw an enemy plane turn over, show a white,
gleaming belly, and drop in zig-zags. C.'s bus was then seen to heel
over into a vertical dive and to plunge down, spinning rhythmically on
its axis. Probably he was shot dead and fell over on to the joystick,
which put the machine to its last dive. The petrol tank of the second
machine to arrive among the Huns was plugged by a bullet, and the pilot
was forced to land. Weeks later, his observer wrote us a letter from a
prison camp in Hanover. The third bus, perforated by scores of
bullet-holes, got back to tell the tale.
C. was one of the greatest pilots produced by the war. He was
utterly fearless, and had more time over the German lines to his credit
than any one else in the Flying Corps. It was part of his fatalistic
creed that Archie should never be dodged, and he would go calmly ahead
when the A.-A. guns were at their best. Somehow, the bursts never found
him. He had won both the D.S.O. and the M.C. for deeds in the air. Only
the evening before, when asked lightly if he was out for a V.C., he
said he would rather get Boelcke than the V.C.; and in the end Boelcke
probably got him, for he fell over the famous German pilot's aerodrome,
and that day the German wireless announced that Boelcke had shot down
two more machines. Peace to the ashes of a fine pilot and a very brave
Two observers, other than C.'s passenger, had been killed during our
patrol. One of them was Uncle, a captain in the Northumberland
Fusiliers. A bullet entered the large artery of his thigh. He bled
profusely and lost consciousness in the middle of a fight with two
Huns. When he came to, a few minutes later, he grabbed his gun and
opened fire on an enemy. After about forty shots the chatter of the gun
ceased, and through the speaking-tube a faint voice told the pilot to
look round. The pilot did so, and saw a Maltese-cross biplane falling
in flames. But Uncle had faded into unconsciousness again, and he never
came back. It is more than possible that if he had put a tourniquet
round his thigh, instead of continuing the fight, he might have lived.
A great death, you say? One of many such. Only the day before I had
helped to lift the limp body of Paddy from the floor of an observer's
cockpit. He had been shot over the heart. He fainted, recovered his
senses for ten minutes, and kept two Huns at bay until he died, by
which time the trenches were reached.
Imagine yourself under fire in an aeroplane at 10,000 feet. Imagine
that only a second ago you were in the country of shadows. Imagine
yourself feeling giddy and deadly sick from loss of blood. Imagine what
is left of your consciousness to be stabbed insistently by a throbbing
pain. Now imagine how you would force yourself in this condition to
grasp a machine-gun in your numbed hand, pull back the cocking-handle,
take careful aim at a fast machine, allowing for deflection, and fire
until you sink into death. Some day I hope to be allowed to visit
Valhalla for half an hour, that I may congratulate Paddy and Uncle.
We refreshed ourselves with cold baths and hot breakfast. In the
mess the fights were reconstructed. Sudden silences were frequentan
unspoken tribute to C. and the other casualties. But at lunch-time we
were cheered by the news that the first and second objectives had been
reached, that Martinpuich, Courcelette, and Flers had fallen, and that
the Tanks had behaved well.
After lunch I rested awhile before the long reconnaissance, due to
start at three. Six machines were detailed for this job; though a
faulty engine kept one of them on the ground. The observers marked the
course on their maps, and wrote out lists of railway stations. At 3.30
we set off towards Arras.
Archie hit out as soon as we crossed to his side of the front. He
was especially dangerous that afternoon, as if determined to avenge the
German defeat of the morning. Each bus in turn was encircled by black
bursts, and each bus in turn lost height, swerved, or changed its
course to defeat the gunner's aim. A piece of H.E. hit our tail-plane,
and stayed there until I cut it out for a souvenir when we had
The observers were kept busy with note-book and pencil, for the
train movement was far greater than the average, and streaks of smoke
courted attention on all the railways. Rolling stock was
correspondingly small, and the counting of the trucks in the sidings
was not difficult. Road and canal transport was plentiful. As evidence
of the urgency of all this traffic, I remarked that no effort at
concealment was made. On ordinary days, a German train always shut off
steam when we approached; and often I saw transport passing along the
road one minute, and not passing along the road the next. On September
15 the traffic was too urgent for time to be lost by hide-and-seek.
We passed several of our offensive patrols, each of which escorted
us while we were on its beat. It was curious that no activity could be
noticed on enemy aerodromes. Until we passed Mossy-Face on the last lap
of the homeward journey we saw no Hun aircraft. Even there the machines
with black crosses flew very low and did not attempt to offer battle.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened until we were about to cross
the trenches north of Péronne. Archie then scored an inner. One of his
chunks swept the left aileron from the leader's machine, which banked
vertically, almost rolled over, and began to spin. For two thousand
feet the irregular drop continued, and the observer gave up hope.
Luckily for him, the pilot was not of the same mind, and managed to
check the spin by juggling with his rudder-controls. The bus flew home,
left wing well down, with the observer leaning far out to the right to
restore equilibrium, while the icy rush of air boxed his ears.
We landed, wrote our reports, and took them to headquarters. The
day's work had been done, which was all that mattered to any extent,
and a very able general told us it was dom good. But many a day
passed before we grew accustomed to the absence of Uncle and Paddy.
And so to bed, until we were called for another early morning show.
CHAPTER III. A SUMMER JOY-RIDE.
It happened late in the afternoon, one August dog-day. No wind
leavened the languid air, and hut, hangar, tent, and workshop were
oppressive with a heavy heat, so that we wanted to sleep. To taxi
across the grass in a chase for flying speed, to soar gently from the
hot ground, and, by leaning beyond the wind-screen, to let the
slip-stream of displaced air play on one's faceall this was
refreshing as a cold plunge after a Turkish bath. I congratulated
myself that I was no longer a gunner, strenuous over interminable
corrections, or tiredly alert in a close observation post.
Our party consisted of four machines, each complete with pilot,
observer, and several hundred rounds of ammunition. The job was an
offensive patrolthat is to say, we were to hunt trouble around a
given area behind the Boche lines. A great deal of the credit for our
mastery of the airthat glib phrase of the question-asking
politicianduring the Somme Push of 1916, belongs to those who
organised and those who led these fighting expeditions over enemy
country. Thanks to them, our aircraft were able to carry out
reconnaissance, artillery observation, and photography with a minimum
of interruption, while the German planes were so hard pressed to defend
their place in the air that they could seldom guide their own guns or
collect useful information. To this satisfactory result must be added
the irritative effect on enemy morale of the knowledge that whenever
the weather was fine our machines hummed overhead, ready to molest and
Offensive patrols are well worth while, but for the comfort of those
directly concerned they are rather too exciting. When friends are below
during an air duel a pilot is warmly conscious that should he or his
machine be crippled he can break away and land, and there's an end of
it. But if a pilot be wounded in a scrap far away from home, before he
can land he must fly for many miles, under shell fire and probably
pursued by enemies. He must conquer the blighting faintness which
accompanies loss of blood, keep clear-headed enough to deal
instantaneously with adverse emergency, and make an unwilling brain
command unwilling hands and feet to control a delicate apparatus. Worst
of all, if his engine be put out of action at a spot beyond gliding
distance of the lines, there is nothing for it but to descend and
tamely surrender. And always he is within reach of that vindictive
exponent of frightfulness, Archibald the Ever-Ready.
As we climbed to 4000 feet the machines above threw glints of
sunlight on the screen of blue infinity. We ranged ourselves and
departed. Passing the red roofs and heart-shaped citadel of Doulens and
a jagged wood suggestive of a lion rampant, we followed the straight
road to Arras. Arrived there, the leader turned south, for we were not
yet high enough. As we moved along the brown band of shell-pocked
desolation we continued to climb. Patches of smoke from the guns
hovered over the ground at intervals. A score of lazy-looking kite
balloons hung motionless.
By the time we reached Albert our height was 12,000 feet, and we
steered eastward over the ground gained in the June-July advance.
Beyond the scrap-heap that once was Pozières two enormous mine craters
showed up, dented into the razed surface, one on either side of the
Albert-Bapaume road. Flying very low a few buses were working on trench
reconnaissance. The sunshine rebounded from the top of their wings, and
against the discoloured earth they looked like fireflies. A mile or so
behind the then front lines were the twin villages of Courcelette and
Martinpuich, divided only by the road. Already they were badly
battered, though, unlike Pozières, they still deserved the title of
village. Le Sars, which sat astride the road, nearer Bapaume, had been
set afire by our guns, and was smoking.
In those days, before the methodical advance of the British
artillery had begun to worry the stronghold overmuch, Bapaume was a
hotbed of all the anti-aircraft devilries. We therefore swerved toward
the south. Archie was not to be shaken off so easily, and we began a
series of erratic deviations as he ringed with black puffs first one
machine, then another. The shooting was not particularly good; for
although no clouds intervened between the guns and their mark, a
powerful sun dazzled the gunners, who must have found difficulty in
judging height and direction. From Archie's point of view, the perfect
sky is one screened from the sunlight, at 20,000 to 30,000 feet, by a
mantle of thin clouds against which aircraft are outlined boldly, like
stags on a snow-covered slope.
A few minutes in a south-easterly direction brought us to the Bois
d'Havrincourt, a large ungainly wood, the shape of which was something
between the ace of spades and the ace of clubs. This we knew as
Mossy-Face. The region around it was notorious in R.F.C. messes as
being the chief centre of the Boche Flying Corps on the British Front.
From the south-west corner Archie again scattered burst and bark at
our group, but his inaccuracy made dodging hardly necessary. A lull
followed, and I twisted my neck all round the compass, for, in the
presence of hostile aeroplanes, Archie seldom behaves, except when
friendly machines are about. Two thousand feet below three biplanes
were approaching the wood from the south. Black crosses showed up
plainly on their grey-white wings. We dropped into a dive toward the
Under normal conditions a steep dive imparts a feeling of being
hemmed in from every side. One takes a deep breath instinctively, and
the novice to flying will grip the fuselage, as if to avoid being
crushed. And, indeed, a passenger in a diving aeroplane is hemmed in,
by the terrific air-pressure to which the solid surface is subjected.
If he attempt to stand up or lean over the side, he will be swept back,
after a short struggle, beneath the shelter of wind-screen and
fuselage. But when diving on a Hun, I have never experienced this
troubled sensation, probably because it has been swamped under the high
tension of readiness for the task. All the faculties must be
concentrated on opening the attack, since an air duel is often decided
in the first few seconds at close quarters. What happens during these
few seconds may depend on a trifle, such as the position of the
gun-mounting, an untried drum of ammunition, a slight swerve, or firing
a second too soon or too late. An airman should regard his body as part
of the machine when there is a prospect of a fight, and his brain,
which commands the machine, must be instinctive with insight into what
the enemy will attempt.
As we dived, then, I estimated the angle at which we might cross the
Boche trio, watched for a change of direction on their part, slewed
round the gun-mounting to the most effective setting for what would
probably be my arc of fire, and fingered the movable back-sight. At
first the Huns held to their course as though quite unconcerned. Later,
they began to lose height. Their downward line of flight became steeper
and steeper, and so did ours.
Just as our leading bus arrived within range and began to spit
bullets through the propeller, a signal rocket streaked from the first
Boche biplane, and the trio dived almost vertically, honking the while
on Klaxon horns. We were then at about 6000 feet.
We were expecting to see the Huns flatten out, whenWouff!
wouff! wouff! wouff! wouff! said Archie. The
German birds were not hawks at all; they were merely tame decoys used
to entice us to a pre-arranged spot, at a height well favoured by A.-A.
gunners. The ugly puffs encircled us, and it seemed unlikely that an
aeroplane could get away without being caught in a patch of hurtling
high explosive. Yet nobody was hit. The only redeeming feature of the
villain Archibald is that his deeds are less terrible than his noise,
and even this is too flat to be truly frightful. Although I was
uncomfortable as we raced away, the chorused wouffs! reminded me
of an epidemic of coughing I heard in church one winter's Sunday, while
a fatuous sermon was read by a dull-voiced vicar.
Mingled with the many black bursts were a few green ones, probably
gas shells, for Archie had begun to experiment with the gas habit. Very
suddenly a line of fiery rectangles shot up and curved towards us when
they had reached three-quarters of their maximum height. They rose and
fell within thirty yards of our tail. These were onions, the flaming
rockets which the Boche keeps for any hostile aircraft that can be
lured to a height between 4000 and 6000 feet.
I yelled to V., my pilot, that we should have to dodge. We
side-slipped and swerved to the left. A minute later the stream of
onions had disappeared, greatly to my relief, for the prospect of a
fire in the air inspires in me a mortal funk. Soon we were to pass from
the unpleasant possibility to the far more unpleasant reality.
Once outside the unhealthy region, we climbed to a less dangerous
height. Again we became the target for a few dozen H.E. shells. We
broke away and swooped downward. Some little distance ahead, and not
far below, was a group of five Albatross two-seaters. V. pointed our
machine at them, in the wake of the flight-commander's bus.
Next instant the fuselage shivered. I looked along the inside of it
and found that a burning shell fragment was lodged on a longeron,
half-way between my cockpit and the tail-plane. A little flame
zigzagged over the fabric, all but died away, but, being fanned by the
wind as we lost height, recovered and licked its way toward the tail. I
was too far away to reach the flame with my hands, and the fire
extinguisher was by the pilot's seat. I called for it into the
speaking-tube. The pilot made no move. Once more I shouted. Again no
answer. V.'s earpiece had slipped from under his cap. A thrill of acute
fear passed through me as I stood up, forced my arm through the rush of
wind, and grabbed V.'s shoulder.
Fuselage burning! Pass the fire extinguisher! I yelled.
My words were drowned in the engine's roar; and the pilot, intent on
getting near the Boches, thought I had asked which one we were to
Look out for those two Huns on the left, he called over his
Pass the fire extinguisher!
Get ready to shoot, blast you!
Fire extinguisher, you ruddy fool!
A backward glance told me that the fire was nearing the tail-plane
at the one end and my box of ammunition at the other, and was too
serious for treatment by the extinguisher unless I could get it at
once. Desperately I tried to force myself through the bracing-struts
and cross-wires behind my seat. To my surprise, head and shoulders and
one arm got to the other sidea curious circumstance, as afterwards I
tried repeatedly to repeat this contortionist trick on the ground, but
failed every time. There I stuck, for it was impossible to wriggle
farther. However, I could now reach part of the fire, and at it I beat
with gloved hands. Within half a minute most of the fire was crushed to
death. But a thin streak of flame, outside the radius of my arm, still
flickered towards the tail. I tore off one of my gauntlets and swung it
furiously on to the burning strip. The flame lessened, rose again when
I raised the glove, but died out altogether after I had hit it twice
more. The load of fear left me, and I discovered an intense discomfort,
wedged in as I was between the two crossed bracing-struts. Five minutes
passed before I was able, with many a heave and gasp, to withdraw back
to my seat.
By now we were at close grips with the enemy, and our machine and
another converged on a Hun. V. was firing industriously. As we turned,
he glared at me, and knowing nothing of the fire, shouted: Why the
hell haven't you fired yet? I caught sight of a Boche bus below us,
aimed at it, and emptied a drum in short bursts. It swept away, but not
before two of the German observer's bullets had plugged our petrol tank
from underneath. The pressure went, and with it the petrol supply. The
needle on the rev.-counter quivered to the left as the revolutions
dropped, and the engine missed on first one, then two cylinders. V.
turned us round, and, with nose down, headed the machine for the
trenches. Just then the engine ceased work altogether, and we began to
All this happened so quickly that I had scarcely realised our
plight. Next I began to calculate our chances of reaching the lines
before we would have to land. Our height was 9000 feet, and we were
just over nine and a half miles from friendly territory. Reckoning the
gliding possibilities of our type of bus as a mile to a thousand feet,
the odds seemed unfavourable. On the other hand, a useful wind had
arisen from the east, and V., a very skilful pilot, would certainly
cover all the distance that could be covered.
I located our exact position and searched the map for the nearest
spot in the lines. The village of Bouchavesnes was a fraction south of
due west, and I remembered that the French had stormed it two days
previously. From the shape of the line before this advance, there was
evidently a small salient, with Bouchavesnes in the middle of the
curve. I scribbled this observation on a scrap of paper, which I handed
to V. with the compass direction. V. checked my statements on the map,
nodded over his shoulder, and set a course for Bouchavesnes.
Could we do it? I prayed to the gods and trusted to the pilot.
Through my mind there flitted impossible plans to be tried if we landed
in Boche territory. After setting fire to the machine we would attempt
to hide, and then, at night-time, creep along a communication trench to
the enemy front line, jump across it in a gap between the sentries, and
chance getting by the barbed wire and across No Man's Land. Or we would
steal to the Somme, float down-stream, and somehow or other pass the
entanglements placed across the river by the enemy. Wouff!
wouff! Archie was complicating the odds.
Further broodings were checked by the sudden appearance of a German
scout. Taking advantage of our plight, its pilot dived steeply from a
point slightly behind us. We could not afford to lose any distance by
dodging, so V. did the only thing possiblehe kept straight on. I
raised my gun, aimed at the wicked-looking nose of the attacking craft,
and met it with a barrage of bullets. These must have worried the
Boche, for he swerved aside when a hundred and fifty yards distant, and
did not flatten out until he was beneath the tail of our machine.
Afterwards he climbed away from us, turned, and dived once more. For a
second time we escaped, owing either to some lucky shots from my gun or
to the lack of judgment by the Hun pilot. The scout pulled up and
passed ahead of us. It rose and manoeuvred as if to dive from the front
and bar the way.
Meanwhile, four specks, approaching from the west, had grown larger
and larger, until they were revealed as of the F.E. typethe British
pusher two-seater. The Boche saw them, and hesitated as they bore
down on him. Finding himself in the position of a lion attacked by
hunters when about to pounce on a tethered goat, he decided not to
destroy, for in so doing he would have laid himself open to
destruction. When I last saw him he was racing north-east.
There was now no obstacle to the long glide. As we went lower, the
torn ground showed up plainly. From 2000 feet I could almost count the
shell-holes. Two battery positions came into view, and near one of them
I saw tracks and could distinguish movements by a few tiny dots. It
became evident that, barring accident, we should reach the French zone.
When slightly behind the trenches a confused chatter from below told
us that machine-guns were trained on the machine. By way of
retaliation, I leaned over and shot at what looked like an emplacement.
Then came the Boche front line, ragged and unkempt. I fired along an
open trench. Although far from fearless as a rule, I was not in the
least afraid during the eventful glide. My state of intense wind up
while the fuselage was burning had apparently exhausted my stock of
nervousness. I seemed detached from all idea of danger, and the
desolated German trench area might have been a side-show at a fair.
We swept by No Man's Land at a height of 600 feet, crossed the
French first-and second-line trenches, and, after passing a small
ridge, prepared to settle on an uneven plateau covered by high bracken.
To avoid landing down wind and down-hill, the pilot banked to the right
before he flattened out. The bus pancaked gently to earth, ran over the
bracken, and stopped two yards from a group of shell-holes. Not a wire
was broken. The propeller had been scored by the bracken, but the
landing was responsible for no other damage. Taking into consideration
the broken ground, the short space at our disposal, and the fact that
we landed cross-wind, V. had exhibited wonderful skill.
We climbed out, relieved but cantankerous. V., still ignorant of the
fire, wanted to know why my gun was silent during our first fight; and
I wanted to know why he hadn't shut off the engine and listened when I
shouted for the fire extinguisher. Some French gunners ran to meet us.
The sight that met them must have seemed novel, even to a poilu of two
and a half years' understanding.
Supposing that the aeroplane had crashed, they came to see if we
were dead or injured. What they found was one almost complete aeroplane
and two leather-coated figures, who cursed each other heartily as they
stood side by side, and performed a certain natural function which is
publicly represented in Brussels by a famous little statue.
Quels types! said the first Frenchman to arrive.
An examination of the bus revealed a fair crop of bullet holes
through the wings and elevator. A large gap in one side of the
fuselage, over a longeron that was charred to powder in parts, bore
witness to the fire. Petrol was dripping from the spot where the tank
had been perforated. On taking a tin of chocolate from his pocket, V.
found it ripped and gaping. He searched the pocket and discovered a
bright bullet at the bottom. We traced the adventures of that bullet;
it had grazed a strut, cut right through the petrol union, and expended
itself on the chocolate tin.
Soon our attention was attracted to several French machines that
were passing through a barrage of Archie bursts. The bombardment of an
aeroplane arouses only the sporting instinct of the average soldier.
His interest, though keen, is directed towards the quality of the
shooting and the distance of the shells for their target; his attitude
when watching a pigeon-shoot would be much the same. But an airman has
experience of what the aeroplane crews must be going through, and his
thought is all for them. He knows that dull, loud cough of an Archie
shell, the hiss of a flying fragment, the wicked black puffs that creep
towards their mark and follow it, no matter where the pilot may swerve.
Should a friendly machine tumble to earth after that rare occurrence, a
direct hit, all the sensations of an uncontrolled nose-dive are
suggested to his senses. He hears the shriek of the up-rushing air,
feels the helpless terror. It hurts him to know that he is powerless to
save a friend from certain death. He cannot even withdraw his eyes from
the falling craft. I was glad we had not viewed the disaster while we
were in the air, for nothing is more unnerving than to see another
machine crumbled up by a direct hit when Archie is firing at yourself.
Me, said a French gunner by my side, I prefer the artillery.
With which sentiment I have often agreed when dodging Archie, though at
every other time I prefer the Flying Corps work to all other kinds of
V. disappeared to phone the Squadron Commander, and I was left with
the crippled bus and the crowd of Frenchmen. The poilus questioned me
on subjects ranging from the customary length of a British officer's
moustache to the possible length of the war. Yes, we had been hit in a
fight with Boche aeroplanes. Yes, there had also been a slight fire on
board. Yes, I had great fear at the time. Yes, I would accept a
cigarette with pleasure. No, it was untrue that England contained four
million civilian embusqués of military age. No, the report that
officers of the British Flying Corps received fifty francs a day was
inaccurate, unfortunately. But no, my good-for-nothing opinion was that
we should not finish the Boche within a year; and so on.
How is it, said one man in faded uniform, that the British always
manage to keep themselves correct and shaven?
La barbe! interrupted another; the Tommies don't keep clean on
the Somme. Even the lilies of the état-majeur can't. And he began to
Si ma fi-fi-fiancée me voyait,
Elle m' dirait en me donnant cinq sous:
'Va t' faire raser!' mais moi, j' répondrais
Que moi j'ai toujours les mêmes deux joues.
V. was away for an hour and a half and when he did return it was to
announce that he had been unable to phone because the line was blocked
under pressure of important operations. Deciding to report in person,
we declined an offer of hospitality from the French officers, but
gratefully accepted a guard for the machine, and the loan of a car.
A young lieutenant accompanied us as far as Amiens. There we stopped
for supper, and were joined by some civilian friends of our French
companion. The filet de sole au vin blanc engendered a feeling
of deep content. Now that it was over, I felt pleased with the day's
excitement and the contrast it afforded. Three hours beforehand it
seemed likely that the evening would see us prisoners. Yet here we
were, supping in a comfortable hotel with three charming ladies and the
Arrived at the aerodrome, we visited the hut inhabited by the
Squadron Commander, who wore pyjamas and a smile of welcome. We were
just in time, he said, to rescue our names from the list of missing.
