HarryH - Don't worry, things will hot up plenty when you get to France! I was thinking of you when Graham was on leave in London, the night of the Zeppelin raid. I wondered if you'd get a chance to have a crack at it!
Well, Graham may have gone west, but the show must go on! Introducing........
Sgt. James Bradley Fullard, Plessis, France.
Introduction: The Depot.
April 10th, 1916:
For three weeks we had been brimming with anticipation at the Depot in Plessis. In every corner sat airmen, some fresh out of the training schools like myself and Michael (we were recently arrived from Avord, where we had practiced on Penguins before moving on to the wonderfully fast and hornetlike Nieuport machines), others with healed wounds, awaiting to be re-posted to the front, and more still experienced pilots being transferred. At all hours of the day the sky buzzed with the exciting sound of flying machines - Farmans, Voisins, Nieuports, and, if we were lucky, we would even see the lumbering Caudrons, the twin-engined giants of the sky.
Each day Michael, my brother, and I emerged from the Hotel de la Bonne Rencontre, near the train station in Plessis, at first light, and headed to le Bureau de Pilotage, hoping that today was the day we would receive our Escadrille assignments. Each day, we dragged our heels back to our two tiny and sparsely furnished rooms, deeply and most bitterly disappointed. Of course, our disappointment was easily dispelled with flying - and there was plenty flying to be done at Plessis! During the days we were never done with practicing formation flying, gunnery, or even stunting on a rare occasion, when we were sure we could get away with it.
Naturally, we hoped to be sent to the same Escadrille with each other, but more than anything we wanted desperately to be assigned to an Escadrille de Chasse, flying Single-Seat Nieuports and partaking in the chivalric, epic duels high in the mountainous clouds over France. We wanted to be like Dellouin, the Red Guardian of Verdun, or like the great Voscadeaux, in his famous Violet Nieuport, who, according to the whispers of the new recruits, started every morning by shooting down a Bosche. At these rumours, the war pilots awaiting reassignment smiled knowingly.
Last week, as had become our routine, we awoke at first light and hastily rushed out to the bureau, to scan through the lists of pilots, and their new assignments. As usual, we hoped against hope to see our names, but after three long weeks we expected another disappointment. However, as we scanned through the list that day, something caught my eye. Sergent Michael Archibald Fullard, Escadrille N.15. As we read, and then re-read, the name, we both howled with excitement, jumping up and down like a pair of schoolboys as the stunned pilots around us looked on. “Michael, you lucky dog!” I cried, punching on the arm. Gleefully, he read his name aloud once more, before turning to me, bright-eyed. “Alright, that’s me! Let’s find you!”.
We scanned, and scanned, but Michael was the only Fullard on the list. Of each day’s disappointment, that was by far the hardest to bear. With a sympathetic look, Michael patted me on the back. “Sorry, kiddo. That’s hard luck. But, hey, I bet you’ll be on there tomorrow, and I bet you’ll be coming to N.15 with me!”. I smiled and nodded, but my brother knew me too well. “Ah, don’t be down, James! You’ll see. Tomorrow, your name will be there”.
My name didn’t appear the next day, or the day after, and for a week I went through one of the loneliest periods of my life. I thought of Michael, out on patrol, turning and looping with the Bosche Eindeckers. I thought of Andrew, my second elder brother, and the middle one between Michael and I, who had been fighting in the Foreign Legion since 1915. What a time they must be having, and all the while I was stuck in Plessis! If it wasn’t for Victor Vertadier, a friend of ours from Avord, I would have gone stir crazy on my own there.
Two mornings ago, on April 9th, I rushed out again to check the lists with Victor. Scanning idly through the names, shoulder-to-shoulder in the obligatory crowd that always gathered, I bit my lip in anticipation, but, after looking through twice, again I felt the crush of miserable disappointment, and I turned lethargically away to wallow in my pity. It was at that moment that Victor’s voice cut through the crowd - “Mon Dieu! Here you are, James! Look!”. I spun around at a blinding speed, shouldering my way through the gaggle of pilots (and earning one or two insults along the way) before pressing my hands to the wall and following Victor’s pointed finger. There it was, in bold, black font.
Sergent James Bradley Fullard, Escadrille N.31.
After the initial shock had worn off, I punched the air in revelry, grabbing Victor’s face and kissing him on the cheek. Laughing, he pushed me away, and together we frantically looked for his name. Then, we found it. Sergent Victor Vertadier, Escadrille N.31. “Victor, we’re in the same squadron!” I shouted out, as my friend gave a hearty, bellowing laugh. Almost tripping over each-other, we rushed to the office in the bureau to receive our Service Orders.
That same night, after we had our supper, then checked out of the Hotel de la Bonne Rencontre. Madame Rodel, Patronne of the Hotel, saw us out at the front door as we said our thank-yous and goodbyes. Victor headed out before me, lighting up a cigarette, as I squared by debt to the Hotel. Taking the money from me, Mme. Rodel grinned, waving theatrically. Bon Voyage, l'Americain! she called out, as I bounded out of the door.
