I finally have a bit of time to write and introduce my new pilot.
A journal of the Great War -- By an Anonymous Aviator (unless this notebook should be found by a pretty girl, in which case my name is Colin Urquhart)
I was in my final year as a boarding student at Upper Canada College in Toronto when the event occurred that was to change my life. Matty Novak and I went "over the wall" one January afternoon bound for the Pavlova dance hall near High Park. It had opened only recently and Matty had been there over Christmas break. We stopped at an address on Bloor Street, a place Matty knew, where an ugly old man filled Matty's silver flask with whiskey for 75 cents. We had it half done by the time we arrived at the Pavlova.
Sheila was nearly 23, the daughter of a city alderman, and a frequenter of the dance hall. I couldn't keep my eyes off her and she, having noticed our flask, couldn't keep her eyes off me. Temperance ruled in Ontario that year and you couldn't buy liquor anywhere legally. Sheila talked me into refilling the flask, so I took Matty's flask and my leave, and escorted this swell beauty back to Bloor and the ugly old man's apartment. It was cold as we walked along towards Christie Pits, where there was a hockey game going on under the lights. Sheila and I sat on a bench and passed the flask back and forward, talking and giggling all the while. I was getting a little dizzy, and was working my courage up for a kiss. Unfortunately Sheila chose that moment to get violently ill all over herself and me.
The rest of the evening was lost, but I awoke in a police station cell the next morning, horrifyingly aware of a Latin examination that I ought to have been writing at that very minute. A certain alderman had phoned the officer of the watch demanding my execution. The police were inclined to oblige him, but the physical training instructor from the school arrived and bailed me out. I was brought before Mr. Auden, the principal. I trembled as the Great Man spoke of his decision to rusticate me while he considered whether there might be any condition under which I could ever return to the College. He would, of course, be informing my father.
I returned to my room and began to pack. My father would murder me. I knew it. Dr. Alexander Urquhart MD, FRCS headed the orthopaedic unit at Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital. If ever there was a man interested in family pride, correct behaviour, and social climbing, it was my father. There had been hell to pay if ever I placed a mere second in my class. He was very proud when I'd been accepted at UCC, and now I was being sent home in shame.
I was sitting in Union Station that same afternoon, awaiting the train home to Montreal, when a group of fellows came in laughing and bantering. One of them asked me for a match. I didn't have one, as I didn't smoke. Instead I asked him for a cigarette. It was important to try everything before I died, and it was certain that my father was going to kill me tomorrow. The fellows were off to England, they explained. They had joined the Royal Naval Air Service and enrolled in the Curtiss Flying School in Long Branch, but the school was suspended for the winter and they were going broke waiting to get their certificates. So the powers in Ottawa had allowed them to enlist in the RNCVR and were sending them to Halifax to train as ordinary seaman. After that they'd get their probationary commissions and head for England to learn to fly.
So I was off to the Navy. I enlisted that afternoon and told the petty officer that if he could get me sworn in I would make my own way to Halifax to join the group I'd met. To my surprise that is exactly what he did. I had a good sum of money with me, as my father had set up a joint account for my pocket money, books, and tuition. I had emptied the account that morning before Mr. Auden could telegraph my parents.
The train went by way of Kingston, Montreal, Quebec City, Moncton, and Truro. After Kingston, I wrote a long and mournful letter to my sainted mother explaining my academic downfall and decision to volunteer. I mailed it from the train station. In the letter I did not identify which branch of the service I was in or where I was bound. My father might have tried to interfere.
The next months were hectic. I spent two months on a training vessel in Halifax, learning not much. Finally, in April 1916 we were sent off to England on the liner Scandanavian, bound for Glasgow. From there we were sent to Redcar, in the northeast of England, for flying training. They made us probationary flight sub-lieutenants and put us up in the village. It felt like home since there were so many Canadians there. The weather delayed our flying a great deal and it was July before I was allowed to solo in a G3 Caudron. I circuited well enough, but broke the landing gear coming down. We learned a myriad of other subjects, such as meteorology, rigging, engine construction and maintenance, navigation, etc., etc. etc.
Due to wind, weather and a surfeit of students, I was in Redcar until August. In that time I flew the Avro and a Curtiss JN-4. From Redcar I went to Eastchurch, on an island on the south side of the Thames Estuary. There I advanced to Shorthorns, or "Rumpeties" as we called them. We began the study of aerial gunnery and observation. In early September, I was posted to 3 Naval Wing at Manston. The Wing was to fly the new Sopwith two-seaters, called Strutters, but their arrival was slowed by losses in France. The Navy had issued a number of its Strutters to the RFC, it seemed.
The RNAS (which many in the know claimed stood for "Rather Naughty After Sunset") had ordered 3 Naval Wing to establish a base at Luxeuil-les-Bains, in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France, not too far from Nancy and within range of the German border. From there our aircraft were to cooperate with the French in long-range bombing of industrial targets in Germany. I learned in mid-September 1916 that I would meet the war there. I arrived in Luxeuil late on 26 September, flying with two other crews in our new Strutters. I was the only one to complete the journey on schedule.
The base at Luxeuil was broad and spacious. 3 Naval Wing shared the field with the French 4e Group de Bombardement, led by a piratical-looking, bearded fellow named Capitaine Happe. Alongside Happe's gang were a most unusual gathering of Americans, Squadron N.124, also called the Escadrille Americaine. This group of volunteer Yankee "Frenchmen" were a hard-partying crowd who welcomed us with cases of champagne.
On 27 September 1916, I piloted Obsvr S/Lieut Nathanial Buck, another Canadian (from Elmira, Ontario) and two other Strutters on an orientation flight over the lines. It was far harder to hold station in our formation over the mountains that it had been in England. It must have been due to updraughts from the hills. We saw the outlines of the trenches and dugouts below and the marks of shells in the earth. The terrain is heavily wooded, but the area of the lines is a bit of a wasteland. Nothing fired at us and we saw no other aircraft.
That afternoon we went on a second flight, only this time I was ordered to take the lead position and find our way to the assigned sector of the lines. Fortunately the weather had cleared a little and I could trace a path from wood to wood and lake to lake. The occasional rail line helped to confirm location. It will be a long time before I can do this without constant fear of getting lost and landing in Germany.
That night I heard from my father for the first time since I left school in January. A telegram sent to the Admiralty four days ago had found me, arriving at dinner time. I opened it nervously and read the terse message: