A journal of the Great War By an Anonymous Aviator (Colin Urquhart)

Part 3

Work intensified as the first week at Luxeuil continued. On 30 September 1916 we drew the sunrise flight. At 4:30 in the cold of morning, a steward arrived in our cabin (as we Naval fliers call our wooden huts, each divided by partitions into eight separate and private rooms, and each boasting an iron stove in the centre companionway, one at each end). He walked quietly by the first two berths, where my luckier comrades were sleeping.

Wakey-wakey, sir, he said, and shook my shoulder. There are Huns that need bombs dropped on in an hour. Teas on in the mess, sir. That was his way of saying If you were expecting a cuppa in bed, youve another bleedin think comin.

I gathered my shaving gear and left it on a wooden chair by the nearer stove. Then I poured water from the pitcher by my bed into an enamel cup and placed it on the stove. As quietly as possible, I placed two small logs on the barely pink embers and hoped for the best. With a towel around my neck I made my way along a duckboard walkway to the ablutions area, a line of galvanised metal basins on tables in the copse behind the huts. The last watch had started an immersion heater, but the chill was still barely out of the wash water. After a quick splash it was back to the cabin to shave and dress, then over to the mess.

Breakfast was good tea and hard-boiled eggs, toast, and the wonderfully British invention gentlemans relish. It was salty and made you want to drink water, which was never a great idea before a long flight, but I loved the stuff.

The mechanics had my Strutter run up and waiting. Armstrong, Collishaw, me, and of course our gunlayers were off to try dropping a few light bombs from the two-seater Sopwiths. Normally we used only the B1 types, the single-seat bomber Strutters, for this. But we were learning to have fun. Our job was to hit the Hun forward positions near Luneville. The flight to altitude was spectacular with the sun rising in the east. Halfway there Armstrong fired the wash-out signal from his Very pistol and turned home with a dud engine. That put me in charge. I led Collishaw down to 4000 feet over the front and we let loose our baggage together.

Just as we turned for home, Buck, my gunlayer, fired a burst. I turned about and saw three Fokkers diving on us. One paired off with Collishaw and the other two fastened onto me. It must have been only a couple of minutes, but it seemed an age. I twisted, turned. I fired, and then Buck fired. Jacob Buck is a Mennonite from Elmira, religious but not one of those very traditional types. Nonetheless, I was bowled over to hear him bellowing the most foul curses at the Fokkers every time he fired (we have rigged up a speaking tube system using earpieces joined with pitot tubing). Finally the Huns broke off and we headed home. The fight was inconclusive but thrilling enough, and we took pride in the fact that our machine was not holed. Collishaw had damaged his man but it had escaped.

On our return Wing Commander Elder congratulated me with the news that my Fokker from the previous mornings flight to Luneville had been confirmed. This was the first kill among our latest-arriving pilots, so I felt very proud.

On 1 October we flew in the morning to drop bombs on the aerodrome at Sirentz, in Germany. We dropped them from high level, hitting a hangar, but saw no sign of the enemy.

On 2 October we flew to the front east of Nancy and loosed our bombs over enemy position, but saw nothing due to ground mist.

My aircraft was under repair the next day and I had a days leave coming, so I went up to Nancy on the 3rd. Nancy is an old fortress town, and is divided into the Old Town and the New Town, the main different being that the New Town is only 300 years old! It is probably the most beautiful city I have ever seen. I stayed at the Grand Hotel, a wonderful old palace on the elegant main square, the Place Stanislas. My waiter at breakfast in the hotel restaurant spoke English. He was an art student before the war and offered to take me on a tour of the Art Nouveau architectural sites in the city. We had a good walk the next morning. One doesnt leave gratuities here like at home, but I left him a few francs in an envelope after lunch that day. The fellow had a lame foot which kept him out of the army.

I ran into Jamie Coltrane from the Wing and we had a few beers together. In a weak moment he talked me into buying a pipe and some tobacco, a bittersweet smelling blend from the Levant. Life is full of new things. I bought some macaroons which I shall put in a good tin and try to send home to Mum. They are very fine, sweet and brightly coloured.

5 October was a long reconnaissance north to the Luneville sector again. It began to rain and we had to pick our way through the mountains in the low clouds. Needless to say we saw nothing, but got very cold.

We play the Americans at baseball tomorrow.

"...the elegant main square, the Place Stanislas."

"The flight to altitude was spectacular with the sun rising..."