Our tale impressed him so much that, after making arrangements for the
stranded bus to be brought back by a repair party, he remarked: You
can both have a rest to-morrow.
Welcome home, you rotten night-bird, said my tent companion, and
mentioned in a hurt tone that our flight was booked for the 5 A.M.
reconnaissance. But my last thought before sinking into sleep was of
the blessed words: You can have a rest to-morrow.
CHAPTER IV. SPYING OUT THE LAND.
For thirty hours the flight had stood by for a long
reconnaissance. We were dragged from bed at 4.30 of dawn, only to
return gratefully beneath the blankets three-quarters of an hour later,
when a slight but steady rain washed away all chance of an immediate
job. The drizzle continued until after sundown, and our only
occupations throughout the day were to wade from mess to aerodrome,
aerodrome to mess, and to overhaul in detail machines, maps, guns, and
Next morning again we dressed in the half-light, and again went back
to bed in the daylight. This time the show had been postponed because
of low clouds and a thick ground-mist that hung over the reeking earth.
It was a depressing dawnclammy, moist, and sticky.
But by early afternoon the mist had congealed, and the sheet of
clouds was torn to rags by a strong south-west wind. The four craft
detailed for the reconnaissance were therefore lined outside their
shed, while their crews waited for flying orders. I was to be in the
leading bus, for when C.'s death left vacant the command of A Flight,
the good work of my pilot had brought him a flight-commandership, a
three-pipped tunic, and a sense of responsibility which, to my relief,
checked his tendency to over-recklessness. He now came from the
squadron office with news of a changed course.
To get the wind behind us, he explained, we shall cross well to
the south of Péronne. Next, we go to Boislens. After that we pass by
Nimporte, over the Forêt de Charbon to Siègecourt; then up to Le Recul
and back by Princebourg, St. Guillaume, and Toutprès.
As regards the observers, don't forget to use your field-glasses on
the rolling stock; don't forget the precise direction of trains and
motor transport; don't forget the railways and roads on every side;
don't forget the canals; and for the Lord's and everybody else's sake,
don't be surprised by Hun aircraft. As regards the pilotskeep in
close formation when possible; don't straggle and don't climb above the
The pilots ran their engines once more, and the observers exchanged
information about items such as Hun aerodromes and the number of
railway stations at each large town. An air reconnaissance is
essentially the observer's show; its main object being to supply the
I people at headquarters with private bulletins from the back of the
German front. The collection of reconnaissance reports is work of a
highly skilled nature, or ought to be. Spying out the land is much more
than a search of railways, roads, and the terrain generally. The
experienced observer must know the German area over which he works
rather better than he knows Salisbury Plain. The approximate position
of railway junctions and stations, aerodromes, factories, and depôts
should be familiar to him, so that he can without difficulty spot any
new feature. Also he must be something of a sleuth, particularly when
using smoke as a clue. In the early morning a thin layer of smoke above
a wood may mean a bivouac. If it be but a few miles behind the lines,
it can evidence heavy artillery. A narrow stream of smoke near a
railway will make an observer scan the line closely for a stationary
train, as the Boche engine-drivers usually try to avoid detection by
shutting off steam. The Hun has many other dodges to avoid publicity.
When Allied aircraft appear, motor and horse transport remain immobile
at the roadside or under trees. Artillery and infantry are packed under
cover; though, for that matter, the enemy very rarely move troops in
the daytime, preferring the night or early morning, when there are no
troublesome eyes in the air.
To foil these attempts at concealment is the business of the
observers who gather information for Army Headquarters and G. H.Q. For
observers on corps work the detective problems are somewhat different.
This department deals with hidden saps and battery positions, and draws
and photographs conclusions from clues such as a muzzle-blast, fresh
tracks, or an artificial cluster of trees. All reconnaissance observers
must carry out a simultaneous search of the earth for movement and the
sky for foes, and in addition keep their guns ready for instant use.
And should anything happen to their machines, and a forced landing seem
likely, they must sit tight and carry on so long as there is the
slightest hope of a safe return.
A nos moutons. I made a long list in my note-book of the places
where something useful was likely to be observed, and tried my gun by
firing a few shots into the ground. We hung around, impatient at the
Get into your machines, called the Squadron Commander at last,
when a telephone message had reported that the weather conditions
toward the east were no longer unfavourable. We took to the air and set
V. led his covey beyond Albert and well south of the Somme before he
turned to the left. Then, with the strong wind behind us, we raced
north-east and crossed the strip of trenches. The pilot of the
emergency machine, which had come thus far to join the party if one of
the other four dropped out, waved his hand in farewell and left for
Archie barked at us immediately, but he caused small trouble, as
most of his attention was already claimed by a party of French machines
half a mile ahead. Anyhow we should have shaken him off quickly, for at
this stage of the journey, with a forty-mile wind reinforcing our usual
air speed of about ninety-five miles an hour, our ground speed was
sufficient to avoid lingering in any region made unhealthy by A.-A.
guns. The water-marked ribbon of trenches seemed altogether puny and
absurd during the few seconds when it was within sight. The winding
Somme was dull and dirty as the desolation of its surrounding basin.
Some four thousand feet above the ground a few clouds moved restlessly
at the bidding of the wind.
Passing a few small woods, we arrived without interruption over the
railway junction of Boislens. With arms free of the machine to avoid
unnecessary vibration, the observers trained their glasses on the
station and estimated the amount of rolling stock. A close search of
the railway arteries only revealed one train. I grabbed pencil and
note-book and wrote: Boislens, 3.5 P.M. 6 R.S., 1 train going S.W.
Just west of our old friend Mossy-Face were two rows of flagrantly
new trenches. As this is one of the points where the enemy made a stand
after their 1917 spring retreat, it can be assumed that even as far
back as last October they were preparing new lines of defence,
Hindenburg or otherwise. Not far west of these defence works were two
troublesome aerodromes at Bertincourt and Velu, both of which places
have since been captured.
A hunt for an aerodrome followed. V., who knew the neighbourhood
well, having passed above it some two-score times, was quick to spot a
group of hitherto unnoted sheds north of Boislens, towards Mossy-Face.
He circled over them to let me plot the pin-point position on the map
and sketch the aerodrome and its surroundings. The Hun pilots, with
thoughts of a possible bomb-raid, began to take their machines into the
air for safety.
Got 'em all? Thus V., shouting through the rubber speaking-tube,
one end of which was fixed inside my flying-cap, so that it always
rested against my ear.
Correct. Get on with the good work.
The good work led us over a region for ever associated with British
arms. Some of the towns brought bitter memories of that anxious August
three years back. Thus Nimporte, which saw a desperate but successful
stand on one flank of the contemptible little army to gain time for the
main body; Ventregris, scene of a cavalry charge that was a glorious
tragedy; Làbas, where a battery of horse-gunners made for itself an
imperishable name; Siègecourt, where the British might have retired
into a trap but didn't; and Le Recul itself, whence they slipped away
just in time.
In the station at Nimporte a train was waiting to move off, and two
more were on their way to the military base of Plusprès. Both attempted
to hide their heads by shutting off steam immediately the drone of our
engines made itself heard; but we had spotted them from afar, and
already they were noted for the information of Brass Hats.
The next item of interest was activity at a factory outside a little
town. Black trails of smoke stretched away from the chimneys; and
surely, as we approached a minute ago, a short column of lorries was
passing along a road towards the factory. Yet when we reached the spot
there was no sign of road transport. Nevertheless, I was certain I had
seen some motor vehicles, and I entered the fact in my note-book.
Likewise I took care to locate the factory site on my map, in case it
deserved the honour of a bomb attack later.
Our bus led the way across the huge unwieldy Forêt de Charbon,
patterned in rectangular fashion by intersecting roads, and we arrived
at Siègecourt. This is at once a fortress and an industrial town. There
are several railway stations around it, and these added greatly to the
observers' collection of trains and trucks. The Huns below, with
unpleasant memories of former visits from British aircraft, probably
expected to be bombed. They threw up at us a large quantity of
high-explosive shells, but the shots were all wide and we remained
unworried. To judge by the quality of the A.-A. shooting each time I
called there, it seemed likely that half-trained A.-A. gunners were
allowed to cut their active service teeth on us at Siègecourt.
Having squeezed Siègecourt of all movement, we headed for Le Recul.
Here the intricate patchwork of railway kept the observers busy, and
six more trains were bagged. Then, as this was the farthest point east
to be touched, we turned to the left and travelled homeward.
It was soon afterwards that our engine went dud. Instead of a
rhythmic and continuous hum there was at regular intervals a break,
caused by one of the cylinders missing explosion at each turn of the
rotary engine. The rev.-counter showed that the number of revolutions
per minute had fallen off appreciably. Decreased revs. meant less
speed, and our only chance to keep with the others was to lose height
continuously. We were then nearly fifty miles from the lines.
I noticed the gap in the engine's drone as soon as it began. An
airman is accustomed to the full roar of his engine, and it never
distracts his attention, any more than the noise of a waterfall
distracts those who live near it. But if the roar becomes
non-continuous and irregular he is acutely conscious of the sound.
When the machine began to lose height I knew there was a chronic
miss. V. looked round and smiled reassuringly, though he himself was
far from reassured. He tried an alteration in the carburettor mixture,
but this did not remedy matters. Next, thinking that the engine might
have been slightly choked, he cut off the petrol supply for a moment
and put down the nose of the machine. The engine stopped, but picked up
when the petrol was once more allowed to run. During the interval I
thought the engine had ceased work altogether, and was about to stuff
things into my pocket in readiness for a landing on hostile ground.
We continued in a westerly direction, with the one cylinder still
cutting out. To make matters worse, the strong wind that had been our
friend on the outward journey was now an enemy, for it was drifting us
to the north, so that we were obliged to steer almost dead into it to
follow the set course.
As we passed along the straight canal from Le Recul to Princebourg
many barges were in evidence. Those at the side of the canal were taken
to be moored up, and those in the middle to be moving, though the
slowness of their speed made it impossible to decide on their
direction, for from a height of ten thousand feet they seemed to be
stationary. About a dozen Hun machines were rising from aerodromes at
Passementerie, away to the left, but if they were after us the attempt
to reach our height in time was futile.
Between Le Recul and Princebourg we dropped fifteen hundred feet
below the three rear machines, which hovered above us. Though I was far
from feeling at home, it was necessary to sweep the surrounding country
for transport of all kinds. This was done almost automatically, since I
found myself unable to give a whole-hearted attention to the job, while
the infernal motif of the engine's rag-time drone dominated everything
and invited speculation on how much lower we were than the others, and
whether we were likely to reach a friendly landing-ground. And all the
while a troublesome verse chose very inopportunely to race across the
background of my mind, in time with the engine, each cut-out being the
end of a line. Once or twice I caught myself murmuring
In that poor but honest 'ome,
Where 'er sorrowin' parints live,
They drink the shampyne wine she sends,
But never, never can fergive.
Slightly to the east of Princebourg, a new complication appeared in
the shape of a small German machine. Seeing that our bus was in
difficulties, it awaited an opportunity to pounce, and remained at a
height slightly greater than ours, but some distance behind the bus
that acted as rearguard to the party. Its speed must have been about
ten miles an hour more than our own, for though the Hun pilot had
probably throttled down, he was obliged to make his craft snake its way
in short curves, so that it should not come within dangerous range of
our guns. At times he varied this method by lifting the machine almost
to stalling point, letting her down again, and repeating the process.
Once I saw some motor transport on a road. I leaned over the side to
estimate their number, but gave up the task of doing so with accuracy
under the double strain of watching the Hun scout and listening to the
jerky voice of the engine.
As we continued to drop, the German evidently decided to finish us.
He climbed a little and then rushed ahead. I fired at him in rapid
bursts, but he kept to his course. He did not come near enough for a
dive, however, as the rest of the party, two thousand feet above, had
watched his movements, and as soon as he began to move nearer two of
them fell towards him. Seeing that his game was spoiled the Boche went
down steeply, and only flattened out when he was low enough to be safe
Near St Guillaume an anti-aircraft battery opened fire. The Hun
pilot then thought it better to leave Archie to deal with us, and he
annoyed us no more. Some of the shell-bursts were quite near, but we
could not afford to lose height in distance-dodging, with our machine
in a dubious condition twenty-five miles on the wrong side of the
Toutprès, to the south-west, was to have been included in the list
of towns covered, but under the adverse circumstances V. decided not to
battle against the wind more than was necessary to get us home. He
therefore veered to the right, and steered due west. The south-west
wind cut across and drifted us, so that our actual course was
north-west. Our ground speed was now a good deal greater than if we had
travelled directly west, and there was no extra distance to be covered,
because of a large eastward bend in the lines as they wound north. We
skirted the ragged Forêt de Quand-Même, and passed St Guillaume on our
The behaviour of the engine went from bad to worse, and the
vibration became more and more intense. Once again I thought it would
peter out before we were within gliding distance of British territory,
and I therefore made ready to burn the machinethe last duty of an
airman let in for the catastrophe of a landing among enemies. But the
engine kept alive, obstinately and unevenly. V. held down the nose of
the machine still farther, so as to gain the lines in the quickest
Soon we were treated to a display by the family ghost of the clan
Archibald, otherwise an immense pillar of grey-white smoky substance
that appeared very suddenly to windward of us. It stretched up
vertically from the ground to a height about level with ours, which was
then only five and a half thousand feet. We watched it curiously as it
stood in an unbending rigidity similar to that of a giant waxwork,
cold, unnatural, stupidly implacable, half unbelievable, and wholly
ridiculous. At the top it sprayed round, like a stick of asparagus. For
two or three months similar apparitions had been exhibited to us at
rare intervals, nearly always in the same neighbourhood. At first sight
the pillars of smoke seemed not to disperse, but after an interval they
apparently faded away as mysteriously as they had appeared. What was
meant to be their particular branch of frightfulness I cannot say. One
rumour was that they were an experiment in aerial gassing, and another
that they were of some phosphorous compound. All I know is that they
entertained us from time to time, with no apparent damage.
Archie quickly distracted our attention from the phantom pillar. We
had been drifted to just south of Lille, possibly the hottest spot on
the whole western front as regards anti-aircraft fire. Seeing one
machine four to five thousand feet below its companions, the gunners
very naturally concentrated on it. A spasmodic chorus of barking coughs
drowned the almost equally spasmodic roar of the engine. V. dodged
steeply and then raced, full out, for the lines. A sight of the dirty
brown jig-saw of trenches heartened us greatly. A few minutes later we
were within gliding distance of the British front. When we realised
that even if the engine lost all life we could reach safety, nothing
else seemed to matter, not even the storm of shell-bursts.
Suddenly the machine quivered, swung to the left, and nearly put
itself in a flat spin. A large splinter of H.E. had sliced away part of
the rudder. V. banked to prevent an uncontrolled side-slip, righted the
bus as far as possible, and dived for the lines. These we passed at a
great pace, but we did not shake off Archie until well on the right
side, for at our low altitude the high-angle guns had a large radius of
action that could include us. However, the menacing coughs finally
ceased to annoy, and our immediate troubles were over. The strain
snapped, the air was an exhilarating tonic, the sun was warmly
comforting, and everything seemed attractive, even the desolated jumble
of waste ground below us. I opened a packet of chocolate and shared it
with V., who was trying hard to fly evenly with an uneven rudder. I
sang to him down the speaking-tube, but his nerves had stood enough for
the day, and he wriggled the machine from one side to the other until I
became silent. Contrariwise to the last, our engine recovered slightly
now that its recovery was not so important, and it behaved well until
it seized up for better or worse when we had landed.
From the aerodrome the pilots proceeded to tea and a bath, while we,
the unfortunate observers, copied our notes into a detailed report,
elaborated the sketches of the new aerodromes, and drove in our unkempt
state to Headquarters, there to discuss the reconnaissance with
spotlessly neat staff officers. At the end of the report one must give
the height at which the job was done, and say whether the conditions
were favourable or otherwise for observation. I thought of the absence
of thick clouds or mist that might have made the work difficult. Then I
thought of the cylinder that missed and the chunk of rudder that was
missing, but decided that these little inconveniences were unofficial.
And the legend I felt in duty bound to write was: Height 5,000-10,000
ft. Observation easy.
CHAPTER V. THERE AND BACK.
An inhuman philosopher or a strong, silent poseur might affect to
treat with indifference his leave from the Front. Personally I have
never met a philosopher inhuman enough or a poseur strongly silent
enough to repress evidence of wild satisfaction, after several months
of war at close quarters, on being given a railway warrant entitling
him to ten days of England, home, and no duty. But if you are a normal
soldier who dislikes fighting and detests discomfort, the date of your
near-future holiday from the dreary scene of war will be one of the few
problems that really matter.
Let us imagine a slump in great pushes at your sector of the line,
since only during the interval of attack is the leave-list
unpigeonholed. The weeks pass and your turn creeps close, while you
pray that the lull may last until the day when, with a heavy haversack
and a light heart, you set off to become a transient in Arcadia. The
desire for a taste of freedom is sharpened by delay; but finally, after
disappointment and postponement, the day arrives and you depart.
Exchanging a So long with less fortunate members of the mess, you
realise a vast difference in respective destinies. To-morrow the others
will be dodging crumps, archies, or official chits for your
information, please; to-morrow, with luck, you will be dodging taxis
During the journey you begin to cast out the oppressive feeling that
a world and a half separates you from the pleasantly undisciplined life
you once led. The tense influence of those twin bores of active
service, routine and risk, gradually loosens hold, and your state of
mind is tuned to a pitch half-way between the note of battle and that
of a bank-holiday.
Yet a slight sense of remoteness lingers as you enter London. At
first view the Charing Cross loiterers seem more foreign than the
peasants of Picardy, the Strand and Piccadilly less familiar than the
Albert-Pozières road. Not till a day or two later, when the remnants of
strained pre-occupation with the big things of war have been charmed
away by old haunts and old friends, do you feel wholly at home amid
your rediscovered fellow-citizens, the Man in the Street, the Pacifist,
the air-raid-funk Hysteric, the Lady Flag-Seller, the War Profiteer,
the dear-boy Fluff Girl, the Prohibitionist, the England-for-the-Irish
politician, the Conscientious Objector, the hotel-government
bureaucrat, and other bulwarks of our united Empire. For the rest, you
will want to cram into ten short days the average experiences of ten
long weeks. If, like most of us, you are young and foolish, you will
skim the bubbling froth of life and seek crowded diversion in the
lighter follies, the passing shows, and l'amour qui rit. And you will
probably return to the big things of war tired but mightily refreshed,
and almost ready to welcome a further spell of routine and risk.
The one unsatisfactory aspect of leave from France, apart from its
rarity, is the travelling. This, in a region congested by the more
important traffic of war, is slow and burdensome to the impatient
holiday-maker. Occasionally the Flying Corps officer is able to
substitute an excursion by air for the land and water journey, if on
one of the dates that sandwich his leave a bus of the type already
flown by him must be chauffeured across the Channel. Such an
opportunity is welcome, for besides avoiding discomfort, a joy-ride of
this description often saves time enough to provide an extra day in
On the last occasion when I was let loose from the front on
ticket-of-leave, I added twenty-four hours to my Blighty period by a
chance meeting with a friendly ferry-pilot and a resultant trip as
passenger in an aeroplane from a home depôt. Having covered the same
route by train and boat a few days previously, a comparison between the
two methods of travel left me an enthusiast for aerial transport in the
golden age of after-the-war.
The leave train at Arrière was time-tabled for midnight, but as,
under a war-time edict, French cafés and places where they lounge are
closed at 10 P.M., it was at this hour that muddied officers and
Tommies from every part of the Somme basin began to crowd the station.
Though confronted with a long period of waiting, in a packed
entrance-hall that was only half-lit and contained five seats to be
scrambled for by several hundred men, every one, projected beyond the
immediate discomfort to the good time coming, seemed content. The
atmosphere of jolly expectancy was comparable to that of Waterloo
Station on the morning of Derby Day. Scores of little groups gathered
to talk the latest shop-talk from the trenches. A few of us who were
acquainted with the corpulent and affable R.T.O.it is part of an
R.T.O.'s stock-in-trade to be corpulent and affablesought out his
private den, and exchanged yarns while commandeering his whisky. Stuff
Redoubt had been stormed a few days previously, and a Canadian captain,
who had been among the first to enter the Hun stronghold, told of the
assault. A sapper discussed some recent achievements of mining parties.
A tired gunner subaltern spoke viciously of a stupendous bombardment
that allowed little rest, less sleep, and no change of clothes. Time
was overcome easily in thus looking at war along the varying angles of
the infantryman, the gunner, the engineer, the machine-gun performer,
and the flying officer, all fresh from their work.
The train, true to the custom of leave trains, was very late. When
it did arrive, the good-natured jostling for seats again reminded one
of the London to Epsom traffic of Derby Day. Somehow the crowd was
squeezed into carriage accommodation barely sufficient for two-thirds
of its number, and we left Arrière. Two French and ten British officers
obtained a minimum of space in my compartment. We sorted out our legs,
arms, and luggage, and tried to rest.
In my case sleep was ousted by thoughts of what was ahead. Ten days'
freedom in England! The stout major on my left snored. The head of the
hard-breathing Frenchman to the right slipped on to my shoulder. An
unkempt subaltern opposite wriggled and turned in a vain attempt to
find ease. I was damnably cramped, but above all impatient for the
morrow. A passing train shrieked. Cold whiffs from the half-open window
cut the close atmosphere. Slowly, and with frequent halts for the
passage of war freights more urgent than ourselves, our train chugged
northward. One hour, two hours, three hours of stuffy dimness and acute
discomfort. Finally I sank into a troubled doze. When we were called
outside Boulogne, I found my hand poised on the stout major's bald
head, as if in benediction.
The soldier on leave, eager to be done with the preliminary journey,
chafes at inevitable delay in Boulogne. Yet this largest of channel
ports, in its present state, can show the casual passer-by much that is
interesting. It has become almost a new town during the past three
years. Formerly a headquarters of pleasure, a fishing centre and a
principal port of call for Anglo-Continental travel, it has been
transformed into an important military base. It is now wholly of the
war; the armies absorb everything that it transfers from sea to
railway, from human fuel for war's blast-furnace to the fish caught
outside the harbour. The multitude of visitors from across the Channel
is larger than ever; but instead of Paris, the Mediterranean, and the
East, they are bound for less attractive destinationsthe muddy
battle-area and Kingdom Come.
The spirit of the place is altogether changed. From time immemorial
Boulogne has included an English alloy in its French composition, but
prior to the war it shared with other coastal resorts of France an
outlook of smiling carelessness. Superficially it now seems more
British than French, and, partly by reason of this, it impresses one as
being severely business-like. The great number of khaki travellers is
rivalled by a huge colony of khaki Base workers. Except for a few
matelots, French fishermen, and the wharfside cafés, there is nothing
to distinguish the quays from those of a British port.
The blue-bloused porters who formerly met one with volubility and
the expectation of a fabulous tip have given place to khakied
orderlies, the polite customs officials to old-soldier myrmidons of the
worried embarkation officer. Store dumps with English markings are
packed symmetrically on the cobbled stones. The transport lorries are
all British, some of them still branded with the names of well-known
London firms. Newly-built supply depôts, canteens, and military
institutes fringe the town proper or rise behind the sand-ridges.
