A journal of the Great War – By an Anonymous Aviator (Colin Urquhart)
As I write this I am lying on my bed in our cabin (a Nissen hut, actually). Out in the courtyard of the farmhouse, the afternoon watch has rung seven bells: 3:30 pm. The ship’s bell hands from a frame in the courtyard of M. Bossu’s farm, its rope ending in a carved white Turk’s head.
Simpson and Booker are playing ludo on a small table next to the Canadian stove that stands in the middle of the cabin. I have just finished writing a long letter to my mother, explaining (for my father’s benefit, mainly) why I intend to stick out the war on active duty in France and forego the opportunity to return home to a staff position.
Our detachment has begun to bind together nicely. Squadron Commander Bromet visits every part of the squadron almost daily. Unlike the RFC squadrons around us, we conduct all our own refitting and repair, and the men of the lower deck do a magnificent job. It is good to see the commander and his officers maintain a solid and trusting relationship with them as they do here. In that sense we are far superior to my old 3 Wing.
Danny Galbraith is lying in his bed, coughing roughly. He is not well, becoming progressively more withdrawn. I have enjoyed his company since my arrival here, but now he scarcely speaks. I worry about him.
We have flown every day since last Monday. The weather was close at the start of the week, and our patrols were long and monotonous, with nary a Hun in sight.
My first excitement came on Thursday, 24 November, when Colin MacKenzie led us of A Flight over the lines. We were playing nanny to a lumbering French Caudron on a photographic reconnaissance. We returned to Vert Galand after two hours, and when it was my turn to land I approached from the west northwest, lining up on the cloth wind markers that had been laid out. I blipped the engine of my little Nieuport and began to plane in over the line of poplars on the ridge overlooking our field. Suddenly my windscreen was covered in oil and the engine began to fail. I had not a moment to lose. It would be impossible to clear the poplars so I slipped sideways, turning parallel to them and making for a rough field just short of our aerodrome. I was forced to land slightly cross-wind, a bit fast, and downhill. I bounced the machine badly, and on settling back the undercarriage caught in the ploughed earth. The machine nosed over and the wings cracked and folded as the nose caught the stubble. I was catapulted out of my restraints and tumbled for a hundred yards across a beet field. When I finally came to a stop, the squadron ambulance and a tender were already pulling up at the edge of the field. I emerged from the ooze and muck, miraculously completely unscarred, and wiped the mud from my eyes and mouth. An amazed petty office ran up to me inquiring for my health.
“Ah, PO Garrison, good to see you,” I said. PO Garrison was the ship’s jaunty, or master-at-arms. “Would you mind cleaning up this mess? I think I need a drink.” The words came naturally at the time, but I have heard that they went about the lower deck all evening and that I have a bit of a reputation among the lads as a hard man. That’s not a bad thing for a young colonial officer.
It has begun to bother me that I have not bagged a Hun since arriving here. There has not been much opportunity with the weather as it has been. On 25 November, a fine day, I accompanied Flt. Cdr. Little’s B Flight escorting a BE. We ran into several Fokker biplanes and chased them off. On our return we saw and mixed up with two Rolands and two or three Fokker monoplanes. I fired at a Roland without result and Little bagged a Fokker.
This morning was a defensive patrol in filthy weather. Again we saw nothing.
I have come to dislike the Nieuport. Besides the need to risk falling out to change the tiny ammunition drum, it is slow and fragile. The Pups are far superior, even though they have only an 80 hp Le Rhone. The Vickers is belt-fed. The fellows complain about it jambing a great deal. Sub-Lieut. O’Hagan, RNVR, our armaments officer, does yeoman service on the guns, but such things can’t be helped.
Our detached squadron is soon to be designated as No 8 Squadron. We have three flights. My A Flight (under command of Flt. Cdr. Colin Mackenzie) was originally all Nieuports from 4 Wing, but a few Pups are now in place. B Flight is all 80 hp Sopwith Pups, drawn from 1 Wing. C Flight (Flt Lieut Wood) was originally all Sopwith Strutters from 5 Wing, although they are gradually being replaced with Pups. A and C Flights mess together in a wood-framed canvas hut with a good wooden-floored anteroom with a piano. B and HQ mess together in the Bossu farmhouse, which is smaller but considerably warmer. I occasionally cadge an invitation to their mess when I want to read by the fire. My latest read is The Real Adventure, which I shall send to my mother when done.
In other news, 32 Squadron has left for Mariueux, and 23 Squadron (FE2s) now share Vert Galant Farm with us. I haven’t got to know them yet, but intend to.