We spent the remainder of the evening in Paris, sleeping on the benches and using our duffle-bags as pillows, as we awaited the 6 A.M. train to a sleepy little French village named Colombey-les-Belles. As the train pulled into the station, I shook Victor awake, and we jumped aboard. The train, headed so far away from the raging battle at Verdun, wasn’t very crowded, and we easily found ourselves a second-class compartment, where we excitedly chattered away to each-other about the joys that awaited us of war flying. “Monsieur, I will be the first of us two to shoot down a Bosche!” he bragged, and I gave him a sideways smirk. “Do you think so? Are you sure, Monsieur Vertadier? Well, then, let us bet on it! Five Francs says that I will down a Bosche before you!”. Grinning below his thick upturned moustache, he firmly shook my hand.
The train, which crawled at a painful slowness through the French countryside, finally arrived at around One O’Clock, and brimming with untold excitement we stepped off, heading to the centre of town. Fifteen minutes later, as we were beginning to fear that we had become lost, a Fiat pulled up alongside us, and from out the window appeared a foxlike face sporting a thin pencil moustache and thinner eyebrows, raised up so that their owner had an amusing look of shock on his face.
”Excusez-moi, vous deux! Êtes-vous des pilotes?” came his high-pitched voice, and eagerly we answered “Oui! We’re supposed to be going to Escadrille 31!”. He grinned, as he hastily jumped out of the car and took our bags, unceremoniously throwing them into the back seat before turning back to us and extending a hand from a grey chequered suit-sleeve. “Pierre Dupont Charbonnier Brocard, Chauffeur à Escadrille 31”. We shook his hand as we shared a concerned glance, and he took a step back, patting his sides before opening the door. “Well, get in! le Lieutenant is expecting you!”.
As it turns out, our long-named Chauffeur was quite the madman. Through country roads we flew at terrifying speed, at one point narrowly missing a truck as we rounded a corner, much to Pierre’s disgust and our complete fear, before eventually, in what seemed like a blink, Pierre swung the Fiat violently onto a large aerodrome, coming to a halt on a small dirt road in-between the long row of wooden hangars and a treeline, on the other side of which stood two barracks and a smaller white one-storey building. “Voila!” Pierre exclaimed in the front seat, “Welcome, Monsieurs, to Ochey!”
Pierre led us past the line of trees, to one of the wood-walled barracks, and escorted us into a cozy mess-hall, a long dining table sitting at its centre. The barracks was empty, save for a forty-something year old, rugged-looking man, his slick hair glossed backwards over his head, and shaved violently at the sides. As to be expected, he wore a thick moustache, carved off bluntly at the corners of his mouth. The man was dressed in the horizon-blue of a French soldier, and he leaned on a curve-handled cane, smoking a cigarette, as we walked in. Turning his sharp, dark brown gaze towards us, he let out a quiet Hmm, before stubbing the cigarette out in an ashtray and limping over to us. “And you two must be our new Aviateurs. Welcome to Escadrille 31, your new home”. His eyes turned to me as he said it. “Vous n'êtes pas français”,he observed, and I nodded. “l'Americain”. His moustache curved upward in what I assumed to be a smile, and he nodded.
“This is Georges, your Orderly” Pierre explained, and the man tilted his head in a slight bow to us. “Let me show you to your room”, Georges then said, limping over to a small door at the side of the Mess, which he opened up into a long corridor that ran the length of the building. The corridor was narrow - we could only walk in a line as we passed several other doors, before coming to a stop three doors before the rearmost one. Swinging it open, Georges revealed a tiny room crammed with two berths, one for me and one for Victor, with a washbasin propped between them. Slinging our kits under our beds, Georges informed us that this was to be our room, before explaining that the officers, and our C.O, resided in the Barracks next-door. “Well. That’s you settled in, no? Time to go see the Lieutenant”.
Lieutenant Albert Auger had started his war in 31ème régiment d'infanterie, being wounded once before transferring to the Flying Service in January 1915. As we entered his office, which was in the little white building we’d seen, he looked up from across his desk at us with a piercing blue stare. His eyes were almond-shaped, but sat underneath a pair of thick, fiercely downturned eyebrows. His hair was chestnut coloured, neatly parted to the side, and his moustache (of course - like every other Frenchman I’d encountered he wore a moustache) was similar to Georges’, thick but cropped at the sides of his mouth. Protruding from the buttonhole of his tunic was the crimson ribbon of the Légion d'honneur. “Ah, hello, Georges. What have we here? These are my new pilots, yes?”. He slowly drew himself up, circling around his desk and standing before us. “Vertadier and Fullard! Who’s who, then?” he asked, extending his hand out to us while looking us over with an appraising glance. “I’m Fullard,” I said, and he grinned, revealing large, square and impossibly white teeth. “Aha! l’Americain! Et vous parlez Français?”. He seemed to hang on his breath after asking. “Oui, Lieutenant”. “Oho! Good, good!” he shook my hand warmly, and turned to Victor, “And you are Vertadier! A pleasure. I am glad you are both here!”.
Suddenly, the warm humour left his face. “Tomorrow, you shall be flying your first missions. Rest up, my boys”.