One-time hotels and casinos along the sea-front between Boulogne and
Wimereux have become hospitals, to which, by day and by night, the
smooth-running motor ambulances bring broken soldiers. Other of the
larger hotels, like the Folkestone and the Meurice, are now patronised
almost exclusively by British officers.
The military note dominates everything. A walk through the main
streets leaves an impression of mixed uniformsbedraggled uniforms
from trench and dug-out, neat rainbow-tabbed uniforms worn by officers
attached to the Base, graceful nursing uniforms, haphazard convalescent
uniforms, discoloured blue uniforms of French permissionaires.
Everybody is bilingual, speaking, if not both English and French,
either one or other of these languages and the formless Angliche patois
invented by Tommy and his hosts of the occupied zone. And everybody,
soldier and civilian, treats as a matter of course the strange
metamorphosis of what was formerly a haven for the gentle tourist.
The boat, due to steam off at eleven, left at noon,a creditable
performance as leave-boats go. On this occasion there was good reason
for the delay, as we ceded the right of way to a hospital ship and
waited while a procession of ambulance cars drove along the quay and
unloaded their stretcher cases. The Red Cross vessel churned slowly out
of the harbour, and we followed at a respectful distance.
Passengers on a Channel leave-boat are quieter than might be
expected. With the country of war behind them they have attained the
third degree of content, and so novel is this state after months of
living on edge that the short crossing does not allow sufficient time
for them to be moved to exuberance. One promenades the crowded deck
happily, taking care not to tread on the staff spurs, and talks of
fighting as if it were a thing of the half-forgotten past.
But there is no demonstration. In a well-known illustrated weekly a
recent frontispiece, supposedly drawn from material supplied, depicts
a band of beaming Tommies, with weird water-bottles, haversacks,
mess-tins, and whatnots dangling from their sheepskin coats, throwing
caps and cheers high into the air as they greet the cliffs of England.
As the subject of an Academy picture, or an illustration for The
Hero's Homecoming, or How a Bigamist Made Good, the sketch would be
excellent. But, except for the beaming faces, it is fanciful. A shadowy
view of the English coast-line draws a crowd to the starboard side of
the boat, whence one gazes long and joyfully at the dainty cliffs. Yet
there is no outward sign of excitement; the deep satisfaction felt by
all is of too intimate a nature to call for cheering and cap-throwing.
The starboard deck remains crowded as the shore looms larger, and
until, on entry into Dovstone harbour, one prepares for disembarkation.
The Front seemed very remote from the train that carried us from
Dovstone to London. How could one think of the wilderness with the
bright hop-fields of Kent chasing past the windows? Then came the
mass-meeting of brick houses that skirt London, and finally the tunnel
which is the approach to the terminus. As the wheels rumbled through
the darkness of it they suggested some lines of stray verse beginning
Twenty to eleven by all the clocks of Piccadilly;
Buy your love a lily-bloom, buy your love a rose.
It had been raining, and the faint yet unmistakable tang sniffed
from wet London streets made one feel at home more than anything else.
We dispersed, each to make his interval of heaven according to taste,
means, and circumstances. That same evening I was fortunate in being
helped to forget the realities of war by two experiences. A
much-mustached A.P.M. threatened me with divers penalties for the
wearing of a soft hat; and I was present at a merry gathering of
theatrical luminaries, enormously interested in themselves, but
enormously bored by the war, which usurped so much newspaper space that
belonged by rights to the lighter drama.
Curtain and interval of ten days, at the end of which I was offered
a place as passenger in a machine destined for my own squadron. The bus
was to be taken to an aircraft depôt in France from Rafborough
Aerodrome. Rafborough is a small town galvanised into importance by its
association with flying. Years ago, in the far-away days when aviation
itself was matter for wonder, the pioneers who concerned themselves
with the possibilities of war flying made their headquarters at
Rafborough. An experimental factory, rich in theory, was established,
and near it was laid out an aerodrome for the more practical work.
Thousands of machines have since been tested on the rough-grassed
aerodrome, while the neighbouring Royal Aircraft Factory has continued
to produce designs, ideas, aeroplanes, engines, and aircraft
accessories. Formerly most types of new machines were put through their
official paces at Rafborough, and most types, including some captures
from the Huns, were to be seen in its sheds. Probably Rafborough has
harboured a larger variety of aircraft and aircraft experts than any
other place in the world.
My friend the ferry-pilot having announced that the carriage waited,
I strapped our baggage, some new gramophone records, and myself into
the observer's office. I also tooktell this not in Gath, for the
transport of dogs by aeroplane has been forbiddena terrier pup sent
to a fellow-officer by his family. At first the puppy was on a cord
attached to some bracing-wires; but as he showed fright when the
machine took off from the ground, I kept him on my lap for a time. Here
he remained subdued and apparently uninterested. Later, becoming inured
to the engine's drone and the slight vibration, he roused himself and
wanted to explore the narrowing passage toward the tail-end of the
fuselage. The little chap was, however, distinctly pleased to be on
land again at Saint Gregoire, where he kept well away from the machine,
as if uncertain whether the strange giant of an animal were friendly or
It was a morning lovely enough to be that of the world's birthday.
Not a cloud flecked the sky, the flawless blue of which was made
tenuous by sunlight. The sun brightened the kaleidoscopic earthscape
below us, so that rivers and canals looked like quicksilver threads,
and even the railway lines glistened. The summer countryside, as viewed
from an aeroplane, is to my mind the finest scene in the worldan
unexampled scene, of which poets will sing in the coming days of
universal flight. The varying browns and greens of the field-pattern
merge into one another delicately; the woods, splashes of bottle-green,
relieve the patchwork of hedge from too ordered a scheme; rivers and
roads criss-cross in riotous manner over the vast tapestry; pleasant
villages and farm buildings snuggle in the valleys or straggle on the
slopes. The wide and changing perspective is full of a harmony
unspoiled by the jarring notes evident on solid ground. Ugliness and
dirt are camouflaged by the clean top of everything. Grimy towns and
jerry-built suburbs seem almost attractive when seen in mass from a
height. Slums, the dead uniformity of long rows of houses, sordid
back-gardens, bourgeois public statuesall these eyesores are
mercifully hidden by the roofed surface. The very factory chimneys have
a certain air of impressiveness, in common with church towers and the
higher buildings. Once, on flying over the pottery town of
Coalportthe most uninviting place I have ever visitedI found that
the altered perspective made it look delightful.
A westward course, with the fringe of London away on our left,
brought us to the coast-line all too soon. Passing Dovstone, the bus
continued across the Channel. A few ships, tiny and slow-moving when
observed from a machine at 8000 feet and travelling 100 miles an hour,
spotted the sea. A cluster of what were probably destroyers threw out
trails of dark smoke. From above mid-Channel we could see plainly the
two coaststhat of England knotted into small creeks and capes, that
of France bent into large curves, except for the sharp corner at
Grisnez. Behind was Blighty, with its greatness and itssawdust. Ahead
was the province of battle, with its good-fellowship and itsmud. I
lifted the puppy to show him his new country, but he merely exhibited
boredom and a dislike of the sudden rush of air.
From Cape Grisnez we steered north-east towards Calais, so as to
have a clearly defined course to the aircraft depôt of Saint Gregoire.
After a cross-Channel flight one notes a marked difference between the
French and English earthscapes. The French towns and villages seem to
sprawl less than those of England, and the countryside in general is
more compact and regular. The roads are straight and tree-bordered, so
that they form almost as good a guide to an airman as the railways. In
England the roads twist and twirl through each other like the threads
of a spider's web, and failing rail or river or prominent landmarks,
one usually steers by compass rather than trust to roads.
At Calais we turned to the right and followed a network of canals
south-westward to Saint Gregoire, where was an aircraft depôt similar
to the one at Rafborough. New machines call at Saint Gregoire before
passing to the service of aerodromes, and in its workshops machines
damaged but repairable are made fit for further service. It is also a
higher training centre for airmen. Before they join a squadron pilots
fresh from their instruction in England gain experience on service
machines belonging to the pool at Saint Gregoire.
Having been told by telephone from my squadron that one of our
pilots had been detailed to take the recently arrived bus to the Somme,
I awaited his arrival and passed the time to good purpose in watching
the aerobatics and sham fights of the pool pupils. Every now and then
another plane from England would arrive high over the aerodrome, spiral
down and land into the wind. The ferry-pilot who had brought me left
for Rafborough almost immediately on a much-flown quirk. The machine
he had delivered at Saint Gregoire was handed over to a pilot from
Umpty Squadron when the latter reported, and we took to the air soon
after lunch. The puppy travelled by road over the last lap of his long
journey, in the company of a lorry driver.
The bus headed east while climbing, for we had decided to follow the
British lines as far as the Somme, a course which would be prolific in
interesting sights, and which would make us eligible for that rare gift
of the gods, an air-fight over friendly territory.
The coloured panorama below gave place gradually to a
wildernessugly brown and pock-marked. The roads became bare and
dented, the fields were mottled by shell-holes, the woods looked like
scraggy patches of burnt furze. It was a district of great deeds and
glorious deathsthe desolation surrounding the Fronts of yesterday and
North of Ypres we turned to the right and hovered awhile over this
city of ghosts. Seen from above, the shell of the ancient city suggests
a grim reflection on the mutability of beauty. I sought a comparison,
and could think of nothing but the skeleton of a once charming woman.
The ruins stood out in a magnificent disorder that was starkly
impressive. Walls without roof, buildings with two sides, churches
without tower, were everywhere prominent, as though proud to survive
the orgy of destruction. The shattered Cathedral retained much of its
former grandeur. Only the old Cloth Hall, half-razed and without arch
or belfry, seemed to cry for vengeance on the vandalism that wrecked
it. The gaping skeleton was grey-white, as if sprinkled by the powder
of decay. And one fancies that at night-time the ghosts of 1915 mingle
with the ghosts of Philip of Spain's era of conquest and the ghosts of
great days in other centuries, as they search the ruins for relics of
the city they knew.
Left of us was the salient, studded with broken villages that became
household names during the two epic Battles of Ypres. The brown soil
was dirty, shell-ploughed, and altogether unlovely. Those strange
markings, which from our height looked like the tortuous pathways of a
serpent, were the trenches, old and new, front-line, support, and
communication. Small saps projected from the long lines at every angle.
So complicated was the jumble that the sinister region of No Man's
Land, with its shell-holes, dead bodies, and barbed wire, was scarcely
A brown strip enclosed the trenches and wound northward and
southward. Its surface had been torn and battered by innumerable
shells. On its fringe, among the copses and crests, were the guns,
though these were evidenced only by an occasional flash. Behind, in
front, and around them were those links in the chain of war, the
oft-cut telephone wires. The desolation seemed utterly bare, though one
knew that over and under it, hidden from eyes in the air, swarmed the
slaves of the gun, the rifle, and the bomb.
Following the belt of wilderness southward, we were obliged to veer
to the right at St. Eloi, so as to round a sharp bend. Below the bend,
and on the wrong side of it, was the Messines Ridge, the recent capture
of which has straightened the line as far as Hooge, and flattened the
Ypres salient out of existence as a salient. Next came the torn and
desolate outline of Plug Street Wood, and with it reminiscences of a
splendid struggle against odds when shell-shortage hampered our 1915
armies. Armentières appeared still worthy to be called a town. It was
battered, but much less so than Ypres, possibly because it was a hotbed
of German espionage until last year. The triangular denseness of Lille
loomed up from the flat soil on our left.
As we passed down the line the brown band narrowed until it seemed a
strip of discoloured water-marked ribbon sewn over the mosaic of open
country. The trench-lines were monotonous in their sameness. The
shell-spotted area bulged at places, as for example Festubert, Neuve
Chapelle (of bitter memory), Givenchy, Hulluch, and Loos. Lens, well
behind the German trenches in those days, showed few marks of
bombardment. The ribbon of ugliness widened again between Souchez and
the yet uncaptured Vimy Ridge, but afterwards contracted as far as
Arras, that ragged sentinel of the war frontier.
At Arras we entered our own particular province, which, after months
of flying over it, I knew better than my native county. Gun-flashes
became numerous, kite balloons hung motionless, and we met restless
aeroplane formations engaged on defensive patrols. With these latter on
guard our chance of a scrap with roving enemy craft would have been
remote; though for that matter neither we nor they saw a single
black-crossed machine throughout the afternoon.
From Gommecourt to the Somme was an area of concentrated
destruction. The wilderness swelled outwards, becoming twelve miles
wide at parts. Tens of thousands of shells had pocked the dirty soil,
scores of mine explosions had cratered it. Only the pen of a Zola could
describe adequately the zone's intense desolation, as seen from the
air. Those ruins, suggestive of abandoned scrap-heaps, were formerly
villages. They had been made familiar to the world through
matter-of-fact reports of attack and counter-attack, capture and
recapture. Each had a tale to tell of systematic bombardment, of
crumbling walls, of wild hand-to-hand fighting, of sudden evacuation
and occupation. Now they were nothing but useless piles of brick and
glorious namesThiepval, Pozières, La Boiselle, Guillemont, Flers,
Hardecourt, Guinchy, Combles, Bouchavesnes, and a dozen others.
Of all the crumbled roads the most striking was the long, straight
one joining Albert and Bapaume. It looked fairly regular for the most
part, except where the trenches cut it. Beyond the scrap-heap that once
was Pozières two enormous quarries dipped into the earth on either side
of the road. Until the Messines explosion they were the largest mine
craters on the western front. Farther along the road was the scene of
the first tank raids, where on September 16 the metal monsters waddled
across to the gaping enemy and ate up his pet machine-gun emplacements
before he had time to recover from his surprise. At the road's end was
the forlorn stronghold of Bapaume. One by one the lines of defence
before it had been stormed, and it was obvious that the town must fall,
though its capture was delayed until months later by a fierce defence
at the Butte de Warlencourt and elsewhere. The advance towards Bapaume
was of special interest to R.F.C. squadrons on the Somme, for the town
had been a troublesome centre of anti-aircraft devilries. Our
field-guns now being too close for Herr Archie, he had moved to more
Some eight miles east of Bapaume the Bois d'Havrincourt stood out
noticeably. Around old Mossy-Face, as the wood was known in R.F.C.
messes, were clustered many Boche aerodromes. Innumerable duels had
been fought in the air-country between Mossy-Face and the lines. Every
fine day the dwellers in the trenches before Bapaume saw machines
swerving round each other in determined effort to destroy. This region
was the hunting-ground of many dead notabilities of the air, including
the Fokker stars Boelcke and Immelmann, besides British pilots as
brilliant but less advertised.
Below the Pozières-Bapaume road were five small woods, grouped like
the Great Bear constellation of stars. Their roots were feeding on
hundreds of dead bodies, after each of the fiveTrones, Mametz,
Foureaux, Delville, and Bouleauxhad seen wild encounters with bomb
and bayonet beneath its dead trees. Almost in the same position
relative to the cluster of woods as is the North Star to the Great
Bear, was a scrap-heap larger than most, amid a few walls yet upright.
This was all that remained of the fortress of Combles. For two years
the enemy strengthened it by every means known to military science,
after which the British and French rushed in from opposite sides and
met in the main street.
A few minutes down the line brought our machine to the sparkling
Somme, the white town of Péronne, and the then junction of the British
and French lines. We turned north-west and made for home. Passing over
some lazy sausage balloons, we reached Albert. Freed at last from the
intermittent shelling from which it suffered for so long, the town was
picking up the threads of activity. The sidings were full of trucks,
and a procession of some twenty lorries moved slowly up the road to
Bouzincourt. As reminder of anxious days, we noted a few skeleton
roofs, and the giant Virgin Mary in tarnished gilt, who, after
withstanding bombardments sufficient to have wrecked a cathedral,
leaned over at right angles to her pedestal, suspended in apparently
miraculous fashion by the three remaining girders.
We flew once more over a countryside of multi-coloured crops and
fantastic woods, and so to the aerodrome.
* * * * *
Snatches of familiar flying-talk, unheard during the past ten days
of leave, floated from the tea-table as I entered the mess: Folded up
as he pulled out of the diveweak factor of safetyside-slipped away
from Archievertical gustchoked on the fine adjustmentmade rings
round the Hunwent down in flames near Douai.
The machine that went down in flames near Douai was piloted by the
man whose puppy I had brought from England.
CHAPTER VI. A CLOUD RECONNAISSANCE.
Clouds, say the text-books of meteorology, are collections of partly
condensed water vapour or of fine ice crystals. Clouds, mentioned in
terms of the newspaper and the club, are dingy masses of nebulousness
under which the dubious politician, company promoter, or other merchant
of hot air is hidden from open attack and exposure. Clouds, to the
flying officer on active service, are either useful friends or
unstrafeable enemies. The hostile clouds are very high and of the
ice-crystal variety. They form a light background, against which
aeroplanes are boldly silhouetted, to the great advantage of
anti-aircraft gunners. The friendly or water-vapour clouds are to be
found several thousands of feet lower. If a pilot be above them they
help him to dodge writs for trespass, which Archibald the bailiff seeks
to hand him. When numerous enough to make attempts at observation
ineffective, they perform an even greater service for himthat of
arranging for a day's holiday. And at times the R.F.C. pilot, like the
man with a murky past, is constrained to have clouds for a covering
against attack; as you shall see if you will accompany me on the trip
about to be described.
* * * * *
The period is the latter half of September, 1916, a time of great
doings on the Somme front. After a few weeks of comparative
inactionif methodical consolidation and intense artillery preparation
can be called inactionthe British are once more denting the Boche
line. Flers, Martinpuich, Courcelette, and Eaucourt l'Abbaye have
fallen within the past week, and the tanks have made their first
ungainly bow before the curtain of war, with the superlatives of the
war correspondent in close attendance. Leave from France has been
Our orders are to carry through all the reconnaissance work allotted
to us, even though weather conditions place such duties near the
border-line of possible accomplishment. That is why we now propose to
leave the aerodrome, despite a great lake of cloud that only allows the
sky to be seen through rare gaps, and a sixty-mile wind that will fight
us on the outward journey. Under these circumstances we shall probably
find no friendly craft east of the trenches, and, as a consequence,
whatever Hun machines are in the air will be free to deal with our
party. However, since six machines are detailed for the job, I console
myself with the old tag about safety in numbers.
We rise to a height of 3000 feet, and rendezvous there. From the
flight-commander's bus I look back to see how the formation is shaping,
and discover that we number but five, one machine having failed to
start by reason of a dud engine. We circle the aerodrome, waiting for a
sixth bus, but nobody is sent to join us. The Carry on signal shows
up from the ground, and we head eastward.
After climbing another fifteen hundred feet, we enter the clouds. It
is now impossible to see more than a yard or two through the intangible
wisps of grey-white vapour that seem to float around us, so that our
formation loses its symmetry, and we become scattered. Arrived in the
clear atmosphere above the clouds my pilot throttles down until the
rear machines have appeared and re-formed. We then continue in the
direction of the trenches, with deep blue infinity above and the
unwieldy cloud-banks below. Familiar landmarks show up from time to
time through holes in the white screen.
Against the violent wind, far stronger than we found it near the
ground, we make laboured progress. Evidently, two of the formation are
in difficulties, for they drop farther and farther behind. Soon one
gives in and turns back, the pilot being unable to maintain pressure
for his petrol supply. I shout the news through the speaking-tube, and
hear, in reply from the flight-commander, a muffled comment, which
might be Well! but it is more likely to be something else. Three
minutes later the second bus in trouble turns tail. Its engine has been
missing on one cylinder since the start, and is not in a fit state for
a trip over enemy country. Again I call to the leader, and again hear a
word ending in ell. The two remaining machines close up, and we
continue. Very suddenly one of them drops out, with a rocker-arm gone.
Its nose goes down, and it glides into the clouds. Yet again I call the
flight-commander's attention to our dwindling numbers, and this time I
cannot mistake the single-syllabled reply. It is a full-throated
For my part I compare the party to the ten little nigger boys, and
wonder when the only survivor, apart from our own machine, will leave.
I look towards it anxiously. The wings on one side are much lighter
than those on the other, and I therefore recognise it as the
Tripehound's bus. There is ground for misgiving, for on several
occasions during the past ten minutes it has seemed to fly in an
erratic manner. The cause of this, as we find out on our return, is
that for five minutes the Tripehound has been leaning over the side,
with the joystick held between his knees while attempting to fasten a
small door in the cowling round the engine, left open by a careless
mechanic. It is important to shut the opening, as otherwise the wind
may rush inside and tear off the cowling. Just as a short band of the
trench line south of Arras can be seen through a gap, the Tripehound,
having found that he cannot possibly reach far enough to close the
protruding door, signals that he must go home.
I do not feel altogether sorry to see our last companion leave, as
we have often been told not to cross the lines on a reconnaissance
flight with less than three machines; and with the wind and the low
clouds, which now form an opaque window, perforated here and there by
small holes, a long observation journey over Bocheland by a single
aeroplane does not seem worth while. But the flight-commander,
remembering the recent order about completing a reconnaissance at all
costs, thinks differently and decides to go on. To get our bearings he
holds down the nose of the machine until we have descended beneath the
clouds, and into full view of the open country.
We find ourselves a mile or two beyond Arras. As soon as the bus
appears it is bracketed in front, behind, and on both sides by black
shell-bursts. We swerve aside, but more shells quickly follow. The
shooting is particularly good, for the Archie people have the exact
range of the low clouds slightly above us. Three times we hear the hiss
of flying fragments of high explosive, and the lower left plane is
unevenly punctured. We lose height for a second to gather speed, and
then, to my relief, the pilot zooms up to a cloud. Although the gunners
can no longer see their target, they loose off a few more rounds and
trust to luck that a stray shell may find us. These bursts are mostly
far wide of the mark, although two of them make ugly black blotches
against the whiteness of the vapour through which we are rising.
Once more we emerge into the open space between sky and cloud. The
flight-commander takes the mouthpiece of his telephone tube and shouts
to me that he intends completing the round above the clouds. To let me
search for railway and other traffic he will descend into view of the
ground at the most important points. He now sets a compass course for
Toutprès, the first large town of the reconnaissance, while I search
all around for possible enemies. At present the sky is clear, but at
any minute enemy police craft may appear from the unbroken blue or rise
through the clouds.
The slowness of our ground speed, due to the fierce wind, allows me
plenty of time to admire the strangely beautiful surroundings. Above is
the inverted bowl of blue, bright for the most part, but duller towards
the horizon-rim. The sun pours down a vivid light, which spreads
quicksilver iridescence over the cloud-tops. Below is the cloud-scape,
fantastic and far-stretching. The shadow of our machine is surrounded
by a halo of sunshine as it darts along the irregular white surface.
The clouds dip, climb, twist, and flatten into every conceivable shape.
Thrown together as they never could be on solid earth are outlines of
the wildest and tamest features of a world unspoiled by battlefield,
brick towns, ruins, or other ulcers on the face of nature. Jagged
mountains, forests, dainty hills, waterfalls, heavy seas, plateaux,
precipices, quiet lakes, rolling plains, caverns, chasms, and dead
deserts merge into one another, all in a uniform white, as though
wrapped in cotton wool and laid out for inspection in haphazard
continuity. And yet, for all its mad irregularity, the cloud-scape from
above is perfectly harmonious and never tiring. One wants to land on
the clean surface and explore the jungled continent. Sometimes, when
passing a high projection, the impulse comes to lean over and grab a
handful of the fleecy covering.
After being shut off from the ground for a quarter of an hour, we
are able to look down through a large chasm. Two parallel canals cut
across it, and these we take to be part of the canal junction below
Toutprès. This agrees with our estimate of speed, wind, and time,
according to which we should be near the town. The pilot takes the
machine through the clouds, and we descend a few hundred feet below
To disconcert Archie we travel in zigzags, while I search for items
of interest. A train is moving south, and another is entering Toutprès
from the east. A few barges are dotted among the various canals.
Bordering a wood to the west is an aerodrome. About a dozen aeroplanes
are in line on the ground, but the air above it is empty of Boche
Evidently the Huns below had not expected a visit from hostile
machines on such a day, for Archie allows several minutes to pass
before introducing himself. A black puff then appears on our level some
distance ahead. We change direction, but the gunners find our new
position and send bursts all round the bus. The single wouff of
the first shot has become a jerky chorus that swells or dwindles
according to the number of shells and their nearness.
I signal to the flight-commander that I have finished with Toutprès,
whereupon we climb into the clouds and comparative safety. We rise
above the white intangibility and steer north-east, in the direction of
Passementerie. I continue to look for possible aggressors. The
necessity for a careful look-out is shown when a group of black specks
appears away to the south, some fifteen hundred feet above us. In this
area and under to-day's weather conditions, the odds are a hundred to
one that they will prove to be Boches.
We lose height until our bus is on the fringe of the clouds and
ready to escape out of sight. Apparently the newcomers do not spot us
in the first place, for they are flying transverse to our line of
flight. A few minutes later they make the discovery, turn in our
direction, and begin a concerted dive. All this while I have kept my
field-glasses trained on them, and as one machine turns I can see the
Maltese crosses painted on the wings. The question of the strangers'
nationality being answered, we slip into a cloud to avoid attack.
The flight-commander thinks it advisable to remain hidden by keeping
inside the clouds. He must therefore steer entirely by compass, without
sun or landmark to guide him. As we leave the clear air a left movement
of the rudder, without corresponding bank, swings the machine to the
north, so that its nose points away from the desired course. The pilot
puts on a fraction of right rudder to counteract the deviation. We veer
eastward, but rather too much, if the swaying needle of the compass is
to be believed. A little left rudder again puts the needle into an
anti-clockwise motion. With his attention concentrated on our
direction, the pilot, impatient at waiting for the needle to become
steady, unconsciously kicks the rudder-controls, first to one side,
then to the other. The needle begins to swing around, and the compass
is thus rendered useless for the time being. For the next minute or
two, until it is safe to leave the clouds, the pilot must now keep the
machine straight by instinct, and trust to his sense of direction.
A similar mishap often happens when flying through cloud. Pilots
have been known to declare that all compasses are liable to swing of
their own accord when in clouds, though the real explanation is
probably that they themselves have disturbed the needle unduly by a
continuous pressure on each side of the rudder-bar in turn, thus
causing an oscillation of the rudder and a consequent zigzagged line of
flight. The trouble is more serious than it would seem to the layman,
as when the compass is out of action, and no other guides are
available, one tends to drift round in a large circle, like a man lost
in the jungle. Should the craft be driven by a rotary engine, the
torque, or outward wash from the propeller, may make a machine edge
more and more to the left, unless the pilot is careful to allow for
Such a drift to the left has taken us well to the north of a
straight line between Toutprès and Passementerie, as we discover on
leaving the clouds for a second or two, so as to correct the error with
the aid of landmarks. But the compass has again settled down to good
behaviour, and we are able to get a true course before we climb back to
the sheltering whiteness.
A flight inside the clouds is far from pleasant. We are hemmed in by
a drifting formlessness that looks like thin steam, but, unlike steam,
imparts a sensation of coldness and clamminess. The eye cannot
penetrate farther than about a yard beyond the wing tips. Nothing is to
be seen but the aeroplane, nothing is to be heard but the droning hum
of the engine, which seems louder than ever amid the isolation.
I am bored, cold, and uncomfortable. Time drags along lamely; five
minutes masquerade as half an hour, and only by repeated glances at the
watch do I convince myself that we cannot yet have reached the next
objective. I study the map for no particular reason except that it is
something to do. Then I decide that the Lewis gun ought to be fired as
a test whether the working parts are still in good order. I hold the
spade-grip, swing round the circular mounting until the gun points to
the side, and loose five rounds into the unpleasant vapour. The
flight-commander, startled at the sudden clatter, turns round. Finding
that the fire was mine and not an enemy's, he shakes his fist as a
protest against the sudden disturbance. Even this action is welcome, as
being evidence of companionship.
When the pilot, judging that Passementerie should be below, takes
the machine under the clouds, I feel an immense relief, even though the
exit is certain to make us a target for Archie. We emerge slightly to
the west of the town. There is little to be observed; the railways are
bare of trains, and the station contains only an average number of
trucks. Four black-crossed aeroplanes are flying over their aerodrome
at a height of some two thousand feet. Three of them begin to climb,
perhaps in an attempt to intercept us. However, our bus has plenty of
time to disappear, and this we do quicklyso quickly that the A.-A.
batteries have only worried us to the extent of half a dozen shells,
all wide of the mark.
We rise right through the white screen into full view of the sun.
Apparently the sky is clear of intruders, so we turn for three-quarters
of a circle and head for Plusprès, the third point of call. The wind
now being behind the machine in a diagonal direction, our speed in
relation to the ground is twice the speed of the outward half of the
journey. The sun is pleasantly warming, and I look towards it
gratefully. A few small marks, which may or may not be sun-spots,
flicker across its face. To get an easier view I draw my goggles, the
smoke-tinted glasses of which allow me to look at the glare without
blinking. In a few seconds I am able to recognise the spots as distant
aeroplanes moving in our direction. Probably they are the formation
that we encountered on the way to Passementerie. Their object in
keeping between us and the sun is to remain unobserved with the help of
the blinding stream of light, which throws a haze around them. I call
the pilot's attention to the scouts, and yet again we fade into the
clouds. This time, with the sixty-mile wind as our friend, there is no
need to remain hidden for long. Quite soon we shall have to descend to
look at Plusprès, the most dangerous point on the round.
When we take another look at earth I find that the pilot has been
exact in timing our arrival at the important Boche basetoo exact,
indeed, for we find ourselves directly over the centre of the town.
Only somebody who has been Archied from Plusprès can realise what it
means to fly right over the stronghold at four thousand feet. The
advanced lines of communication that stretch westward to the
Arras-Péronne front all hinge on Plusprès, and for this reason it often
shows activity of interest to the aeroplane observer and his masters.
The Germans are therefore highly annoyed when British aircraft arrive
on a tour of inspection. To voice their indignation they have
concentrated many anti-aircraft guns around the town. What is worse,
the Archie fire at Plusprès is more accurate than at any other point
away from the actual front, as witness the close bracket formed by the
sighting shots that greet our solitary bus.
From a hasty glance at the station and railway lines, while we slip
away to another level, I gather that many trains and much rolling stock
are to be bagged. The work will have to be done under serious
difficulties in the shape of beastly black bursts and the repeated
changes of direction necessary to dodge them. We bank sharply,
side-slip, lose height, regain it, and perform other erratic evolutions
likely to spoil the gunners' aim; but the area is so closely sprinkled
by shells that, to whatever point the machine swerves, we always hear
the menacing report of bursting H.E.
It is no easy matter to observe accurately while in my present
condition of wind up, created by the coughing of Archie. I lean over
to count the stationary trucks in the sidings. Wouff, wouff, wouff, interrupts Archie from a spot deafeningly near; and I
withdraw into the office, otherwise the observer's cockpit. Follows a
short lull, during which I make another attempt to count the abnormal
amount of rolling stock. WouffHssss! shrieks another
shell, as it throws a large H.E. splinter past our tail. Again I put my
head in the office. I write down an approximate estimate of the number
of trucks, and no longer attempt to sort them out, so many to a
potential train. A hunt over the railway system reveals no fewer than
twelve trains. These I pencil-point on my map, as far as I am able to
A massed collection of vehicles remain stationary in what must be
either a large square or the market-place. I attempt to count them, but
am stopped by a report louder than any of the preceding ones. Next
instant I find myself pressed tightly against the seat. The whole of
the machine is lifted about a hundred feet by the compression from a
shell that has exploded a few yards beneath our undercarriage. I begin
to wonder whether all our troubles have been swept away by a direct
hit; but an examination of the machine shows no damage beyond a couple
of rents in the fabric of the fuselage. That finishes my observation
work for the moment. Not with a court-martial as the only alternative
could I carry on the job until we have left Archie's inferno of
frightfulness. The flight-commander is of the same mind, and we nose
into the clouds, pursued to the last by the insistent smoke-puffs.
When the bus is once again flying between sky and cloud, we begin to
feel more at home. No other craft come within range of vision, so that
without interruption we reach Aucoin, the fourth railway junction to be
spied upon. The rolling stock there is scarcely enough for two
train-loads, and no active trains can be spotted. We hover above the
town for a minute, and then leave for Boislens.
The machine now points westward and homeward, and thus has the full
benefit of the wind, which accelerates our ground speed to about a
hundred and fifty miles an hour. The gods take it into their heads to
be kind, for we are not obliged to descend through the clouds over
Boislens, as the region can be seen plainly through a gap large enough
to let me count the R.S. and note that a train, with steam up, stands
in the station.
As Boislens is the last town mentioned by the H.Q. people who mapped
out the reconnaissance, the job is all but completed. Yet twelve miles
still separate us from the nearest bend of the trench line, and a
twelve-mile area contains plenty of room for a fight. Since the open
atmosphere shows no warning of an attack, I look closely toward the
sunfor a fast scout will often try to surprise a two-seater by
approaching between its quarry and the sun.
At first I am conscious of nothing but a strong glare; but when my
goggled eyes become accustomed to the brightness, I see, or imagine I
see, an indistinct oblong object surrounded by haze. I turn away for a
second to avoid the oppressive light. On seeking the sun again I find
the faint oblong more pronounced. For one instant it deviates from the
straight line between our bus and the sun, and I then recognise it as
an aeroplane. I also discover that a second machine is hovering two
thousand feet above the first.
The chief hobby of the flight-commander is to seek a scrap.
Immediately I make known to him the presence of hostile craft he tests
his gun in readiness for a fight. Knowing by experience that if he
starts manoeuvring round a Hun he will not break away while there is
the slightest chance of a victory, I remind him, by means of a
note-book leaf, that since our job is a reconnaissance, the R.F.C. law
is to return quickly with our more or less valuable information, and to
abstain from such luxuries as unnecessary fights, unless a chance can
be seized over British ground. Although he does not seem too pleased at
the reminder he puts down the nose of the machine, so as to cross the
lines in the shortest possible time.
The first Hun scout continues the dive to within three hundred
yards, at which range I fire a few short bursts, by way of an
announcement to the Boche that we are ready for him and protected from
the rear. He flattens out and sits behind our tail at a respectful
distance, until the second scout has joined him. The two separate and
prepare to swoop down one from each side.
But we are now passing the trenches, and just as one of our
attackers begins to dive, a formation of de Havilands (British pusher
scouts) arrives to investigate. The second Boche plants himself between
us and the newcomers, while his companion continues to near until he is
a hundred and fifty yards from us. At this range I rattle through the
rest of the ammunition drum, and the Hun swerves aside. We now
recognise the machine as an Albatross scout or German spad, a most
successful type that only entered the lists a fortnight beforehand.
Finding that they have to reckon with five de Havilands, the two Huns
turn sharply and race eastward, their superior speed saving them from
We pass through the clouds for the last time on the trip, and fly
home very soberly, while I piece together my hurried notes. The
Squadron Commander meets us in the aerodrome with congratulations and a
desire for information.
Seen anything? he asks.
Fourteen trains and some M.T., I reply.
And a few thousand clouds, adds the flight-commander.
By the time I have returned from the delivery of my report at
G.H.Q., the wing office has sent orders that we are to receive a mild
censure for carrying out a reconnaissance with only one machine. The
Squadron Commander grins as he delivers the reproof, so that we do not
feel altogether crushed.
Don't do it again, he concludes.
As we have not the least desire to do it again, the order is likely
to be obeyed.
CHAPTER VII. ENDS AND ODDS.
As a highly irresponsible prophet I am convinced that towards the
end of the war hostilities in the air will become as decisive as
hostilities on land or sea. An obvious corollary is that the how and
when of peace's coming must be greatly influenced by the respective
progress, during the next two years, of the belligerents' flying
This view is far less fantastic than the whirlwind development of
war-flying witnessed by all of us since 1914. Indeed, to anybody with a
little imagination and some knowledge of what is in preparation among
the designers and inventors of various countries, that statement would
seem more self-evident than extreme. Even the average spectator of
aeronautical advance in the past three years must see that if anything
like the same rate of growth be maintained, by the end of 1918 aircraft
numbered in tens of thousands and with extraordinary capacities for
speed, climb, and attack will make life a burden to ground troops,
compromise lines of communication, cause repeated havoc to factories
and strongholds, and promote loss of balance among whatever civilian
populations come within range of their activity.
To emphasise the startling nature of aeronautical expansionpast,
present, and futurelet us trace briefly the progress of the British
Flying Corps from pre-war conditions to their present state of high
efficiency. When the Haldane-Asquith brotherhood were caught napping,
the Flying Corps possessed a seventy odd (very odd) aeroplanes, engined
by the unreliable Gnome and the low-powered Renault. Fortunately it
also possessed some very able officers, and these succeeded at the
outset in making good use of doubtful material. One result of the
necessary reconstruction was that a large section of the original corps
seceded to the Navy and the remainder came under direct control of the
Army. The Royal Naval Air Service began to specialise in bomb raids,
while the Royal Flying Corps (Military Wing) sent whatever machines it
could lay hands on to join the old contemptibles in France. Both
services proceeded to increase in size and importance at break-neck
The rapid expansion of the R.N.A.S. allowed for a heavy surplus of
men and machines beyond the supply necessary for the purely naval
branch of the service. From this force a number of squadrons went to
the Dardanelles, Africa, the Tigris, and other subsidiary theatres of
war; and an important base was established at Dunkirk, whence countless
air attacks were made on all military centres in Belgium. Many more
R.N.A.S. squadrons, well provided with trained pilots and good
machines, patrolled the East Coast while waiting for an opportunity of
active service. This came early in 1917, when, under the wise
supervision of the Air Board, the section of the Naval Air Service not
concerned with naval matters was brought into close touch with the
Royal Flying Corps, after it had pursued a lone trail for two years.
The Flying Corps units on the Western Front and elsewhere are now
splendidly backed by help from the sister service. For the present
purpose, therefore, the military efforts of the R.N.A.S. can be
included with those of the R.F.C., after a tribute has been paid to the
bombing offensives for which the Naval Air Service has always been
famous, from early exploits with distant objectives such as Cuxhaven
and Friedrichshafen to this year's successful attacks on German
munition works, in conjunction with the French, and the countless trips
from Dunkirk that are making the Zeebrugge-Ostend-Bruges sector such an
unhappy home-from-home for U-boats, destroyers, and raiding aircraft.
Meanwhile the seaplane branch, about which little is heard, has reached
a high level of efficiency. When the screen of secrecy is withdrawn
from the North Sea, we shall hear very excellent stories of what the
seaplanes have accomplished lately in the way of scouting, chasing the
Zeppelin, and hunting the U-boat.
But from the nature of its purpose, the R.F.C. has borne the major
part of our aerial burden during the war. In doing so, it has grown
from a tiny band of enthusiasts and experimentalists to a great service
which can challenge comparison with any other branch of the Army. The
history of this attainment is intensely interesting.
The few dozen airmen who accompanied the contemptible little army on
the retreat from Mons had no precedents from other campaigns to guide
them, and the somewhat vague dictum that their function was to gather
information had to be interpreted by pioneer methods. These were
satisfactory under the then conditions of warfare, inasmuch as valuable
information certainly was gathered during the retreat, when a blind
move would have meant disaster,how valuable only the chiefs of the
hard-pressed force can say. This involved more than the average
difficulties, for as the battle swayed back towards Paris new
landing-grounds had to be sought, and temporary aerodromes improvised
every few days. The small collection of serviceable aeroplanes again
justified themselves at the decisive stand in the Marne and Ourcq
basin, where immediate reports of enemy concentrations were essential
to victory. Again, after the Hun had been swept across the Aisne and
was stretching north-eastward tentacles to clutch as much of the coast
as was consonant with an unbroken line, the aerial spying out of the
succeeding phases of retirement was of great service. Indeed, tentative
though it was, the work of the British, French, and German machines
before the advent of trench warfare proved how greatly air
reconnaissance would alter the whole perspective of an open country
After the long barrier of trenches deadlocked the chances of
extended movement and opened the dreary months of more or less
stationary warfare, the R.F.C. organisation in France had time and
space for self-development. Aerodromes were selected and erected, the
older and less satisfactory types of machine were replaced by the
stable B.E2.C., the active service squadrons were reconstructed and
To the observation of what happened behind the actual front was
added the mapping of the enemy's intricate trench-mosaic. For a month
or two this was accomplished by the methodical sketches of a few
observers. It was an exceedingly difficult task to trace every trench
and sap and to pattern the network from a height of about 2000 feet,
but the infantry found small ground for dissatisfaction as regards the
accuracy or completeness of the observers' drawings. Then came the
introduction of aerial photography on a large scale, and with it a
complete bird's-eye plan of all enemy defence works, pieced together
from a series of overhead snapshots that reproduced the complete
trench-line, even to such details as barbed wire. By the infallible
revelations of the camera, untricked by camouflage, concealed gun
positions were spotted for the benefit of our artillery, and highly
useful information about likely objectives was provided for the bombing
The frequent bombing of German supply centres in Belgium and North
France came into being with the development of aerial photography.
Owing to the difficulty of correct aim, before the advent of modern
bomb-sights, all the early raids were carried out from a low altitude,
sometimes from only a few hundred feet. For every purpose, moreover,
low altitudes were the rule in the earlier months of the war, as most
of the machines would not climb above 4000-7000 feet. Much of the
observation was performed at something between 1000 and 2000 feet, so
that aircraft often returned with a hundred or so bullet-holes in them.
Meanwhile the important work of artillery spotting was being
developed. New systems of co-operation between artillery and aeroplanes
were devised, tested, and improved. At first lamps or Very's lights
were used to signal code-corrections, but these were soon replaced by
wireless transmission from the observation machine. Targets which could
not be ranged on through ground observation posts became targets no
longer, after one shoot ranged from the air. As the number of available
aircraft increased, so did the amount of observation for the guns,
until finally the entire front opposite the British was registered for
bombardment and divided into sections covered by specified artillery
Aerial fighting, now so essential and scientific a branch of modern
war, was rudimentary in 1914. Pilots and observers of the original
Flying Corps carried revolvers, and many observers also equipped
themselves with rifles, but the aeroplanes were not fitted with
machine-guns. Such scraps as there were consisted of one machine
manoeuvring round an opponent at close quarters for the chance of a
well-aimed shot. Under these circumstances to bring down or drive
down out of control an enemy was extremely difficult, though a very
gallant officer, since killed in action, once killed two German pilots
within five minutes with his revolver.
Soon the possibilities of aerial machine-guns were quickly
recognised. The R.F.C. adopted the Lewis, which from the points of view
of lightness and handiness was well suited for aircraft, and the German
airmen countered with a modified Hotchkiss and other types.
But the stable observation machines, while excellent for
reconnaissance and artillery spotting, allowed their crews only a small
arc of fire, and not until the German single-seater scouts and our
Bristol scout, then a comparatively fast machine, appeared on the
western front in the spring of 1915 did the destruction of aeroplanes
become an everyday occurrence. With the introduction of scouts for
escort and protective duties came formation flying and concerted
Fighting craft continued to increase in speed and numbers. As the
struggle became more and more intense, so did the scene of it move
higher and higher, prodded by an ever-growing capacity for climb and
the ever-growing menace of the anti-aircraft guns. The average air
battle of to-day begins at an altitude between 12,000 and 20,000 feet.
The conflict for mechanical superiority has had its ebb and flow,
and consequently of its proportional casualties; but the British have
never once been turned from their programme of observation. There have
been critical times, as for example when the Fokker scourge of late
1915 and early 1916 laid low so many of the observation craft. But the
Fokkers were satisfactorily dealt with by the de Haviland and the
F.E.8. pusher scouts and the F.E. battleplane, as the newspapers of
the period delighted to call it. Next the pendulum swung towards the
British, who kept the whip hand during the summer and autumn of last
year. Even when the Boche again made a bid for ascendancy with the
Halberstadt, the Roland, the improved L.V.G., and the modern Albatross
scout, the Flying Corps organisation kept the situation well in hand,
though the supply of faster machines was complicated by the claims of
the R.N.A.S. squadrons in England.
Throughout the Somme Push we were able to maintain that aerial
superiority without which a great offensive cannot succeed. This was
partly the result of good organisation and partly of the fighting
capabilities of the men who piloted the Sopwith, the Nieuport, the de
Haviland, the F.E., and other 1916 planes which were continually at
grips with the Hun. The German airmen, with their travelling circuses
of twelve to fifteen fast scouts, once more had an innings in the
spring of the current year, and the older types of British machine were
hard put to it to carry through their regular work. Then came the great
day when scores of our new machines, husbanded for the occasion,
engaged the enemy hell-for-leather at his own place in the air. An
untiring offensive was continued by our patrols, and the temporary
supremacy passed into British hands, where it very definitely remains,
and where, if the shadows of coming events and the silhouettes of
coming machines materialise, it is likely to remain.
Judged on a basis of losses, the unceasing struggle between
aeroplane and aeroplane would seem to have been fairly equal, though it
must be remembered that three-quarters of the fighting has had for its
milieu the atmosphere above enemy territory. Judged on a basis of
the maintenance of adequate observation, which is the primary object of
aerial attack and defence, the British have won consistently. At no
time has the R.F.C. been obliged to modify its duties of
reconnaissance, artillery spotting, photography, or co-operation with
advancing infantry, which was introduced successfully last summer. On
the contrary, each of these functions, together with bombing and
ground stunts from low altitudes, has swollen to an abnormal extent.
An idea of the vastness of our aerial effort on the British front in
France can be gathered from the R.F.C. work performed on a typical big
Throughout the night preceding an advance, several parties, laden
with heavy bombs, steer by compass to Hun headquarters or other
objectives, and return no longer laden with bombs. The first streak of
daylight is the herald of an exodus from west to east of many score
fighting craft. These cross the lines, hover among the Archie bursts,
and drive back or down all black-crossed strangers within sight. Some
of them go farther afield and attack the Boche above his own
aerodromes. Such enemy craft as manage to take the air without meeting
trouble from the advanced offensive patrols are tackled by the scouts
near the lines. The few that travel still farther eastward with the
intention of swooping on our observation machines, or of themselves
gathering information, receive a hearty welcome from our defensive
The British two-seaters are thus free to direct the artillery, link
the attacking infantry with headquarters, and spy out the land. As soon
as the early morning light allows, a host of planes will be darting
backward and forward over the trench-line as they guide the terrific
bombardment preliminary to an attack. Other machines are searching for
new emplacements and signs of preparation behind the enemy trenches.
Several formations carry out tactical reconnaissances around an area
stretching from the lines to a radius twenty miles east of them, and
further parties perform strategic reconnaissance by covering the
railways, roads, and canals that link the actual front with bases
thirty to ninety miles behind it. When, at a scheduled time, the
infantry emerge over the top behind a curtain of shells, the contact
patrol buses follow their doings, inform the gunners of any necessary
modifications in the barrage, or of some troublesome nest of
machine-guns, note the positions held by the attackers, collect signals
from the battalion headquarters, and by means of message bags dropped
over brigade headquarters report progress to the staff. If, later, a
further advance be made, the low-flying contact machines again play
their part of mothering the infantry.
Machines fitted with cameras photograph every inch of the defences
improvised by the enemy, and, as insurance against being caught
unprepared by a counter-attack, an immediate warning of whatever
movement is in evidence on the lines of communication will be supplied
by the reconnaissance observers. Under the direction of artillery
squadrons the guns pound the new Boche front line and range on
The bombing craft are responsible for onslaughts on railways, supply
depôts, garrison towns, headquarters, aerodromes, and chance targets.
Other guerilla work is done by craft which, from a height of anything
under a thousand feet, machine-gun whatever worthwhile objects they
spot. A column of troops on the march, transport, ammunition waggons, a
train, a stray motor-carall these are greeted joyfully by the pilots
who specialise in ground stunts. And at every hour of daylight the
scouts and fighting two-seaters protect the remainder of the R.F.C. by
engaging all Huns who take to the air.
Doubtless, when sunset has brought the roving birds back to their
nest, there will be a few missing; but this, part of the day's work,
is a small enough sacrifice for the general achievementthe staff
supplied with quick and accurate information, a hundred or two Boche
batteries silenced, important works destroyed, enemy communications
impeded, a dozen or so black-crossed aeroplanes brought down, valuable
photographs and reports obtained, and the ground-Hun of every species
The German Flying Corps cannot claim to perform anything like the
same amount of aerial observation as its British counterpart. It is
mainly occupied in fighting air battles and hampering the foreign
machines that spy on their army. To say that the German machines are
barred altogether from reconnaissance and artillery direction would be
exaggeration, but not wild exaggeration. Seldom can an enemy plane call
and correct artillery fire for longer than half an hour. From time to
time a fast machine makes a reconnaissance tour at a great height, and
from time to time others dart across the lines for photography, or to
search for gun positions. An appreciable proportion of these do not
return. Four-fifths of the Hun bomb raids behind our front take place
at night-time, when comparative freedom from attack is balanced by
impossibility of accurate aim. Apart from these spasmodic activities,
the German pilots concern themselves entirely with attempts to prevent
allied observation. They have never yet succeeded, even during the
periods of their nearest approach to the so-called mastery of the
air, and probably they never will succeed. The advantages attendant
upon a maintenance of thorough observation, while whittling down the
enemy's to a minimum, cannot be overestimated.
To determine how much credit for the brilliant achievement I have
tried to outline belongs to the skill and adaptability of British
airmen, and how much to successful organisation, would be difficult and
rather unnecessary. But it is obvious that those who guided the R.F.C.
from neglected beginnings to the status of a great air service had a
tremendous task. Only the technical mind can realise all that it has
involved in the production of trained personnel, aeroplanes, engines,
aircraft depôts, aerodromes, wireless equipment, photographic workshops
and accessories, bombs, and a thousand and one other necessaries.
Many thousand pilots have been trained in all the branches of war
flying. The number of squadrons now in France would surprise the layman
if one were allowed to make it public; while other squadrons have done
excellent work in Macedonia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, East Africa, and
elsewhere. Mention must also be made of the Home Defence groups, but
for which wholesale Zeppelin raids on the country would be of common
How to make best use of the vast personnel in France is the business
of the staff, who link the fighting members of the corps with the
Intelligence Department and the rest of the Army in the field. To them
has fallen the introduction and development of the various functions of
war aircraft, besides the planning of bomb raids and concerted aerial
offensives. On the equipment side there is an enormous wastage to be
dealt with, and consequently a constant cross-Channel interchange of
machines. The amount of necessary replacement is made specially heavy
by the short life of effective craft. A type of machine is good for a
few months of active service, just holds its own for a few more, and
then becomes obsolete except as a training bus. To surpass or even keep
pace with the Boche Flying Corps on the mechanical side, it has been
necessary for the supply department to do a brisk trade in new ideas
and designs, experiment, improvement, and scrapping.
Although free-lance attacks by airmen on whatever takes their fancy
down below are now common enough, they were unknown little over a year
ago. Their early history is bound up with the introduction of contact
patrols, or co-operation with advancing infantry. Previous to the Somme
Push of 1916, communication during an attack between infantry on the
one hand and the guns and various headquarters on the other was a
difficult problem. A battalion would go over the top and disappear into
the enemy lines. It might have urgent need of reinforcements or of a
concentrated fire on some dangerous spot. Yet to make known its wants
quickly was by no means easy, for the telephone wires were usually cut,
carrier-pigeons went astray, and runners were liable to be shot. When
the British introduced the creeping barrage of artillery pounding,
which moved a little ahead of the infantry and curtained them from
machine-gun and rifle fire, the need for rapid communication was
greater than ever. Exultant attackers would rush forward in advance of
the programmed speed and be mown by their own barrage.
Credit for the trial use of the aeroplane to link artillery with
infantry belongs to the British, though the French at Verdun first
brought the method to practical success. We then developed the idea on
the Somme with notable results. Stable machines, equipped with wireless
transmitters and Klaxon horns, flew at a low height over detailed
sectors, observed all developments, signalled back guidance for the
barrage, and by means of message bags supplied headquarters with
valuable information. Besides its main purpose of mothering the
infantry, the new system of contact patrols was found to be useful in
dealing with enemy movements directly behind the front line. If the bud
of a counter-attack appeared, aeroplanes would call upon the guns to
nip it before it had time to blossom.
Last September we of the fighting and reconnaissance squadrons began
to hear interesting yarns from the corps squadrons that specialised in
contact patrols. An observer saved two battalions from extinction by
calling up reinforcements in the nick of time. When two tanks slithered
around the ruins of Courcelette two hours before the razed village was
stormed, the men in the trenches would have known nothing of this
unexpected advance-guard but for a contact machine. The pilot and
observer of another bus saw two tanks converging eastward at either end
of a troublesome Boche trench. A German officer, peering round a
corner, drew back quickly when he found one of the new steel beasts
advancing. He hurried to an observation post round a bend in the lines.
Arrived there, he got the shock of his life when he found a second
metal monster waddling towards him. Alarmed and unnerved, he probably
ordered a retirement, for the trench was evacuated immediately. The
observer in a watching aeroplane then delivered a much-condensed
synopsis of the comedy to battalion headquarters, and the trench was
Inevitably the nearness of the enemy to machines hovering over a
given area bred in the airmen concerned a desire to swoop down and
panic the Boche. Movement in a hostile trench was irresistible, and
many a pilot shot off his engine, glided across the lines, and let his
observer spray with bullets the home of the Hun. The introduction of
such tactics was not planned beforehand and carried out to order. It
was the outcome of a new set of circumstances and almost unconscious
enterprise. More than any other aspect of war flying, it is, I believe,
this imminence of the unusual that makes the average war pilot swear
greatly by his job, while other soldiers temper their good work with
grousing. His actions are influenced by the knowledge that somewhere,
behind a ridge of clouds, in the nothingness of space, on the patchwork
ground, the True Romance has hidden a new experience, which can only be
found by the venturer with alert vision, a quick brain, and a fine
instinct for opportunity.
The free-lance ground stunt, then, had its origin in the initiative
of a few pilots who recognised a chance, took it, and thus opened yet
another branch in the huge departmental store of aerial tactics. The
exploits of these pioneers were sealed with the stamp of official
approval, and airmen on contact patrol have since been encouraged to
relieve boredom by joyous pounces on Brother Boche.
The star turn last year was performed by a British machine that
captured a trench. The pilot guided it above the said trench for some
hundred yards, while the observer emptied drum after drum of ammunition
at the crouching Germans. A headlong scramble was followed by the
appearance of an irregular line of white billowings. The enemy were
waving handkerchiefs and strips of material in token of surrender!
Whereupon our infantry were signalled to take possession, which they
did. Don't shrug your shoulders, friend the reader, and say: Quite a
good story, but tall, very tall. The facts were related in the R.F.C.
section of 'Comic Cuts,' otherwise G.H.Q. summary of work.
Fighting squadrons soon caught the craze for ground stunts and
carried it well beyond the lines. One machine chased a train for miles
a few hundred feet above, derailed it, and spat bullets at the lame
coaches until driven off by enemy craft. Another made what was
evidently an inspection of troops by some Boche Olympian look like the
riotous disorder of a Futurist painting. A pilot with some bombs to
spare spiralled down over a train, dropped the first bomb on the
engine, and the second, third, fourth, and fifth on the soldiers who
scurried from the carriages. When a detachment of cavalry really did
break through for once in a while, it was startled to find an aerial
vanguard. A frolicsome biplane darted ahead, pointed out positions
worthy of attack, and created a diversion with Lewis gun fire.
At the end of a three-hour offensive patrol my pilot would often
descend our bus to less than a thousand feet, cross No Man's Land
again, and zigzag over the enemy trenches, where we disposed of surplus
ammunition to good purpose. On cloudy days, with the pretext of testing
a new machine or a gun, he would fly just above the clouds, until we
were east of the lines, then turn round and dive suddenly through the
cloud-screen in the direction of the Boche positions, firing his front
gun as we dropped. The turn of my rear gun came afterwards when the
pilot flattened out and steered northward along the wrong border of No
Man's Land. Once, when flying very low, we looked into a wide trench
and saw a group of tiny figures make confused attempts to take cover,
tumbling over each other the while in ludicrous confusion.
I remember a notable first trip across the lines made by a pilot who
had just arrived from England. He had been sent up to have a look at
the battle line, with an old-hand observer and instructions not to
cross the trenches. However, he went too far east, and found himself
ringed by Archie bursts. These did not have their customary effect on a
novice of inspiring mortal funk, for the new pilot became furiously
angry and flew Berserk. He dived towards Bapaume, dropped unscathed
through the barrage of anti-aircraft shelling for which this stronghold
was at the time notorious, fired a hundred rounds into the town square
from a height of 800 feet, and raced back over the Bapaume-Pozières
road pursued by flaming onion rockets. The observer recovered from
his surprise in time to loose off a drum of ammunition at Bapaume, and
three more along the straight road to the front line, paying special
attention to the village of Le Sars.
It was above this village that I once was guilty of communicating
with the enemy. During a three-hours' offensive patrol around the
triangleBapaume-Mossy-Face Wood-Epehywe had not seen a single Hun
machine. Low clouds held Archie in check, and there was therefore small
necessity to swerve from a straight course. Becoming bored, I looked at
the pleasant-seeming countryside below, and reflected how ill its
appearance harmonised with its merits as a dwelling-place, judged on
the best possible evidencethe half-hysterical diaries found on enemy
prisoners, the bitter outpourings anent the misery of intense
bombardment and slaughter, the ominous title The Grave given to the
region by Germans who had fought there. An echo of light-hearted
incursions into German literature when I was a student at a Boche
college suggested that the opening lines of Schiller's Sehnsucht were
peculiarly apposite to the state of mind of the Huns who dwelt by the
Somme. Wishing to share my discovery, I wrote the verse in large block
capitals, ready to be dropped at a convenient spot. I took the liberty
of transposing three pronouns from the first person to the second, so
as to apostrophise our Boche brethren. The patrol finished, my pilot
spiralled down to within a 300-yard range of the ground and flew along
the road past Martinpuich, while I pumped lead at anything that might
be a communication trench. We sprinkled Le Sars with bullets, and there
I threw overboard the quotation from a great German poet, folded inside
an empty Very's cartridge to which I had attached canvas streamers. If
it was picked up, I trust the following lines were not regarded merely
as wordy frightfulness:
Ach! aus dieses Thales Gründen
Die der kalte Nebel drückt,
Könnt' ihr doch den Ausgang finden,
Ach! wie fühlt' ihr euch beglüekt!
Of all the tabloid tales published last year in R.P.C. 'Comic Cuts,'
the most comic was that of a mist, a British bus, and a Boche General.
The mist was troublesome; the bus, homeward bound after a
reconnaissance, was flying low to keep a clear vision of the earth; the
general was seated in his dignified car, after the manner of generals.
The British pilot dived on the car, the British observer fired on the
car, the Boche chauffeur stopped the car, the Boche general jumped from
the car. Chauffeur and general rushed through a field into a wood;
pilot and observer went home and laughed.
Thus far the facts are taken from the official report. An
appropriate supplement was the rumour, which deserved to be true but
possibly wasn't, that the observer turned in the direction of the
vanished general and plagiarised George Robey with a shout into the
unhearing air: Cheeriho old thing, here's a go, my hat, priceless!
So much for past accomplishment. The future of war flying, like all
futures, is problematical; but having regard to our present
unquestionable superiority in the air, and to the blend of sane
imagination and practical ability now noticeable as an asset of the
flying services directorate, one can hazard the statement that in the
extended aerial war which is coming the R.F.C. and R.N.A.S. will nearly
satisfy the most exacting of critics.
The tendency is toward a rapid development of aircraft even more
startling than that of the past. Some of the modern scout machines have
a level speed of 130-150 miles an hour, and can climb more than 1000
feet a minute until an abnormal height is reached. It is certain that
within a year later machines will travel 160, 180, and 200 miles an
hour level. Quantity as well as quality is on the up-grade, so that the
power to strike hard and far will increase enormously, helped by
heavier armament, highly destructive bombs, and more accurate
And, above all, we shall see a great extension of ground attacks by
air cavalry. The production of a machine specially adapted for this
purpose, armoured underneath, perhaps, and carrying guns that fire
downward through the fuselage, is worth the careful attention of
aeroplane designers. It is probable that with the reappearance of
extended military movement on the western front, as must happen sooner
or later, continuous guerilla tactics by hundreds of low-flying
aeroplanes may well turn an orderly retirement into a disorderly rout.
When and if a push of pushes really breaks the German line, I fully
expect that we of the air service will lead the armies of pursuit and
make ourselves a pluperfect nuisance to the armies of retreat.
Temporary second lieutenants may yet be given the chance to drive a
Boche general or two into the woods, or evenwho can limit the freaks
of Providence?plug down shots at the Limelight Kaiser himself, as he
tours behind the front in his favourite rôle of Bombastes
CHAPTER VIII. THE DAILY ROUND.
During a bout of active service one happens upon experiences that,
though they make no immediate impression, become more prominent than
the most dramatic events, when the period is past and can be viewed in
retrospect. Sub-consciousness, wiser than the surface brain, penetrates
to the inner sanctuary of true values, photographs something typical of
war's many aspects, places the negative in the dark room of memory, and
fades into inertia until again called upon to act as arbiter of
significance for everyday instinct. Not till long later, when released
from the tension of danger and abnormal endeavour, is one's mind free
to develop the negative and produce a clear photograph. The sensitive
freshness of the print then obtained is likely to last a lifetime. I
leave a detailed explanation of this process to the comic people who
claim acquaintance with the psychology of the immortal soul; for my
part, I am content to remain a collector of such mental photographs.
A few examples of the sub-conscious impressions gathered during my
last year's term at the Front are the curious smile of a dead observer
as we lifted his body from a bullet-plugged machine; the shrieking of
the wires whenever we dived on Hun aircraft; a tree trunk falling on a
howitzer; a line of narrow-nosed buses, with heavy bombs fitted under
the lower planes, ready to leave for their objective; the ghostliness
of Ypres as we hovered seven thousand feet above its ruins; a certain
riotous evening when eight of the party of fourteen ate their last
dinner on earth; a severe reprimand delivered to me by a meticulous
colonel, after I returned from a long reconnaissance that included four
air flights, for the crime of not having fastened my collar before
arrival on the aerodrome at 5 A.M.; a broken Boche aeroplane falling in
two segments at a height of ten thousand feet; the breathless moments
at a Base hospital when the surgeon-in-charge examined new casualties
to decide which of them were to be sent across the Channel; and
clearest of all, the brown-faced infantry marching back to the trenches
from our village.
A muddy, unkempt battalion would arrive in search of rest and
recuperation. It distributed itself among houses, cottages, and barns,
while the Frenchwomen looked sweet or sour according to their diverse
tempers, and whether they kept estaminets, sold farm produce, had
husbands làbas, or merely feared for their poultry and the
cleanliness of their homes. Next day the exhausted men would reappear
as beaux sabreurs with bright buttons, clean if discoloured tunics, and
a jaunty, untired walk. The drum and fife band practised in the tiny
square before an enthusiastic audience of gamins. Late every afternoon
the aerodrome was certain to be crowded by inquisitive Tommies, whose
peculiar joy it was to watch a homing party land and examine the
machines for bullet marks. The officers made overtures on the subject
of joy-rides, or discussed transfers to the Flying Corps. Interchange
of mess courtesies took place, attended by a brisk business in yarns
and a mutual appreciation of the work done by R.F.C. and infantry.
Then, one fine day, the drum and fife rhythm of A Long, Long Trail
would draw us to the roadside, while our friends marched away to
Mouquet Farm, or Beaumont Hamel, or Hohenzollern Redoubt, or some other
point of the changing front that the Hun was about to lose. And as they
left, the men were mostly silent; though they looked debonair enough
with their swinging quickstep and easy carriage, and their frying-pan
hats set at all sorts of rakish angles. Their officers would nod,
glance enviously at the apple-trees and tents in our pleasant little
orchard, and pass on to the front of the Front, and all that this
implied in the way of mud, vermin, sudden death, suspense, and damnable
discomfort. And returning to the orchard we offered selfish thanks to
Providence in that we were not as the millions who hold and take
The flying officer in France has, indeed, matter for
self-congratulation when compared with the infantry officer, as any one
who has served in both capacities will bear witness. Flying over enemy
country is admittedly a strain, but each separate job only lasts from
two to four hours. The infantryman in the front line is trailed by risk
for the greater part of twenty-four hours daily. His work done, the
airman returns to fixed quarters, good messing, a bath, plenty of
leisure, and a real bed. The infantry officer lives mostly on army
rations, and as often as not he sleeps in his muddy clothes, amid the
noise of war, after a long shift crammed with uncongenial duties. As
regards actual fighting the airman again has the advantage. For those
with a suitable temperament there is tense joy in an air scrap; there
is none in trudging along a mile of narrow communication trench, and
then, arrived at one's unlovely destination, being perpetually ennuied
by crumps and other devilries. And in the game of poker played with
life, death, and the will to destroy, the airman has but to reckon with
two marked cardsthe Ace of Clubs, representing Boche aircraft, and
the Knave Archibald; whereas, when the infantryman stakes his
existence, he must remember that each sleeve of the old cheat Death
contains half a dozen cards.
All this by way of prelude to a protest against the exaggerative
ecstasies indulged in by many civilians when discussing the air
services. The British pilots are competent and daring, but they would
be the last to claim an undue share of war's glory. Many of them
deserve the highest praise; but then so do many in all other fighting
branches of Army and Navy. An example of what I mean is the reference
to R.F.C. officers, during a Parliamentary debate, as the super-heroes
of the war,a term which, for ungainly absurdity, would be hard to
beat. To those who perpetrate such far-fetched phrases I would humbly
say: Good gentlemen, we are proud to have won your approval, but for
the Lord's sake don't make us ridiculous in the eyes of other
Yet another asset of the airman is that his work provides plenty of
scope for the individual, who in most sections of the Army is held on
the leash of system and co-operation. The war pilot, though subject to
the exigencies of formation flying, can attack and manoeuvre as he
pleases. Most of the star performers are individualists who concentrate
on whatever methods of destroying an enemy best suit them.
Albert Ball, probably the most brilliant air fighter of the war, was
the individualist in excelsis. His deeds were the outcome partly
of pluckcertainly not of luckbut mostly of thought, insight,
experiment, and constant practice. His knowledge of how to use sun,
wind, and clouds, coupled with an instinct for the blind side of
whatever Hun machine he had in view, made him a master in the art of
approaching unobserved. Arrived at close quarters, he usually took up
his favourite position under the German's tail before opening fire. His
experience then taught him to anticipate any move that an unprepared
enemy might make, and his quick wits how to take advantage of it. Last
autumn, whenever the weather kept scout machines from their patrols but
was not too bad for joy-flying, he would fly near the aerodrome and
practise his pet manoeuvres for hours at a time. In the early days of
Ball's dazzling exploits his patrol leader once complained, after an
uneventful trip, that he left the formation immediately it crossed the
lines, and stayed away until the return journey. Ball's explanation was
that throughout the show he remained less than two hundred feet below
the leader's machine, practising concealment.
The outstanding pilots of my old squadron were all individualists in
attack, and it was one of my hobbies to contrast their tactics. C.,
with his blind fatalism and utter disregard of risk, would dive a
machine among any number of Huns, so that he usually opened a fight
with an advantage of startling audacity. S., another very successful
leader, worked more in co-operation with the machines behind him, and
took care to give his observer every chance for effective fire. His
close watch on the remainder of the formation saved many a machine in
difficulties from disaster. V., my pilot and flight-commander, was
given to a quick dive at the enemy, a swerve aside, a recul pour mieux
sauter, a vertical turn or two, and another dash to close grips from an
unexpected direction, while I guarded the tail-end.
But writing reminiscences of Umpty Squadron's early days is a
melancholy business. When it was first formed all the pilots were
picked men, for the machines were the best British two-seaters then in
existence, and their work throughout the autumn push was to be more
dangerous than that of any squadron along the British front. The price
we paid was that nine weeks from our arrival on the Somme only nine of
the original thirty-six pilots and observers remained. Twelve officers
flew to France with the flight to which I belonged. Six weeks after
their first job over the lines I was one of the only two survivors.
Three of the twenty-five who dropped out returned to England with
wounds or other disabilities; the rest, closely followed by twenty of
those who replaced them, went to Valhalla, which is half-way to heaven;
or to Karlsruhe, which is between hell and Freiburg-im-Brisgau.
And the reward? One day, in a letter written by a captured Boche
airman, was found the sentence: The most-to-be-feared of British
machines is the S. The umptieth squadron then had the only
machines of this type in France.
During the short period of their stay with us, the crowd of boys
thus rudely snatched away were the gayest company imaginable; and,
indeed, they were boys in everything but achievement. As a patriarch of
twenty-four I had two more years to my discredit than the next oldest
among the twelve members of our flight-mess. The youngest was seventeen
and a half. Our Squadron Commander, one of the finest men I have met in
or out of the army, became a lieutenant-colonel at twenty-five. Even he
was not spared, being killed in a flying accident some months later.
Though we were all such good friends, the high percentage of
machines missing from our hangars made us take the abnormal
casualties almost as a matter of course at the time. One said a few
words in praise of the latest to go, and passed on to the next job. Not
till the survivors returned home did they have time, away from the
stress of war, to feel keen sorrow for the brave and jolly company. For
some strange reason, my own hurt at the loss was toned down by a mental
farewell to each of the fallen, in words borrowed from the song sung by
an old-time maker of ballads when youth left him: Adieu, la très gente
The crowded months of the umptieth squadron from June to November
were worth while for the pilots who survived. The only two of our then
flight-commanders still on the active list are now commanding
squadrons, while all the subaltern pilots have become
flight-commanders. The observers, members of a tribe akin to Kipling's
Sergeant Whatsisname, are as they were in the matter of rank, needless
For my part, on reaching Blighty by the grace of God and an injured
knee, I decided that if my unworthy neck were doomed to be broken, I
would rather break it myself than let some one else have the
responsibility. It is as a pilot, therefore, that I am about to serve
another sentence overseas. A renewal of Archie's acquaintance is hardly
an inviting prospect, but with a vivid recollection of great days with
the old umptieth squadron, I shall not be altogether sorry to leave the
hierarchy of home instructordom for the good-fellowship of active
service. In a few months' time, after a further period of aerial
outings, I hope to fill some more pages of Blackwood, subject always
to the sanction of their editor, the bon Dieu, and the mauvais diable
who will act as censor. Meanwhile, I will try to sketch the daily round
of the squadron in which I am proud to have been an observer.
* * * * *
Quarter to five, sir, and a fine morning. You're wanted on the
aerodrome at a quarter past.
I sit up. A shiver, and a return beneath the blankets for five
minutes' rumination. Dressing will be dashed unpleasant in the cold of
dawn. The canvas is wet with the night's rain. The reconnaissance is a
long one, and will take fully three hours. The air at 10,000 feet will
bite hard. Must send a field post-card before we start. Not too much
time, so out and on with your clothes. Life is wrotten.
While dressing we analyse the weather, that pivot of our day-to-day
existence. On the weather depends our work and leisure, our comparative
risks and comparative safety. Last thing at night, first thing in the
morning, and throughout the day we search the sky for a sign. And I
cannot deny that on occasions a sea of low clouds, making impossible
the next job, is a pleasant sight.
The pale rose of sunrise is smudging over the last flickerings of
the grey night. Only a few wisps of cloud are about, and they are too
high to bother us. The wind is slight and from the east, for which many
thanks, as it will make easier the return half of the circuit.
We wrap ourselves in flying kit and cross the road to the aerodrome.
There the band of leather-coated officers shiver while discussing their
respective places in the formation. A bus lands and taxies to a shed.
From it descends the Squadron Commander, who, with gum-boots and a warm
coat over his pyjamas, has been trying the air. Get into your
machines, he calls. As we obey he enters his hut-office and phones the
The major reappears, and the command Start up! is passed along the
line of machines. Ten minutes later we head for the trenches, climbing
as we travel.
It was cold on the ground. It was bitter at 5000 feet. It is
damnable at 10,000 feet. I lean over the side to look at Arras, but
draw back quickly as the frozen hand of the atmosphere slaps my face.
My gloved hands grow numb, then ache profoundly when the warm blood
brings back their power to feel. I test my gun, and the
trigger-pressure is painful. Life is worse than rotten, it is beastly.
But the cold soon does its worst, and a healthy circulation expels
the numbness from my fingers. Besides, once we are beyond the lines,
the work on hand allows small opportunity to waste time on physical
sensations. On this trip there is little interruption, thank goodness.
Archie falls short of his average shooting, and we are able to outpace
a group of some twelve Hun two-seaters that try to intercept us. The
movement below is noted, the round is completed according to programme,
and we turn westward and homeward.
Have you ever sucked bull's-eyes, respected sir or madame? If not,
take it from me that the best time to try them is towards the end of a
three-hour flight over enemy country. Five bull's-eyes are then far
more enjoyable than a five-course meal at the Grand Babylon Hotel. One
of these striped vulgarities both soothes and warms me as we re-cross
Down go the noses of our craft, and we lose height as the leader,
with an uneven, tree-bordered road as guide, makes for Doulens. From
this town our aerodrome shows up plainly towards the south-west. Soon
we shall be in the mess marquee, behind us a completed job, before us a
hot breakfast. Life is good.
Arrived on land we are met by mechanics, each of whom asks anxiously
if his particular bus or engine has behaved well. The observers write
their reports, which I take to the Brass Hats at headquarters. This
done, I enter the orchard, splash about in a canvas bath, and so to a
Next you will find most of the squadron officers at the aerodrome,
seated in deck-chairs and warmed by an early autumn sun. It is the most
important moment of the daythe post has just arrived. All letters
except the one from His Majesty's impatient Surveyor of Taxes, who
threatens to take proceedings in the district in which you reside,
are read and re-read, from My dearest Bill to Yours as ever. Every
scrap of news from home has tremendous value. Winkle, the dinky Persian
with a penchant for night life, has presented the family with five
kittens. Splendid! Lady X., who is, you know, the bosom friend of a
certain Minister's wife, says the war will be over by next summer at
the latest. Splendid again! Life is better than good, it is
Yesterday's London papers have been delivered with the letters.
These also are devoured, from light leaders on electoral reform to the
serious legends underneath photographs of the Lady Helen Toutechose,
Mrs. Alexander Innit, and Miss Margot Rheingold as part-time nurses,
canteeners, munitioners, flag-sellers, charity matinee programme
sellers, tableaux vivants, and patronesses of the undying arts. Before
turning to the latest number of the 'Aeroplane,' our own particular
weekly, one wonders idly how the Lady Helen Toutechose and her
emulators, amid their strenuous quick-change war-work, find time to be
photographed so constantly, assiduously, and distractingly.
We pocket our correspondence and tackle the morning's work. Each
pilot makes sure that his machine is overhauled, and if necessary, he
runs the engine or puts a re-rigged bus through its paces. I am told
off to instruct half a dozen officers newly arrived from the trenches
on how to become a reliable reconnaissance observer in one week.
Several of us perform mysteriously in the workshops, for we are a
squadron of many inventors.
Every other officer has a pet mechanical originality. Marmaduke is
preparing a small gravity tank for his machine, to be used when the
pressure tank is ventilated by a bullet. The Tripehound has a scheme
whereby all the control wires can be duplicated. Some one else has
produced the latest thing in connections between the pilot's joystick
and the Vickers gun. I am making a spade-grip trigger for the Lewis
gun, so that the observer can always have one hand free to manipulate
the movable back-sight. When one of these deathless inventions is
completed the real hard work begins. The new gadget is adopted
unanimously by the inventor himself, but he has a tremendous task in
making the rest of the squadron see its merits.
After lunch we scribble letters, for the post leaves at five. As we
write the peaceful afternoon is disturbed by the roar of five engines.
B Flight is starting up in readiness for an offensive patrol. Ten
minutes later more engines break into song, as three machines of C
Flight leave to photograph some new lines of defence before Bapaume.
The overhead hum dies away, and I allow myself a sleep in payment of
the early morning reconnaissance.
Wearing a dress suit I am seated on the steps of a church. On my
knee is a Lewis gun. An old gentleman, very respectable in dark spats,
a black tie, and shiny top-hat, looks down at me reproachfully.
Very sad, he murmurs.
Don't you think this trigger's a damned good idea? I ask.
Young man, this is an outrage. As you are not ashamed enough to
leave the churchyard of your own accord, I shall have you turned out.
I laugh and proceed to pass some wire through the pistol-grip. The
old man disappears, but he returns with three grave-diggers, who
brandish their spades in terrifying manner. Ha! I think, I must fly
away. I fly my wings (did I tell you I had wings?) and rise above the
church tower. Archie has evidently opened fire, for I hear a near-by
wouff. I try to dodge, but it is too late. A shell fragment strikes
my nose. Much to my surprise I find I can open my eyes. My nose is
sore, one side of the tent waves gently, and a small apple reposes on
Having run into the open I discover that the disengaged members of C
Flight are raiding our corner with the sour little apples of the
orchard. We collect ammunition from a tree and drive off the attackers.
A diversion is created by the return of the three photography machines.
We troop across to meet them.
The next scene is the aerodrome once again. We sit in a group and
censor letters. The countryside is quiet, the sun radiates
cheerfulness, and the war seems very remote. But the mechanics of B
Flight stand outside their sheds and look east. It is time the
offensive patrol party were back.
There they are, says a watcher. Three far-away specks grow larger
and larger. As they draw near, we are able to recognise them as our
buses, by the position of their struts and the distinctive drone of
Four machines crossed the lines on the expedition; where is the
fourth? The crew of the other three do not know. They last saw the
missing craft ten miles behind the Boche trenches, where it turned west
after sending up a Very's light to signal the necessity of an immediate
return. There were no Huns in sight, so the cause must have been engine
The shadows of the lost pilot and observer darken the first ten
minutes at the dinner-table. However, since cheerfulness is beyond
godliness, we will take this to be an anxious occasion with a happy
ending. Comes a welcome message from the orderly officer, saying that
the pilot has phoned. His reason for leaving the patrol was that his
engine went dud. Later it petered out altogether, so that he was forced
to glide down and land near a battery of our howitzers.
The conversational atmosphere now lightens. Some people from another
squadron are our guests, and with them we exchange the latest flying
gossip. The other day, X rammed a machine after his gun had jambed. Y
has been given the Military Cross. Archie has sent west two machines of
the eleventeenth squadron. While on his way home, with no more
ammunition, Z was attacked by a fast scout. He grabbed a Very's pistol
and fired at the Boche a succession of lights, red, white, and green.
The Boche, taking the rockets for a signal from a decoy machine, or
from some new form of British frightfulness, promptly retired.
Dinner over, the usual crowd settle around the card-table, and the
gramophone churns out the same old tunes. There is some dissension
between a man who likes music and another who prefers rag-time. Number
one leads off with the Peer Gynt Suite, and number two counters with
the record that choruses: Hello, how are you? From the babel of
yarning emerges the voice of our licensed liar
So I told the General he was the sort of bloke who ate tripe and
gargled with his beer.
Flush, calls a poker player.
Give us a kiss, give us a kiss, by wireless, pleads the
Good-night, chaps. See you over Cambrai. This from a departing
ChorusGood-night, old bean.
A somewhat wild evening ends with a sing-song, of which the star
number is a ballad to the tune of Tarpaulin Jacket, handed down from
the pre-war days of the Flying Corps, and beginning
The young aviator was dying,
And as 'neath the wreckage he lay (he lay),
To the A.M.'s assembled around him
These last parting words he did say:
'Take the cylinders out of my kidneys,
The connecting-rod out of my brain (my brain),
From the small of my back take the crank-shaft.
And assemble the engine again.'
On turning in we give the sky a final scour. It is non-committal on
the subject of to-morrow's weather. The night is dark, the moon is at
her last quarter, only a few stars glimmer.
I feel sure the land needs rain. If it be fine to-morrow we shall
sit over Archie for three hours. If it be conveniently wet we shall
charter a light tender and pay a long-deferred visit to the city of
Arrière. There I shall visit a real barber; pass the time of day with
my friend Henriette, whose black eyes and ready tongue grace a book
shop of the Rue des Trois Cailloux; dine greatly at a little restaurant
in the Rue du Corps Nu Sans Tête; and return with reinforcements of
Anatole France, collar-studs, and French slang.
 This narrative first appeared in 'Blackwood's Magazine.'
LETTERS FROM THE SOMME.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT IS DUE
OWNER OF THESE LETTERS, WHO HAS ALLOWED
ME TO REVISE FOR PUBLICATION WHAT
WAS WRITTEN FOR HER ALONE
I. LOOKING FOR TROUBLE.
... You have asked me, mon amie, to tell you, from personal
experience, all about aeroplanes on active service. With the best will
in the world I can do no such thing, any more than a medical student
could tell you, from personal experience, all about midwifery.
The Flying Corps has in France hundreds of aeroplanes, scores of
squadrons, and a dozen varying duties. Earlier in the war, when army
aircraft were few and their function belonged to the pioneer stage,
every pilot and observer dabbled in many thingsreconnaissance,
artillery observation, bomb raids, photography, and fighting. But the
service has since expanded so much, both in size and importance, that
each squadron is made to specialise in one or two branches of work,
while other specialists look after the remainder. The daily round of an
artillery squadron, for example, is very different from the daily round
of a reconnaissance squadron, which is quite as different from that of
a scout squadron. Alors, my experience only covers the duties of my own
squadron. These I will do my best to picture for you, but please don't
look upon my letters as dealing with the Flying Corps as a whole.
Perhaps you will see better what I mean if you know something of our
organisation and of the different kinds of machines. There are slow,
stable two-seaters that observe around the lines; fighting two-seaters
that operate over an area extending some thirty miles beyond the lines;
faster fighting two-seaters that spy upon enemy country still farther
afield; the bombing craft, single-seaters or two-seaters used as
single-seaters; photography machines; and single-seater scouts,
quick-climbing and quick-manoeuvring, that protect and escort the
observation buses and pounce on enemy aeroplanes at sight. All these
confine themselves to their specialised jobs, though their outgoings
are planned to fit the general scheme of aerial tactics. The one
diversion shared by every type is scrapping the air Hun whenever
possibleand the ground Hun too for that matter, if he appear in the
open and one can dive at him.
Our organisation is much the same as the organisation of the
olderand juniorarms of the Service (oh yes! the Gazette gives us
precedence over the Guards, the Household Cavalry, and suchlike
people). Three or more squadrons are directed by a wing-commander, whom
one treats with deep respect as he speeds a formation from the
aerodrome; a number of wings, with an aircraft depôt, are directed by a
brigadier, whom one treats with still deeper respect when he pays a
visit of inspection; the whole is directed by the
one-of-the-best, who treats us like brothers.
We, in umpty squadron, are of the G.H.Q. wing, our work being long
reconnaissance and offensive patrols over that part of the Somme basin
where bands of Hun aircraft rove thickest. Our home is a wide
aerodrome, flanked by a village that comprises about thirty decrepit
cottages and a beautiful little old church. Our tents are pitched in a
pleasant orchard, which is strewn with sour apples and field kitchens.
For the rest, we are a happy family, and the sole blot on our arcadian
existence is the daily journey east to meet Brother Boche and his hired
After which explanatory stuff I will proceed to what will interest
you more,the excitements and tediousness of flights over enemy
country. Three hours ago I returned from a patrol round Mossy-Face
Wood, where one seldom fails to meet black-crossed birds of prey, so I
will begin with the subject of a hunt for the Flying Deutschman.
There are two kinds of fighting air patrol, the defensive and the
offensive, the pleasantly exciting and the excitingly unpleasant. The
two species of patrol have of late kept the great majority of German
craft away from our lines.
Airmen who look for trouble over enemy country seldom fail to find
it, for nothing enrages the Boche more than the overhead drone of
allied aircraft. Here, then, are some average happenings on an
offensive patrol, as I have known them.
We cross the lines at our maximum height, for it is of great
advantage to be above an enemy when attacking. Our high altitude is
also useful in that it makes us a small target for Herr Archie, which
is distinctly important, as we are going to sit over him for the next
Archie only takes a few seconds to make up his mind about our height
and range. He is not far wrong either, as witness the ugly black bursts
slightly ahead, creeping nearer and nearer. Now there are two bursts
uncomfortably close to the leader's machine, and its pilot and observer
hear that ominous wouff! The pilot dips and swerves. Another
wouff! and he is watching a burst that might have got him, had he
kept a straight course.
Again the Archies try for the leader. This time their shells are
well away, in fact so far back that they are near our bus. The German
battery notices this, and we are forthwith bracketed in front and
behind. We swoop away in a second, and escape with nothing worse than a
violent stagger, and we are thrown upward as a shell bursts close
But we soon shake off the Archie group immediately behind the lines.
Freed from the immediate necessity of shell-dodging, the
flight-commander leads his covey around the particular hostile preserve
marked out for his attention. Each pilot and each observer twists his
neck as if it were made of rubber, looking above, below, and all
around. Only thus can one guard against surprise and yet surprise
strangers, and avoid being surprised oneself. An airman new to active
service often finds difficulty in acquiring the necessary intuitive
vision which attracts his eyes instinctively to hostile craft. If his
machine straggles, and he has not this sixth sense, he will sometimes
hear the rattle of a mysterious machine-gun, or even the phut of a
bullet, before he sees the swift scout that has swooped down from
There is a moment of excitement when the flight-commander spots
three machines two thousand feet below. Are they Huns? His observer
uses field-glasses, and sees black crosses on the wings. The signal to
attack is fired, and we follow the leader into a steep dive.
With nerves taut and every faculty concentrated on getting near
enough to shoot, and then shooting quickly but calmly, we have no time
to analyse the sensations of that dive. We may feel the tremendous
pressure hemming us in when we try to lean over the side, but otherwise
all we realise is that the wind is whistling past the strained wires,
that our guns must be ready for instant use, and that down below are
The flight-commander, his machine aimed dead at the leading German,
follows the enemy trio down, down, as they apparently seek to escape by
going ever lower. He is almost near enough for some shooting, when the
Huns dive steeply, with the evident intention of landing on a near-by
aerodrome. One of them fires a light as he goes, andenter the villain
Archibald to loud music. A ter-rap!
Our old friend Archie has been lying in wait with guns set for a
certain height, to which his three decoy birds have led us. There
crashes a discord of shell-bursts as we pull our machines out of the
dive and swerve away. The last machine to leave the unhealthy patch of
air is pursued for some seconds by flaming rockets.
The patrol re-forms, and we climb to our original height. One
machine has left for home, with part of a control wire dangling
helplessly beneath it, and a chunk of tail-plane left as a tribute to
We complete the course and go over it again, with nothing more
exciting than further anti-aircraft fire, a few Huns too low for
another dive, and a sick observer.
Even intrepid birdmen (war correspondentese for flying officers)
tire of trying to be offensive on a patrol, and by now we are varying
our rubber-neck searchings with furtive glances at the time, in the
hopes that the watch-hands may be in the home-to-roost position. At
length the leader heads for the lines, and the lords of the air (more
war correspondentese) forget their high estate and think of tea.
Not yet. Coming south towards Bapaume is a beautiful flock of
black-crossed birds. As often happens, the German biplanes are ranged
one above the other, like the tiers of a dress-circle.
Again the signal to attack, and the flight-commander sweeps at what
seems to be the highest enemy. We are ranging ourselves round him, when
two enemy scouts sweep down from heaven-knows-where, firing as they
come. Several of their bullets enter the engine of our rearmost
rearguard. Finding that the engine is on strike, the pilot detaches his
machine from the confusion and glides across the lines, which are quite
For five minutes there is a medley of swift darts, dives, and
cart-wheel turns, amid the continuous ta-ta-ta-ta-ta of
machine-guns. Then a German machine sways, staggers, noses downward
vertically, and rushes earthward, spinning rhythmically. The other
Boches put their noses down and turn east. We follow until we find it
impossible to catch them up, whereupon we make for home.
The trenches are now passed, and our aerodrome is quite near. The
strained nerve-tension snaps, the air seems intoxicatingly light.
Pilots and observers munch chocolate contentedly or lift up their
voices in songs of Blighty. I tackle The Right Side of Bond Street,
and think of pleasant places and beings, such as Henley during regatta
week, the Babylon Theatre, and your delightful self.
We land, piece together our report, and count the bullet-holes on
the machine. In ten minutes' time you will find us around the
mess-table, reconstructing the fight over late afternoon tea. In the
intervals of eating cake I shall write you, and the gramophone will be
shrilling Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green.
FRANCE, July, 1916
II. ONE OF OUR MACHINES IS
... Much may be read into the ambiguous word missing. Applied to a
wife or an actress's jewellery it can mean anything. Applied to a man
on active service it can mean one of three things. He may be dead, he
may be a prisoner, he may be wounded and a prisoner. If he be dead he
enters Valhalla. If he be a prisoner and a wise man he enters a small
cheque for the German Red Cross, as being the quickest way of letting
his bankers and relations know he is alive.
A missing aeroplane no longer exists, in nine cases out of ten.
Either it is lying in pieces on enemy ground, smashed by an
uncontrolled fall, or it was burned by its former tenants when they
landed, after finding it impossible to reach safety. Quite recently my
pilot and I nearly had to do this, but were just able to glide across a
small salient. I am thus qualified to describe a typical series of
incidents preceding the announcement, one of our machines is missing,
and I do so in the hope that this may interest you, madam, as you flit
from town to country, country to town, and so to bed.
A group of British machines are carrying out a long reconnaissance.
So far nothing has happened to divert the observers from their notes
and sketches, and a pilot congratulates himself that he is on a
joy-ride. Next instant his sixth sense tells him there is something in
the air quite foreign to a joy-ride. And there is. A thousand yards
ahead some eight to twelve machines have appeared. The reconnaissance
birds keep to their course, but all eyes are strained towards the
newcomers. Within ten seconds it is established that they are foes. The
observers put aside note-books and pencils, and finger their
On come the Germans to dispute the right of way. On go the British,
not seeking a fight, but fully prepared to force a way through. Their
job is to complete the reconnaissance, and not to indulge in
superfluous air duels, but it will take a very great deal to turn them
from their path.
Now the aggressors are within 300 yards, and firing opens. When the
fight gets to uncomfortably close quarters the Boches move aside and
follow the reconnaissance party, waiting for an opportunity to surround
stragglers. Finally, some lucky shots by a British observer cause one
of them to land in a damaged condition, whereupon the rest retire. The
British machines finish their job and return with useful information.
But the party is no longer complete. The pilot who thought of
joy-rides was in the rear machine, and the rear machine has
disappeared. Two Huns cut him off when the rest began to follow the
His observer takes careful aim at the nearest enemy, and rattles
through a whole drum as the German sweeps down and past, until he is
out of range. The pilot vertical-turns the machine, and makes for the
second Boche. But this gentleman, refusing to continue the fight alone,
dives to join his companion. The pair of them hover about for a few
minutes, and then disappear eastward.
The lonely pilot and observer look round and take their bearings.
Where are the others? shouts the pilot down the speaking-tube.
Right away to the north; we are alone in the wicked world. Thus
the observer's reply, handed across on a slip of paper.
Hoping to catch sight of the reconnaissance party, my friend the
pilot opens his engine full out and begins to follow the course that
remained to be covered. For ten minutes he continues the attempt to
catch up, but as the only aeroplanes to be seen are coming up from an
enemy aerodrome he decides to get back alone as quickly as possible. He
turns due west.
The homing bird must fly in the teeth of a strong west wind. It
struggles along gamely, and the pilot calculates that he may reach the
lines within twenty-five minutes. But he has a queer feeling that
trouble is ahead, and, like his observer, he turns his head around the
horizon, so as not to be caught unprepared.
All goes well for five minutes, except for some nasty Archie shells.
Then the two men see a flock of aircraft at a great height, coming from
the north. Although black crosses cannot be spotted at this range, the
shape and peculiar whiteness of the wings make it probable that the
strangers are hostile. Possibly they are the very people who attacked
and followed the reconnaissance formation.
Our pilot puts down the nose of his machine, and races westward. The
strangers, making good use of their extra height, turn south-west and
try to head him off. They gain quickly, and pilot and observer brace
themselves for a fight against odds.
The Germans are now about 700 feet higher than my friends, and
directly above them. Four enemies dive, at an average speed of 150
miles an hour, and from all directions the Britishers hear the rattle
of machine-guns. The observer engages one of the Huns, and evidently
gets in some good shooting, for it swerves away and lets another take
its place. Meanwhile enemy bullets have crashed through two spars, shot
away a rudder-control, and ripped several parts of the fuselage.
The black-crossed hawks cluster all around. There are two on the
left, one on the right, one underneath the tail, and two above. A
seventh Hun sweeps past in front, about eighty yards ahead. The pilot's
gun rakes it from stem to stern as it crosses, and he gives a great
shout as its petrol-tank begins to blaze and the enemy craft flings
itself down, with a stream of smoke and another flame shooting out
But his own petrol-tank has been plugged from the side, and his
observer has a bullet in the left arm. The petrol supply is regulated
by pressure, and, the pressure having gone when German bullets opened
the tank, the engine gets less and less petrol, and finally ceases
To glide fifteen miles to the lines is clearly impossible. There is
nothing for it but to accept the inevitable and choose a good
landing-ground. The pilot pushes the joystick slowly forward and
prepares to land.
The Germans follow their prey down, ready to destroy if by any
chance its engine comes back to life, and it stops losing height. The
observer tears up papers and maps, performs certain other duties
whereby the enemy is cheated of booty, and stuffs all personal
possessions into his pocket.
A medley of thoughts race across the observer's mind as the pilot
S-turns the machine over the field he has chosen. A prisoner!damnable
luckall papers destroyedarm hurtinguseless till end of warhow
long will it last?chances of escaperelieve parents' suspensemust
writedue for leaveMarjoriePiccadilly in the sunshinerotten
luckwas to bemake best of itKismet!
One duty remains. The observer digs into the petrol tank as they
touch earth, and then runs round the machine. In a second the petrol is
ablaze and the fuselage and wings are burning merrily. Germans rush up
and make vain attempts to put out the fire. Soon nothing remains but
charred debris, a discoloured engine, bits of metal and twisted wires.
My friends are seized, searched, and disarmed. They then shake hands
with the German pilots, now heatedly discussing who was chiefly
responsible for their success. The captive couple are lunched by the
enemy airmen, who see that the wounded observer receives proper
attention. At the risk of incensing some of your eat-'em-alive civilian
friends, I may say we have plenty of evidence that the German Flying
Corps includes many gentlemen.
Later my friends are questioned, searched again from head to toe,
and packed off to Germany. Just now they are affected with deadly
heart-sickness, due to the wearisome inaction of confinement in a
hostile land, while we, their friends and brothers, continue to play
our tiny parts in Armageddon.
I enclose their names, and that of the prison camp where they are
lodged. Perhaps you will find time to send them some of your
fast-dwindling luxuries, as you flit from town to country, country to
town, and so to bed.
FRANCE, July, 1916
III. A BOMB RAID.
... What are your feelings, dear lady, as you watch the airships
that pass in the night and hear the explosion of their bombs? At such a
time the sensations of most people, I imagine, are a mixture of deep
interest, deep anger, excitement, nervousness, and desire for revenge.
Certainly they do not include speculation about the men who man the
And for their part, the men who man the raiders certainly do not
speculate about you and your state of mind. When back home, some of
them may wonder what feelings they have inspired in the people below,
but at the time the job's the thing and nothing else matters.
Out here we bomb only places of military value, and do it mostly in
the daytime, but I should think our experiences must have much in
common with those of Zeppelin crews. I can assure you they are far more
strenuous than yours on the ground.
Our bombing machines in France visit all sorts of placesforts,
garrison towns, railway junctions and railheads, bivouac grounds, staff
headquarters, factories, ammunition depôts, aerodromes, Zeppelin sheds,
and naval harbours. Some objectives are just behind the lines, some are
100 miles away. There are also free-lance exploits, as when a pilot
with some eggs to spare dives down to a low altitude and drops them on
a train or a column of troops.
A daylight bomb raid is seldom a complete failure, but the results
are sometimes hard to record. If an ammunition store blows up, or a
railway station bursts into flames, or a train is swept off the rails
and the lines cut, an airman can see enough to know he has succeeded.
But if the bombs fall on something that does not explode or catch fire,
it is almost impossible to note exactly what has been hit. Even a fire
is hard to locate while one is running away from Archie and perhaps a
few flaming onions.
Fighting machines often accompany the bombing parties as escort. The
fighters guard the bombers until the eggs are dropped, and seize any
chances of a scrap on the way back. It is only thus that I have played
a part in raids, for our squadron does not add bombs to its other
troubles. I will now tell you, my very dear friend, about one such
The morning is clear and filled with sunshine, but a strong westerly
wind is blowing. This will increase our speed on the outward journey,
and so help to make the attack a surprise. Those low-lying banks of
thick white clouds are also favourable to the factor of surprise.
It is just before midday, and we are gathered in a group near the
machines, listening to the flight-commander's final directions.
Punctually at noon the bombers leave the ground, climb to the
rendezvous height, and arrange themselves in formation. The scout
machines constituting the escort proper follow, and rise to a few
hundred feet above the bombers. The whole party circles round the
aerodrome until the signal strips for Carry on are laid out on the
ground, when it heads for the lines.
At this point we, the fighting two-seaters, start up and climb to
our allotted height. We are to follow the bombing party and act as a
rearguard until the eggs have fallen. Afterwards, when the others have
finished their little bit and get home to their tea, it will be our
pleasant task to hang about between the lines and the scene of the
raid, and deal with such infuriated Boche pilots as may take the air
with some idea of revenge.
We travel eastwards, keeping well in sight of the bombers. The
ridges of clouds become more numerous, and only through gaps can we see
the trenches and other landmarks. Archie, also, can only see through
the gaps, and, disconcerted by the low clouds, his performance is not
so good as usual. But for a few shells, very wide of the mark, we are
not interrupted, for there are no German craft in sight.
With the powerful wind behind us we are soon over the objective, a
large wood some few miles behind the lines. The wood is reported to be
a favourite bivouac ground, and it is surrounded by Boche aerodromes.
Now the bombers drop below the clouds to a height convenient for
their job. As the wood covers an area of several square miles and
almost any part of it may contain troops, there is no need to descend
far before taking aim. Each pilot chooses a spot for his particular
attention, for preference somewhere near the road that bisects the
wood. He aligns his sights on the target, releases the bombs, and
watches for signs of an interrupted lunch below.
It is quite impossible to tell the extent of the damage, for the
raid is directed not against some definite object, but against an area
containing troops, guns, and stores. The damage will be as much moral
as material since nothing unnerves war-weary men more than to realise
that they are never safe from aircraft.
The guns get busy at once, for the wood contains a nest of Archies.
Ugly black bursts surround the bombers, who swerve and zig-zag as they
run. When well away from the wood they climb back to us through the
We turn west and battle our way against the wind, now our foe.
Half-way to the lines we wave an envious good-bye to the bombers and
scouts, and begin our solitary patrol above the clouds.
We cruise all round the compass, hunting for Huns. Twice we see
enemy machines through rifts in the clouds, but each time we dive
towards them they refuse battle and remain at a height of some thousand
feet, ready to drop even lower, if they can lure us down through the
barrage of A.-A. shells. Nothing else of importance happens, and things
get monotonous. I look at my watch and think it the slowest thing on
earth, slower than the leave train. The minute-hand creeps round, and
We have one more flutter on the way to the trenches. Two Huns come
to sniff at us, and we dive below the clouds once more.
But it is the old, old dodge of trying to salt the bird's tail. The
Hun decoys make themselves scarceand H.E. bursts make themselves
plentiful. Archie has got the range of those clouds to a few feet, and,
since we are a little beneath them, he has got our range too. We dodge
with difficulty, for Archie revels in a background of low clouds.
Nobody is hit, however, and our party crosses the lines; and so home.
From the point of view of our fighting machines, the afternoon has
been uneventful. Nevertheless, the job has been done, so much so that
the dwellers in the wood where we left our cards are still regretting
their disturbed luncheon, while airmen and A.-A. gunners around the
wood tell each other what they will do to the next lot of raiders. We
shall probably call on them again next week, when I will let you know
whether their bloodthirsty intentions mature.
FRANCE, September, 1916
IV. SPYING BY SNAPSHOT.
... Since daybreak a great wind has raged from the east, and even as
I write you, my best of friends, it whines past the mess-tent. This,
together with low clouds, had kept aircraft inactivea state of things
in which we had revelled for nearly a week, owing to rain and mist.
However, towards late afternoon the clouds were blown from the
trench region, and artillery machines snatched a few hours' work from
the fag-end of daylight. The wind was too strong for offensive patrols
or long reconnaissance, so that we of Umpty Squadron did not expect a
call to flight.
But the powers that control our outgoings and incomings thought
otherwise. In view of the morrow's operations they wanted urgently a
plan of some new defences on which the Hun had been busy during the
spell of dud weather. They selected Umpty Squadron for the job,
probably because the Sopwith would be likely to complete it more
quickly than any other type, under the adverse conditions and the
time-limit set by the sinking sun. The Squadron Commander detailed two
busesours and another.
As it was late, we had little leisure for preparation; the cameras
were brought in a hurry from the photographic lorry, examined hastily
by the observers who were to use them, and fitted into the conical
recesses through the fuselage floor. We rose from the aerodrome within
fifteen minutes of the deliverance of flying orders.
Because of doubtful light the photographs were to be taken from the
comparatively low altitude of 7000 feet. We were able, therefore, to
complete our climb while on the way to Albert, after meeting the second
machine at 2000 feet.
All went well until we reached the neighbourhood of Albert, but
there we ran into a thick ridge of cloud and became separated. We
dropped below into the clear air, and hovered about in a search for the
companion bus. Five minutes brought no sign of its whereabouts, so we
continued alone towards the trenches. Three minutes later, when about
one mile west of Pozières, we sighted, some 900 yards to north of us, a
solitary machine that looked like a Sopwith, though one could not be
certain at such a range. If it was indeed our second bus, its pilot,
who was new to France, must have misjudged his bearings, for it nosed
across to the German air country and merged into the nothingness, miles
away from our objective. What became of the lost craft is a mystery
which may be cleared up to-morrow, or more probably in a month's time
by communication from the German Prisoners' Bureau, or maybe never.
Thus far we have heard nothing, so a forced landing on British ground
is unlikely. For the rest, the pilot and observer may be killed,
wounded, injured, or prisoners. All we know is that they flew into the
Ewigkeit and are missing.
For these many weeks Pozières has been but a name and a waste brick
pile; yet the site of the powdered village cannot be mistaken from the
air, for, slightly to the east, two huge mine-craters sentinel it, left
and right. From here to Le Sars, which straddles the road four miles
beyond, was our photographic objective. We were to cover either side of
the road twice, so I had arranged to use half the number of plates
during each there-and-back journey.
The R.F.C. camera used by us is so simple as to be called foolproof.
Eighteen plates are stacked in a changing-box over the shutter. You
slide the loading handle forward and backward, and the first plate
falls into position. Arrived over the spot to be spied upon, you take
careful sight and pull a stringand the camera has reproduced whatever
is 9000 feet below it. Again you operate the loading handle; the
exposed plate is pushed into an empty changing-box underneath an
extension, and plate the second falls into readiness for exposure,
while the indicator shows 2. And so on until the changing-box for bare
plates is emptied and the changing-box for used ones is filled.
Whatever skill attaches to the taking of aerial snapshots is in judging
when the machine is flying dead level and above the exact objective,
and in repeating the process after a properly timed interval.
A.-A. guns by the dozen hit out immediately we crossed the lines,
for we were their one target. No other craft were in sight, except a
lone B.E., which was drifted by the wind as it spotted for artillery
from the British side of the trenches. Scores of black puffs, attended
by cavernous coughs, did their best to put the wind up us. They
succeeded to a certain extent, though not enough to hinder the work on
Everything was in Archie's favour. We were at 7000 feetan easy
height for A.-A. sightingwe were silhouetted against a cover of high
clouds, our ground speed was only some thirty miles an hour against the
raging wind, and we dared not dodge the bursts, however close, as area
photography from anything but an even line of flight is useless. Yet,
though the bursts kept us on edge, we were not touched by so much as a
splinter. In this we were lucky under the conditions. The luck could
scarcely have held had the job lasted much longer than a quarter of an
hourwhich is a consoling thought when one is safe back and writing to
a dear friend in England, not?
Northward, along the left-hand side of the road, was my first
subject; and a damned unpleasant subject it wasa dirty-soiled,
shell-scarred wilderness. I looked overboard to make certain of the map
square, withdrew back into the office, pulled the shutter-string, and
loaded the next plate for exposure.
Wouff! Ouff! Ouff! barked Archie, many times
and loud. An instinct to swerve assaulted the pilot, but after a slight
deviation he controlled his impulse and held the bus above the
roadside. He had a difficult task to maintain a level course. Whereas
we wanted to make east-north-east, the wind was due east, so that it
cut across and drifted us in a transverse direction. To keep straight
it was necessary to steer crookedthat is to say, head three-quarters
into the wind to counteract the drift, the line of flight thus forming
an angle of about 12° with the longitudinal axis of the aeroplane.
Wouff! ouff! Archibald continued, as I counted in
seconds the interval to the scene of the next snapshot, which, as
assurance that the whole ground would be covered, was to overlap
slightly the first. A quick glance below, another tug at the string,
and plate the second was etched with information. The third, fourth,
and fifth followed; and finally, to our great relief, we reach Le Sars.
Here the pilot was able to dodge for a few seconds while we turned
to retrace the course, this time along the southern edge of the road.
He side-slipped the bus, pulled it around in an Immelmann turn, and
then felt the rudder-controls until we were in the required direction.
The interval between successive exposures was now shorter, as the east
wind brought our ground speed to 120 miles an hour, even with the
engine throttled back. There was scarcely time to sight the objective
before the photograph must be taken and the next plate loaded into
place. Within two minutes we were again over Pozières.
V. took us across the lines, so as to deceive the Archie merchants
into a belief that we were going home. We then climbed a little, turned
sharply, and began to repeat our outward trip to north of the road.
Evidently Archie had allowed his leg to be pulled by the feint, and
for two minutes he only molested the machine with a few wild shots. But
soon he recovered his old form, so that when we had reached Le Sars the
bus was again wreathed by black puffs. We vertical-turned across the
road and headed for the trenches once more, with the last few plates
waiting for exposure.
Archie now seemed to treat the deliberation of the solitary
machine's movements as a challenge to his ability, and he determined to
make us pay for our seeming contempt. An ugly barrage of A.-A.
shell-bursts separated us from friendly air, the discs of black smoke
expanding as they hung in little clusters. Into this barrier of hate we
went unwillingly, like children sent to church as a duty.
Scores of staccato war-whoops reminded us that the Boche gunners
wanted our scalp. I don't know how V. felt about it, but I well know
that I was in a state of acute fear. Half-way to Pozières I abandoned
checking the ground by the map, and judged the final photographs by
counting the seconds between eachone, two, three, four (wouff!
wouff! wouff! wouff!); pull the string, press
forward the loading-handle, bring it back; one, two, three, four (
wouff! wouff! wouff! wouff!), et-cetera. Just
as the final plate-number showed on the indicator a mighty report from
underneath startled us, and the machine was pressed upward, left wing
This was terrifying enough but not harmful, for not one of the
fragments from the near burst touched us, strange to say. The pilot
righted the bus, and I made the last exposure, without, I am afraid,
caring what patch of earth was shuttered on to the plate.
Nose down and engine full out, we hared over the trenches. Archie's
hate followed for some distance, but to no purpose; and at last we were
at liberty to fly home, at peace with the wind and the world. We landed
less than three-quarters of an hour after we had left the aerodrome in
Good boys, said the Squadron Commander; now see that lightning is
used in developing your prints.
The camera was rushed to the photographic lorry, the plates were
unloaded in the dark hut, the negatives were developed. Half an hour
later I received the first proofs, and, with them, some degree of
disappointment. Those covering the first outward and return journey
between Pozières and Le Sars were good, as were the next three, at the
beginning of the second journey. Then came a confused blur of
superimposed ground-patterns, and at the last five results blank as the
brain of a flapper. A jamb in the upper changing-box had led to five
exposures on the one plate.
As you know, mon amie, I am a fool. But I do not like to be reminded
of the self-evident fact. The photographic officer said I must have
made some silly mistake with the loading handle, and he remarked sadly
that the camera was supposed to be foolproof. I said he must have made
some silly mistake when inspecting the camera before it left his
workshop, and I remarked viciously that the camera was foolproof
against a careless operator, but by no means foolproof against the
careless expert. There we left the subject and the spoiled plates, as
the evening was too far advanced for the trip to be repeated. As the
photoman has a pleasant job at wing headquarters, whereas I am but an
observerthat is to say, an R.F.C. doormatthe blame was laid on me
as a matter of course. However, the information supplied by the
successful exposures pleased the staff people at whose instigation the
deed was done, and this was all that really mattered.
I have already told you that our main work in umpty squadron is long
reconnaissance for G.H.Q. and offensive patrol. Special photographic
stunts such as happened to-day are rare, thank the Lord. But our
cameras often prepare the way for a bombing expedition. An observer
returns from a reconnaissance flight with snapshots of a railhead, a
busy factory, or an army headquarters. Prints are sent to the I
people, who, at their leisure, map out in detail the point of interest.
No fear of doubtful reports from the glossed surface of geometrical
reproduction, for the camera, our most trusted spy, cannot distort the
truth. Next a complete plan of the chosen objective, with its
surroundings, is given to a bombing squadron; and finally, the pilots
concerned, well primed with knowledge of exactly where to align their
bomb-sights, fly off to destroy.
For the corps and army squadrons of the R.F.C. photography has a
prominent place in the daily round. To them falls the duty of providing
survey-maps of the complete system of enemy defences. Their all-seeing
lenses penetrate through camouflage to new trenches and emplacements,
while exposing fake fortifications. The broken or unbroken German line
is fully revealed, even to such details as the barbed wire in front and
the approaches in rear.
For clues to battery positions and the like, the gun country behind
the frontier of the trenches is likewise searched by camera. One day a
certain square on the artillery map seems lifeless. The following
afternoon an overhead snapshot reveals a new clump of trees or a
curious mark not to be found on earlier photographs. On the third day
the mark has disappeared, or the trees are clustered in a slightly
different shape. But meanwhile an exact position has been pin-pointed,
so that certain heavy guns busy themselves with concentrated fire. By
the fourth day the new gun-pits, or whatever it was that the Hun tried
to smuggle into place unnoticed, have been demolished and is replaced
by a wide rash of shell-holes.
Wonderful indeed is the record of war as preserved by prints in the
archives of our photographic section. For example, we were shown last
week a pair of striking snapshots taken above Martinpuich, before and
after bombardment. The Before one pictured a neat little village in
compact perspective of squares, rectangles, and triangles. The
Aftermath pictured a tangled heap of sprawling chaos, as little like a
village as is the usual popular novel like literature.
Of all the Flying Corps photographs of war, perhaps the most
striking is that taken before Ypres of the first Hun gas attack. A
B.E2.C., well behind the German lines, caught sight of a strange
snowball of a cloud rolling across open ground, in the wake of an east
wind. It flew to investigate, and the pilot photographed the phenomenon
from the rear. This reproduction of a tenuous mass blown along the
discoloured earth will show coming generations how the Boche introduced
to the black art of warfare its most devilish form of frightfulness.
I would send you a few aerial photographs, as you suggest, if the
private possession of them were not strictly verboten. Possibly you
will have an opportunity of seeing all you want later, for if the
authorities concerned are wise they will form a public collection of a
few thousand representative snapshots, to show the worlds of to-day,
to-morrow, and the day after what the camera did in the great war. Such
a permanent record would be of great value to the military historian;
and on a rainy afternoon, when the more vapid of the revues were not
offering matinées, they might even be of interest to the average
I can tell you little of the technical branch of this new science,
which has influenced so largely the changing war of the past two years,
and which will play an even greater part in the decisive war of the
next two. All I know is that hundreds of photos are taken every day
over enemy country, that ninety per cent of them are successful, and
that the trained mechanics sometimes produce finished prints twenty
minutes after we have given them our plates.
Moreover, I am not anxious to discuss the subject further, for it is
10 P.M., and at 5 A.M., unless my good angel sends bad weather, I shall
be starting for an offensive patrol over Mossy-Face. Also you don't
deserve even this much, as I have received no correspondence, books, or
pork-pies from you for over a week. In ten minutes' time I shall be
employed on the nightly slaughter of the spiders, earwigs, and moths
that plague my tent.
FRANCE, September, 1916
V. THE ARCHIBALD FAMILY.
... You remark on the familiarity with which I speak of Archie, and
you ask for detailed information about his character and habits. Why
should I not treat him with familiarity? If a man calls on you nearly
every day you are entitled to use his Christian name. And if the
intimacy be such that at each visit he tries to punch your head, he
becomes more a brother than a friend.
How, you continue, did a creature so strenuous as the anti-aircraft
gun come by the flippant name of Archie? Well, once upon a time the
Boche A.-A. guns were very young and had all the impetuous inaccuracy
incident to youth. British airmen scarcely knew they were fired at
until they saw the pretty, white puffs in the distance.
One day a pilot noticed some far-away bursts, presumably meant for
him. He was young enough to remember the good old days (you would
doubtless call them the bad old days) when the music-halls produced
hearty, if vulgar, humour, and he murmured Archibald, certainly not!
The name clung, and as Archibald the A.-A. gun will go down to
posterity. You can take it or leave it; any way, I cannot think of a
better explanation for the moment.
Archie has since grown up and become sober, calculating, accurate,
relentless, cunning, and deadly mathematical. John or Ernest would now
fit him better, as being more serious, or Wilhelm, as being more
frightful. For Archie is a true apostle of frightfulness. There is no
greater adept at the gentle art of putting the wind up people.
Few airmen get hardened to the villainous noise of a loud wouff!
wouff! at 12,000 feet, especially when it is near enough to be
followed by the shriek of shell-fragments. Nothing disconcerts a man
more as he tries to spy out the land, take photographs, direct
artillery fire, or take aim through a bombsight, than to hear this
noise and perhaps be lifted a hundred feet or so when a shell bursts
close underneath. And one is haunted by the knowledge that, unlike the
indirect fire of the more precise guns, Archie keeps his own eyes on
the target and can observe all swerves and dashes for safety.
To anybody who has seen a machine broken up by a direct hit at some
height between 8,000 and 15,000 feet, Archie becomes a prince among the
demons of destruction. Direct hits are fortunately few, but hits by
stray fragments are unfortunately many. Yet, though the damage on such
occasions is regrettable, it is seldom overwhelming. Given a skilful
pilot and a well-rigged bus, miracles can happen, though a machine
stands no technical chance of staggering home. In the air uncommon
escapes are common enough.
On several occasions, after a direct hit, a wounded British pilot
has brought his craft to safety, with wings and fuselage weirdly
ventilated and half the control wires helpless. Archie wounded a pilot
from our aerodrome in the head and leg, and an opening the size of a
duck's egg was ripped into the petrol tank facing him. The pressure
went, and so did the engine-power. The lines were too distant to be
reached in a glide, so the machine planed down towards Hun territory.
The pilot was growing weak from loss of blood, but it occurred to him
that if he stuck his knee into the hole he might be able to pump up
pressure. He tried this, and the engine came back to life 50 feet from
the ground. At this height he flew, in a semi-conscious condition,
twelve miles over enemy country and crossed the lines with his bus
scarcely touched by the dozens of machine-guns trained on it.
One of our pilots lost most of his rudder, but managed to get back
by juggling with his elevator and ailerons. The fuselage of my own
machine was once set on fire by a chunk of burning H.E. The flames died
out under pressure from gloves and hands, just as they had touched the
drums of ammunition and all but eaten through a longeron.
Escapes from personal injuries have been quite as strange. A piece
of high explosive hit a machine sideways, passed right through the
observer's cockpit, and grazed two kneecaps belonging to a friend of
mine. He was left with nothing worse than two cuts and mild
Scottie, another observer (now a prisoner, poor chap), leaned
forward to look at his map while on a reconnaissance. A dainty morsel
from an Archie shell hurtled through the air and grazed the back of his
neck. He finished the reconnaissance, made out his report, and got the
scratch dressed at the hospital. Next day he resumed work; and he was
delighted to find himself in the Roll of Honour, under the heading
Wounded. I once heard him explain to a new observer that when flying
a close study of the map was a guarantee against losing one's way,
one's headand one's neck.
The Archibald family tree has several branches. Whenever the founder
of the family went on the burst he broke out in the form of white
puffs, like those thrown from the funnel of a liner when it begins to
slow down. The white bursts still seek us out, but the modern Boche
A.-A. gunner specialises more in the black variety. The white bursts
contain shrapnel, which is cast outwards and upwards; the black ones
contain high explosive, which spreads all around.
H.E. has a lesser radius of solid frightfulness than shrapnel, but
if it does hit a machine the damage is greater. For vocal frightfulness
the black beat the white hollow. If the Titans ever had an epidemic of
whooping-cough, and a score of them chorused the symptoms in unison, I
should imagine the noise was like the bursting of a black Archie shell.
Then there is the green branch of the family. This is something of a
problem. One theory is that the green bursts are for ranging purposes
only, another that they contain a special brand of H.E., and a third
declares them to be gas shells. All three suggestions may be partly
true, for there is certainly more than one brand of green Archie.
First cousin to Archie is the onion, otherwise the flaming rocket.
It is fired in a long stream of what look like short rectangles of
compressed flame at machines that have been enticed down to a height of
4000 to 6000 feet. It is most impressive as a firework display. There
are also colourless phosphorous rockets that describe a wide parabola
in their flight.
Within the past month or two we have been entertained at rare
intervals by the family ghost. This fascinating and mysterious being
appears very suddenly in the form of a pillar of white smoke,
stretching to a height of several thousand feet. It is straight, and
apparently rigid as far as the top, where it sprays round into a knob.
Altogether, it suggests a giant piece of celery. It does not seem to
disperse; but if you pass on and look away for a quarter of an hour,
you will find on your return that it has faded away as suddenly as it
came, after the manner of ghosts. Whether the pillars are intended to
distribute gas is uncertain, but it is a curious fact that on the few
occasions when we have seen them they have appeared to windward of us.
Like babies and lunatics, Archie has his good and bad days. If low
clouds are about and he can only see through the gaps he is not very
troublesome. Mist also helps to keep him quiet. He breaks out badly
when the sky is a cover of unbroken blue, though the sun sometimes
dazzles him, so that he fires amok. From his point of view it is a
perfect day when a film of cloud about 20,000 feet above him screens
the sky. The high clouds forms a perfect background for anything
between it and the ground, and aircraft stand out boldly, like the
figures on a Greek vase. On such a day we would willingly change places
with the gunners below.
For my part, Archie has given me a fellow-feeling for the birds of
the air. I have at times tried light-heartedly to shoot partridges and
even pigeons, but if ever again I fire at anything on the wing,
sympathy will spoil my aim.
FRANCE, October, 1916
VI. BATTLES AND BULLETS.
... I am not sure which is the more disquieting, to be under fire in
the air or on the ground.
Although the airman is less likely to be hit than the infantryman,
he has to deal with complications that could not arise on solid earth.
Like the infantryman, a pilot may be killed outright by a questing
bullet, and there's an end of it. But in the case of a wound he has a
far worse time. If an infantryman be plugged he knows he has probably
received a Blighty one, and as he is taken to the dressing-station he
dreams of spending next week-end in England. A wounded pilot dare think
of nothing but to get back to safety with his machine, and possibly an
He may lose blood and be attacked by a paralysing faintness. He must
then make his unwilling body continue to carry out the commands of his
unwilling brain, for if he gives way to unconsciousness the machine,
freed from reasoned control, will perform circus tricks and twist
itself into a spinning nose-dive. Even when he has brought the bus to
friendly country he must keep clear-headed; otherwise he will be unable
to exercise the judgment necessary for landing.
Another unpleasant thought is that though he himself escape unhurt,
an incendiary bullet may set his petrol tank ablaze, or some stray
shots may cut his most vital control wires. And a headlong dive under
these conditions is rather too exciting, even for the most confirmed
seeker after sensation.
Yet with all these extra possibilities of what a bullet may mean,
the chances of being plugged in the air are decidedly less than on the
ground. While travelling at anything from 70 to 140 miles an hour it is
decidedly more difficult to hit another object tearing along at a like
speed and swerving in all directions, than from a machine-gun
emplacement to rake a line of men advancing over the top. Another
point favourable to the airman is that he scarcely realises the
presence of bullets around him, for the roar of his engine drowns that
sinister hiss which makes a man automatically close his eyes and duck.
Given a certain temperament and a certain, mood, an air fight is the
greatest form of sport on earth. Every atom of personality, mental and
physical, is conscripted into the task. The brain must be instinctive
with insight into the enemy's moves, and with plans to check and outwit
him. The eye must cover every direction and co-operate with the brain
in perfect judgments of time and distance. Hands, fingers, and feet
must be instantaneous in seizing an opportunity to swoop and fire,
swerve and avoid, retire and return.
In an isolated fight between two single machines the primary aim of
each pilot is to attack by surprise at close quarters. If this be
impossible, he plays for position and tries to get above his opponent.
He opens fire first if he can, as this may disconcert the enemy, but he
must be careful not to waste ammunition at long range. A machine with
little ammunition is at a tremendous disadvantage against a machine
If an isolated British aeroplane sees a formation of Germans
crossing to our side it has no hesitation in sweeping forward to break
up the party. You will remember our old friend Marmaduke, dear lady?
Only last week he attacked ten German machines, chased them back to
their own place in the air, and drove two down.
Even from the purely selfish point of view much depends on the area.
When an airman destroys a Boche over German country he may have no
witnesses, in which case his report is attended by an elusive shadow of
polite doubt. But if the deed be done near the trenches, his success is
seen by plenty of people only too willing to support his claim.
Sometimes a pilot may even force a damaged Boche machine to land among
the British. He then follows his captive down, receives the surrender,
and wonders if he deserves the Military Cross or merely
The tactics of an air battle on a larger scale are much more
complicated than those for single combats. A pilot must be prepared at
every instant to change from the offensive to the defensive and back
again, to take lightning decisions, and to extricate himself from one
part of the fight and sweep away to another, if by so doing he can save
a friend or destroy an enemy.
To help you realise some of the experiences of an air battle, my
very dear madam, let us suppose you have changed your sex and
surroundings, and are one of us, flying in a bunch over the back of the
German front, seeking whom we may devour.
A moment ago the sky was clear of everything but those dainty
cloud-banks to the east. Very suddenly a party of enemies appear out of
nowhere, and we rush to meet them. Like the rest of us, you concentrate
your whole being on the part you must play, and tune yourself up to the
strain attendant on the first shock of encounter. What happens in the
first few seconds often decides the fight.
The opposing forces close up and perfect their order of battle. The
usual German method, during the past few weeks, has been to fly very
high and range the machines one above the other. If the higher craft
are in trouble they dive and join the others. If one of the lower ones
be surrounded those above can swoop down to its help. Our own tactics
vary according to circumstances.
At the start it is a case of follow-my-leader. The flight-commander
selects a Boche and dives straight at him. You follow until you are
within range, then swerve away and around, so as to attack from the
side. Then, with a clear field, you pour in a raking fire by short
burststa-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta,
aiming to hit the Boche pilot and allowing for deflection. From all
directions you hear the rattle of other guns, muffled by the louder
noise of the engine.
A third British machine is under the Boche's tail, and the observer
in it is firing upwards. The three of you draw nearer and nearer to
your prey. The Hun puts his nose down to sweep away; but it is too
late. His petrol tank bursts into flames, and the machine dives
steeply, a streamer of flame running away behind it. The fire spreads
to the fuselage and planes. After rushing earthwards for two or three
thousand feet, the whole aeroplane crumbles up and you see the main
portion falling like a stone. And you (who have shed the skin of
sentiment and calm restraint and become for the duration of the fight a
bold bad pilot with the lust of battle in your blood) are filled with
Meanwhile, your observer's gun has been grinding away behind you,
showing that you in your turn are attacked. You twist the machine
round. Almost instinctively your feet push the rudder-control just
sufficiently to let you aim dead at the nearest enemy. You press the
trigger. Two shots are fired, andyour gun jambs.
You bank and turn sideways, so as to let your observer get in some
shooting while you examine your gun. From the position of the
check-lever you realise that there has been a misfire. Quickly but
calmlyfeverish haste might make a temporary stoppage chronicyou
lean over and remedy the fault. Again you press the trigger, and never
was sound more welcome than the ta-ta-ta-ta-ta which shows you
are ready for all comers.
Once more you turn to meet the attacking Germans. As you do so your
observer points to a black-crossed bird which is gliding down after he
has crippled it. But three more are closing round you. Something sings
loudly a yard away. You turn your head and see that a landing wire has
been shot through; and you thank the gods that it was not a flying
The flight-commander and another companion have just arrived to help
you. They dash at a Boche, and evidently some of their shots reach him,
for he also separates himself and glides down. The two other Huns,
finding themselves outnumbered, retire.
All this while the two rear machines have been having a bad time.
They were surrounded by five enemies at the very beginning of the
fight. One of the Boches has since disappeared, but the other four are
very much there.
You sweep round and go to the rescue, accompanied by the
flight-commander and the remaining British machine. Just as you arrive
old X's bus drops forward and down, spinning as it goes. It falls
slowly at first, but seems to gather momentum; the spin becomes wilder
and wilder, the drop faster and faster.
Poor old X, you think, how damnable to lose him. Now the poor
beggar won't get the leave he has been talking about for the last two
months. Then your thoughts turn to Y, the observer in the lost
machine. You know his fiancée, you remember he owes you 30 francs from
last night's game of bridge.
You burn to avenge poor X and Y, but all the Huns have dived and are
now too low for pursuit. You recover your place in the formation and
the fight ends as suddenly as it began. One German machine has been
destroyed and two driven down, butone of ours has failed to return.
When you return and land, you are not so contented as usual to be
back. There will be two vacant places at dinner, and there is a nasty
job to be done. You will have to write rather a painful letter to Y's
Madam, you are now at liberty to give up the temporary role of a
bold, bad pilot and become once more your charming self.
FRANCE, November, 1916
VII. BACK IN BLIGHTY.
... You last heard of my continued existence, I believe, from a
field post-card with but one of the printed lines uncrossed: I have
been admitted to hospital. When this was sent I had no more
expectation of a return to Blighty than has a rich Bishop of not
entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Nevertheless, here we are again, after
a three days' tour along the Red Cross lines of communication.
Again I have been admitted to hospital. This one is more sumptuous
but less satisfying than the casualty clearing station at Gezaincourt,
whence the card was posted. There, in a small chateau converted into an
R.A.M.C. half-way house, one was not over-anxious to be up and about,
for that would have meant a further dose of war at close quarters.
Here, in a huge military hospital at Westminster, one is very anxious
to be up and about, for that would mean a long-delayed taste of the
joys of London. At Gezaincourt rumbling gunfire punctuated the
countryside stillness; aeroplanes hummed past on their way to the
lines, and engendered gratitude for a respite from encounters with
Archie; from the ward window I could see the star-shells as they
streaked up through the dim night. At Westminster rumbling buses
punctuate the back-street stillness; taxis hum past on their way to the
West End, and engender a longing for renewed acquaintance with the
normal world and the normal devil; from the ward window I can see the
towers of Parliament as they stretch up through the London greyness.
For an Englishman just returned from a foreign battlefield to his own
capital it should be an inspiring view, that of the Home of Government,
wherein the Snowdens, Outhwaites, Ponsonbys, and Sir Vested Interests,
talk their hardest for the winning of the war by one side or the other,
I am not sure which. But somehow it isn't.
I have mentioned the hospital's position, because it will help you
on the day after to-morrow, if the herewith forecast is correct.
You will read this letter, hang me for my customary disturbing
suddenness, and search a time-table. This will tell you that a train
from your part of the country arrives in town at 11.45 A.M. (e),
which bracketed letter means Saturdays excepted. By it you will travel
on Tuesday morning. Then, in the afternoon, you will seek a taxi, but
either the drivers will have as fares middle-aged contractors, good for
a fat tip, or they will claim a lack of petrol, lady. You will
therefore fight for place in a bus, which must be left at the corner of
Whitehall and Queen Victoria Street. Next you will walk towards the
river, past Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Talk, and so to Chelsea
Embankment. Turn off by the Tate Gallery, enter the large building on
your right, and you will have arrived. Visiting hours are from two to
four, but as the Sister is one of the best and my very kind friend, you
will not be turned out until five.
But I can hear you ask leading questions. No, I am not badly wounded
nor seriously ill. Neither am I suffering from shell-shock, nor even
from cold feet. A Blighty injury of the cushiest is the spring
actuating this Jack-in-the-Box appearance. Have patience. To-day's
inactivity has bred a pleasant boredom, which I shall work off by
writing you a history of the reasons why I am back from the big war.
They include a Hun aeroplane, a crash, a lobster, and two doctors.
You will remember how, months ago, our machine landed on an
abandoned trench, after being damaged in a scrap? A bullet through the
petrol-pipe having put the carburettor out of action, the engine ceased
its revs., so that we glided several miles, crossed the then lines at a
low height, and touched earth among the network of last June's lines.
We pancaked on to the far edge of a trench, and the wheels slid
backward into the cavity, causing the lower wings and fuselage to be
crumpled and broken.
My left knee, which has always been weak since a far-back accident,
was jerked by contact with the parapet. Next day it seemed none the
worse, so I did not take the accident seriously. During the weeks and
months that followed the knee was painless, but it grew larger and
larger for no noticeable reason, like Alice in Wonderland and the daily
cost of the war.
Then an aggressive lobster, eaten in Amiens one fine evening,
revenged itself by making necessary a visit to the casualty clearing
station for attention to a mildly poisoned tummy. The doctor who
examined me noticed the swollen knee, and looked grave. He pinched,
punched, and pressed it, and finally said: My dear boy, why the devil
didn't you report this? It's aggravated synovitis, and, if you don't
want permanent water-on-the-knee, you'll have to lie up for at least
three weeks. I'll have you sent to the Base to-morrow.
My ambition did not yet soar beyond a short rest at the Base.
Meanwhile it was pleasant to lie between real sheets and to watch real
English girls making beds, taking temperatures, and looking after the
newly wounded with a blend of tenderness and masterful competence.
Their worst job appeared to be fighting the Somme mud. The casualties
from the trench region were invariably caked with dirt until the nurses
had bathed and cleaned them with comic tact and great success.
It being the day of an advance, scores of cases were sent to
Gezaincourt from the field dressing stations. Each time an ambulance
car, loaded with broken and nerve-shattered men, stopped by the
hospital entrance, a young donkey brayed joyously from a field facing
the doorway, as if to shout Never say die! Most of the casualties
echoed the sentiment, for they seemed full of beans and congratulated
themselves and each other on their luck in getting Blighty ones.
But it was otherwise with the cases of shell-shock. I can imagine no
more wretched state of mind than that of a man whose nerves have just
been unbalanced by close shaves from gun fire. There was in the same
lysol-scented ward as myself a New Zealander in this condition. While
he talked with a friend a shell had burst within a few yards of the
pair, wounding him in the thigh and sweeping off the friend's head. He
lost much blood and became a mental wreck. All day and all night he
tossed about in his bed, miserably sleepless and acutely on edge, or
lay in a vacant and despondent quiet. Nothing interested him, nothing
comforted himnot even a promise from the doctor of a long rest in
There were also many victims of the prevailing epidemics of
trench-fever and rabid influenza. The clearing station was thus hard
put to it to make room for all newcomers by means of evacuation. For
our batch this happened next evening. A long train drew up on the
single-line railway near the hospital, the stretcher cases were borne
to special Pullman cars, and the walking cases followed, each docketed
in his button-hole by a card descriptive of wound or ailment.
You can have no idea of the comfort of a modern R.A.M.C. train as
used at the Front. During the first few months of war, when the small
amount of available rolling stock was worth its weight in man-power,
the general travel accommodation for the wounded was the French railway
truck, with straw strewn over the floor. In these the suffering sick
were jolted, jerked, and halted for hours at a time, while the
scorching sun danced through the van's open sides and the
mosquito-flies bit their damnedest. But nowadays one travels in luxury
and sleeping-berths, with ever-ready nurses eager to wait upon every
A sling-armed Canadian was one of the party of four in our
compartment. Great was his joy when a conjuring trick of coincidence
revealed that the jolly sister who came to ask what we would like to
drink proved to be not only a Canadian, but actually from his own
little township in Manitoba. While they discussed mutual friends the
rest of us felt highly disappointed that we also were not from the
township. As evidence that they both were of the right stuff, neither
of them platitudinised: It's a small world, isn't it?
The smooth-running train sped northward from the Somme battlefield,
and we betted on each man's chances of being sent to Blighty. Before
settling down to sleep, we likewise had a sweepstake on the Base of
destination, for not until arrival were we told whether it was Rouen,
Boulogne, or Etaples. I drew Boulogne and won, as we discovered on
being awoken at early dawn by a nurse, who arrived with tea, a cheery
Morning, boys, and bread-and-butter thin as ever was poised between
your slim fingers.
The wounded and shell-shocked New Zealander had pegged out during
the journey. May the gods rest his troubled spirit!
From Boulogne station a fleet of ambulance cars distributed the
train's freight of casualties among the various general hospitals. At
three of the starry morning I found myself inside a large one-time
hotel on the sea front, being introduced to a bed by a deft-handed
nurse of unusual beauty.
The Blighty hopes of our party were realised or disappointed at
midday, when the surgeon-in-charge came to decide which of the new
arrivals were to be forwarded across Channel, and which were to be
patched up in France. The world stands still the moment before the Ram
Corps major, his examination concluded, delivers the blessed verdict:
Get him off by this afternoon's boat, sister. Or an unwelcome
reassurance: We'll soon get you right here.
For my part I had not the least expectation of Blighty until the
surgeon showed signs of prolonged dissatisfaction with the swollen
knee. Like the doctor at Gezaincourt, he pinched, punched, and pressed
it, asked for its history, and finally pronounced: I'm afraid it'll
have to be rested for about six weeks. Then, after a pause: Sorry we
haven't room to keep you here for so long. You'll be fixed up on the
other side. Hastily I remarked that I should be sorry indeed to take
up valuable space at a Base hospital. The major's departure from the
ward was the signal for a demonstration by the Blighty squad. Pillows
and congratulations were thrown about, war-dances were performed on
game legs, the sister was bombarded with inquiries about the next boat.
All places on the afternoon boat having been booked, we were obliged
to wait until the morning. What a day! The last of a long period amid
the myriad ennuies of active service, the herald of a long spell amid
the pleasant things of England. Impatience for the morrow was kept
bottled with difficulty; every now and then the cork flew out,
resulting in a wild rag among those able to run, walk, or hop. When the
'Times' was delivered, it seemed quite a minor matter that the Gazette
should notify me that I had been presented with another pip.
After dinner some one remarked that she would soon come on duty,
and there was an air of conscious expectancy among the veterans of the
ward. She, the V.A.D. girl who had received us when we were deposited
at the hospital in the small hours of the morning, wasand isan
efficient nurse, a good comrade, a beautiful woman, and the friend of
every casualty lucky enough to have been in her charge. For a wounded
officer staled by the brutalities of trench life there could be no
better mental tonic than the ministrations and charm of Our Lady of X
Ward. I cannot guess the number and variety of proposals made to her by
patients of a week's or a month's standing, but both must be large. She
is also the possessor of this admirable and remarkable record. For two
years she has been nursingreally nursingin France, and yet, though
she belongs to a well-known family, her photograph has never appeared
in the illustrated papers that boom war-work patriots. On this
particular evening, in the intervals of handing round medicines and
cheerfulness, our comrade the night nurse made toffee for us over a
gas-burner, a grey-haired colonel and a baby subaltern taking turns to
stir the saucepan.
The next change of scene was to the quays of Boulogne. Ambulance
cars from the several hospitals lined up before a ship side-marked by
giant Red Crosses. The stretcher casualties were carried up the
gangway, down the stairs, and into the boat's wards below. The
remainder were made comfortable on deck. Distribution of life-saving
contraptions, business with medical cards, gleeful hoots from the
funnel, chug-chug from the paddles, and hey for Blighty! across a
smooth lake of a sea. Yarns of attack and bombardment were interrupted
by the pleasurable discovery that Dover's cliffs were still white.
We seemed an unkempt crowd indeed by contrast with dwellers on this
side of the Channel. The ragged raiment of men pipped during a Somme
advance did not harmonise with plush first-class compartments of the
Chatham and Dover railway. Every uniform in our carriage, except mine
and another, was muddied and bloodied, so that I felt almost ashamed of
the comparative cleanliness allowed by life in an R.F.C. camp, miles
behind the lines. The subaltern opposite, however, was immaculate as
the fashion-plate of a Sackville Street tailor. Yet, we thought, he
must have seen some tough times, for he knew all about each phase of
the Somme operations. Beaumont Hamel? He explained exactly how the
Blankshires and Dashshires, behind a dense barrage, converged up the
high ground fronting the stronghold. Stuff Redoubt? He gave us a
complete account of its capture, loss, and recapture. But this seasoned
warrior quietened after the visit of an official who listed us with
particulars of wounds, units, and service. His service overseas? Five
months in the Claims Department at Amiens. Wound or sickness? Scabies.
Charing Cross, gateway of the beloved city! The solid old clock
looked down benignly as if to say: I am the first landmark of your own
London to greet you. Pass along through that archway and greet the
But we could not pass along. The medical watchdogs and
mesdemoiselles the ambulance-drivers saw to that. We were detailed to
cars and forwarded to the various destinations, some to the provinces
by way of another station, some to suburban hospitals, some to London
proper. I was one of the lucky last-named and soon found myself settled
in Westminster. Here the injured knee was again pinched, punched, and
pressed, after which the ward surgeon told me I should probably stay in
bed for a month. For exercise I shall be permitted to walk along the
passage each morning to the department where they dispense massage and
Meanwhile, it is midday and flying weather. Over there a formation
of A flight, Umpty Squadron, will perhaps be droning back from a
hundred-mile reconnaissance. V., my mad friend and sane pilot and
flight-commander, leads it; and in my place, alas!
Charlie-the-good-guide is making notes from the observer's cockpit. The
Tripehound and others of the jolly company man the rear buses, which
number four or five, according to whether the wicked bandit Missing has
kidnapped some member of the family. And here loaf I, uncertain whether
I am glad or sorry to be out of it. The devil of it is that, unlike
most of my bed-neighbours, I feel enormously fit and am anxious to
shake hands with life and London. Time hangs heavy and long, so bring
all you can in the way of the latest books, the latest scandals, and
your latest enthusiasms among the modern poets. Above all, bring
LONDON, November, 1916
THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK